6 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises For Definition And Strength

Dumbbells also known as free weights, are one of the best training implements to help improve strength, balance, coordination, core stability, and build more muscle mass. Typically, back day consists of a mix between isolated movements, and compound lifts, using cable pulleys, machines, and free weights. Dumbbells are often neglected on back day, however adding more dumbbell back exercises to your workout can help build more functional strength and improve athletic performance in a big way.

Back Anatomy 

Your back consist of several muscles which are divided into three distinct groups; superficial, intermediate, and deeper internal muscles also known as your intrinsic muscles. 

Trapezius 

The trapezius, or "traps" are a long, triangular shaped superficial muscle, which creates a trapezius shape on the upper back. The proximal region connects from the skull, with its most distal portion from the cervical to lower thoracic spine. Back workouts that target the trapezius, include vertical row, dumbbell snatch, or cable vertical row.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi or “lats” originate from the lower part of the back, where it covers a wide area and stretches to form the desired V-taper. The lats have a broad origin – arising from the thoracic spine between T6-T12, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, and the inferior three ribs. Back exercises such as the lat pull down, seated rows and bent over row, will target the latissimus dorse and middle back or rhomboids. 

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae are a small strap-like muscle. It begins in the neck and descends to attach to the scapula.

Rhomboids

Rhomboids are split into two muscles, the rhomboid major and minor. The rhomboid minor is situated superiorly to the major. The major starts from the spinous processes of T2-T5 vertebrae, while the minor originates at the bottom of the cervical spine at C7. Seated and bent over rows target the middle back and stimulate the rhomboids.

Dumbbell Back Exercises Benefits

Training with dumbbells have many benefits, as opposed to only training with machines, or cables. You may not be able to lift the same weight, however, the benefits stretch futher than just adding more muscle mass and strength. 

1. Improved Functional Strength

Machines are designed to target and isolate specific muscles. As a result, these movements, are not commonly found in normal every day human movement. Functional strength, is based upon the your biomechanics, with a direct purpose of training and building strength for human movement. Moving weight with two implements, such as dumbbells recruits more muscles, such as your core, and additional joints, to help stabilize the weight, like you would in everyday movement patterns. 

2. Builds More Muscle Mass

Resistance training will help you build strength and more muscle mass, despite if you use dumbbells or not. Constantly contracting your muscles under stress or heavy loads, for a repeated number of reps, consistently, will initiate the muscle building process, muscle protein synthesis, and signal your body to develop more muscle tissue. As a result, physical trauma or the act of lifting weight, will help you develop more muscle, to adequately recover and adapt to that stress.

3. Balance And Coordination

Dumbbells actively recruit more core strength and midline stability, which results in better muscle coordination and balance. Core stability, coordination, and strength is needed to perform everyday activities, as well as help improve athletic performance. 

6 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted a study to evaluate the muscle stimulation of 8 different back exercises on multiple muscle groups in the back, including the middle trapezius, lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, and erector spinae. The results indicated that several row variations specifically the inverted row, seated row, and bent over row elicited the greatest back stimulation [R]. The more simulation from isolation, the more muscle mass and definition you'll gain.

1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 

The single arm dumbbell row is a unilateral isotonic exercise, meaning only one side of the body is used in order to product muscle contraction. Traditionally, the single arm dumbbell row is performed kneeling with one knee on a bench, however you can also bend with one arm resting on your knee while you row as well. The single-arm dumbbell row performed on a bench row will provide more stabilization to lift heavier loads by providing optimal core and spinal stabilization. The main targeted muscle group during a single arm dumbbell row is the latissimus dorsi (Lats). This movement is used for isolated muscle contraction and typically performed with heavier loads and less reps.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row Variations 

  • Bent Over Dumbbell Row
  • Close Grip Bent Over Row
  • Single-Arm Cable Row
  • Wide Grip Bent Over Row

How To Single Arm Dumbbell Row

  • Place your knee on the bench, with your opposing foot firmly planted into the ground, and your back at a 90-degree angle.
  • Grab the dumbbell with your hand opposite of the knee on the bench.
  • Place your opposing hand on the bench gripping the side outside of our knee
  • Look straight ahead and let the dumbbell hand, stretching your lat and shoulders.
  • Pull the weight back, with your hand placed firmly on the handle and pull keeping your elbow tight and tucked close to your body, keeping your back straight avoiding any additional movement.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blade and contract, holding for 1-2 seconds.
  • Return the dumbbell slowly with control, until you feel a stretch in your lat, and shoulder keeping your back straight, then repeat.

