#Gains, Explained: I’m Too Strong for My Adjustable Dumbbells. How Can I Keep Making Gains?

Do you wonder what the best way is to count sets and reps? Why you shouldn’t skip leg day? We have answers. This is #Gains, Explained, a space for you to ask any and every question about fitness. The Men’s Health team (and other experts) are here for you.

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I work out at home with adjustable dumbbells. I am approaching maxing out on many lifts. What can I do to continue to progress once this happens?

-Am I the Dumbbell?

AS MUCH AS I love my home workouts, I know that when I lift in my backyard I miss out on some advantages that only a commercial fitness space can offer. My setup has plenty of gear—I’ve got strength training essentials like a barbell and plates, an adjustable bench, a sturdy squat rack—but I have one glaring issue: my adjustable dumbbells.

Don’t get me wrong, I (mostly) love my dumbbells. I’m well prepared to do just about every type of isolation exercise like biceps curls with them, since they range from five to 80 pounds, and I can shift between poundage with just the turn of the handle. But as incredible as adjustable weights can be to save space and money for your home gym, most have a relatively low ceiling. Lots of DB models only go up to around 50 or 60 pounds, and it costs more to upgrade to the higher-poundage units. Once you get to the point where you’re training multi-joint movements like the bench press, deadlift, row, or even the farmer’s carry, those 50 to 60 pounds—and even 80 or 90 pounds, if you’ve built up strength over a long training career—won’t give you much of a challenge if you’re using a standard split of three sets of eight to 10 reps for every single workout.

Thankfully, there’s a solution for our shared problem without breaking the bank for heavier weights or giving up the home training sessions for a spot in the gym, where you might be doomed to wait on the biggest dude in the place to finish with the jumbo dumbbells before you get the chance to level up. This all hinges on the principle of progressive overload, the bedrock of any effective strength training program. The concept is simple: Your muscles respond to stimuli, and over time, you’ll need to ratchet up that stimuli to continue to elicit a response. You were already using this technique when you were training with your weights before, as you worked up to increasingly heavy loads for each exercise in your training plan—now, you just need to switch up your approach.

“Progressive overload essentially requires us to find new ways to “overload” our muscles, causing them to then adapt (and grow) because they’re facing a new challenge,” says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. Basically, you need to think beyond just reaching for a heavier set of weights, since that’s not an option.

Thankfully, there are a few tried-and-true methods to introduce that overload that even the strongest guys can use to maximize the effectiveness of your workouts when you run out of weights. This can be useful for anyone, too—you never know when you’ll find yourself traveling without access to your typical gym, or if you just want to try a new routine to shake things up.

muscular build man exercising strength with weights on a floor

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First, you can add volume. This entails adding more reps per set, or more sets per workout. Instead of training under the three sets of eight to 10 reps regime, bump up to three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps.

Here’s a question: Do you keep track of your rest periods between sets? If not, start now. Samuel also suggests reducing that rest time between sets, so you’ll have less chance to recover to start the next round of reps fresh.

You can also ramp up the time under tension—in other words, how long your muscles are engaged during each rep. This can be accomplished through slowing down the eccentric portion of an exercise, pausing at different points of the movement, or adding half-reps into the scheme.

You can also turn your mental approach to your workouts on its head. “A great way to get past maxing out on many adjustable dumbbell movements is to rethink and redefine what that effort is,” suggests Juan Guadarrama, C.S.C.S., a strength coach and member of the Men’s Health Strength in Diversity Initiative. “Traditionally we may lean towards the side of max weight for sets of 20, 10, 5, 3, 1 [reps]. However, this only elicits a very specific stress (muscular endurance or muscular strength). We may find that for a period of time we will see progress, but then as the body adapts, it starts to plateau. The more we do those same workouts, with similar stress, the less progress we make.”

How can we bust through plateaus and rethink effort as Guadarrama proposes? Introduce factors like power, then consider pushing the envelope on your work capacity to improve your fitness beyond just building bigger muscles.

“To expand and use different muscle fibers, we can choose a medium weight and move it quickly (force equals mass times acceleration),” he says. “This is commonly used with Olympic weightlifters, conjugate powerlifters, and sports athletes where the goal is to produce as much force as possible.” Try exercises like push presses and dumbbell snatches—or, perform the concentric portion of movements like bench press explosively to add this focus.

Guadarrama’s suggestion for improving your work capacity—how much physical effort you can expend while still recovering and adapting—is a beefed up version of the advice to cut your rest periods. He says that you can use bouts of “high and medium intensity intervals, where we move external resistance for a set amount of time or reps,” to accomplish this goal. An example of the approach: a Tabata workout of eight rounds of 20 seconds of dumbbell thrusters, followed by 10 seconds of rest.

For some more specific guidance on how to level up your training without using heavier weights, check out these three methods.

3 Techniques to Maximize Limited Weights


Supersets or trisets require you to perform two or three exercises back-to-back with no rest in between. “Working two moves back-to-back has so many strength vs. force curve benefits, keeps the workouts brisk, and you wind up with a level of system fatigue by the time you get to whatever comes second/third in the setup,” says Samuel. He advises that you start with the toughest moves, then finish with the easiest. Check out this triple superset workout for a solid example.

Pre-Fatigue Sets

This is another chance to add volume, although the method is a bit more sophisticated than just piling up reps of one single movement. “Start with an accessory/isolation move, like a skullcrusher or chest fly, then go to the multi-joint move after that,” Samuel says. He notes that he’s a big fan of this method, and he’s not alone. The Rock uses pre-fatigue (a.k.a. pre-exhaust) concepts in his training—and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you.

Full-Body Splits

This is a means of adding a progressive challenge through your whole program construction. “With a full-body split, everyday you go into the gym, you’re aiming to train all your key movement upper- and lower-body muscle groups, typically with moves that engage multiple muscle groups,” says Samuel. And by shifting to workouts that engage multiple muscle groups rather than splits based on single body parts for each day, you’ll get more bang for your buck. “You’re upping the frequency of how often you’re training everything by doing this,” says Samuel.

preview for How to Use Drop Sets | Form Check

Headshot of Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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