11 Dumbbell Back Workouts

Man about to do a dumbbell row

Fitness experts love to argue about the pros and cons of using different training tools. Some believe that resistance machines are best, while others are unbendable fans of free weights. Some people think that calisthenic or bodyweight exercises produce the best results.

Such arguments are pointless!

Your body cannot differentiate between different training tools; it just knows tension and work. Providing the exercise that you are doing is hard enough, and you do it often enough, it will produce results.

Doing push-ups, barbell bench presses, or using a state-of-the-art chest press machine will all strengthen and develop your chest, shoulders, and triceps.

That said, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to choose one training tool and use it exclusively. Stuck on a desert island with no workout equipment? You’ll have to rely on bodyweight exercises to stay in shape.

If you train at home, that may mean you only have space to work out with dumbbells.

In this article, we reveal the 11 best dumbbell back workouts. That doesn’t mean that working out with dumbbells is your best option, just that if you’ve got dumbbells to use, you might as well get the best results from your workouts by using these awesome exercises.

11 Dumbbell Back Workouts

The Benefits of Training with Dumbbells

Woman about to do a dumbbell workout in the gym

Getting called a dumbbell used to be a common insult. It meant you were as clever or as useful as an inert lump of iron.

However, dumbbells are anything but dumb and are very useful and versatile training tools.

The benefits of working out with dumbbells include:

Identify and fix left to right strength imbalances

While it’s normal to have one arm or leg stronger than the other, large imbalances can affect how you look, feel, and perform. Using dumbbells means you’ll spot any such differences and then fix them.

Less Joint Stress

Using dumbbells means you aren’t locked into a fixed movement path, which helps take stress off your joints. If you find a barbell or machine exercise hurts your elbows or shoulders, the same exercise done with dumbbells may be more comfortable.

Better Balance and Coordination

Using two dumbbells instead of a barbell or machine requires and develops better balance and coordination. Dumbbell exercises are usually more functional than the same exercise done using a single bar or machine.

Less Space

Dumbbells take up a lot less space than a 7-foot barbell or strength training machine. Both in use and for storage, dumbbells are more compact and better for most home exercisers.

Versatile

Whatever your fitness level and whatever you’re training for, dumbbells are a useful training tool. Dumbbells provide a good workout for everyone!

Dumbbells are so-called because they were initially developed for bell ringers who needed a silent way to practice their art. In this instance, dumb means silent. But, despite their unflattering name, there really isn’t anything dumb about dumbbells. In fact, they’re one of the best training tools around!

11 Dumbbell Back Exercises

Build a strong, muscular back with these dumbbell back exercises. Make sure you do them correctly, as improper form could make your workouts less effective and could lead to injury.

1. Single-Arm Bent Over-Rows

Single arm dumbbell row

Single-arm bent-over rows are probably the most common and popular dumbbell back exercise.

The main advantage of this exercise is that your non-working arm can give your lower back support.

How to do it:

  1. Pick a dumbbell up in one hand, lean forward and place your other hand on a knee-high bench. Your back should be flat. Let the dumbbell hang down from the shoulder.
  2. Then bend your arm and row the dumbbell up and into the side of your ribs. Keeping your elbow as close as possible to your side and your wrist straight. 
  3. Extend your arm, lower the weight, rinse and repeat.

Note: Always do the same number of reps on each side.

2. Unsupported Single-Arm Bent-Over Rows

This exercise is almost the same as #1, but instead of resting your free hand on a bench for support, you’re going to use your back muscles to hold you up.

How to do it:

  1. Pick up a dumbbell in one hand, lean forward until your torso is roughly perpendicular to the floor. Let the dumbbell hang straight down from the shoulder.
  2. Whilst bending your arm, row the weight up and into the side of your ribs. All whilst keeping your elbow close to your side and your wrist straight.
  3. Extend your arm, lower the weight, rinse and repeat.

Note: Always do the same number of reps on each side.

3. Plank Rows

Man doing regular plank

The plank row increases core activation as you work your back and biceps.

This is a challenging exercise, so don’t go too heavy too soon. However, if you want to work your abs and back simultaneously, this is the exercise for you.

How to do it:

  1. Pick up a dumbbell in one hand.
  2. Whilst leaning forward place your other hand on a knee-high bench. Walk your feet back until your body and legs are straight. Brace your abs and let the dumbbell hang down from your shoulder.
  3. Maintaining core tension, bend your arm and pull the weight up and into the side of your ribs. Keep your wrist straight and focus on leading with your elbow.
  4. Extend your arm, lower the weight, rinse and repeat.

Note: Always do the same number of reps on each side.

4. Two-Handed Bent-Over Rows

Training both arms at once saves time, but it also puts more pressure on your lower back. This is the dumbbell equivalent of the classic barbell bent-over row.

How to do it:

  1. First things first, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees slightly.
  2. Keeping your lower back straight, lean forward until your upper body is roughly parallel to the floor.
  3. Hanging your arms straight down, with your palms facing inward.
  4. Bend both arms and pull the weights up and into your ribs.
  5. Extend your arms and repeat.
  6. Keep your core braced and your lower back slightly arched throughout.

Note: You can do this exercise using an alternating arm action.

5. Chest Supported Dumbbell Row

A lot of rowing exercises work your lower back as well as your upper back. This is not one of them! If you want to focus more on your upper back and biceps, maybe because of lower back pain, this exercise is a good choice.

