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Dumbbells, one of the most underrated and versatile types of exercise equipment, can help you build strength and muscular endurance.
Although you can get the same results at the gym using a variety of machines, dumbbells—free-weights you can lift with one hand—are easier for most people to use, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
If you're new to working with weights, be sure to talk with your health care provider before beginning an exercise program. Start out with dumbbells that feel light to you. Do 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise three times a week on alternate days for the first two weeks. By the last rep, you should feel tired, almost as if you can't do any more.
If you feel strain or pain during any of these exercises, stop and talk with a personal trainer or physical therapist to find out if you are doing them correctly.
Progress by about 5 to 10 percent each week, the ACE says. Continue at a given level until you can do approximately 30 reps divided into two to three sets. Then increase by doing 5 to 10 percent more weight for one set and the previous weight for the rest of the reps. Then add that increased weight to the next set if there is no muscle soreness at your next workout.
Here's a circuit of dumbbell exercises to try. Warm up by walking, jogging in place with arm movements, or riding on a stationary bike or elliptical trainer to get heart rate up. Do gentle stretching after the weight training.
Narrow squat. With dumbbells by your sides and your feet shoulder-width apart, squat as if you're sitting in a chair, letting your posterior go backward with a straight back. Return to your starting position.
Wide squat. Position your feet more than shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly outward. Squat, letting your buttocks go backward. Keep your knees aligned with your toes to avoid straining the knees.
Lunge. Position your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. With dumbbells by your hips, step forward two or three feet with your right leg. While keeping your torso erect, dip as far as you can without getting uncomfortable or losing control. Be sure the knee of your front leg is directly over the ankle. Hold for a moment, then return to the starting position. It should take six seconds to do one repetition. Alternate sides for a total of 8 to 12 reps on each side.
Back lunge. Same move, only step backward with your right foot two or three feet. Bend your left knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor and your knee is aligned with your toes. Hold for a moment. Alternate sides for a total of 8 to 12 reps on each side.
Lateral raises. Position your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Holding dumbbells, lift both arms out to the side, no higher than shoulder level.
Front shoulder raise. Same move, only lift dumbbells in front of you until they're at shoulder level. Do one arm at a time to avoid arching your back.
Rear shoulder lift. Leaning slightly forward at your hips, support your left arm on your thigh. With a dumbbell in your right hand, lift your arm backward. After 8 to 12 reps, repeat on the other side.
Shoulder press. Raise dumbbells to your shoulders, then gently extend your arms so the dumbbells are over your head and slightly in front of you. Keep your elbows slightly bent. Return to your starting position.
Biceps curl. With your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart, arms relaxed at your side and palms facing up, curl dumbbells toward your shoulders.
Dumbbell row. Get down on your hands and knees. With a dumbbell in your right hand and your left hand flat on the floor, lift your right elbow toward the ceiling, pulling your shoulder blade toward your spine. Hold for a moment, then return to the starting position. After 8 to 12 reps, repeat on other side.
Chest fly. Lie on the floor with your knees bent, dumbbells in each hand and your arms out to the side at shoulder level. With your palms face up and your elbows slightly bent, bring your arms together directly overhead. Bring them down slowly, until your elbows hit the floor.
Chest press. Lie on the floor with your knees bent, dumbbells in each hand, your arms out to the side at shoulder level and your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Extend your arms toward the ceiling smoothly, then return.