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11 Exercises You Can’t Do With Dumbbells

Tonal’s digital weight makes it safer and easier to lift heavy at home.

Seated lat pulldown

When it comes to strength training, dumbbells can only take you so far. Ultimately, to get stronger, you need to lift heavier, and that’s not always easy to do with dumbbells at home. Your set might only go up to 30 or 40 pounds; heavier weights take up more space and are tough to maneuver; and you can’t increase the weight in small increments.

There are also certain lifts and movements that don’t work as well with dumbbells. Without those movements, you miss out on the benefit of many exercises, and trying to replicate them with your home gym equipment could potentially increase risk for injury. Since Tonal’s digital weight turns on with the click of a button, getting into position for a heavy bench press , for example, is easy and safe to do on your own at home.

Benefits of Tonal Over Dumbbells

To keep building strength, you need to challenge your muscles in new ways, and that’s exactly what Tonal’s digital weight will help you do.

  • Tonal’s advanced AI knows how strong you are and personalizes weight recommendations to deliver your optimal resistance for every single rep.
  • When you use digital weight, you don’t have to jump weights based on what dumbbells are available. Tonal increases resistance in one-pound increments.
  • Progressive overload is an essential part of getting stronger. Tonal will give you resistance of up to 200 pounds, and if you think that’s not enough, consider that an independent study found Tonal’s weight feels up to 23-percent heavier than free weights.
  • Instead of struggling to get in position under load, the Smart Handles and Smart Bar enable you to get in place safely, and turn on resistance with the touch of a button.
  • With Spotter Mode enabled on Tonal, you don’t need a gym buddy to make sure you’re lifting safely. This feature kicks in when you’re struggling to complete a rep, reducing the weight so you won’t get hurt.
  • You can also use other dynamic weight modes, such as Eccentric , Burnout , and Chain Mode , to challenge yourself in new ways, build explosive power, and break through plateaus.

Finally, you will have access to hundreds of moves that should be part of your regular strength training routine that you can’t do with free weights. Here is a list of exercises you can do at home with Tonal that you can’t replicate with dumbbells.

1. Seated Lat Pulldown

Seated lat pulldown

Why it Works: Any movement that involves pulling weight down vertically—like the popular and highly-effective lat pulldown—isn’t possible with dumbbells. This exercise strengthens the lats, which protect and stabilize the spine. Strong lats are also important for maintaining good posture and performing everyday activities such as pushing open doors and lifting grocery bags.

How to Do it: Start seated and grab the handles with both hands. Using your back, pull the handles to the outside of your shoulders. Bend your elbows like there are magnets on your elbows and ribcage. Slowly control the weight back to start and repeat.

2. Standing Chest Press

Standing chest press

Why it Works: This move is excellent for building your chest, but as Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal, explains, if you try it with dumbbells you won’t be engaging the right muscles.

“You want to be performing flexion, pushing away from the body,” he says. “But if you’re holding dumbbells, now you’re placing more strain on the anterior delts to resist gravity than you are pressing away from the chest.”

How to Do it: Stand between Tonal’s arms at shoulder-height position, facing away from Tonal. Grab the handles and step forward into a staggered stance. Position the handles at the sides of your chest, making sure your spine is neutral. Press forward until your arms are straight, squeezing your chest, and then reverse the motion bringing your arms back to the starting position. Never allow your shoulders to rotate forward through the range of motion.

3. Standing Alternating Push-Pull

Standing alternating push-pull

Why it Works: Many natural human movements involve both pushing and pulling (imagine the arms of a runner moving in opposite directions) and this exercise mimics that action. “It’s a great functional move for improving athleticism,” Clay says.

How to Do it: Get into an athletic stance between the arms and turn so your side faces Tonal. Take the handle that’s behind you with your outside hand and bring it to your chest. Take the handle that’s in front of you with your other hand, keeping both arms straight. Simultaneously, press the outside handle forward while pulling the inside handle toward your chest. As you push, face the palm toward the floor; and as you pull, face the palm toward the body. Keep your hips still but rotate your torso like you’re wringing out a towel.

4. Middle Chest Fly

Middle chest fly

Why it Works: A standing fly challenges the chest muscles as you move your arms horizontally across the body. If you try this move with dumbbells, you’ll be fighting gravity to keep your arms up instead of focusing on your chest muscles. “The way you’re applying the resistance is not matching the muscular action you’re performing,” says Clay.