How to do it:

  1. Set the backrest on an adjustable bench to around 45 degrees. Pick a dumbbell up in each hand, lie face down on the bench with your head at the top.
  2. Then hang your arms straight down from your shoulders.
  3. Whilst bending your arms and pull the weights up and into your ribs.
  4. Extend your arms, rinse and repeat.

Note: This exercise can be done using an alternating arm action.

6. Pendlay Rows

dumbbell upright row

Named after weightlifting guru Glen Pendlay, this exercise is also called the dead-stop row because you start each rep with the weight resting on the floor.

This eliminates momentum and also gives your back and grip a brief rest between reps. Usually done with a barbell, you can also do this exercise with dumbbells.

How to do it:

  1. First things first, place your dumbbells on the floor, about shoulder-width apart. Stand between them, bend forward, and grip each one. Note: You want to brace your abs and arch your lower back.
  2. Without using your legs, row the weights up and into your ribs.
  3. Extend your arms and lower the weights back to the floor. Pause for a second and then rinse and repeat.

Note: You can do this exercise using just one arm at a time.

7. Kroc Rows

Kroc rows are named after bodybuilder and powerlifter Janae Marie Kroczaleski. They are a variation of single-arm bent-over rows. The main difference is that, with Kroc rows, you don’t bend over quite as far, and you use your lower back and legs to help cheat the weight up.

This means you can use more weight and do more reps. Traditionally, Kroc rows are done using very heavy dumbbells and for 20+ reps per set.

How to do it:

  1. Pick up a dumbbell in one hand, lean forward and place your other hand on a knee-high bench. Your back should be flat.
  2. You want to let the dumbbell hang straight down from your shoulder. Angle your torso to about 45-degrees.
  3. Using your legs and lower back for help, pull the dumbbell up and into your side.
  4. Lower the weight and repeat.
  5. Use more leg and back drive as you start to tire. Take care not to round your back at any time.

Note: This is an advanced exercise; only do it if you have mastered regular single-arm bent-over rows (exercise #1).

8. Yates Row

The Yates row is named after legendary bodybuilding champion Dorian Yates. Normally done with a barbell, this exercise is much like any other type of row, except you don’t lean over as far. This will take all the stress off your lower back and may mean you can use heavier weights.

How to do it:

  1. First you want to hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly.
  2. Then you want to lean forward from your hips until your torso is about 45-degrees to the floor. Whilst bracing your abs and arching your lower back.
  3. Bend your arms and row both weights up and into your ribs.
  4. Extend your arms and repeat.

9. Renegade Row

Man doing renegade rows

Like plank rows (exercise #3), the renegade row works your back and your core at the same time.

This is also a challenging exercise, so resist the temptation of going too heavy, too soon.

How to do it:

  1. Pick up a dumbbell in each hand, drop down to the floor and adopt the push-up position. Be sure your arms and body are straight and brace your abs.
  2. Bend one arm and row the weight up and into your side. Extending your arm and putting the weight back on the floor.
  3. Repeat on the opposite side.
  4. Alternate arms for the duration of your set.

Note: You can also do a push-up between rows to add some chest training to your back workout.

10. Dumbbell Pullovers

Dumbbell pullovers are a single-joint isolation exercise that works your back and chest equally. This exercise is a great way to transition from a back workout to training your chest. It’s also helpful in increasing shoulder joint mobility.

How to do it:

  1. First you want to lie on a flat exercise bench and hold a single dumbbell in both hands. Bend your elbows slightly, but then keep them rigid.
  2. Then lower the weight back and over your head until your biceps are next to your ears.
  3. Then pull the weight back up and over your chest and repeat.

Note: You can also do this exercise lying across a bench, with just your shoulders supported. However, this tends to put more strain on your lower back while offering no additional benefits.

11. Weighted Pull-Ups

Man doing pull-ups outside

Except for pullovers, most dumbbell back exercises are rows. However, you can also use a dumbbell to make pull-ups more demanding.

If you can do ten or more pull-ups, it’s time to kick your back workout up a notch with weighted pull-ups.

How to do it:

  1. Place a dumbbell between your ankles and squeeze your legs together. Start with about 10% of your body weight.
  2. Then you want to hang from an overhead bar using an overhand, wider-than shoulder-width grip, or an underhand, closer-than shoulder-width grip. Alternatively, use a parallel or neutral grip.
  3. Without swinging or kicking, bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar.
  4. Descend smoothly and under control and repeat.

Bottom Line

Many people spend far too much time training the muscles they can see in the mirror, namely their chest, biceps, and abs. As important as these muscles clearly are, you’ll look and feel far better if you pay just as much attention to what you can’t see in the mirror – your back muscles.

Developing the muscles on the front and the back of your body equally is better for your posture, your joint health, and athletic performance too. After all, it’s the muscles on your back that are responsible for holding up against the pull of gravity.

When it comes to training the back, most people automatically gravitate toward lat pulldowns. After all, they’ve got lat (one of your back muscles) in their name! But what if you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine, or you’re bored of this gym workout staple?

The good news is that you can build an impressive back using nothing but a dumbbell or two.

Dumbbells are compact, easy to store, and allow you to fix left to correct strength imbalances. Using dumbbells is also often more comfortable than using barbells. There really isn’t anything dumb about dumbbells.

Use these tried-and-tested dumbbell exercises to build a back you can be proud of and without having to rely on machines.

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