Workout 6: All dumbbells! All the time!

July 17th, 2008  |  Published in Workout ideas  |  38 Comments

routine 1: conventional split

This is a good workout for folks who have minimal equipment, and/or who are just starting out with a basic dumbbell set. Beginners should start with the higher end of the recommended rep range, and begin with 1-2 sets of each exercise instead of 3, working gradually up to more sets after a month or so. This workout is meant to be done every other day, alternating days.

Notation: Exercise sets x reps
For example: bench press 3 x 8 is 3 sets of 8 reps per set

day 1 – lower body

  1. dumbbell squat OR sumo deadlift (aka plie squat)
    3 x 10 – 15
  2. dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift OR one-legged dumbbell deadlift OR dumbbell step-up
    3 x 10 – 15
  3. single-legged calf raise
    3 x 10-15
  4. ab crunches or Swiss ball crunches
    3 x 8-10

day 2 – upper body

  1. one-arm row
    3 x 10-15
  2. lying dumbbell press OR pushups
    3 x 10-15 (or as many pushups as you can do per set)
  3. standing overhead dumbbell press
    3 x 10-15
  4. lower back exercise of choice
    3 x 10-15

routine 2: lo-tech ass-busting

This one combines dumbbell exercises with bodyweight exercises for some strength-endurance and conditioning benefits. Good if you play sports, and as part of a fat loss program. Not your Curves circuit training, baby!

You can do this workout 3 or 4 times per week, alternating day 1 and day 2. Another option if you’re after fat loss is to do this 2 times weekly then add 2 or 3 other days of interval cardio.

Circuit: go through the following exercises in order, with 10 to 30 seconds rest between sets. To keep track of progress, you can count both total workout duration and number of circuits. To make it easier, increase the length of the rest periods. To make it harder, add reps to each set, increase the speed at which you perform the reps, and/or shorten the rest periods. There isn’t really any limit on the number of reps per set — this isn’t a “toning” workout and if you went for ultra-high reps you would still be a badass.

Start with 10 reps per set and have some fun with it. Once you’ve completed the total circuit, finish up with a few sets of midsection work (e.g. abs, low back, etc.). Keep the total duration of the circuit short and sweet, no more than about 20 minutes. Even 10 minutes will kick your butt if you’re working hard at this, so get in there and give ‘er!

If you have other low-tech stuff you like to do, such as sandbag lifting, sledgehammer swinging, or stair running, feel free to add it to the circuit. Just keep the total time to about 20 minutes. Aim for intensity and “density” (i.e. the amount of work done in the given time), rather than an extended session.

day 1 – circuit A

  1. dumbbbell swing
  2. dumbbell squat + overhead press combo
    Squat down holding dumbbells at shoulders, then press up smoothly as you ascend from the squat. Lower dumbbells to shoulders before squatting down again.
  3. horizontal pullups
    If you’re at home, you can use a sturdy table for these — just lie with your head underneath and legs poking out, grab the tabletop with an underhand grip, and pull up while keeping your body straight like a plank. If you don’t have anything you can use, do regular dumbbell rows instead.

day 2 – circuit B

  1. dumbbell snatch
  2. dumbbell hang clean + push press
  3. dumbbell burpee, aka squat thrust
    Holding dumbbells, squat down and place dumbbells on the floor. Kick your feet back. Do a pushup with hands still on dumbbell handles (you may need to fiddle a bit to find the proper dumbbell alignment). Kick your feet fowards. Once you have a secure footing, bring your chest up and jump up as high as you can (i.e. don’t try to jump up when curled up and crouched; jump up from a squat position). If this is too tough to start, do regular burpees.


  1. Bethany says:

    March 10th, 2009at 9:33 am(#)

    Hey Krista!

    Some of the links in this page are broken… not normally a big deal but I gotta be truthful here… I MUCH prefer your instruction for exercises vs. the ones I could find when googling. They tend to get it wrong (like telling me the proper posture for a squat is to go until your thighs are parallel to the floor, instead of all the way down). I’d love to see at least some written description of these exercises :)

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    March 10th, 2009at 9:40 am(#)

    Thanks for letting me know – I hope to eventually improve the exercise database and descriptions, ’cause I agree, my commentary is vastly superior. :) :)

  3. Julie MacTire says:

    March 24th, 2009at 12:58 am(#)

    I would love more dumbbell/barbell routine ideas. I’m getting back into weight training with a PowerBlock setup and would love tips on how to keep gaining strength. :)

    Thanks for this website; it has been extremely helpful!