How to Do it: Start with arms extended in front of your chest with elbows softly bent like you’re hugging a beach ball. Open your arms toward Tonal until they are in inline with the chest. Keeping your arms in the same position, bring them back to the start and repeat.

5. Standing Pallof Press

Standing pallof press

Why it Works: This anti-rotation exercise helps build a stable core and is especially useful for athletes who need to maintain stability under load. It won’t be effective with dumbbells as the resistance needs to be applied laterally (or from the side).

How to Do it: Push the handle away from your chest. Keeping your arms centered, slightly rotate your torso toward Tonal’s arm, then back to center. Pull the handle back in toward your chest, bending at the elbows, not letting your shoulders point forward and down toward the floor.

6. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Row

Half-kneeling single-arm row

Why it Works: This move stabilizes your core and balances upper-body pushing movements such as bench presses and pushups. Plus, single-side movements help address imbalances in your body.

How to Do it: Using your back, pull the handle toward your ribcage with your palm facing toward your body, aiming your elbow to the wall behind you. Extend your elbow to straighten your arm and return to the starting position, then repeat.

7. Kneeling Cable Crunch

Kneeing cable crunch

Why it Works: By adding resistance to a crunch, you’ll build a strong and stable core, plus add definition to your abs. With a dumbbell, the weight would be pulling you down as you lean forward in this exercise, not providing resistance in the opposite direction. When rising back up, it would also put more strain on your lower back than your core.

How to Do it: Take the rope with both hands and bring it behind your neck, hands under your ears and elbows at your sides. Get into a tall kneeling position, facing away from the arm and sit onto your heels. Round the spine forward to pull the weight down until your elbows meet your thighs like you’re trying to touch the rope to your knees. Return to a neutral spine and repeat.

8. Pull Through

Pull Through

Why it Works: This lower body move strengthens your posterior chain, improves your glute strength and is a stable way to prepare your body for heavy deadlifts. “The cable provides horizontal resistance in the same direction that the hips are moving,” says Clay. “This move is extremely effective at helping you master a hinge pattern as the cable pulls your hips back as opposed to down as in a squat.”

How to Do it: Take the rope in both hands and face away from Tonal. Bring the cable between your legs. Take a few steps away from Tonal and stand tall with feet hip distance apart and knees soft. Hinge at the hips like someone is pulling your hips from behind as the rope moves between your legs. Squeeze your glutes and power your hips forward to stand tall.

9. Pullover Crunch

Pullover Crunch

Why it Works: A challenging core exercise that recruits both the arms and the legs, this weighted movement can strengthen your core through a wider range of motion.  With a dumbbell, you’d only be able to do this move in a limited range of motion.

“Performing it on the cable provides resistance through a greater range of motion, which facilitates better results in terms of both hypertrophy and mobility,” says Clay.

How to Do it: Take a handle in each hand and lie face up on the mat with your head a few feet from Tonal’s arms. Start with arms extended overhead and legs extended on the floor. Tuck your knees as you bring the handles toward your chest, while bringing your arms straight toward your knees and slightly rounding your back. Extend your arms and legs toward the floor and repeat.

10. Resisted Dead Bug

Resisted dead bug

Why it Works: Dead bugs are an effective and safe way to build core strength while improving stability. Adding resistance to this essential movement will increase its difficulty and enhance your strength. Clay explains that doing this exercise on Tonal allows the resistance to stay consistent throughout the movement, whereas with dumbbells the resistance would drop off at the top of the movement.

How to Do it: Lie face up on your mat with your head a few feet away from Tonal’s arms. Take the handles and extend your arms up over your chest with knees bent over your hips in a table top position. Extend one arm and the opposite leg toward the floor. Once your limbs are just above the floor, return to the start without letting your back lift off the ground.

11. Rotational Row

Rotational row

Why it Works: Targeting the back and oblique muscles, this move helps with pivoting and transferring your weight from side to side. The cable provides an optimal line of resistance for developing rotational strength.

“The dynamic weight modes also allow us to better accentuate certain qualities, most notably Eccentric and Chains Mode to help enhance power,” says Clay.

How to Do it: Rotate toward Tonal, reaching the handle down toward the end of the arm, like you are starting a lawnmower. Pull the handle toward your ribcage, using your back. Rotate the hips to shift your body weight to the outside leg, bringing the cable across your body. Slowly bring the handle back toward Tonal and repeat on the same side.

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