Last updated on November 5th, 2022 at 12:16 pm
I’m sure you’re wondering whether you can do the 5×5 workout with dumbbells.
The 5×5 workout program is considered one of the best ways to build strength.
The classic routine involves the 5 big barbell exercises for 5 sets of 5 reps.
So, you would typically perform the workouts 3 times a week, squatting every training session, while alternating between the other exercises.
Therefore, you would squat, bench press, and row in Workout A.
Then squat, overhead press, and deadlift in Workout B.
Then back to Workout A for the 3rd day in week one, before starting week 2 with Workout B, and so on.
A fantastic workout when performed with a barbell, but allow me to explain what you need to know about doing the 5×5 with dumbbells.
Can You Do 5×5 With Dumbbells?
You can do 5×5 with dumbbells, although you may run into problems, especially with the squat and deadlift. It’s impossible to exactly replicate the barbell back squat with dumbbells. Plus, it probably won’t be long before you can easily perform deadlifts with the heaviest dumbbells available. Therefore, you could use alternative exercises, such as Bulgarian split squats and one-legged deadlifts.
1. Squat & Deadlift 5×5 With Dumbbells – Problems
The main issue you’ll have with performing 5×5 with dumbbells is with the lower body exercises.
Firstly, there’s no way to exactly replicate a barbell back squat with dumbbells.
And secondly, although this does depend on your starting point, for many lifters the heaviest dumbbells may not provide enough weight to regularly progress with the deadlift.
There are a number of ways you can incorporate dumbbells when doing squats.
The most obvious choice is to have your arms hanging down at your sides while holding dumbbells.
However, in truth, the position you’ll be in is extremely similar to the trap-bar deadlift.
Plus, depending on your overall flexibility, mobility and arm length, you may find that the dumbbells come into contact with the ground before you have reached optimal squat depth.
Personally, I prefer not to squat with dumbbells by my side, as I believe the overall movement pattern is more reminiscent of a deadlift.
You can also try holding the dumbbells at shoulder level to mimic a front squat.
But, in reality, it is actually far safer for your joint health to perform kettlebell front squats.
You could also perform overhead dumbbell squats, but this requires a great deal of skill and mobility.
My personal favourite way to perform squats with dumbbells would be the goblet squat.
However, as with the deadlift, you may eventually be limited by maximum dumbbell weight.
For me, the best way to perform the lower body movements of 5×5 with dumbbells is to train one leg at a time.
So, Bulgarian split squats would be the perfect replacement for squats.
In fact, I know many lifters who have completely dumped the barbell back squat in favour of Bulgarian split squats.
You can also do the same for deadlifts and perform one-legged deadlifts.
Admittedly, this will test your balance, but you won’t need that much weight for the exercise to be extremely tough.
With that being said, it will help you work the fundamental deadlift movement, while also training your balance and core strength.
2. Getting the Dumbbells Up For Overhead Press
Something else to consider is the effort required in getting the dumbbells up to overhead press.
Admittedly, this may not be a problem for some, although this does depend on how much weight you’re starting with.
You would typically use your knees to kick the dumbbells up for a seated overhead press.
However, for a standing overhead press you’re going to have to clean the dumbbells up into place.
I know from personal experience that “kicking” the dumbbells up when they’re heavy requires quite a bit of effort.
Plus, you’ll be expending a lot of energy to clean the dumbbells for a standing overhead press.
So, you may eventually be limited in how much weight you can press overhead.
Obviously, you can use a spotter, but this requires there to be someone else around to help you.
Okay, I know on the vast majority of occasions there will be someone only too happy to spot you.
However, if there happens to be no-one else around you may struggle with getting the weights into position.
3. Be Wary of Dumbbell Weight Increments
When you perform the 5×5 workout you’ll generally look to add weight to your lifts on a weekly basis.
When it comes to using a barbell you can typically increase weight by as little as 5lbs in total each week.
I will say that for the lower body lifts you may even look to increase weight by up to 10lbs (or more).
However, if you’re going to do 5×5 with dumbbells you are somewhat limited in weight increments.
Most gyms will usually have the dumbbells go up in 5lb increments, therefore every single lift you perform will need to increase by 10lbs on a weekly basis.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, this is probably absolutely fine for squats and deadlifts.
With that being said, you may find it a lot more difficult to do this with the main upper body movements.
In fact, this is especially true of the overhead press, which for most of us will be our weakest 5×5 lift.
So, you need to be wary that you’ll either end up stuck at a particular weight, or that you simply won’t be able to perform 5 reps for every set when you go up in weight.
With that being said, there is a way of making a lift harder without actually increasing the weight.
5×5 Dumbbell Only For Legs
4. Increase Time-Under-Tension
So, I’ve mentioned that you may be limited in how much you can increase weight on a weekly basis.
I guess this depends on how heavy the dumbbells go up to in your gym.
However, most of us may find that we can quite easily deadlift with the heaviest set of dumbbells.
So, in order to counteract the limited weight you could increase your time-under-tension.
By this I mean that you could simply increase the time taken to perform both the eccentric and concentric part of a lift.
I’ll tell you now that performing a goblet squat while taking 10 seconds to lower yourself and another 10 seconds to come back up is extremely tough.
But, it is a great technique to pack on size and strength.
In effect, rather than increasing weight on a weekly basis, you could simply increase time-under-tension.
So, once you’re able to perform 5×5 with a standard 2-second concentric and 2-second eccentric portion, you can increase this to 4 seconds down and 4 seconds up.
The following week you can once more use the same weights, but now increase the time taken to 6 seconds for both portions of the lift.
Remember, the aim is to perform 5 sets of 5 reps of each exercise and then progress each week thereafter.
However, progression doesn’t always have to mean more weight.
Yes, it’s perfectly feasible to do 5×5 with dumbbells.
With that being said, you won’t be able to perfectly replicate a barbell back squat with dumbbells.
Plus, you may be limited on how much weight you can deadlift with.
Furthermore, the overhead press could be quite difficult when it comes to getting the dumbbells up and into place.
You’ll also need to be wary of the additional weight increments of dumbbells, although this may only really cause an issue with the upper body lifts.
However, you can overcome this by simply increasing your time-under-tension with each lift.
Take a moment to check out my review of the Anabolic Aftergrowth Workout Program. Chris Wilson takes you through the workout program which incorporates only 3 lifts (bench press, squat, and deadlift). However, Chris claims he can help you add up to 14lbs of lean muscle in just 60 days.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.