  4. chris says:

    March 26th, 2009at 7:39 am(#)

    can routine #1 be done with a break at the end of the four exercises or should you take a break between each?

  5. ash says:

    April 10th, 2009at 12:10 am(#)

    Thank you so much for your site, I have been reading it and referring others for years. I have definitely become healthier because of it.

    I also love routine two. I mix it up with biking. It is great because it keeps me sweating and strong. When I first started doing it two years ago, it kicked my arse into shape so fast. It is fun, rewarding and great for my short attention span.

  6. Kate says:

    May 22nd, 2009at 12:49 pm(#)

    This routine was great before, and in the current economy it’s even better. I can’t afford a gym pass anymore, but a run in the park followed by a dumbbell routine is easy on my wallet (if not so easy on my muscles!).

    Your site is the best. :)

  7. Allison says:

    May 26th, 2009at 4:45 pm(#)

    I’m a little confused–for the second set of exercises, the circuit, are we only supposed to go through the circuit once? As many times as we feel we can fit into 20 minutes? Or work up slowly as we get stronger?

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    May 27th, 2009at 6:28 am(#)

    You can go through as many times as you want. I’d say just go for as many times as you can do in 20 min. You can rest between circuits if you want. Or not. Up to you.

  9. Allison says:

    May 27th, 2009at 11:43 am(#)

    Haha…great thanks. I did Circuit A yesterday before I saw your response. After the first set I thought to myself: “Well of course she means more than once, because this is so easy!”

    Around the end of the second circuit I thought: “Oh my god do I have to do this again?” If you’re new to the exercises seeing them on paper (or youtube) makes them seem deceptively easy (especially the dumbbell swing).

    It was a great workout, can’t wait to try circuit B tomorrow!

  10. And Miles to Go » More Secret Weight Loss Tips: says:

    May 27th, 2009at 12:39 pm(#)

    […] last night I started lifting weights again (using Krista’s dumbbell circuitĀ ) and today I’m going to run home (as long as it isn’t pouring when I leave). I also […]

  11. nine says:

    May 27th, 2009at 2:01 pm(#)

    Hi Krista,
    What do you recommend for lower back exercises?

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    May 27th, 2009at 5:50 pm(#)

    See the lower back injury rehab section of this site.

  13. Shannon says:

    July 11th, 2009at 3:56 pm(#)

    Hi Krista –
    I’ve spent a lot of time on your site and have learned a lot, never tried one of the workouts until today. I’ve been working out with weights for a while, am in a rut. Tried ‘circuit a’ above this afternoon and totally underestimated it. Wow! I’m feeling it now!

    Thanks for being such a great resource!

  14. Shannon says:

    July 13th, 2009at 2:25 pm(#)

    Wow… did ‘circuit b’ for 20 minutes today… I’m considering just lying down on the floor for a few minutes… :-) Thanks again!

  15. Laura says:

    July 30th, 2009at 11:08 am(#)

    The circuits rock! They kicked my ass, but I love it! :)

  16. nine says:

    August 5th, 2009at 2:33 pm(#)

    Krista, I love the site. Very sad a lot of the links for the exercises are broken currently. Your demos are much better than

  17. Cath says:

    August 6th, 2009at 5:12 pm(#)

    I am new to doing weights and I have started doing routine 1 but I am unsure on how much weight I should lift. Any suggestions would be great :) My Doctor told me to build muscle to loose fat. Thanks

  18. Mistress Krista says:

    August 7th, 2009at 4:01 am(#)

    Cath, look at the recommend reps and sets. Then try them. If it calls for 10 reps, try 10 reps with a weight.

    Too heavy –> reduce the weight on the next set
    Too light –> increase the weight on the next set

    After some trial and error for the first couple of weeks, you’ll figure it out.

