The Best Dumbbell Exercises to Build a Big, Strong Back

IF YOU HAVE a balanced, well-structured workout plan, one of the highlights on your strength training calendar will be back day. Whether you take on the task of strengthening your upper body's posterior muscles with a session totally dedicated to the rear delts, traps, and lats like a bodybuilder or you focus on movement patterns and program a pull day within a larger push-pull-legs structure, giving your back muscles dedicated attention is essential for your posture, strength, aesthetics, and overall functionality.

The only question, then, is which types of tools should you use to target this important muscle group? While some classic back-builders use barbells (heavy rows and deadlifts), machines (lat pulldowns and machine rows), and even your bodyweight (pullups and inverted rows), you'll find a wide range of benefits by training your back muscles with dumbbell exercises. Above all, these essential strength training implements can offer something more than just about any other tool: accessibility.

But the benefits of dumbbell back exercises aren't only for beginners and people without access to other equipment. Experienced lifters can also use the implements for effective workouts, right alongside bodyweight and heavy barbell training. Dumbbells offer versatility that other implements can't—so dumbbell exercises should be a major staple in any comprehensive back muscle training split.

The Benefits of Dumbbell Back Exercises

●Great for rows

●Helps to establish better posture

●Allows for weight progression

●More accessible than other tools

Dumbbells allow you to work within a wide range of loads, which makes them a more approachable implement for beginners to back training. Pullups and chinups can have an extremely high barrier to entry for people who are just starting out due to strength and form demands, while barbell exercises can also be difficult for newbies for the same reasons. Better for you to be able to learn the movements with loads you can handle than struggle to complete a single rep, compensating on form and exposing yourself to potential injuries.

With a pair of dumbbells, you can build the back strength you need to eventually slay chinups and pullups, while also training the critical muscle groups that protect your shoulder blades and hone your posture.

That’s in part because dumbbells open your body up to do the row, which may be the single most critical back exercise out there. It’s an exercise that trains rhomboids, mid-back stabilizers, and your lats all at once—and it’s a key dumbbell exercise that helps offset life.

Think about your posture as you read this: You’re likely leaning forward just a bit, shoulders forward, back muscles loose. A row is a “horizontal” pulling exercise, which means it’ll pull your shoulders back toward your back on every rep, helping you emphasize shoulder blade squeeze. That’ll have you standing taller in a few weeks, and it’ll bulletproof you against shoulder injuries.

Adding dumbbell back exercises into your routines does all that—and helps you build the back muscle and strength you want, layering thickness in between your shoulder blades and throughout your upper back. That’s especially true once you embrace heavier-weight dumbbell back exercises, such as farmer’s carries and powerful dumbbell rows and incline rows.

What's more, dumbbells are more accessible for some exercisers than other types of gym equipment, like barbells or exercise machines; many people are much more likely to have access to a pair of dumbbells than heavy plates and machines that require gym memberships.

The Best Dumbbell Back Exercises

Start with these dumbbell back exercises, which offer a mix of accessibility and challenge.

Dumbbell Row

Why: The basic dumbbell row is one of the best exercises for your back, attacking both the lats and rhomboids. And if you do it right, focusing on keeping your hips and shoulders square to the ground, it'll build serious core strength, too. Just make sure not to round your back. One of the best parts about the dumbbell row: It's an exercise that you can eventually load up with serious weight, making it a key muscle-building move.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet at shoulder width apart in front of the bench. Push your butt back and lower your torso down, extending your off arm to rest your palm on the bench. Make sure your shoulders stay above your hips.

  • Grab the dumbbell with your working hand. Squeeze your glutes and abs to create full-body tension. Your back should be flat, with your head in a neutral position.

  • Squeeze your mid-back muscles to drive your elbow up, rowing the weight. Keep your shoulders level and avoid rotating your lower back.

