These portable weights provide versatility that makes them a great choice for exercising at home and  aim at building muscle and whole body toning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

When considering small scale at-home workout equipment, dumbbells are a great, accessible and convenient choice. Available in a variety of shapes, sizes and pounds, these versatile weights are a great choice for exercises aimed at building muscle and whole body toning.

As with any exercise equipment, it’s key to know proper techniques for use. When you do, dumbbells are easy and safe to use. Here are some important things to know.

What are dumbbells?

These portable weights provide versatility that makes them a great choice for exercising at home and  aim at building muscle and whole body toning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Dumbbells are perhaps the most recognizable piece of workout equipment in a gym. Also called hand weights, short bars for handling connect weights on either end. This type of equipment is considered free weights, which means they aren’t attached to anything else like a weight machine is.

An exercise staple

If you are going to own only one type of home exercise equipment, it should be dumbbells, according to Wendy Watkins, personal trainer in Bangor.

“Every home should have some,” she said. “They are a fantastic way to work your muscles.”

Using dumbbells, Watkins said, provides near infinite opportunities to build muscle and tone your body. That’s because if using a specific pound weight becomes too easy, all you need to do is increase the reps — how many times you do a certain movement — with that weight to increase the challenge to your muscles.

Buying dumbbells

Individual dumbbells come in sizes ranging from one pound to 50 pounds. What you decide to buy depends on your level of fitness and the maximum weight you can lift to challenge your muscles but not injure yourself.

Plan on spending between $10 and $160 for a pair of weights. The heavier the weight, the more you will spend. You can buy a set of weights that includes two each of commonly used dumbbells. A set of weights ranges between $60 and $1,500 depending on how many weights are included. They are available in the athletic or exercise departments at most large department stores and online.

Start small

The good news is you don’t need a full set of expensive weights to get a full body workout. Watkins recommends starting with a set of three-, five-, eight- and 10-pound hand weights.

“You can do any exercise at home with weights that you would do in a gym,” Watkins said. “If you don’t think your weights are heavy enough, just do more reps.”

What can you do with dumbbells?

The floor press works your shoulder and tricep muscles. Lie flat on the floor on your back with your knees up and your feet flat on the floor. With a dumbbell in each hand bend your arms at the elbows until your arm is at a 90-degree angle with the weights hovering over your shoulders. Slowly raise your arms straight up toward the ceiling. Hold for a few seconds and then bring the weights slowly back down.

A shoulder press will work out the shoulder, tricep and chest muscles. Take a weight in each hand and stand with your feet flat on the floor. Bend your arm at the elbow until the weights are parallel to your ears. Extend your arms up as far as your can and then bring them back down to the start position.

Get your biceps in on the action with a lateral raise. Stand with a dumbbell in each with your arms to your side. Slowly raise your arms outward until they are level with your shoulders and you are standing in a “T” shape. Then slowly lower them back down.

Your entire arm will get a workout with bicep curls. These can be done sitting or standing. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inward and your arms straight down. If you are standing, place your feet shoulder width apart and slightly bend your knees. If you are seated, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Lift the dumbbells up toward your shoulder and rotate your arm as you lift until your palm is facing upward. Reverse the process as you lower the weights. You can also lift one weight at a time alternating from side to side.

Incorporate weights into your workouts. When doing squats you can do bicep curls at the same time. Or, while squatting, hold a weight in each hand to provide more resistance as you lower and raise your body. You can also do bicep curls or simply hold weights during leg lunges. You can also increase the challenge of sit-ups by holding a weight in each hand with your arms next to your body. As you bring your shoulders off the floor raise your arms until the weights are just past your knees.

Use it or lose it

As we age our bodies can lose muscle mass and the older we get the faster that loss can happen, according to Watkins. By working out and constantly challenging your muscles you can greatly slow that loss.

“Working with weights is a great way to build and tone those muscles,” Watkins said. “Beyond that you want to keep doing the things you do to be independent like bringing in your groceries or moving things in your home and if you don’t use those muscles, you are going to lose them.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.