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September 29, 2021 10 min read
You don’t always have access to a pull-over, back extension, or row machine. If you want to build massive back muscles, you need to be ready to work out with nothing but dumbbells if that’s all you’ve got.
Luckily, you have plenty of back exercises to choose from. You can hit all the important muscle groups in your back and shoulders. Plus, dumbbells are a great way to practice unilateral exercises - meaning you can concentrate on one side of your body at a time to really put those muscles to the test.
Learn some of the best dumbbell back exercises with the list in this guide and throw a few into your weekly exercise routine to build muscle across your entire back.
There are 40 muscles on the human back. When you run through your back workout, you’ll be targeting the following muscles specifically:
Your traps are large muscles extending from the mid-back to the neck and stretching out on the back of both shoulders. It helps you maintain good posture and also powers rotation of the neck with the help of a few other muscles.
The trapezius is divided into three sections. The smallest section is the upper trapezius, which helps shrug the shoulders, rotate and extend the neck, and raise the arms. Just beneath that, you’ll find the middle trapezius, responsible for stabilizing the shoulders during arm movement and pulling back the shoulder blades. The middle traps are also activated when you put your arms behind you.
Finally, we have the lower trapezius. When you work these out, you get the coveted V shape beneath your shoulder blades. The lower traps stabilize your spine when you bend or twist and they also help lower the shoulders.
No back workout is complete without lat exercises. Your latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in the upper body, covering the entire lower back and stretching across the ribs and into the armpit. Working out your lats is how you get those sculpted wing muscles bodybuilders are famous for.
The lats are stabilizer muscles. Your back, shoulders, hips, and even neck are all supported by the strength of your lats. Lats also act on the shoulder joint, powering adduction and extension as well as partially supporting rotation.
Together with the glutes and erector spinae, your lats make up the posterior oblique sling.
The POS transfers energy from the upper body to the lower body to help stabilize the body and provide power for walking and other similar movements. Working out your lats is a great way to boost the amount of functional strength in your core and lower body.
Located beneath the trapezius, the rhomboids connect the scapula (shoulder blades) to the spine.
Two sections, the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor, work to lift, lower, and pull your shoulder blades back. They also stabilize the shoulder joint and help with arm movement.
When you do exercises that require you to pull both arms toward your body at the same time, you’re working out your rhomboids. Many triceps exercises can be tweaked to activate the rhomboids. For example, many trainers add a rhomboid pulse to the end of their triceps extensions to promote muscle growth in both the upper arm and upper back.
The three muscles just discussed - the trapezius, lats, and rhomboids - make up the majority of the superficial back muscles. More muscles lie deeper, but these three are the ones you can really pump up with exercise.
A fourth muscle called the levator scapulae runs along the back of your neck. Its job is to help lift the shoulder blades. The levator scapulae also plays a role in supporting the neck when you look down, which is why people who have bad posture and other unhealthy habits frequently feel soreness on either side of their neck,
Unlike the other three muscles, strengthening the levator scapulae is done primarily with stretching rather than working out. You should still be doing that to avoid neck pain, but we’re going to focus on back exercises for this guide.
Pair these moves with chest exercises on one day of your weekly workout plan to build total upper body strength and sculpt the muscles in your back. You can also supplement with bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups.
If there’s one exercise that’s earned its reputation as a back builder, it’s the single-arm dumbbell row. No dumbbell workout is complete without it - your lats do most of the work but your rhomboids and traps get some love too. You can also build out your rear delts for sculpted shoulders. It’s the unilateral answer to the bent-over row, a classic barbell exercise.
To do this exercise, it’s best to find a flat bench that you can place one hand and one knee on while you do your dumbbell rows. The side of your body that’s not on the bench is the one you’re going to target.
Get into the starting position by bending forward at the hip to place one knee and one hand on the bench. Keep your back straight. Pick up the dumbbell with your free hand and hold it with your arm fully extended.
Tuck your elbow into your side and pull the weight toward your hip until your elbow is bent and pointing toward the ceiling. Pull your shoulder blades together as the dumbbell comes back. Lower the weight slowly until you’re back in the starting position. Complete all your reps on one side before switching to the other.
Although the renegade row is one of the best dumbbell exercises for better posture and strengthens your core, back, and rear deltoids, it’s also without a doubt one of the most challenging. From the very beginning of the exercise, your core muscles have to stabilize and support your body weight in a plank position. If regular old push-ups are starting to bore you, try this one in your workout routine instead.
To start, grab a pair of dumbbells and get into a push-up position. Make a straight line from your neck to your heels. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart and the dumbbells are shoulder-width apart beneath your hands.
Engage your core, quads, and glutes. Then, rotate your shoulders out to activate your lats. Pull one dumbbell up on either side of your body the same way you would for a barbell row - tuck your elbow and pull the weight to your hip until your elbow is bent and facing the ceiling.
Hold the top position for a few seconds and then return the dumbbell to the floor. Repeat this lift on the other side of your body and keep going for 6 - 10 reps, depending on what you’re capable of and comfortable doing.
Your latissimus dorsi and pecs benefit the most from this exercise. It can be performed on a flat bench or you can do it on an incline bench for a wider range of motion and more muscle gains.
To get into the starting position, sit on one end of the bench and take a dumbbell in each hand. Your feet should be on the ground spaced apart slightly wider than the bench. Lean back until your back, neck, and head are all flat against the bench.