  • Pause for a beat, then lower the weight back down.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Incline Row

Why: Not far behind the dumbbell row is the incline row, one of the strictest row variations there is. When doing standard dumbbell rows, it's easy to wind up letting your torso rock back and forth, creating momentum instead of moving the weight solely with muscle. The incline bench helps eliminate that as you glue our chest to the pad, while also changing the angle of pull just slightly, helping you attack your lower lats more.

How to Do It:

  • Start with your chest on an incline bench at a 45 degree angle, dumbbells held in your hands

  • Squeeze your abs and glutes to keep your core tight. Engage your mid-back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.

  • Pull your upper arms back to row the dumbbells to your chest. Emphasize the squeeze in your shoulder blades at the top of each rep.

  • Lower back down to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Elevated Plank Row

Why: Add a core training component to the basic row by holding a plank position throughout the set. You'll work your back muscles as you would with a standard dumbbell row, but you'll be challenged to fight against rotational forces to hold your elevated position on the bench. The end result is a handy exercise that allows you to pull double duty for a more complete workout.

How to Do It:

  • Get into a plank position, putting your weight on one forearm on a bench. Squeeze your core and glutes to keep your spine straight.

  • Grab your dumbbell with the other arm. Squeeze your back muscles to row up until the weight touches your ribcage, then hold it for a beat.

  • Lower down to the starting position, continuing to squeeze your back, core, and glutes to avoid falling out of balance.

  • Switch arms and repeat on the other side.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Dumbbell Pause Romanian Deadlift

Why: You might think of deadlifts as an exercise for your lower body, since the movement is so consequential for your glutes and hamstrings. That's not wrong—but deadlift variations target your entire posterior chain, which includes your spinal erectors, low back muscles, and even your bigger back muscles like your delts and traps. Importantly, you'll need to keep your upper body form perfect to avoid both energy leakage and injury when you perform deadlifts, making the back muscles an integral factor in a successful rep. This variation is an excellent option to fine-tune your technique, adding a pause at the halfway point. You'll need to create a ton of tension in your torso and lock in your upper back and shoulders to support the weight—giving you the back focus you're aiming for.

How to Do It:

  • Standing with you feet about shoulder-width apart, grab a pair of dumbbells from a bench or box.

  • Keep the dumbbells close to your sides, with your shoulders back, your core tight, and glutes squeezed.

  • Push your butt back as far as possible as you begin lowering your torso, keeping the dumbbells close to your shins—don’t let them hang too far forward.

  • Pause at the bottom for a count, then begin to stand back up.

  • Pause again once the weights reach knee-level. Make sure that your hips are still lower than your shoulders.

  • Stand up to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets for about 8 to 10 reps

Dumbbell Pullover

Why: This old-school bodybuilding staple allows your to target your lats, but also hits your chest, shoulders, and core. The key here is to work from the proper overhead position on the bench, keeping your ribcage from flaring as your work through the reps. Make sure that you stay within a healthy range of motion for your, without overextending your shoulders.

How to Do It:

  • Set up with your shoulders placed on the side of a weight bench, forming a 90 degree angle with your knees and the floor. Squeeze your abs and glutes to create tension and keep your ribcage from flaring.

  • Raise the dumbbell straight overhead, holding the top of the weight with both hands, and drive your shoulder blades into the bench. Drive the pits of your elbows forward to "turn on" your lats.

  • Slowly lower the dumbbell back over your head, keeping your elbows straight. Only descend as deep as your mobility allows.

  • Pull the weight back up to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Incline Pause Row

Why: Take the position from the incline row, then make the exercise even tougher with an isometric hold. If you follow the exact protocol in the video above, you'll also torch your core as you work unilaterally. But the back should be the major focus—and you should be able to really emphasize the squeeze in your back during the final round of rows after all the isometric work.

How to Do It:

  • Start on the incline bench in a strong front-facing position, resting your chest on the pad and bracing your glutes and core. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.

  • Squeeze your back to pull the weights up to your chest.

