So ya think you're pretty strong, huh?
If you're here, you've probably maxed out your gym or home gym's dumbbell stack so... yeah, you're probably pretty strong.
Not getting the challenge you need anymore on dumbbell movements like bench pressing, shoulder pressing, curls, and more?
Well, that's definitely a pickle.
Most commercial gyms only have dumbbells up to 150lbs or so (and that's being extremely generous... many gyms only have 75 pounders, max).
So how do you make dumbbells heavier after you've maxed out?
I've got 9 ideas for you so the gains don't have to stop!
1. Do higher reps
I know, I know. This isn't what you want to hear.
Serious lifters think of higher reps (higher than 12) as useless "pump" work that does nothing for your overall strength.
This isn't the case!
You can absolutely build muscle in higher rep ranges.
It might not be your ideal style of training, but increasing reps is one of the key components of progressive overload (the main driver of muscle growth).
You can also incorporate something like Rest Pause Training to squeeze extra work out of those "lighter weights." (This is where you hit a lighter weight for high reps, say 15, to activate muscle recruitment, then follow that with short sets of 5 reps or so with very little rest.)
If you can hit those 150s for 8-10 reps, see if you can build up to 12-15 reps and beyond.
You can still get solid muscle growth out of those dumbbells! So don't give up on them yet.
2. Take shorter rest intervals
Rest intervals are another key, but often overlooked, driver of progressive overload.
You're probably used to resting about 2 to 3 minutes between sets of most of your lifts.
If you've reached a point where the available weight seems easy, try resting for less time between those sets.
Your lifts are guaranteed to get tougher!
Grinding out more reps with less rest can definitely drive muscle growth and improve your endurance and conditioning. Challenging your muscles in a new way like this will definitely help you progress and gain strength overall, so don't scoff at this idea.
Give it a try. Reduce your rest to under 2 minutes and see if you can maintain your lifts and strength level.
Chances are you'll have to build back up.
3. Rotate to barbell lifts
Alright, this is cheating a little bit, but there's often very little reason to EXCLUSIVELY use dumbbells.
Most dumbbell lifts can be subbed out for a barbell lift or variation, and the good thing about barbells (or EZ bars or hammer curl bars) is that they can be loaded up with significantly more weight.
It's true, dumbbell lifts are awesome muscle-builders because they recruit so many different stabilizers and force you to have better mind-muscle connection.
But barbell lifts are often better for overall strength development.
If you've maxed out on dumbbells, maybe it's time to take a break and get in some heavy barbell work.
(For certain accessory movements, you could also move over to the cable machine and do some really cool and interesting variations with a whole weight stack available to you.)
4. Use better form & stop cheating
If you've maxed out on your dumbbell lifts, you're using some pretty heavy weights.
But if you want to instantly make all of your dumbbell lifts more challenging, here's an easy tip:
If you focus on slow (2 seconds or longer) negatives and pauses at the bottom of your lifts, there's no WAY you'll be able to hit the same amount of reps with the same weight.
You'll do way more damage to your muscle fibers, which will result in more growth and more strength. You'll also attack weak points you didn't even know you had.
(Honestly, how many people really pause at the bottom of a curl and flex their triceps? Most skip this step entirely. Try it and your curls will get way harder.)
You've done an awesome job building strength to this point, and now it's time to milk every last ounce of resistance out of the weights you have and make sure you can truly handle them before you move on to other alternatives.
5. Do more challenging variations
Seated dumbbell press getting too easy with your gym's heaviest dumbbells?
Switch to a stand dumbbell press, or a standing one-armed dumbbell press.
Curls becoming a breeze?
Try an incline curl, spider curl, or preacher curl... all of which are WAY harder.
There are always ways to make any lift harder without increasing the weight. You can position your body for worse leverage and better isolation, introduce more instability into the lift for more muscle activation, or use angles to target weak points that may be holding you back.
A few ideas to get you started:
- Bench press -> One armed bench press or incline bench press
- Seated shoulder press -> Standing one armed shoulder press
- Dumbbell curl -> Incline curl
- Skullcrushers -> Dips or overhead extensions
6. Add chains to the dumbbells
You've heard of adding chains to the barbell bench press, but you can actually do it with dumbbells too.
Chains, when hanging freely off of a weight, can add a significant amount of weight, and will force you to use something called "dynamic effort."
(When the chain hangs down and coils on the floor, it adds only a little extra weight and tension. As you lift the weight higher, the chain lifts off the ground and begins to make the lift even more difficult.)
You won't be able to do this with every lift, but it's a great way of getting a little more juice out of your dumbbell bench press, in particular.
You'll likely need a gym buddy or spotter to help you set up the chains properly and safely, especially when you're using very heavy weighted dumbbells.
7. Make your own DIY dumbbells for home
If all else fails, and you just want to keep things simple and use some heavier dumbbells (without spending a fortune), you always have the option of making your own dumbbells at home.
It's not the easiest project in the world, but if you're at least decently handy you should be able to do it.
You'll need (high level overview):
- Some basic tools like a drill and hacksaw, tape measure, box cutter, etc.
- Metal electrical conduit
- Nuts & bolts
- Concrete mix and mixing containers/materials
Below is the best guide I've found online for making your own dumbbells, and should give you exactly what you need to get started.
8. Ask your gym to buy heavier dumbbells
I've heard lots of stories via word of mouth of people making simple equipment requests at their gym and having it pay off.
If you're a long time customer, a good gym citizen, and you ask them nicely to invest in some heavier dumbbells, what's the worst that can happen?
They can say no. But nothing ventured, nothing gained!
See if you can't get a face-to-face with a manager and ask them nicely. If you can find a few other people in the gym that could also benefit from heavier dumbbells, you'll be able to make a stronger case.
After all, the gym wouldn't want multiple people leaving to go find a new gym with better equipment.
(Your success rate might also be better if you've got a sculpted bod... your presence is good marketing for the gym!)
9. Just buy your own heavier dumbbells!
Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.
(And if you don't want to get them messy with DIY concrete, there might be only one other option.)
Yes, you can just break down and buy some crazy heavy dumbbells, if you need to.
Just a warning, this won't be cheap. Dumbbells are pretty expensive, especially ones this heavy. Expect to pay well over $100 for a single dumbbell over 100lbs. (Obviously, the heavier the dumbbell, the more you'll pay.)
But if you implement all the suggestions above, one or two super heavy dumbbells should keep you busy for a while as you work your way through short rest, slow negatives, and challenging lift variations.
(You can get even heavier options from specialty retailers.)
Your best bet, if you've maxed out the dumbbell stack at your gym, is to find some new ways to challenge yourself (decreasing rest, increasing range of motion, trying harder variation) and moving to more barbell lifts where the weight limit is much higher.
But there are some interesting options available for those of you brave (or rich) enough: Making your own DIY dumbbells and buying your own superweighted dumbbells.
In any case, you should be pretty proud you even had to look this question up. Good for you!
Hope this guide has given you a few ideas, and good luck on your journey to new levels of strength.