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Dumbbell Complex Workout To Burn Fat

By Marc Perry / February 20, 2016

What is a Dumbbell Complex?

A dumbbell complex is a type of strength circuit where you complete 2, or more exercises with a dumbbell back to back with no rest without the dumbbell touching the ground. Dumbbell complexes can be used as a workout, or within a workout. For your reference, I added a more advanced Barbell Complex workout a couple weeks ago.

Dumbbell complexes are an advanced training method that should not be attempted by beginners.

There are some excellent benefits to doing dumbbell complexes:

  • Improves your cardiovascular capacity without doing cardio
  • Increases muscular endurance
  • Burns significant calories and creates afterburn effect
  • Takes very little time, 5 rounds could take 10-15 minutes for a total body workout
  • Dumbbell Complex Workout Example

    In this Dumbbell Complex example, I included two lower body exercises and two upper body exercises that hit different movement patterns. By including both upper and lower body exercises, the complex can be very aerobic as you’ll see when you try it.

    Choose a weight you can curl & press overhead 10x. Complete 6 reps of each of the following exercises with no rest between sets. Complete 6 reps each side of forward lunges and 6 reps each side of alternating dumbbell curl & press. The dumbbell should not touch the ground from the time you pick it until after the last exercise. Beware this is a more advanced workout that requires great technique as you fatigue.

    Dumbell Complex Exercise #1 | DB Front Squat

    The dumbbell front squat is an exceptional exercise that requires your deep core musculature to help stabilize your body. Because the dumbbells are being held in front of your chest, your lower back and abs needs to help keep your torso upright as you squat, which works you core as much, or more than any abs exercise. You also receive the benefit of stimulating your leg muscles as well, and most guys never do enough leg work.

    In the video, I’m squatting deeply well below parallel, but I’m still keeping my lower back straight. In fact, I’m squatting so low that my elbows are touching my knees. If you are unable to do this without rounding your back, don’t worry about it. Squat as low as you can comfortably. If you have lower back problems, a “goblet squat” is a better option where you only hold one dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands.

    Dumbbell Complex Exercise #2 | DB Forward Lunges

    There are two primary ways to complete a forward lunge:

    1) Stepping out as far as you can comfortably
    2) Stepping right in front of you

    Both methods are correct as long as you are using proper form. The former I find is more advanced, which activates the glutes and requires more flexibility. The latter method is better if you are unable to keep your torso straights lunging further forward, or are unable to step all the way back to the starting position.

    The forward lunge also requires power because you must push your body back to the starting position. You get strength, cardiovascular, and power benefits from this one simple exercise.

    Dumbbell Complex Exercise #3 | DB Bent Over Row

    There are two primary ways to complete a dumbbell row:

    1) Both legs together, bending over at the hips
    2) Split stance where one leg is in front of the other

    The more common way is to do the former variation, which is absolutely fine. I chose the latter method because it’s a little easier for most people and there is more room for error (not that I want you using bad form!). Keep your back straight, head up, while pulling the dumbbells vertically from the ground in a smooth motion.

    Dumbbell Complex Exercise #4 | DB Curl & Press

    After your shoulders and arms are nice and warm from the DB Bent Over Row exercise, you will then complete alternating DB Curl & Presses. Your arms and shoulders, especially the front of your shoulder, will get a great muscle burn. Be sure to use an athletic stance by keeping your knees slightly bent.

    When should I use Dumbbell Complexes?

    I think there are two main options:

    1) As a workout – You can choose a dumbbell complex that has 4-5 exercises in one and complete it for 5 cycles. That can make for a very short and intense workout.

    2) End of a workout – You can use complexes as a metabolic circuit at the end of your workout to make your muscles scream and get a great sweat. Be sure to choose a light enough weight so that you are using perfect form at the end of a workout when you may not have as much focus because of decreased energy.

    How do I choose the correct weight for Dumbbell Complexes?

    Choose the exercise that is the hardest in the sequence and then choose a weight that you can complete 10-15x for that exercise. For example, if you are doing 6 reps of each exercise and the hardest exercise is an overhead shoulder press, you can choose a weight you normally can press 10-12x. As you complete more cycles, you’ll be very happy you chose a lighter weight!

    How to choose the right Dumbbell Complex exercises?

    When constructing a strength circuit using Dumbbell Complexes, you want to choose exercises that flow well and where the exercises demand a similar weight. Regarding the first point, you don’t want to be switching hand grips, stances, and body positions to much as you move from exercise to exercise.

    My hands are killing me after a set of Dumbbell Complexes. Is this normal?

    Yes. I find the hardest part of completing a dumbbell complex is just holding on to the dumbbell for a good 1-2 minutes, which is how long each complex can take. If your hand grips is simply giving out before you can really push yourself, you can consider using wrist straps to help keep your grip. I generally do not recommend wrist straps, but you can definitely consider them for dumbbell complexes.