  • Hold that row squeeze with one arm in the top position. Perform 5 single-arm row reps using the other.

  • Lower both weights to the starting position. Row them both back up, the hold the row squeeze with the arm you had just used to work and perform 5 single-arm row rep on the opposite side.

  • Perform 5 pause row reps with both arms, holding the top position for a count on each rep before lowering to the start.

Sets and Reps: 4 rounds

Renegade Row

Why: The classic renegade row is a solid way to blast your entire upper body. You hammer your chest and triceps during the pushup phase of the movement. Then, as you press up and row the dumbbell toward your hip, you crush your abs and stimulate your lats and rhomboids, essentially finishing with a plank row.

How to Do It:

  • Start with a pair of dumbbells on the floor. Get into a high plank position with your feet about shoulder-width apart, holding the handles of the weights in each hand. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension.

  • Perform a pushup rep. After this, row one arm up to your chest, keeping your core engaged to prevent your torso from shifting.

  • Repeat the pushup, then perform the row with the other arm.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side

Towel-Grip Dumbbell Row

Why: Ratchet up the forearm and stability challenge of the standard dumbbell row with Samuel's towel dumbbell row. Mechanically, this seems a lot like a standard dumbbell row, but the towel adds two challenges. First, you'll need to squeeze the towel aggressively to hold the dumbbell. Second, you get to work on keeping the dumbbell balanced and level, which will mean you'll need to use a slower, more controlled pull on each rep and hone your mind-muscle connection in the process.

How to Do It:

  • Wrap the towel around the handle of the dumbbell.

  • Grab the towel with an overhand grip and position yourself to row, hinged at the waist with your free arm leaning against the top of the bench.

  • Squeeze your back to row the dumbbell straight up, keeping a tight grip on the towel to keep the weight parallel to the ground.

  • Control the weight back down, maintaining your position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Two Position Bent-Over Row

Why: The bent-over row is another solid exercise that allows you to target your back muscles. This mashup of two variations allows you to work from multiple positions. Start holding the weights with your palms in a neutral position, pull up, then pause and flare your elbows for the eccentric portion of the movement to overload the rear delts.

How to Do It:

  • Start holding your dumbbells in standard bent-over row position, core tight, knees bent slightly

  • Row both weights upwards, keeping your upper arms tight to your torso and your palms in neutral. Pause when you reach the top of the motion.

  • Keeping shoulder blades tight and making sure not to flex your traps, shift your elbows out to a 45-degree angle relative to torso, or slightly wider.

  • Slowly lower the weights, thinking of lowering for 2 to 3 counts

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Upright Row

Why: Lots of smart trainers will tell you to totally skip upright rows—and if they're talking about variations that use straight bars, we agree with them. But there is a solid case for the dumbbell version of the exercise to torch your rear delts, which allows you to avoid most of the dangerous shoulder internal rotation trainers are concerned about. In order to keep your shoulders safer, make sure that your elbows never rise above your shoulders.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells in a pronated position (palms facing in). Squeeze your glutes and engage your core.

  • Raise the dumbbells straight up (think vertical pull).

  • Once your elbows are slightly lower than your shoulders, pull back (think horizontal pull) and squeeze your shoulders for the row.

  • Only lift the weights to a position parallel to your shoulders.

  • Lower the weights back to the starting position with control.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

V-Taper Dumbbell Row Series

Why: The V-Taper Row Series will help you build your outer lats and also add size and depth to your rear delts. Here, you're mixing a traditional elbow-close-to-torso row with a row where your elbow flares outward. That flared-outward row will attack your rear delts, building much-needed mass behind your shoulders. The tempo used here will also blast your lats on the close rows, as you hold for a brief second.

How to Do It:

  • Set a bench to a 45 degree angle, so you can hinge at the hips and lean one arm on the headrest.

