The 9 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises To Build Strength

Our expert team has put together a complete back workout using nothing but dumbbells

There are quite a number of dumbbell exercises for back muscles, and you can typically put together a fairly complete back workout beyond bodyweight exercises and pullups with just a pair of adjustable dumbbells.

So, what are the best dumbbell back exercises? How do you program an effective dumbbell back workout for strength and hypertrophy?

In this article, we will discuss how to structure back workouts with dumbbells and provide step-by-step instructions for the following dumbbell back exercises to build muscle and strength for all of the major muscles in your back and upper body:

Let’s dive into the best back workout! 

A back dumbbell exercise pullover.

How Grip Position Affects Muscles Targeted

When you are doing dumbbell back workouts, the grip position1 Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of Grip Width on Muscle Strength and Activation in the Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(4), 1135–1142. https://doi.org/10.1097/jsc.0000000000000232 that you use for different dumbbell back exercises will affect the specific back muscles and muscle groups that you are targeting.

An underhand grip primarily targets the lats (latissimus dorsi) and biceps, so underhand dumbbell back exercises tend to feel easier since the involvement of the biceps helps offset the workload on your back muscles.

An overhand grip places the emphasis on the traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, teres major in the rotator cuff, and brachioradialis in the forearms.

A neutral grip tends to target most of the back muscles evenly.

How you position your body also affects the muscles targeted during dumbbell back exercises.

When you hinge your hips and bring your torso roughly parallel to the ground, you will emphasize the involvement of your mid-back muscles and spinae erector.

The 9 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises To Build Strength 1

A 45-degree angle for back exercises with dumbbells works the traps (trapezius), rhomboids, rear delts (posterior deltoids), teres major, and mid and upper lats.

Standing upright primarily activates the traps and posterior deltoids. 

With dumbbell back workouts, if you are looking to increase strength, work up to performing 2-6 sets, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The Ultimate Dumbbell Back Workout

Here are some of the best back exercises with a pair of dumbbells:

#1: Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows

The bent-over row exercise is a classic back-strengthening exercise for the lats.

Here are the steps:

  1. Stand with feet with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat and neutral spine.
  3. Reach down and grab the dumbbells with your palms facing one another.
  4. Pull the weights up to your stomach by bending your elbows and retracting and dropping your shoulder blades, maintaining the hinge at your hips throughout the exercise. Move dumbells through the shoulder’s full range of motion.
  5. Pause at the top position for a full breath.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down until your elbows are fully extended.

#2: Dumbbell Single-Arm Bent-Over Rows

You can also perform the bent-over row as a unilateral exercise with a single exercise. Make sure to do this exercise on both sides to avoid muscle imbalances.

  1. Stagger your stance and brace your body by placing the non-working arm on the end of a weight bench.
  2. Make sure to keep your core tight and your shoulders and hips square. 
  3. Hold the top position, squeezing your lats before lowering the weights back down.

#3: Dumbbell Yates Rows

Even though this back exercise is typically performed with a barbell, you can also perform the Yates row with dumbbells whilst maintaining proper form.

This variation on the standard bent-over row is named after the legendary Doran Yates, a six-time Mr. Olympia winner.

One of the benefits of this dumbbell back exercise is that your torso is slightly more upright relative to the standard bent-over row, which puts less stress on your lower back.

Here are the steps for how to perform this back exercise with dumbbells:

  1. Set a pair of heavy dumbbells on a weight bench; this is an ideal dumbbell back exercise for strength and hypertrophy, so it will behoove you to use a weight that is quite challenging for 4 to 10 reps max.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in your knees. Hinge forward until your torso is roughly 30° bent over from the upright position rather than the 45° angle that you typically strive for with a conventional bent-over dumbbell or barbell row.
  3. Make sure to keep your chest up, back straight, shoulders down, and glutes and abs engaged throughout the duration of the movement.
  4. Grab a dumbbell in each hand, using a neutral grip such that your palm faces inward towards your hip.
  5. Row the dumbbells up by pulling your elbows towards the ceiling as you flex them, making sure to retract your shoulder blades and squeeze them together behind you to activate your traps, rhomboids, and lats.
  6. Pause at the top of the movement and think about contracting your back muscles.
  7. As slowly as possible, lower the weight back down by straightening your elbows and allowing your shoulder blades to protract gradually.

#4: Dumbbells Shrugs

Moving beyond row variations, shrugs are one of the best exercises for your upper traps.

Here is how to perform shrugs:

  1. Stand upright with your chest up, shoulders down, and chin tucked.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms down by your sides and palms facing your thighs (neutral grip).
  3. Squeeze your upper traps to lift your shoulders up towards your ears as high as possible.
  4. Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, and then slowly lower your shoulders back down.

#5: Dumbbell Renegade Rows With a Push-Up

This one’s a winner from a strong back. An almost full body dumbbell back exercise combines a push exercise (for the chest and anterior deltoids) with a pull exercise (for the rest of your back).

