There are so many different arm exercises out there it can be overwhelming to know which are a good pick. While the wild exercises you see on Instagram may be entertaining, crazy upside down one-handed push ups might not be the right ones for you, especially if you’re just starting out. Here I’ve compiled a list of basic dumbbell upper body exercises to tone and strengthen.

These are the exact same exercises for arms that I started with when I first began working out. I still regularly revisit this dumbbell upper body workout 10 years later because it’s straightforward and fantastic to tone and strengthen your arms, shoulders, and back.

This is a workout for your upper body using dumbbells but if you’re thinking, “well I don’t have any weights so I’m out”, let me stop ya right there. I didn’t have any weights when I started working out- and I was too intimidated to go to the gym (which was stupid and a topic for another post). As a super poor college student I didn’t have money to spend on weights, but I did have a huge jar full of pennies, although ironically not enough to buy weights. So I got creative and filled two sandwich bags full of pennies and bam: weights. So you see, you don’t need shiny, brand new weights to get started. I know you have something around your house you could use.

Spare change in sandwich baggies like me, gallon water jugs, laundry detergent, grab your kid (kidding, sort of). My point is, don’t let that be an excuse for you.

I’ve given you a how-to for each upper body exercise so you understand proper form and engagement, therefore preventing injury and getting the most out of this workout.

You can find this entire workout in an easy, one-page cheat sheet at the bottom of this post.


Just getting started: 3 sets of 10 reps at moderate weight

This ain’t my first time: 4 sets of 10-12 reps at moderate weight or 4 sets of 6-8 reps at heavy weight


If we’re talking classic dumbbell arm exercises this has to be the king. Everyone knows ye old faithful bicep curl, but are you doing it correctly? Engage your wrists so they’re in line with your arms, not “broken” at the joint. Slow and controlled motion up and down, and give a little extra squeeze at the top.

Bicep curl arm exercise proper form
Bicep curl arm exercise improper form


If you’re not fully engaging your back muscles during a shoulder press exercise, you’re cheating yourself. Obviously, it’s a shoulder exercise, but it’s also for all those lovely back muscles. Make sure you’re standing up straight with good posture- think stuffy Victorian grandma posture, oh so proper you are darling. Start with a strong ‘T’ shape and raise the weights overhead bringing them together. Control the weights back to start. That’s it- I told you these are simple!

Shoulder Press Exercise with Dumbbells


Again, you need to channel your inner Victorian grandma so you’re not hunched over for this classic arm exercise. Nice, soft bend in the knees, hinging forward from the waist while keeping your back straight. Lift your elbows back and bring your shoulder blades together- a good rule of thumb is that your fingers should be in line with the bottom of your ribs, give or take a bit for comfort.

Keeping the elbow lifted, lengthen your arm back. Keeping the elbow lifted. I give an extra little lift as my arm is extended. Control the weight back to start. Repeat and feel ‘za burn.

Arm Exercise- Tricep Extension with Dumbbells

Tricep Extension with Dumbbells- Incorrect Form


As in tricep extension, you want a nice, soft bend in the knees and hinge forward from the waist. Hold the weights in front of your chest and bring your arms outward creating a ‘T’ shape. Think of bringing your shoulder blades together here, don’t just work your shoulders, work your back muscles. Control the weights back to start.

Reverse Fly with Dumbbells


There are two variations of this simple shoulder exercise you can do, usually I split half and half for a set. Both variations work your deltoid muscle but one engages the posterior (back) part of your delt more and the other engages the anterior (front) of your delt more.

Variation 1: With your palms facing in towards your thigh, raise your arms straight out to the side to shoulder height, making sure you’re not locking your elbows. With control, lower back to start. Pretty simple right? I told you.

Variation 2: For this variation, the only difference is you rotate from your shoulder so your palms face forward. Still lift out to the side and return with a controlled motion.

Shoulder Exercise- Lateral Raise with Dumbbells


Again, there are variations for this upper body exercise and again, I usually do half and half for a set. Remember about your lovely back during this exercise. It’s not just a shoulder exercise, it uses your back muscles, so notice and connect with those muscles. You can do dumbbell front raises one arm at a time but I prefer to do both arms at the same time for purely personal reasons: 1) less time, and 2) I can better engage my chest muscles across my front wall.

Variation 1: With palms facing in towards your thighs, raise your arms to the front until shoulder height, making sure you’re not locking your elbows. Control the weight back to start.

Variation 2: Rotate your shoulders so your palms face each other. Lift to the front and return to start.

Upper Body Exercise- Front Raise with Dumbbells


You get to lay down for this dumbbell exercise and that’s what us tired moms are looking for right?! Lay on the floor with the weight raised above you at chest level. Make sure you’re not locking your elbows and bring the weights out to opposite sides, making a ‘T’ shape. Lower as far as is comfortable. Return to start. This is an exercise for chest and shoulders, so connect with both.

Upper Body Exercise- Chest Fly with Dumbbells


Anyone else think push ups are the worst?? Just because I love working out, does not mean I love every exercise and push ups are HIGH on the list of my most hated. But I still do them, sometimes. It’s more comfortable to have my hands wider apart because I have a wonky shoulder but play around with your hand placement during push ups. Keep your core (including the back of you!) engaged and lower and lift with control. Don’t forget to breathe and exhale as you lift.

Upper Body Workout- Push ups

Upper Body Workout- Incorrect Push Up Form

Starting with this dumbbell upper body workout will give you a solid foundation for toning and strengthening your arms, shoulders, and back. These simple arm exercises are the go-to for a reason and all you need to start working out your upper body- they’ll still be your go-to classic in 10 years like they are for me.

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