    If you give this dumbbell workout a try, let me know what you think!


    • Bilal says:

      Which part of this complex works the triceps?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Bilal - The triceps muscles are involved in the shoulder press part of the complex. Any pushing motion requires the use of the triceps muscle.

    • siman says:

      I've always struggled with bent over rows due to an old lower back injury, and was thinking of writing them off completely. I watched your video and tried the split stance instead. It's awesome! It doesn't seem to aggravate my lower back at all. Great complex, thanks Marc!

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @siman - happy the video was helpful!

    • Simeon says:

      Great article Mark and very useful! Was thinking of doing a DB/KB/BB metabolic finisher after my three weights workouts each week instead of doing boring cardio. Was thinking of incorporating hang cleans to push press, deadlifts, BB/DB rows, DB jump squats, Dips, Chins/pull ups, Push ups, KB swings, Ab rollouts and Burpees for 10 reps each, minimal rest between exercises and for 2-3 circuits (fitness allowing). Does that sound like a good way to help lose fat? Thanks!

    • Zahir says:

      Hi Marc,

      I m on the Built Lean Program in my second week. Do you think i can add this workout also in my program? I m pretty confused that i go to gym 3 times per week with 45-50 mins each day. When can i do this dumbbell complex?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Zahir - Happy to hear you are getting started with the program! The exercise/workouts I prescribe in the program is all the exercise you need. You do not need to do this Dumbbell Complex and it's not in the program. With that said, if you really enjoy it, you can do this complex at the end of the workouts instead of HIIT. In weeks 3-4, HIIT will be required at the end of each workout. Good luck!

    • Lopez says:

      OMG!!! i's true this does work. i finished the workout and i felt like i someone who has been running for one hour. really really good all round workout. i am looking forward to the afterburn effect.
      many thanks Marc. but wont the body get used to this type shock after a while that it wont give thesame effect anymore?
      thanks again.

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Lopez - Thanks for the congratulatory message. Your body will eventually get used to it, but my guess is you can do this type of workout for a while, possibly even 4-8 weeks (depending on your fitness level) while still gaining strength and stamina. Over time, you can try to decrease the rest between sets and increase the resistance to make the workout harder. Of course, ideally, you can create your own dumbbell circuits and complexes to change things up, but consistency is actually very important.

    • uncadonego says:

      Hi Marc,
      I started incorporating this DB complex , and I'm still just a touch weak on the balance in the DB lunges. I don't falter or let the DB's touch the ground, but I struggle and wobble just a bit. I'm wondering if this is because of bad form, and if it is contributing to my toe-touching flexibility reversing this week. I've worked up to touching the ground about a foot behind my feet, but this week I'm back to only touching the ground directly in front of my toes, because the back of my upper legs is tighter. I know you can't watch me doing the lunges, but are there common mistakes in form I could check myself for, to improve my stability?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @uncadonego - Lack of stability while you lunge can be due to a number of factors such as lack of flexibility, stability, or strength in your ankle, knee, or hip joints, lack of balance, an issue with your foot such as over pronation, or supination, or even your footwear.

        I don't want to spoil a huge post I'm about to put up likely next week, but consider trying the lunges barefoot and see if it makes a difference.

    • Renz says:

      ty so much marc. i been doing it for 2 weeks and i lost 7-9 pounds and i gained lots of strength

    • uncadonego says:

      Marc, ah! That is probably it. Weak ankles! Over the years, I have sprained both ankles about 12 or 13 times each! I'm still doing the lunges, I just take my time regrouping myself after each "return" This is also the reason I have to substitute an upright bike for the 200 yard hard run then walk exercise in one of your other videos. I tried hitting the asphalt, but it just felt too "iffy", so I stopped, Like you say, consider the risk-reward ratio.
      I won't give up on the lunges though, I just backed off by five pounds on each dumbell, and as mentioned, am very methodical.

    • Renz says:

      hi marc, its me again Renz.

      i have a question, can i do this work out while i do yours? i will do yours during tuesday and thursday while i do the other one during monday wensday and friday.

      will this be a good idea and if not can you give me a good dumbell gaining work out

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Renz - I would strength train much more than 3-4x per week, that's just my opinion. It's unnecessary.

    • Geo says:

      Hi marc i have a few questions

      Since my hands hurt after each set will they adapt to it or will it always hurt when im done with a set?

      Is it ok to do this workout while resting between sets or should i go on since im a beginner?

      Will doing this workout get me good results?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Geo - as I listed in the post, the hands not being able to hold on to the dumbbells the whole time is a challenge with this type of training. You could consider decreasing it down to three exercises and using more weight, of keeping it at 4 and using a bit less so your hands don't hurt from trying to grip the dumbbells for a good couple minutes. If you are a beginner, it's absolutely ok to rest between each set, you should listen to your body and ideally wear a heart rate monitor as well. I think this workout combined with others and a sound nutritional plan can certainly help you get solid results.