2. Bent Over Dumbbell Row 

Research investigating muscle activation amongst specific back row variations, shows that the bent over row, elicits more muscle activation from the upper to lower back, resulting in better performance and strength, than similar back exercises [R]. Although this exercise provides more muscle activation, it is not recommended to those that have previous back injuries, as it does induce larger spinal load, than other variations such as the inverted row and seated cable row.

What's great about the alternating bent over row, is that it stimulates and contracts your upper and mid lats, while also increasing intensity and tempo, burning more calories, in each set. 

Bent Over Dumbbell Row Variations 

  • Bent Over Dumbbell Row
  • Close Grip Bent Over Row
  • Supinated Grip Bent Over Row
  • Single-Arm Cable Row
  • Wide Grip Bent Over Row
  • Bent Over Cable Row

How To Do Bent Over Dumbbell Row

  • Slightly bend you knees, bend down and grab two dumbbells palms facing toward you.
  • Bend over at 45 degrees, with your back straight.
  • Brace your core, take a deep breath in and slowly lift both dumbbells, keeping your elbows close to your sides.
  • As you contract, slightly rotate the wrists and dumbbells away from your to capture maximum range of motion, bringing your elbows all the way back.
  • Slowly reverse the movement and come back to hanging position.
  • Repeat for desired reps 

3. Dumbbell Upright Row (Vertical Row)

The upright or vertical row emphasizes the upper traps and deltoids as well as the rhomboids. This movement is performed in isolation within bodybuilding programs and resistance training protocols. It’s also emphasized in movements such as the dumbbell snatch and the barbell snatch often performed in high intensity functional training programs and CrossFit.

Dumbbell Upright Row Variations

  • Barbell Upright Row
  • Single-Arm Dumbbell Upright Row
  • Kettlebell Upright Row
  • Cable Upright Row

How To Dumbbell Upright Row

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip with your palms facing toward you.
  • Roll your shoulders back and brace your core to isolate your traps and top of the deltoids.
  • Slowly inhale and bring the dumbbells straight up, like a string is attached to the top of your hands pulling them all the way up along and close to your body, as if you were a puppet.
  • When you get to the top of the movement, your elbows should be flared out, contracting your traps.
  • Hold, then release back to starting position.

4. Dumbbell Renegade Row

The dumbbell renegade row is a dynamic functional strength training movement. Holding a plank position, with your hands resting on two dumbbells, you will perform an alternating dumbbell row. As a result, you are effectively training and strengthening your core stability, improving balance and midline strength while building more back strength and mass.

How To Dumbbell Renegade Row

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells and get into pushup or plank position, in a static hold. 
  • Lock your shoulders in place and set your feed to a wide stance, this will help with stability
  • Pull one arm up at a time, while the other stabilizes your body and brace your core. 
  • Pull one arm and row with your elbow close to your side and the hip, retracting your scapulae and shoulder back.
  • Work on isolating your rhomboids and delts, and hold once you get to the top of the movement, for a one second count, then lower the dumbbell back to the ground and switch sides. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

5. Seated Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly

The seated dumbbell rear delt fly is a must have in any exercise program or back day training split. The coveted shoulder cut that makes every tank top go from good to great is what the rear delt fly is made to do. 

Seated Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly Variations

  • Cable Rear Delt Fly
  • Standing Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly

How To Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly

  • Seated on the end of bench, grab two light weight dumbbells, that you can use for volume.
  • Bending over, with your chest to your knees and thighs, place the dumbbells behind your heel under at the end of the bench. 
  • Without using momentum bring both arms up at the same time, limiting your upper body movement. 
  • Contract your scapulae and shoulder blades squeezing at the top of the movement, release and bring your arms back to starting position
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

6. Incline Dumbbell Row

The incline dumbbell row is a great dumbbell back exercise to target your lats and upper back. This movement can also help alleviate the pressure placed on your lower back and trunk, when in the bent over position, which can cause significant discomfort. 

How To Incline Dumbbell Row

  • Set the incline to a 45 degree angle and gently rest your chest on the bench
  • Grab a pair of dumbbells with your arms resting at your sides and hanging freely.
  • Slowly retract your scapulae and bring your elbows high along your sides until you reach full range of motion. 
  • Hold at the top of the lift, then release
  • Repeat for prescribed number of reps.

Dumbbell Back Exercises: Takeaway

If you are looking to add more variety and functional strength training movements, dumbbells can help improve total body strength, in addition to core strength, midline stability, balance, and coordination. 


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