Can You Build Muscle with Nothing But Dumbbells, Kettlebells and Bodyweight?

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

The simple answer is yes, of course you can. Resistance is resistance.

I don’t think you will get huge without a barbell, though. No, check that. I know you won’t. Squats, deadlifts and presses are hard to beat when it comes to packing on size. If you just did those and the rest of your exercises with dumbbells, bodyweight and kettlebells you’d be fine.

But if using a bar of any sort isn’t an option for you lets look at what you CAN do, which is build some serious size and strength.

We’ll start from the top. For neck training you can hit a variety of bridges and be good to go.

Traps are the one major problem area for barbell-free training. You really need to pull or pick up something heavy to get the traps growing to their fullest potential. Your best bet here would be do incorporate a lot of heavy farmers walks with kettlebells. Do long duration sets of 40-60 seconds.

Besides that you could upside down shrugs on rings and dumbbell shrugs.

Dumbbell clean and presses for reps will also contribute to some decent trap growth. Especially if you start moving the kind of weight Sig Klein (pictured above) would want you moving.

Back in the 1930’s Sig said the dumbbell clean and press was the best exercise there was. He thought that anyone who could do 10 reps on it was a strong man.

If you’re training without a barbell for the long haul, I’d make that your main weighted strength challenge to work up to.

Dumbbell military presses, handstand pushups and lateral raises will cover your shoulder training needs. Face pulls and scarecrows on rings are two other good movements to include in your arsenal.

A variety of dumbbell presses and pushups will take care of chest training. Some bodybuilders actually prefer dumbbells over a bar. Work up to some decent weights on an incline dumbbell press, and progress to crazy-hard ring pushup variations. Do that and you’ll grow.

The bar can add something there but it’s not as significant as it is for traps.

The mid back area is in the same predicament as the upper back. A bar usually works best but you can make due with dumbbell and inverted rows.

For lats all you need is chin-ups so there’s no problem there. I’d also get good at front levers and fallouts on rings. Fallouts are usually thought of as an ab exercise. But it’s also a bodyweight stiff-arm pulldown. It smashes the lats when done right. Just be careful with this one if you have a weak core or lower back issues.

You’ll train the biceps with dumbbells and ring curls. Kettlebell curls where you hold one in each hand or hold one with two hands are good options as well. You can simulate an EZ bar reverse curl by grabbing the horns where they start to bend with your palms facing down.

You can also loop a rope or towel through a kettlebell, grab each end and do curls that way.

Ring dips, weighted close grip pushups and all the pressing you do will get your triceps.  Though, I’d get a band and include some direct pump work in the form of pushdowns and overhead extensions. I’m not a fan of too many dumbbell extension variations so that would be a better choice if you want to save your elbows.

Loaded carries would be one of the best ways to train the abs and obliques. That means farmers walks, overhead walks, racked KB walks and a combo of all the above. Of course, you can also throw in whatever sit up, rollout, band Pallof press, plank or leg raise variations you like.

Legs are the other area where we’ll be missing the barbell. Athletes like speed skaters and cyclists do build huge quads with tons of volume and frequency. But I’m assuming you don’t have that kind of time.

That leaves you with the following exercises:

•    Goblet squats
•    Rear foot elevated split squats
•    Skater squats
•    Shrimp squats
•    Step-ups
•    Walking lunges

If you do enough volume your legs will get bigger.

Ideally you would supplement this with a lot of forward and backward sled dragging/pushing. If you can do that you won’t be missing the barbell squats as much.

Hamstrings are up next.  You’ve got three good choices.

•    Leg curls on suspension straps or furniture sliders
•    Heavy single and double leg DB/KB Romanian deadlifts
•    Kettlebell swinging for the entire posterior chain

To get the most out of goblet squats and not need to use as heavy a weight try this:

Train the hamstrings first with some leg curl variations. Then do some single leg squatting. Finish with goblet squats for high reps with a pause at the bottom.

For the calves you’ve got your basic single leg calf raise and single leg hopping.

A barbell is essential for maximal size gains. But you can still make damn good progress in a simple home gym with nothing but some bells and bodyweight.

Always make the most of what you got.