  19. Cath says:

    August 8th, 2009at 4:17 pm(#)

    Ok Thank you :)

  20. Truth About Abs says:

    September 2nd, 2009at 3:37 pm(#)

    mm mm good!! dumbbells!!! Short, but sweet. Next time I’m pressed for time but still want to get my workout in, this is where I’ll be!! :-) thanks tons.

  21. Kat says:

    November 23rd, 2009at 9:46 am(#)

    Those two circuit workouts posted under routine #2 are kick-ass! I’m in my third week of this program (with some supplementary posterior chain work, due to having, literally, weak-ass glutes and hamstrings). That first week was pretty brutal (including one day when my legs were so sore I made my husband bring me breakfast), but on the third week I am down 1% bodyfat (with, of course, some dietary adjustments) and I’m noticing some small improvements in muscle definition as well. It’s also helping with my swimming stroke, since the deltoids are getting stronger more quickly, so I can really keep my elbows high and pull a lot harder. Yay Krista!

  22. Karen says:

    December 28th, 2009at 8:36 pm(#)

    Loved routine #1! I’m used to a full body workout with days in between, so I did both upper and lower body tonight. I mixed it up by running up and down the stairs in my house, twice, after each set. WHEW! Kicked my ass, but makes me happy. I’m glad, because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to bust my ass at home the same way I do at the gym. Silly Karen.

    Great site, great tips, great routine! Thanks!

  23. My routines as they stand « criticalweight says:

    December 30th, 2009at 1:15 pm(#)

    […] By nowitstime My workout is based on the one by the fabulous Mistress Krista, in her All dumbbells, all the time! which was perfect for me, because dumb bells are all I’m starting with, […]

  24. k says:

    June 27th, 2010at 6:56 am(#)

    For Routine #1, can the lower back exercise be planks? And if so, should you just do 3 sets and hold it as long as you can each time?

    Thank you! This site is SUCH a great resource. :)

  25. Mistress Krista says:

    June 27th, 2010at 3:11 pm(#)

    k: Sure, why not? :)

  26. Lisa says:

    July 10th, 2010at 12:15 pm(#)

    Hi Mistress Krista!

    After taking a year and a half off from lifting (yikes), I’ve been doing routine #1 with a friend for the past week. So far, we are both loving it — thank you for providing it!

    Question: Can you do SLDL as the lower back exercise on day #2, or should you give those muscles 48 hours rest before doing SLDL again? It’s my favorite back exercise so I wouldn’t mind doing it on both days.

    Thank you for everything :)

  27. Mistress Krista says:

    July 11th, 2010at 5:42 am(#)

    Lisa: Sure, what the heck? :)

  28. Christine says:

    July 20th, 2010at 12:08 pm(#)

    I did this routine last week for 5 days straight – I didn’t take any time off until the weekend where I didn’t do either circuit a or b for three days. Today I tried circuit b again – and hurt my shoulder! I had not been using a very heavy weight. Only heavy enough to find that the circuit was pumping my heart rate waaay up. I was worried about “throwing” anything too heavy around. But I hurt myself anyway! Any suggestions? I’m seeing the doc this aft to find out just how bad it is, but I’m pretty sure I have a ruptured deltoid.

    I’ve been strength training for years and have often used your workout suggestions to keep things interesting. I’m also educated in anatomy and alignment so I’m quite surprised that I’ve hurt myself with this.

  29. Mistress Krista says:

    July 24th, 2010at 5:31 am(#)

    Christine: A ruptured deltoid is a pretty unusual injury. Typically most non-impact shoulder injuries involve overuse damage to the rotator cuff or biceps tendons. However if there is excessive laxity in the joint — e.g. in someone with a history of multiple shoulder dislocations — then the shoulder does sometimes tend to pop out idiopathically (i.e. without undue cause). None of these exercises are considered high-risk. Given that you did the routine for 5 days straight, this could be an injury due to over-reaching. In any case it would benefit from a specific diagnosis by a qualified professional.

  30. Poul Nielsen says:

    August 23rd, 2010at 11:59 am(#)

    Great suggestions for someone without a lot of equipment. I like how you split this plan into 2 days with alternate programs!

