Home Bodybuilding 13 Most Effective Dumbbell Back Exercises and Workouts

13 Most Effective Dumbbell Back Exercises and Workouts

Written by Michael Jessimy, RPh

If you’re looking for an effective way to train your back muscles, look no further than the humble dumbbell.

Even if you don’t have any other equipment, just one pair of adjustable dumbbells are enough to get a great and productive session (or even one dumbbell in certain cases)

Not only are dumbbells affordable, but they are also one of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can use.

In fact, in many cases, they are even better than barbells for eliciting strength gain and muscle growth in the back.

But don’t get it wrong- not because you aren’t required to use a lot of different equipment to get a well-sculpted back does it mean that you can get away with a lack of variety; the back comprises several groups that require varying angles of attack.

So you’ll never build a big back using only one movement.

But don’t sweat it- below you will find the 13 best dumbbell exercises to ensure you forge a well-balanced, strong, and muscular back.

But as we always do, a little bit of background about what muscles you need to be focusing on will help you get a better appreciation and visualization of the muscles that make up the back.

Back Anatomy 101

The back is massive. It is composed of so many groups that it would take this entire blog post to do them justice discussing.

For that reason, we will keep it relatively brief; just touching on them in bite-size fashion.

These are the main areas that comprise the back:

1) Latissmus Dorsi

Affectionately known as the “lats”, this is the large muscle that spans almost the entire width of your back and is responsible for attaining the highly desirable V-shape.

Owing to the sheer size of this muscle, it requires attack from several angles, including pulling movements (rows), and movement that places the arms overhead (pulldowns and dumbbell pullovers).

2) Traps

The traps are the muscles that sit on top of your shoulder and run way down into your mid back region.

They are also one of the largest muscles of the upper body and visible when viewed from the front (especially the upper traps as they sit on the clavicles)

They are responsible for the movement of the shoulders up and down and are associated with movement that mimics this motion (think of shrugs, deadlifts).

They can also be effectively stimulated by static-fashion movements or farmer’s walk)

3) Rhomboids

These are a pair of muscles located in the middle of your upper back and are responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together (retraction).

The best exercises to hit them are those that involve dumbbells, such as bent-over rows (overhand or underhand grip)and upright rows.

4) Erector Spinae

This is a group of muscles that run the entire length of your spine and are responsible for keeping your spine erect (hence the name).

They also help with better posture.

They can be effectively hit with exercises like deadlifts, hyperextensions, and good mornings.

They also enable movement of the spine in many directions.

5) Teres Minor And Major

These are two muscles that sit on the underside of your shoulder and are responsible for the external rotation of the arm.

They sit on top of the lats and are often referred to as mini lats

Owing to their location, they are often trained in conjunction with the lats.

Now that we have a general understanding of the muscles involved in a well-rounded back workout routine, let’s move on to the 13 best dumbbell back exercises.

13 Ways To Smoke Your Back Using Dumbbells

1) Dumbbell Bent Over Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TSP1TRMUzs

The basic dumbbell row is a classic back exercise that targets the middle and upper back muscles.

It can be performed one side at a time, or dual-handed, although the single-arm version is the more common of the two.

We will focus on the one-arm dumbbell row for this explanation.

To Perform:

  • Grab a dumbbell with a neutral grip, and let it hang at arm’s length by your side.
  • On a flat bench, place your non-working arm and knee on it, and bend at your waist until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.
  • Allow your working arm to dangle over the edge of the bench, and contract with your lats and back to raise the dumbbell up as your elbow travels beyond the plane of your back.
  • Repeat this with the other side in an alternating set fashion.
  • Aim for 10-12 reps and 3 working sets per side.

2) Dumbbell Deadlift

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ3QwaXNJfw

Have you ever performed a dumbbell deadlift?

Not surprisingly, most people haven’t.

Inadvertently this leads to you missing out on the very important movement that is the dumbbell deadlift.

The deadlift is excellent for building strength throughout the legs as well as the lower back, especially the erector spinae muscles.

To Perform:

  • Position your feet hip-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells by your sides, with your palms facing your thighs.
  • Keep your back straight (not upright) as you hinge forward at the hips to lower yourself toward the floor, maintaining the natural curve in your spine. Allow your knees to bend as you descend
  • The dumbbells held in a neutral position should just tap the floor at the bottom of the movement. At this point, contract through your legs for the first half of the movement and straighten your back as you approach the top of the position.
  • Perform 8-10 reps and 2-3 working sets for this movement.

