Turns out, those one-to-three pounders aren't totally useless. 

By Julia Malacoff
Feb 02, 2021 @ 5:00 pm
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What Can You Actually Do With Small Dumbbells?
Credit: Getty Images

Tiny dumbbells have their advantages. They're easy to transport, inexpensive to buy, and don't take up much space in a closet — which is exactly where they often end up, collecting dust.

That might be because, well, it's not clear what exactly to do with those one-to-three pounders. The good news? They're not totally useless. "Some people think you can't build muscle with light weights, and that is wrong!" says Emma Lovewell, Senior Instructor at Peloton. "With light weights and higher reps (think: 15 to 20, or more), you'll still feel the same kind of burn as lifting a heavier weight around five times."

The other advantage of light dumbbells is that they can be incorporated into bodyweight exercises to make them slightly more challenging — without overdoing it. And if you're doing a one-armed exercise, feel free to double up to increase the intensity, holding both small dumbbells in one hand, Lovewell says.

Overall, it can help to think of your light-dumbbell workouts as training your muscles for endurance (slow and steady) rather than a sprint (fast and heavy), Lovewell says. This mindset shift can help you figure out how many reps you need to do in order for your light-weight workout to be effective. "Do as many reps as you need to until you feel muscle fatigue, and then do a couple more," Lovewell instructs. "That is your range! You still want to challenge yourself, but don't be surprised if you end up doing around 20 reps."

Here, five exercises for a total-body workout that can feel challenging even with the tiniest of dumbbells. 

Kneeling Bicep Curl

"A great way to change up a simple bicep curl is to do them while kneeling," Lovewell explains. "This forces you to engage your glutes and core while you're simultaneously working your upper body." You'll want to do lots of reps since the weight is so light. Lovewells suggestion: Throw on your favorite 3-minute song and perform your bicep curls, focusing on different tempos as well.  Maybe you do your curls to the beat during the verses, and double-time during the choruses. "You'll be shocked how heavy even some 2-pound weights will feel after a few minutes!"

Squat Thrusts

This is a compound movement, meaning you'll be using multiple joints in your body to complete the exercise. In other words—more bang for your buck in one movement. Stack your weights on your shoulders, elbows pointed forward. Squat down, keeping your chest forward and hips back as you inhale. On the exhale, stand up and push the weights to the sky for a shoulder press. Try 3 sets of 10-15 reps. (And if that feels easy, increase the number of reps!)

Weighted Side Plank Twist

This is a great bodyweight exercise on its own, but gets a boost in difficulty when you add a light weight, Lovewell notes. Start in a side plank, with your bottom hand and wrist directly under your shoulder and feet stacked on top of each other, or one in front of the other. Holding the dumbbell in your free hand, twist and move the weight under your rib cage looking towards the floor while lifting your hips up to the sky. Then move the weight across your chest up and reach your hand towards the sky. "Feel free to try this on your knees for a modified side plank," Lovewell says. Do 3 sets of 6-8 reps on each side.

Bent-Over Single Arm Rows

This exercise is a great candidate for doubling up with both weights in one hand, Lovewell says. With your legs in a staggered stance and knees bent, hinge forward from your hips, so your spine is still straight and long. Extend the arm holding the weight weights long in front of you towards the ground. Using the muscles around your shoulder blade, pull your elbow back and up towards the sky, keeping your arm touching your body. Try 3 sets of 10-15 reps (or more!) per side.

Lateral Lunges

Holding the weights in your hands, stand with your feet together and point forward. Step to one side to lunge, bending the moving leg and keeping the other leg straight. Keep both weights down by your sides. Push off of the lunging leg to come back to standing. Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps on each side.