We all have our preferences. Sure, you could do curls with an EZ bar, but you like the look and feel of using an Olympic bar. Maybe the pec deck machine is wide open, but you’d rather wait for the cables to be free to do flyes.

Sometimes you need to break habits, and dumbbells can be the perfect substitute for your usual equipment on your favorite lifts, unlocking better (and safer) gains. For instance, upright rows are nearly always done with a barbell, but that can place shearing forces on your shoulder joints and often result in rotator cuff injuries. The dumbbell version is safer because your arms move freely; your body decides the right range of motion.

You probably never thought about doing hamstring curls with anything other than a leg-curl machine, but a bench and dumbbell simulates it perfectly. Lie facedown on a bench so your hips hang off. Hold a dumbbell between your feet. Extend your hips then curl your legs as normal. You’ll get the hamstring-building effects of a leg curl while hitting your glutes.

What about abs? Use two plate-loaded dumbbells to simulate ab wheels. Roll the dumbbells as if the plates were wheels. Use two to doubly challenge your stability.

Smart Bells

Two Other Ways to Use Dumbbells

Dumbbells are so versatile you don’t even have to lift them to build muscle. Try trapping your feet down with them during sit-up variations (hook your toes under the handles). Another trick: Place your hands on the dumbbells for push-ups to increase the range of motion.

Quick Tip

When planning a home gym, save space by buying a set of selectorized dumbbells up to about 60 pounds. Then buy heavier fixed-weight dumbbells as needed.