Here are the steps for how to perform this dumbbell back exercise:

  1. Place your hands on the handles of hex dumbbells slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing one another in a plank position. The long sides of the dumbbell should be parallel.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower your chest to just above the ground so that you’re sinking lower than you would if your hands were flat on the ground.
  3. Press through your hands to lift your body back up until your elbows are extended but not fully locked out.
  4. Then, shift your weight into one hand while you lift the other arm off the ground, bending your elbow to row the dumbbell up alongside your torso. Make sure to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor by engaging your glutes and abs.
  5. Slowly lower the weight back down and then perform another push-up.
  6. Alternate arms for the row after each push-up.
  7. Repeat for 8-10 reps per side.

#6: Kroc Rows

If you are performing dumbbell back workouts for strength and you are trying to increase your 1RM for the deadlift or back exercises, you should consider adding Kroc rows variations to your dumbbell back workouts.

The Kroc row is a variation of the single-arm dumbbell row that involves using a very heavy dumbbell, which can ultimately help you increase back strength and muscle mass.

The movement pattern allows you to “cheat“ on the basic single-arm dumbbell row so that you can lift more weight.

For this reason, this is an advanced dumbbell back exercise that should not be taken on by beginners. You should master the basics and develop a deep understanding of the proper technique for a regular dumbbell row before adding Kroc rows to your dumbbell back workouts.

Here are the steps for this dumbbell back exercise:

  1. Set up as you normally would for a single-arm dumbbell row, hinging your hips so that your torso is somewhere between a 30- and 45-degree angle relative to the floor.
  2. To increase your stability, stagger your stance so that your left leg is in front and your right leg is stepped back behind your body.
  3. Hold the dumbbell in your right hand with a neutral grip, such that your palm is facing your hip. You may need to use lifting straps to help you lift the dumbbell up.
  4. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your chest up to row the dumbbell up. You may need to use momentum via a hip drive to help hoist the weight. Focus on using the muscles in your back rather than your biceps.
  5. Lower the dumbbell as slowly as possible.

#7: Dumbbell Seal Rows

One of the best upper back exercises is the dumbbell seal row. Lying in the prone position on an incline bench helps you activate your rhomboids.

The result is that the movement becomes a much more effective exercise for upper back muscles.

Here are the steps for how to perform this dumbbell back exercise:

  1. Prop up a weight bench on a stack of bumper plates or on plyometrics boxes or steps so that when you lie face down with your chest supported, you can extend your arms fully without having them touching the ground.
  2. Grip the dumbbells with a neutral grip so that your palms are facing one another underneath the bench.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and upper back as you think about bringing your shoulder blades together, and pull your elbows towards your hips until the dumbbells are as high as they can go and your shoulder blades are fully retracted. 
  4. Slowly lower the weights back down, extending your arms all the way without allowing the dumbbells to come to rest on the floor between reps.

#8: Dumbbell Reverse Fly

One of the best dumbbell back exercises for the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and middle traps is the reverse fly.

It’s also an excellent exercise to help combat poor posture and back pain—tightness in the muscles of the chest and weakness in the muscles of the upper back.

Here are the steps for how to perform this back exercise with dumbbells:

  1. Stand upright with good posture and your feet hip-width apart, holding one dumbbell in each hand, arms extended, and your palms facing your body.
  2. Sit your hips back so that you can hinge your entire torso forward, almost facing the floor. Make sure that you are hinging from the hips and not rounding your back. 
  3. Try to think about pressing your chest up even though you are leaning forward. 
  4. Lift your arms out to the sides of your body and back as if flapping your wings like a bird. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as much as possible.
  5. Hold the squeeze at the top position for 1 to 2 seconds.
  6. Slowly lower the weights back down until they meet together under your body, with your arms hanging straight down below your chest.

#9: Dumbbell Pullovers

Even though the dumbbell pullover exercise is generally included in dumbbell chest workouts, it is also a great dumbbell back exercise since it works your upper and outer lats.

These are the steps for how to perform this dumbbell back exercise:

  1. Place your upper back on the weight bench and bridge your body off the side so that you are perpendicular to the bench and your lower back, hips, and head are off the bench. Your feet should be flat on the ground, and your knees should be bent 90°.
  2. Hold a single dumbbell with both hands straight up over your chest such that the handle of the dumbbell is parallel to the long axis of your body and the ends of the dumbbell are pointing towards your feet and head.
  3. Slowly lower the weight down behind your head, keeping your arms virtually straight with your elbows unlocked.
  4. When you cannot lower the dumbbell any further, and you feel a strong stretch in your triceps and chest, pause and then reverse the motion.
  5. Squeeze your lats to help pull the dumbbell back up to the starting position.

There you have it! Our complete back workout with dumbbells for your next back session.

For even more exercises for your lats, check out our guide here.

A dumbbell row.

References

  • 1
    Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of Grip Width on Muscle Strength and Activation in the Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(4), 1135–1142. https://doi.org/10.1097/jsc.0000000000000232
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.