The Ultimate Light Weights Workout: 5 Best Exercises Using Light Weights

The general guiding principle in resistance training is that lifting heavier weights will result in more significant improvements in strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth).

But, what if you only have light weight dumbbells? Can you do a light dumbbell workout to build muscle and strength?

In this article, we will discuss how to get a good light dumbbell workout and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best light weights exercises to include in a high rep low weight workout:

Let’s dive in! 

A dumbbell push up.

The Ultimate Light Weights Workout

If you want to do a light weight workout, you should focus on a high rep low weight workout if your goal is to use light weight dumbbells to build muscle and increase strength.

Generally, using heavier weights (at least 65% of your 1RM) is recommended to build muscle, and at least 85% of your 1RM is recommended to increase strength.

However, there is evidence to suggest that it is possible to build muscle by lifting light weights, even if you are an experienced, fit weightlifter, as long as you perform your sets to failure. 

If you don’t want to do the sets to failure, focus on doing as many reps as possible per set (upwards of 20-30).

Here are some of the best exercises with light weights:

#1: Light Weights Iron Cross

The iron cross is a great upper-body exercise to do with light weights. 

Although this is typically a cable machine exercise, you can also perform the exercise with light dumbbells. 

As a dumbbell exercise, you can transform this upper body dynamic movement that normally works the chest, shoulders, arms, core, and upper back into a full-body exercise.

Adding a squat helps incorporate the lower body muscles.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise with light weights:

  1. Stand upright with your feet about shoulder-width apart, chest up, shoulders down, and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lift the dumbbells up so that your arms are parallel to the floor and out to the side like a giant letter T. Your palms should be facing forward with dumbbells extending vertically up and down.
  3. Engage your core as you bend your knees and hips back to squat down. As you do so, squeeze your chest to bring your arms straight out in front of you with your palms facing one another and the dumbbells still extending vertically up and down.
  4. Do not allow the weight of the dumbbell to pull your arms down. They should remain parallel to the floor at all times.
  5. Pause at the bottom of the squat when your thighs are parallel to the ground, holding the dumbbells straight out in front of your body.
  6. Push through your heels to return to the standing position, simultaneously sweeping your arms out to the sides so that you end back as a letter T.

#2: Light Dumbbells Overhead Kneeling to Stand

If you only have light weights to work with but still want to get an effective total-body strength training workout, it helps to include dynamic, full-body exercises that you can perform explosively to help build power, speed, and strength.

The overhead kneeling-to-stand press helps fill this need.

This challenging dumbbell exercise involves an isometric contraction in your upper body, which can help build lockout strength and endurance while you will perform dynamic movements in your lower body.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise in workouts with light weights:

  1. Kneel down with your feet behind you and the rest of your body positioned upright with good posture. Keep your core tight and your chest up.
  2. Hold a dumbbell and each hand with your palms facing away from your body. Keeping your core engaged, press the dumbbells straight up overhead into the full lockout position open overhead press. The dumbbells will remain in this position throughout the duration of the entire set.
  3. Then, move into a half-kneeling position by taking your right foot and stepping it forward into a lunge position so that your thigh is parallel to the ground and your knee is bent 90°.
  4. Keeping the dumbbells overhead, press up from the ground into a full standing position.
  5. Then, step your left foot back and drop back down into a kneeling position with your right leg still in front.
  6. Finally, return the right leg to the starting full-kneeling position.
  7. Keep switching sides in terms of the leg that you lead with, and complete 30 to 40 total repetitions (15-20 per leg).

#3: Light Weights Renegade Row

If you only have light dumbbells to work with, one of the best exercises with light weights is the renegade row. This exercise involves performing a single arm row while in the push-up position.

Because you have to support and stabilize your body in the high plank, even a light dumbbell can be more than enough weight. 

Your core muscles have to work hard to keep your body in the right position (anti-rotation core exercise). Make sure to engage your glutes and abs to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor.

Here are the steps for this one of our light weight workouts exercise:

  1. Get in a push-up position with your hands on the dumbbells with palms facing one another and the dumbbells going the long way.
  2. Perform a full push-up by bending your elbows and lowering your chest to just above the ground, sinking below the level of neutral by taking advantage of the depth of the light dumbbells.
  3. Press through your palms to raise back up until your elbows are extended.
  4. Then, shift your weight into one hand while you lift the other arm off the ground, bending your elbow to row the dumbbell up alongside your torso. 
  5. Slowly lower the dumbbell back down and then perform another push-up.
  6. Alternate arms for the row after each push-up.

#4: High Knees Sprinting With Running Arms

Another challenging exercise for workouts with light weights is high knees sprinting in place while pumping your arms and holding light dumbbells.

This is a full-body cardio exercise that will also help strengthen your arm swing for running and sprinting.

Pump your arms as vigorously and dramatically as possible through a wide range of motion while you drive your knees all the way up towards your chest and explode off the balls of your feet. 

Think about explosive power and speed rather than jogging for an extended period of time in place.

#5: Dumbbells Alphabet Soup

When you only have light weights to use, you can focus on exercises for weaker and smaller muscle groups in which you’d only want to use light weights anyway.

This light dumbbells exercise is fantastic for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles, which in turn, help provide better control of the shoulder girdle, along with the rhomboids and upper traps.

You should start with very light weights because the rotator cuff muscles and postural muscles that are chiefly responsible for the movement during this back exercise are relatively weak, particularly if you have poor posture.

Before you start working with heavier dumbbells, build up the number of reps that you are doing to 15 to 20.

The range of motion will not be particularly large, but you want to really squeeze your shoulder blades and move slowly and with control.

Dumbbell alphabet soup.

Here are the steps to perform this light weights workouts exercise:

  1. Lie face down on the floor with a hand towel rolled under your forehead for comfort.
  2. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing down.
  3. Then, you will perform 15 to 20 reps of the I, Y, W, T, and L.
  4. Perform all of the reps of each letter before moving on to the next letter.
  5. For the letter I, bring your arms straight up overhead with your elbows fully extended. 
  6. Lift your arms up towards the ceiling (behind your body) by retracting your shoulder blades and squeezing your rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and rotator cuff muscles.
  7. For the letter Y, keep your arms straight and move them out to a 45° angle.
  8. For the letter T, straighten your arms out to the side so that they are parallel to the ground.
  9. For letter W, keep your elbows down by your shoulders but raise your hands up and out to the sides.
  10. For the letter L, each arm is making an L rather than your whole body, so bring your upper arms out to the side as if you were going to do a T, but then bend your elbows and straighten your lower arm and hands directly up towards the ceiling so that your elbows are at a 90° angle away from your body and your hands are up overhead.

For more ideas about workouts with dumbbells, check out our complete back workout with dumbbells here.

Kneel to stand dumbbell overhead press.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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