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You can get a great back workout at home by just using dumbbells. The key is to do a mix of exercises that will target each section of your back. These are categorized as the upper, middle, and lower.
Dumbbell bent-over rows are an effective exercise you can do at home to engage the middle, lower, and upper back. They only require a set of dumbbells and are performed from a standing bent-over position.
I’ll show you how to perform them below, along with 3 additional exercises to target a specific part of the back more intensely.
Table of Contents
1. Do Bent-Over Rows for Mid-Lower Back Thickness
If I could only pick one dumbbell back exercise, it would be the bent-over row. Simply because it provides a high bang for your buck in terms of muscular development.
The bent-over row is the best dumbbell exercise for building your back. It has shown significant middle and lower back activation via EMG testing. The upper trapezius is the only back muscle that won’t receive adequate simulation with this form of rowing.
This testing was sponsored by ACE Fitness and measured the activation of individual back muscles across six exercises. The bent-over row showed high activation for each muscle that was tested. Granted they used a barbell and not dumbbells to perform the row.
Fortunately, dumbbells will allow you to perform the same motion. They also prevent one side of your back from compensating for the other. This is because the dumbbells are lifted individually without a bar connecting them.
Furthermore, bent-over rows are a compound exercise, meaning multiple joints (elbows and shoulders) are working to execute the motion. That explains why they recruit multiple muscles simultaneously. These types of movements should be a staple in your back routine.
If you disagree, I suggest reading my article detailing why bent-over rows are an efficient back developer.
To do bent-over dumbbell rows:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge through your hips to position your upper body parallel to the floor.
- Look a few feet in front of you with your arms relaxed toward the floor.
- Breathe in and lift the weights to your rib cage while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Reverse the motion while keeping your chest tall to avoid rounding your lower back. Repeat for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
2. Use Dumbbell Shrugs To Isolate Your Upper Traps
Remember how I said the upper traps were not very stimulated with bent-over rows? That’s where dumbbell shrugs come in to save your upper back from lacking. Since they’re a single-joint shoulder movement, the upper traps are isolated.
To isolate your upper traps with dumbbell shrugs:
- Grab a pair of light to moderate-weight dumbbells with your palms facing your outer thighs.
- Stand upright with your glutes squeezed and core tight to support your lower back.
- Lean your upper body slightly forward.
- This makes it easier to get a deep range of motion.
- With your arms straight, hold the weights away from your body by about 15-30 degrees.
- This angled arm position directs the contractions toward the upper traps while pulling.
- Lift your shoulder blades straight up and toward your ears.
- Squeeze for a second before lowering your shoulder blades.
- Allow the weight to stretch your traps at the bottom.
- Repeat for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
Having trouble performing the dumbbell shrug? I wrote an article covering the common form mistakes and how you can fix them that you may want to read.
3. Perform Lat Pullovers While Lying on the Floor
The back consists of a complex group of muscles. One of those muscles, arguably the trickiest to grow, is the latissimus dorsi (lats).
Beginners tend to have a hard time feeling their lats working with complex movements like the deadlift or bent-over row. The mind-muscle connection can be improved with direct isolation work. This improvement will carry over to the more complex exercises, allowing for stronger and more efficient execution.
Although these can be done lying on the floor, I recommend using a bench if you have one. The bench will allow you to get a deeper stretch with constant tension.
To perform lat pullovers on the floor:
- Lie facing the ceiling with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Grab one end of a dumbbell in both hands with your palms facing up.
- Hold the dumbbell above your chest with your arms straight.
- Have a slight bend in your elbows and keep them tucked in.
- Breathe into your stomach to tighten your core.
- Lower the weight behind your head.
- Allow the dumbbell to lightly tap the floor then drive through your elbows to lift it back over your chest using an arc motion.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
4. Build Your Lower Back With Dumbbell Deadlifts
Research puts deadlifts as a key strength training exercise for developing the lower back muscles. This primarily includes the spinal erectors and multifidus. They also recruit the lats, rhomboids, and all three parts of the traps.
This allows you to overload these muscles with heavy weight while utilizing isometric tension, a driver of muscle growth. However, as the weights get heavier the legs may take over the brunt of the movement.
To build your lower back with dumbbell deadlifts:
- Stand in front of a pair of dumbbells with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge your hips forward and shoot your butt back to lean your upper body forward.
- Bend Your knees to reach the dumbbells, holding them with a neutral grip and your arms straight.
- Before lifting, slightly raise your chest and squeeze your armpits to activate your back muscles.
- Thrust your hips forward to lift the dumbbells, keeping them tight to your body.
- Stand straight up and squeeze your shoulder blades.
- Bring the weights to the floor by hinging through your hips and bending your knees. Repeat for 4-5 sets of 5-6 reps.
Home Back Workout Using Dumbbells
If dumbbells are the only equipment you have available you may be concerned that they won’t be enough to grow your back. However, with proper exercise selection, growth is not only possible but probable as long as your sleep and nutrition are also in order.
You can build your back with dumbbells alone by including a mix of compound and isolation exercises. For instance, you could perform bent-over rows to target a large amount of back musculature. Then utilize shrugs and floor pullovers to isolate the trapezius and latissimus dorsi.
To structure a workout in this fashion, you’d place one or two compound exercises first as they have the most strength potential since they use multiple joints. Afterward, you’d do a couple of isolation exercises, focusing on your lagging muscles.
Here’s an example of how that would look:
- Dumbbell deadlifts: 4 sets x 5 reps
- Dumbbell bent-over rows: 4 x 10
- Floor pullovers: 3 x 15
- Dumbbell shrugs: 2 x 20