3) Incline Dumbbell Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LxN3_3atps

The Incline row places a strict emphasis on form, taking away the assistance and cheating that occurs on standard dumbbell rows.

Owing to this, you won’t be able to hoist as much weight or perform as many reps, but this is good as it really helps to isolate and stimulate the muscles of the lower back and lats more efficiently.

To perform:

  • Position your chest against the padding of an incline bench, legs extended, and toes on the ground for support.
  • With arms hanging freely over the end of the paddings and with a dumbbell in each arm, contract, and squeeze using your back to pull your elbows up and above the plane of your back.
  • Hold the contracted position a second before slowly returning to the start position.
  • Repeat for 8-12 repetitions and 2-3 working sets.

4) Dumbbell Lat Pull Over

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x4mTtYC_1M

One of the most difficult parts of the back to train in the absence of a pull-down station are the upper lats, which frequently give the back width and help you create that elusive V-taper so desired by athletes.

The dumbbell lat pullover is the only practical way to achieve this using dumbbells, but requires practice to master, as it also targets the muscles of the chest if performed incorrectly.

To Perform:

  • Lie flat on your back on a bench with a dumbbell held between two hands, palms facing forward.
  • Extend your arms straight above your chest, then slowly lower the weights behind your head until your upper arm is parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, then lift the weights back to the starting position over your chest.
  • Keep your abdominal muscles pulled in so that you move the weights with your lats, not your lower back.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

5) Dumbbell Upright Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhZLB48kluc

The dumbbell upright row is a movement that primarily targets the shoulder muscles, including the anterior deltoids, rhomboids and trapezius muscles.

The upright row can be done with a wide or narrow emphasis, depending on which muscles you want to target more.

For the back, it is better to use a narrower grip to focus on the rhomboids and upper trapezius muscles.

To Perform

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your thighs.
  • Keeping your back in a straight line, lift the weights up along the fron side of your body, leading with your elbows and not your hands. Your elbows will naturally flare out at you raise the dumbbells.
  • Continue to raise the weights until they are at shoulder height or just about upper chest position at the top position.
  • Pause and then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

6) Dumbbell Pendlay Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFdEw3f6WaA

The dumbbell pendlay row is a variation of the standard barbell row that is performed with dumbbells.

It was pioneered by Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay and involves more use of the muscles of the back and less use of the biceps than the standard barbell row.

This makes it a better exercise for developing back strength and size.

It is important to mention that it advocates resting the dumbbell on the floor between each rep, as this helps to keep the tension on the muscles of the back and reduces bicep and forearm fatigue.

To Perform:

  • Position a bench in front of you and place a dumbbell on the floor.
  • Bend at the waist and grasp the dumbbell with a neutral grip, using your other hand for support against the bench
  • Retract your shoulder blades and row the weight to your mid-chest level, keeping your elbow close to your side.
  • Pause and then lower the weight back to the start position on the ground.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

Since this movement helps to reduce bicep and forearm dependence, feel free to use a little heavier weight when doing it.

7) Dumbbell Reverse Flye

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoCRRZ3zRtI

The dumbbell reverse fly is a movement that primarily targets the muscles of the rear deltoids, which are often neglected in most back exercises.

It also involves some involvement from the rotator cuff muscles along with the trapezius and rhomboid muscles.

To Perform:

  • Position a bench in front of you and sit on it with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, palms facing your thighs.
  • Lean forward at the waist and let the dumbbells hang straight down below your shoulders.
  • With your shoulder blades retracted, lift the weights out to your sides in an arc until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause and then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

This exercise can also be performed in the standing position, although this leads to additional recruitment from the leg and core muscles.

8) Dumbbell Yates Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryxwNKu23OQ

The dumbbell yates row is a movement that primarily targets the muscles of the mid and upper back, including the trapezius and rhomboid muscles.

It is named after legendary English bodybuilder and Mr Olympia Dorian Yates who is credited with popularizing it.

He is attributed to having one of the best backs the sport of bodybuilding has ever seen.

This is sometimes referred to as dumbbell inverted rows

To Perform:

  • Stand and grab a pair of dumbbells in your hands, palms facing away from your thighs (supinated grip)
  • Lean forward at the waist and let the dumbbells hang straight down just above your knees.
  • With your shoulder blades retracted, row the dumbbells into your lower abdomen and obliques (outer sides of abdomen)
  • Pause and then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

The Yates Row changes secondary muscle emphasis away from forearms and more to the biceps and also reduces the distance the dumbbell needs to travel.

