5 Ways to Use a Pair of 20-Pound Dumbbells

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The “go heavy or go home” crowd was dealt a major blow recently when research revealed that training lighter can produce the same kind of muscle growth as training heavier. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that lifters who cranked out 25 to 30 reps to failure experienced the same amount of hypertrophy (read: muscle growth) as those who trained in the more traditional six- to 12-rep range. There’s a lot of practical applications for this research, but the main one is this: You don’t need a ton of weight to get a good workout. This is good news for those short on time who want to forgo the gym workout for a quick but effective session at home. So if you have a pair of 20-pound dumbbells, we can help you get more out of them.

Dumbbells provide a host of benefits that barbells and machines cannot. They improve balance and coordination, recruit more stabilizing muscles, eliminate imbalances and force the body to produce more force per rep. Putting all that to work for you in a complex, in which you hit your entire body in a few exercises using the same weight, can help you build muscle and burn calories in very little time. Try performing 15 reps or so of each of the following: dumbbell squat, dumbbell sumo squat into upright row, dumbbell overhead press, standing dumbbell curl and overhead dumbbell triceps extension.

Don’t think those meek-looking dumbbells can provide you a good cardio workout? Think again. You can mimic the benefits of the leg-killing, wind-sapping kettlebell swing easily with those 20s at your feet. Take a wider-than-hip-width stance, squat down and grab one end of the dumbbell with your arms at full extension. Come up slightly to allow the dumbbell to move backward a few inches, then explode upward through your heels, allowing the dumbbell to swing up and away from you in a wide arc until the dumbbell is at eye level. Rep out for 30 to 60 seconds and follow it with a set of push-ups to failure. Repeat this five to six times for a killer cardio-session-slash-leg-and-chest day.

You may think that dumbbell curls with 20s is no big whoop. And you may be right. But you can make your arm session tougher by pairing three or four exercises in a row, giant-set style. Fry your biceps with a giant set consisting of seated dumbbell curls, standing dumbbell curls, dumbbell hammer curls and dumbbell curls with a slight forward lean. Aim for 15 reps at each stop. Rest one to two minutes. Three giant sets should do the trick.

Some folks will say that the absence of a barbell and a squat rack negate the possibility of a good leg workout. We think otherwise. The lunge, which builds athleticism as well as aesthetics, targets all the major muscles in your legs with an emphasis on the glutes and hammies. For a murderous leg day, take your 20-pounders outside and lunge for distance. Aim for 100 yards and strive to add 10 to 20 yards to that distance each week. Hold on to the dumbbells and finish off with a set of calf raises to failure.

Because the weight you’re using is relatively lighter, increasing the intensity by decreasing rest is a good idea. This keeps the muscles flush with blood, helps to burn more calories during the workout and maintains the burn that marks a good workout. So instead of straight sets, you can try repeating reps to failure, borrowing a page out of the rest-pause book. Select an exercise — dumbbell overhead presses, for example — and aim for a high number of reps, going to failure as many times as necessary to reach that number while keeping your rest periods at 20 seconds or less. 