Extend your arms fully so that the dumbbells are directly above your chest. Slowly move them back and down until they’re in line with your head. Be careful not to overextend your muscles by letting the dumbbells get lower than your bodyline.
Hold this position for a few seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. If two weights are hard to manage, you can also hold one dumbbell with both hands.
Target your traps with this simple exercise. It’s a great way to fill intervals in your workout routine when you’re worn out from some of the more complicated exercises in this guide. Be aware that you can probably handle a bit more weight on a dumbbell shrug than with other exercises; you could also use resistance bands to make this a more intense workout.
Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing in toward your body. Engage your core and raise your shoulders as high as you can to activate your traps.
That’s it! Lower your shoulders and run through as many reps as you need to to tire out your traps.
The reverse dumbbell fly works out your rhomboids. Pair it with normal rows and dumbbell shrugs and make sure to stretch your neck and you’ll hit all the major superficial muscles in your back. Best of all, your rear delts also gain strength from this exercise.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Hinge forward at the hips kind of like you would at the very beginning of a deadlift. Get your chest nearly parallel to the floor.
Let the dumbbells hang straight down facing each other. Exhale and lift both out to either side until your arms are level with your torso. Bring your shoulder blades together to facilitate this move and hit your muscles better.
Return to the starting position to complete one rep. Run through at least ten of these in a set.
You might be used to seeing this exercise done with a kettlebell, but you can do it with dumbbells too. Find a space where you have room to walk a bit before you start running through your farmer’s walks.
Not only will your traps build strength with this exercise, but lower-body muscle groups like the hamstrings will as well. Take a dumbbell in each hand and hold them at your hips. You might be tempted to pick up really heavy ones because the farmer’s walk is comparatively simple, but you should start with light dumbbells while you’re still learning the form.
Stand tall with your shoulders pulled back. Walk forward for ten concentrated steps. Take it slow to feel the burn, don’t walk at your normal pain. Once you’ve done all the steps in one direction, turn around and walk back to your starting point.
You’ll likely be able to do tons of reps. Limit yourself to 4 sets and if it’s really easy you can always increase the weight little by little across routines.
This is a great move for a home workout where you (hopefully) won’t be as concerned about how clean the floor is. Invest in a yoga mat or another comfortable layer between you and the hard ground if you plan on having the prone lateral raise in your workout routine regularly.
Trust us, it’s worth it for the rhomboid strength gains.
Lie on your stomach on a yoga mat with a dumbbell in each hand. Your feet should still be shoulder-width apart. Let your forehead rest on the ground.Stretch your arms out completely.
Raise them off the floor until they’re level with your shoulders. Your head will lift slightly as well. Push your shoulder blades together so you can lift the dumbbells behind you.Hold the top of the movement and then return to the starting position to complete one rep.
This variation on the standing dumbbell row adds variation and will keep your lats from adjusting to the movement, thus encouraging muscle damage and hypertrophy that will lead to greater muscle mass.
You’re going to start this one off just like you would start the normal standing dumbbell row. Stand with a dumbbell in front of each thigh with your palms facing your body. Lean forward by hinging at the waist until your chest is almost parallel with the ground.
The big difference with the wide row is that you aren’t going to worry about tucking your elbows into your sides. Imagine you have a wide grip on a barbell to understand how far out your elbows should be.
The dumbbells are going to move in small arcs and your elbows should wind up near a ninety-degree angle at the top of the move. Lift until you’re in that position and then return to the starting position to complete one rep.
Target the lower part of your traps with this exercise. It’s also a good shoulder builder.Take a pair of dumbbells in your hands and scoot your glutes out like you’re trying to sit down in a chair.
Get into a half-squat position with your knees slightly bent and hinge forward at the waist so you can hold both dumbbells between your legs near the knees.
Lift both dumbbells simultaneously until your arms are straight out and level with your head. They should be spread into a Y shape. Lower the weights back to the starting position and keep going for 10 - 15 reps.
Mimic the classic deadlift with this dumbbell exercise and your rear delts will build strength alongside the muscles of your upper back. Best of all, it combines strength across muscle groups to help them function together better as a team.
You can also do this move with two kettlebells if that’s what you have on hand. To start, take a pair of dumbbells and put them on the ground near your feet. Hinge forward at the hips like you were going to do a straight leg deadlift and then grab each dumbbell.
Pull the weight toward your hips so that your elbows go out like they would in a row, then return them to where they started. Don’t put them back on the ground.
Next, straighten your back until you’re standing up straight. Then hinge forward to return to the bent-over position. That’s one complete rep. Lift the weights to your hip to start the next one.
Toning your back is desirable for anyone who wants a sculpted bod. It’s also critical to protect your spine and neck. Plus, your back muscles are imperative for some of the most common daily functions like walking and running.
If you don’t have access to heavy gym equipment that will let you hit your lats, rhomboids, and traps, you can use dumbbells and still get some stellar results. Pay attention to the step-by-step instructions in this back dumbbell workout guide and you’ll start to see strength gains and greater tone detail in no time.
For well-rounded strength, make sure to pair them with the right arm and shoulder exercises.
Build all your upper-body muscles with that kind of weekly routine and look forward to an eye-catching beach body and a much lower likelihood for injury in some of the most vulnerable joints in the upper body.