  31. Dana Tarantino says:

    July 27th, 2011at 9:58 pm(#)

    Dear Mistress K,
    Could your routine 2 work with J Berardi’s minimal exercise program ( I have been working out 5/6 hours a week for 2 years. I am happy with my fitness level (your “what’s eating you” blog really stuck with me) but am ready for fitness to play a smaller roll in my life. I’d love to stay fit, keep my hard earned 6 unassisted weighted pull ups, but get in and get out for awhile? thanks for any advice :)

  32. Mistress Krista says:

    July 28th, 2011at 3:01 am(#)

    @Dana — sure, what the heck.

  33. Dana tarantino says:

    August 1st, 2011at 7:52 pm(#)

    Okay- a little FYI
    when a fitness expert calls something that looks deceptively easy an “ass busting” one should BELIEVE HER. Circuit 1- hey, this ain’t bad, circuit 2- hmmmm these burpees kinda suck, circuit 3- i wonder where the closest trash can is cuz I think I might hurl…
    Thanks Krista!
    PS if I was masochistic enough to want to keep doing pull ups, do them before or after my ass is busted?

  34. Mistress Krista says:

    August 4th, 2011at 4:38 am(#)

    @Dana: good work! :) Keep it easy on the pull ups at first. Too exuberant at the outset and you’ll find your shoulders, elbows, and/or wrist tendons get mad at you. Give yourself 6 months and over that time frame, GRADUALLY add pull up volume by throwing a few extra reps to the workout. I’d say the end of the workout, but it really doesn’t matter that much — mess around and see what works for you.

  35. Andra says:

    September 27th, 2011at 1:17 pm(#)

    How heavy should the dumbbells be for the circuit? I can gym two days a week (and do other workouts you have here), but I think I could do a circuit on a third day after a short run, yes? I have some shrinked and pinked dumbbells, but would like to buy some heavier ones that would work for these circuits for a while. How should I choose that weight?

  36. Mistress Krista says:

    September 28th, 2011at 4:46 am(#)


    1. Try a dumbbell.
    2. If too light, use a heavier one.
    3. If too heavy, use a lighter one.


  37. nell says:

    August 28th, 2012at 1:05 am(#)

    Great workouts! I’ve been loving Routine 1 for about a month, and feel stronger every day.

    I’d like to add in some cardio. Only, because of arthritis, PF and hypermobility, the cardio has to be long, gentle and low-impact, at least until I build up some capacity.

    Since I’d be doing ‘LISS” and not interval work, could I add it to my lifting days? Am thinking this might give things more time to recoup.

    3 ways to do it, that I’ve heard:

    – Leg-engaged cardio (cycling, rowing, brisk uphill walking) for leg days, immediately after lifting, and upper-body aerobic (swimming) on ‘upper’ days. Reasoning: helps recover faster. Would this work against fat loss goals? Have heard this could ‘eat muscle’ (can’t remember how or why, though. I wanna say it’s because of ‘lactic acid’.)

    – ‘Arm’-heavy cardio on lower-body days, cycling etc on upper. Rationale: no muscle-wasting-ebola/lactic acid problems. Might make for constant, full-body DOMS, though, which is what I’m wanting to avoid.

    – Just leave cardio for off days. Problem: might not make an important enough difference in fat loss or appetite (for me, cardio cuts my hunger, which enables me to actually eat at/near maintenance.)

    I’ve heard arguments for all. Appreciate any insight, the internet is taking me around in circles!

    Thanks in advance!

  38. Mistress Krista says:

    August 29th, 2012at 4:56 am(#)

    @nell: Forget all that shit you read. Sense in to YOUR own body and what YOU need and want and feel good with. Experiment. Keep careful records of how you FEEL. Go towards what gives you energy and makes you feel full of mojo. Go away from things that suck your life force and leave you constantly drained (drained for a few hours is cool — but it shouldn’t be chronic).

    I personally think we should junk “cardio” as a category and talk simply about “movement”. Movement should be varied, as playful as possible, and as frequent as possible while not exhausting us at each session. Movement should evoke all capacities of your body — moving through 3-D space, moving along different pathways, moving with different objectives and challenges.

    So screw the arguments. Move daily, in various ways, as often as you can, as joyfully as you can, as body-kindly as you can. The end.

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