  • Hold a dumbbell in the other hand. Your feet should be squared, with your knees slightly bent. Squeeze your core to keep your spine straight as you lean over the bench.

  • Squeeze your back muscles to perform 2 row reps, flaring your elbow out. To do this, the hand holding the weight should be facing behind you.

  • After the flared reps, complete 1 traditional row rep with your elbow close to your body and your hand facing inward. Pause at the top of the rep for 1 second and squeeze your shoulders together before lowering to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 rounds

Farmer's Carry

Why: Another classic exercise, and a move that man's been doing since the beginning of time, the farmer's carry has you picking up heavy dumbbells and walking with them, typically either for time or distance. Either way, as you focus on squeezing your shoulder blades and tightening your abs, you build a bigger, stronger back (and a resilient body overall).

How to Do It:

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells, emphasizing a strong squeeze on the handles as you hold the weights at your sides.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension, and keep a neutral spine position with your gaze directed just in front of you.

  • Step forward and keep the tension in shoulders and core, making sure your ribs don't flare out. Stride intentionally as you walk forward.

Sets and Reps: Walk for 3 to 4 rounds of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off

Three-Way Elevated Plank Row

Why: The three-way elevated plank row is all about back muscle subtlety. You won't get to cheat much here, largely because most of your body is completely focused on maintaining solid elevated plank position. That means the "working" arm gets to pile up very focused back squeezes. By shifting wrist positions, you get to hit different parts of your back (as you also challenge your core in new ways): The elbow-flared position hits your rear delts, the standard elbow-close-to-torso row hits your lats and rhomboids, and the reverse-grip pull will focus in on your lower lats.

How to Do It:

  • Set up in an elevated plank position on top of the bench, placing your elbow and forearm on the surface for support. Squeeze your core and glutes throughout the series to keep your spinal position strong. Hold the dumbbell in your other arm.

  • Squeeze your back to row the weight up with your elbow flared out wide. Pause at the top for a count.

  • Row with your elbow close to your body, turning your palm inward so it faces your head. Pause at the top for a count.

  • Row with your elbow close to your body again, keeping your hand in position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 3 to 4 clusters per arm

TRX Plank Pause Row

Why: Think of the TRX plank pause row as a devastating challenge; you'll need an extra piece of equipment for it in the TRX. Once you have that, you get to establish an ultra-challenging TRX single-arm plank hold, which will carve your abs and obliques. From that position, you're rowing a dumbbell upwards; your lats and rhomboids will do this in near-complete isolation, in part because the rest of your body is almost completely focused on merely holding that devastating TRX plank.

How to Do It:

  • Start on the ground, holding one TRX handle in your right hand and the dumbbell in your left. Straighten out your legs with a wide base, bracing your core and glutes, to get into a single-arm plank position.

  • Keeping your right arm straight, squeeze your back to row the dumbbell in your left hand.

  • Pause at the top of the row for one beat, then lower the weight back down in a controlled motion.

  • After the prescribed work period, switch arms.

Sets and Reps: 3 rounds of 20 seconds per side

Chest-Supported Rear Delt Fly

Why: This might be a bit of a stretch to count as a dumbbell back exercise, since you'll more likely be hitting your delts on your shoulder-focused training day—but the focus is on the backside of your body. The move promotes some mid-back strength development too, so we'll allow it.

How to Do It:

  • Set an incline bench to a low angle. Sit on the bench holding a pair of dumbbells and lean down so that your chest rests on the back pad, facing toward the ground.

  • Plant your feet on the ground and squeeze your glutes and ab muscles; your face shouldn't be resting on the bench pad.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades to lift the weights out in a wide arc, keeping a slight bend in your elbows rather than fully straightening your arms. Keep the movement wide to maintain the focus on your rear delts, instead of slipping down into your lats.

  • Pause for a beat at the top, emphasizing the squeeze to your shoulder blades. Then, lower back down to the starting position with control.

Sets and Reps: Perform 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.

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