7 Ways To Use Dumbbells To Build Lean Muscle All Over

Take your sweet time with those reps.


Marissa Gainsburg |

You’ve probably dabbled with lifting weights, or even do it regularly. But whether dumbbells are a faint acquaintance or your best bud, there’s always something to learn.

Start off with 5kg dumbbells – these ones from are super-affordable at R199.99.

Consider this your exclusive primer to seeing result every time you hit the gym.

1/ Set Your Starting Point

It only takes two weeks to improve your strength, even if visible changes can be a bit slower to show (three to six weeks). Knowing your baseline before you begin allows you to measure real gains and spot success early, helping you stay on track when motivation dips, says Betina. On day one, write down how many reps you can perform for one minute each of pushups, prisoner squats (hands behind your head), and inverted rows (pulling yourself up to a bar or suspension straps). Retest and record every four weeks.

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2/ Embrace The Warm-Up

No matter how little time you have, always take at least two minutes to wake your sleepy muscles. Devote the first minute to a mobility exercise, which increases your range of motion in key joints you’ll use during your workout (like your shoulders and hips—try shoulder rolls and pulsing squats, respectively). Spend the next 60 seconds on an activation drill, like slow mountain climbers or bridges, to prime your muscles for the actions ahead.

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3/ Mind The Mirrors

Avoid watching your reflection unless you’re directly facing it—craning your neck to check your form only compromises it. Instead, ask a trainer for a glance-over, and try to focus on how any corrections feel (core tight, back flat, shoulders relaxed, etc.). At home? Record a video on your phone—you can assess your technique between sets or show it to a fit friend or trainer to get feedback afterward.

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4/ Keep It Simple

For the first month, your goal is to create a solid foundation—one without injury or imbalances—that you can build on. To do that, stick to basics. With lower- and total-body exercises, remove combinations (say, a dumbbell lunge rather than a dumbbell lunge to press) and variations (a plank instead of a plank with leg raise). For upper-body moves, try targeting one arm at a time, which helps reveal disparities between sides and reduces the use of momentum to power the action.

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5/ Don’t Rush Your Reps

Moving slowly and with control maxes your muscles’ time under tension, meaning they spend a greater part of your routine fighting resistance. Most workouts should be at a 2-1-1 tempo: Take two seconds to do the first part of an exercise (e.g., lowering into a lunge), one second to pause, then one second to perform the second part (returning to stand). Once a week, try a 4-1-1 tempo to break through plateaus.

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6/ Memorise The Moves

There are seven movement patterns to know. Push involves moving weight away from you and strengthens your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Pull brings weight toward you and hits your back, biceps, and shoulders. Squat and lunge are knee-dominant exercises that mainly target your quads and calves, while hinge moves are hip-dominant and work your glutes and hamstrings. Carry (walking with a heavy object) and rotate (twisting your torso) strengthen your core. Every circuit should include the first five, but the best ones touch all seven.

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7/ Size Up Your Soreness

How you feel after your sessions should vary. On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being can-hardly-walk sore), week one might leave you feeling like a 4 or worse. But by week two, you may find yourself closer to a 2 (mild stiffness). Don’t fear: That doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard or progressing; your body is simply adjusting. Aim for a 3 at least once a week to ensure your muscles are properly challenged. Hit a 4? Take the next day off to recover.

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