16 Dumbbell Exercises to Build a Big, Strong Back
2023/09/10

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WHEN IT COMES to , exercises that challenge you to move your own bodyweight like the and heavy duty barbell movements like the or even the are often the first place many people start. That's great; these types of exercises can be effective for training major muscles in your back and packing on mass. Hauling your head to or above the bar for rep after rep and stacking multiple plates onto the bar for heavyweight pulls looks impressive, too. But when it comes to accessible exercises just about anyone can do, you'll be better off grabbing a set of dumbbells for your back workouts.

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.

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But the benefits of dumbbell back exercises aren't only for beginners. 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

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.

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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, midback 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.

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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.

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The Best Dumbbell Back Exercises

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

Dumbbell Row

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. Start with 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

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Incline Row

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. The incline bench also changes the angle of pull just slightly, helping you attack your lower lats more. Start with 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

Elevated Plank Row

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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.

Dumbbell Pause Romanian Deadlift

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

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, 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.

Dumbbell Pullover

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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.

Elevated Plank Row Hold

The elevated plank row hold, a move from fitness director , levels up the elevated plank row, helping you build a strong mind-muscle connection with your back muscles while smashing your core. After establishing a sturdy elevated plank position, you'll row a dumbbell upwards and hold. But don't let it be a mere hold; focus on continuing to pull upwards for the duration of the hold.

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Incline Pause Row

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.

Half-Iso Incline Row Countup Series

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Want to level up the incline row even further? Do it with the half-iso incline row countup series, which teaches your back muscles how to continue generating force even when they've pulled your arms back as far as they can. Understanding this principle is key to building back strength, and it'll leave your lats and rhomboids with a major back burn.

Renegade Row

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. A good starting point here: 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side.

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Towel-Grip Dumbbell Row

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.

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Two Position Bent-Over Row

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.

Upright Row

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.

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V-Taper Dumbbell Row Series

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.

Farmer's Carry

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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).

Three-Way Elevated Plank Row

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.

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TRX Plank Pause Row

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.

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