9) Dumbbell Good Morning

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1AC1gR5UG0

The dumbbell good morning is a movement that primarily targets the muscles of the posterior chain, which includes the hamstrings, glutes and lower back.

It is often used to improve flexibility and mobility in these areas, as well as increase strength and size.

To Perform:

  • The dumbbell good morning is performed using a single dumbbell.
  • To start, rest a dumbbell on a bench in front of you
  • Bend over and secure the dumbbell on your upper chest, using both arms to keep it stable and held close throughout.
  • Bend forward at the waist while keeping your back flat. You can keep your knees slightly bent during the motion.
  • Slowly return to the upright position.
  • Perform 10-15 repetitions and 1-2 working sets.

10) Dumbbell Wide Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq4XIl-eMfI

The dumbbell wide row is a movement that primarily targets the muscles of the middle and upper back, including the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscle groups.

It is performed by standing with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, arms extended out to your sides and palms facing you.

You then row the weights up towards your chest in a wide manner.

To Perform:

  • Stand with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, arms extended out to your sides, and palms facing you.
  • row the weights up wide and towards your chest, maintaining the position of the dumbbells parallel to the floor throughout.
  • Pause and then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position in a controlled motion
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

11) Plank Row

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4ROnUBVdLo

Given, these are two exercises that are tough on their own, but when combined? Napalm.

The dumbbell plank row is a combination exercise that targets the muscles of the abdominals, triceps, shoulders, and back.

It is performed by starting in a plank position with a pair of dumbbells in your hands on the floor.

To Perform:

  • Start in a plank position with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  • row one weight up towards your chest, maintaining the position of the weight parallel to the floor throughout.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat with the other weight.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

It is important to keep your core tight throughout the movement.

Owing to the difficult nature of this exercise, we recommend you only attempt it if you have a bit of training experience under your belt.

12) Dumbbell Woodchop

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b65s5BtdOEc

Have you ever attempted woodchopping in your life?

It is an intense activity that ignites your core muscles and back, along with your forearms and biceps.

In fact, it also improves your grip by default, as you simply can’t afford to have that axe fly out of your hands and go hurling across the sky.

This dumbbell exercise mimics that motion.

The dumbbell woodchop is a movement that targets the muscles of the abdominals, triceps, shoulders, and back.

It is performed by standing with a dumbbell in your hands, arms extended overhead to one side, and palms facing each other.

You then pivot your hips and chop the weights down towards one foot.

To Perform:

  • Stand with a dumbbell in your hands, arms extended overhead to one side, and palms facing each other.
  • Pivot your hips and chop the weights down towards one foot, maintaining a smooth arc throughout the motion.
  • Maintain a smooth movement and tempt throughout.
  • Repeat for 8-12 reps and 2-3 sets. Switch sides after each side.

This exercise is great for toning the often underworked abdominal oblique muscles and can stimulate the lats at an angle they are not accustomed to.

13) Incline Lat Pullovers

Watch Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owBLJTMuSmY

The dumbbell incline lat pullover is a movement that targets the muscles of the chest and lats, primarily.

It is performed by lying on your back on an incline bench with a dumbbell in your hands, arms extended overhead.

You then lower the weight down towards your upper chest in a smooth arc.

To Perform:

  • Lie on your back on an incline bench with a dumbbell in your hands, arms extended overhead.
  • Slowly contract the weight down towards your upper chest in a smooth arc, maintaining the position of the slight bend in your elbows throughout.
  • Pause and then lower the weight back to the starting position behind your head.
  • Perform 10-12 reps and 2-3 working sets.

The incline lat pullover is different from the flat version since it offers a slightly different degree of stimulation.

To be fair, this exercise is best performed with a cable extension as there is no loss of tension, but to counteract this with a dumbbell workout you should stop at the upper chest position and not go lower.

Putting It Together

Nobody said that you have to limit your back workout to using dumbbells alone.

In fact, you would be better served to utilize a variety of tools and equipment, if they are available.

However, in the absence of these, you can still forge a formidable back with only dumbbells. Keep in mind the back is a large muscle group and will require more stimulation than smaller body parts.

A good workout stacked will comprise up to 12 working sets for the back, hitting each part sufficiently.

Take care of your back- it can help determine your quality of life as you age.

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