Developing a wide, powerful back is an essential part of complete physique development. The tools that most people use to do it are cables, pulley machines, and barbells. But what if you’ve only got access to dumbbells?
If you’re working out at home and only have access to dumbbells, you can still get an awesome back workout. In this article, I lay out the 7 best dumbbell back exercises to build wide, thick lats, powerful traps, and rhomboids.
Anatomy of Back Muscles
When most people think of training their back, they are talking about that latissimus dorsi, or lats. While this is certainly the largest muscle in the back, it is not the only one. In terms of physical development, the key muscles of the back are:
Covering two thirds of your back, the lats originate on the spine, scapula and pelvis and insert on the upper-inner part of the humerus (upper arm bone). The muscle fibers run diagonally so that, when developed, give a ‘V’ shape to the torso. The function of the lats is to pull the upper arm down and in toward the hip.
The trapezius, or traps, are the second largest muscle of the back. It covers a third of the back, from the base of the neck down to the mid-spine and the outer edge of one scapula to the outer edge of the other. The muscle forms a kite shape. Its function is to draw the shoulder blades together and to shrug your shoulders toward your ears.
The rhomboids are located under the traps and are made up of two muscles; the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. The function of this muscle group is to assist the traps in drawing in the scapula and rolling the shoulders.
Benefits of Back Workout with Dumbbells
- Dumbbells require your muscles to work harder to stabilize the body.
- Dumbbells allow you to work the back muscles unilaterally, so you can focus on each side of the lats, traps and rhomboids individually. That allows you to balance out your muscle and strength levels and achieve greater muscle isolation.
- A quality set of dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion in comparison to barbells.
You can build a complete gym right in your own home for less than you think.
Tips for Back Workout with Dumbbells
Since you cannot see the muscle you are training, working your back demands a stronger mind-muscle connection than working any other portion of your body. Knowing precisely which area of the back each exercise targets will help you concentrate solely on contracting and extending that area while performing the action.
Additionally, it’s crucial to avoid letting momentum influence your back movements. Isolating the active muscle group is key to working it optimally. Do not use a weight that forces you to cheat by swinging or bucking your hips to get the dumbbell up.
Don’t have access to dumbbells? You can exercise your back with some resistance bands.
6 Best Back Workouts with Dumbbells
Here are six extremely effective back exercises using dumbbells. You’ll also need a pull up bar and a towel for a couple of the movements.
Incline Dumbbell Row
The incline dumbbell row is a stricter version of the standard barbell row that prevents you from using momentum to cheat the weight up. Because your upper body is supported by the bench, you are forced to rely solely on the muscles of your back to do the work.
- Position dumbbells at the end of a bench that is positioned at a 30-degree incline.
- Lie on the bench face down so that your hands are hanging down towards the weights. Your feet should be pushed into the floor.
- Reach down and take hold of the dumbbells, holding them in a psalm facing each other grip.
- Pull the weights up to the level of your ribcage, pausing in the top position as you contract tightly to engage the lats.
- Resist the pull of gravity as you lower the weight back to the start position.
Dumbbell Pull Ups
The pull up is one of the most effective overall back development exercises that you can do. As well as directly working the lats, it also hits the rhomboids and upper traps as well as the biceps. This is a great exercise to develop upper body strength. In this version of the pull up you add extra resistance by strapping a dumbbell to your waist. This is an advanced version of the pull up. Do not try it until you can do 15 solid reps with no added weight.
- Place a weight belt around your waist and attach a dumbbell to it with the aid of a chain.
- Hang from a pull up bar with your hands just a bit wider than shoulder width apart and palms facing away from you.
- Flare out your scapulae as you open your chest.
- Pull through the lats as you come up to the bar – aim for your chest to reach the bar as you arch slightly backwards.
- Hold the top position as you squeeze your lats.
- Lower under control, resisting the force of gravity.
Did you know a strong back helps with your bench press?
Single Arm Bent Over Row
This exercise is performed much like a barbell bent over row, except that you only do one arm at a time. However, by working one arm at a time, you are able to benefit from unilateral training, which allows you to better focus on each side of the lats. You will also be slightly stronger when you work with one dumbbell at a time.
- Stand tall with a dumbbell in your right and feet shoulder width apart.
- Hinge your hips as you descend into a position where your knees are bent and your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
- Drop your shoulders and activate your lats. Now pull your right hand up to your ribcage, squeezing the lays in the process. Keep your torso in the same position throughout the movement.
- Lower under control to the start position.
The dumbbell pullover is a latissimus dorsi dominant movement, but because of the positioning of the body, the triceps and core are involved. When lowering the weight behind your head, be aware that your lower body wants to come off the bench. It’s ok if it raises off the bench a bit, but try to keep it down and only allow your arms to go back as far as your lower back and core stay strong.
- While sitting on a weight bench, grab the very bottom of a dumbbell with your hands in a triangle shape.
- Lie back on the bench and lift your hands straight above your chest, keeping your arms straight.
- Slowly lower the weight directly behind your head without bending the elbows, as if you were going to set it on the floor behind you. Only go as far as you feel your shoulders can handle.
- Slowly reverse the movement to bring the weight back to the start position.
Note: It may be more comfortable to keep a slight bend in the elbows. Just be sure not to excessively bend them or you will transfer the focus to the biceps.
Here are some super effective dynamic stretches to speed up your post workout recovery.
Towel Grip Dumbbell Row
The towel grip dumbbell row is a variation that allows you to really work the forearms as well as the lats and biceps. You have to really squeeze the towel to keep your control over the weight and you need to recruit stabilizer muscles to stop the dumbbell from moving around.
- Position yourself with the left knee and left palm on a weight bench and place a dumbbell on the floor underneath you. Your right leg should be slightly bent and your back flat.
- Hang your right arm down in front of you at full extension with a towel on your hand. Wrap the towel around the handle of the dumbbell and grab the ends of the towel in a fist grip.
- Pull the weight up to your chest.
- When the weight is in the top position, pause and squeeze your lats.
- Slowly return to the start position – do not let the weight pull you down.
The renegade row is performed in the high plank position, making it easier on the lower back than many rowing movements. This position requires a great deal of core and shoulder recruitment, making this a very good exercise to target your stability muscles.
- Assume a high plank position with a pair of dumbbells in your hands..
- With your body in a straight line and your core tight, row the right hand dumbbell up to your rib cage. Lower and repeat on the opposite side.
- Alternate your reps from side to side to complete your rep count.
Back Workout FAQ
How many reps should I do when working my back?
For the best results in terms of strength and muscle development, we recommend doing a wide rep range where you pyramid down from a high of 15 to a low 6. On each succeeding set, use a slightly heavier dumbbell. Here is a four set rep scheme that work well:
- Set One – 15 reps
- Set Two – 10 reps
- Set Three – 8 reps
- Set four – 6 reps
What is the best exercise to work the lats?
The best exercise to work the lats is the one arm lat pull-in. The exercise is done on a cable pulley machine just like a lat pulldown, but you are doing it one arm at a time. This allows you to pull your elbow on and down toward the hip, which more perfectly follows the direction and function of the muscle fibers.
Check out the 7 best dumbbell workouts for the chest.