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5 Tips on How to Build Muscle Using Only One Dumbbell

These days, we’re busier than ever.


Between working longer hours, driving farther commutes, and having more demands placed on our supposed “free time” we barely have any time to relax, let alone drive to the gym, warm-up, workout, cool down, shower, and drive back home.


In this time-crunch scenario, many individuals let their fitness and healthy eating habits fall by the wayside as they believe that in order to have a great workout and build muscle and strength they need to go to a gym and follow some convoluted training program by Joe PT.


But, what if we told you that you didn’t need to follow any sort of complex training program, or even have a gym membership to get the body you’ve always wanted?


You’d probably think we had had one too many shots of pre-workout.


But, follow along and see you how you can have a fantastic workout and build muscle in a short amount of time even if you only have a dumbbell!


Let’s get to it!


5 Tips on How to Build Muscle Using Only One Dumbbell


Embrace Unilateral Training


When you’re training at home (especially with only a single dumbbell!), you don’t have access to endless amounts of resistance like you do at the gym.


At the same time, in order to stimulate muscle growth, you need to challenge your muscles to perform more total work than they previously have.


So, what’s a gym rat left to do when they’re limited by the amount of resistance they have, but they still need to challenge the muscles enough to spark growth?


Train unilaterally.


When you train using only one arm or leg at a time, the amount of weight you need to fatigue a muscle is considerably less than when you’re lifting bilaterally, which means you can still get in an effective workout even when training with a limited amount of weight.


Unilateral training also helps fix muscle imbalances that exist between the two sides of our body. Plus, it’s more joint-friendly and taxes the CNS less than traditional barbell training, which allows you to train more frequently and ultimately build more muscle.


In other words, unilateral training is the weight-strapped lifter’s solution to continuing to build muscle.


Chase the Pump


For decades, it’s been believed that muscle growth only occurs in the “hypertrophy range” of 8-12 reps. And, while that might be the most efficient way to go about building muscle, it’s certainly not the only way.


Research has shown that muscle growth is possible when training with both high and low reps, provided that you take the muscles within close proximity to failure (1-3 reps before failure).


Since we’re limited by the amount of weight we have (a single dumbbell) that means we’re probably going to have to train in the higher rep ranges to induce enough fatigue in the muscles.


If you’re used to training with low-to-moderate reps, the change of pace to higher rep training in and of itself will be a novel training stimulus and help spark new muscle growth!


Just be aware that high-rep training (if you’re doing it right), isn’t easy, mentally or physically. Your muscles will burn, your lungs will ache, but you know you’ve still got some left in you before quitting.


Bear down, embrace the challenge, and you will grow stronger both mentally and physically.


Increase Time Under Tension


Even when performing higher reps, at some point, your muscles will adapt to it, and your resistance-training workouts will turn into glorified cardio workouts with weights.


So, when you’ve started to perform upwards of 15-20 reps for upper body moves and 25+ reps on lower body moves, it’s time to unleash the next trick from our muscle building tool box -- paused reps and slow eccentrics.


These two hypertrophy “tools” help us increase the amount of time our muscles are under tension, which creates more metabolic stress (an important driver of hypertrophy) and ultimately forces them to do more work.


You can experiment with exactly where you incorporate your pauses, but we like to perform them at the most challenging part of the exercise (bottom of a squat, top of a row, bottom of a bench press, etc).


When paused reps start to become easy, then add in slow eccentrics using a 3-5 second count during the lowering portion of the exercise.


For instance, let’s say you’re performing goblet squats.


One rep for you would consist of lowering 5 seconds, holding in the bottom for 1-2 seconds, and then driving to the top, then repeating.


Once you perform 20 reps for all of your sets of an exercise using a 5-second count and 1-second pause at the bottom, it’s time to move to the final tool in the toolkit...


Decrease Rest


Progressive overload has come to be synonymous with “adding weight to the bar” but in reality, progressive overload means challenging the muscles to do more than they have the previous workout.


We’ve already given you a number of ways to incorporate progressive overload into your workouts, even when you’re limited on resistance, and we’ve got one more for you -- decreasing rest between sets.


By reducing the amount of time you rest between sets, while still performing the same amount of work, you’re increasing your training density.


So, if you’re used to resting 2 minutes between your working sets, and you’ve maxed out your weight selection, and you’re performing 20+ reps per set with pauses and eccentrics, it’s time to start chipping away at those elongated rest intervals.


Even small reductions in rest time (~10-15 seconds) are large enough to challenge the body and spark growth.


Here’s an example:


  • Week #1: Rest 2 minutes between sets
  • Week #2: Rest 1 minute 45 seconds between sets
  • Week #3: Rest 1 minute 30 seconds between sets
  • Week #4: Rest 1 minute between sets


We’ve just given you 4 weeks of challenging, muscle building workouts and that after you’ve already completed all the previous challenges outlined above!


When you realize that having a great workout isn’t based on what equipment you have or how much weight you have access to, you open yourself up to endless training possibilities that can improve your fitness and results as well as rekindle your enthusiasm and passion for training.


Full-Body Workout with One Dumbbell


Grab a dumbbell (or kettlebell) that is challenging -- one that allows you to complete 10-12 reps with perfect form.


Rest for 90 seconds maximum between sets


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