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best dumbbell exercises for back

BEST DUMBBELL EXERCISES FOR BACK

How did I set out to choose the best dumbbell exercises for the back?

Well…

I’ll tell you what I DIDN’T do.

I didn’t base my choices on misinterpreted and misinformed EMG data, or by copying someone else’s article or YouTube video…

NO.

Instead, ALL of my exercise selections are carefully chosen based on real science, combined with a corrective and injury prevention perspective that I bring as a physical therapist.

And when it comes to choosing my favorites?

That really depends on what goal you’re training for.

So that you’re covered no matter what, I’m going to show you the single best dumbbell exercise you can do for each of these goals: strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic, total body, corrective and low back.

These exercises will show you that just because we have limited equipment doesn’t mean we can’t effectively target the back.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started!

anatomy of the back muscles on human body

STRENGTH

When it comes to strength, the goal is always going to be progressive overload.

While there are some rowing based exercises that are done with dumbbells, I prefer to choose a more challenging exercise and add some weight to it.

The pullup is one of the greatest back exercises of all time. When you add some additional dumbbell weight, you’ve got a very good exercise for building strength!

1) WEIGHTED PULLUP

weighted pullup for back strength
The pullup is one of the greatest back exercises of all time. When you add some additional dumbbell weight, you’ve got a very good exercise for building strength!

We have a couple different options for adding the dumbbell.

If you’re at home, you can take a dog leash and wrap it around the dumbbell.

dog leash trick for weighted pullup
You can make the pullup a weighted exercise by wrapping a dog leash around a dumbbell and strapping it to your waist.

If you’re at the gym you have the option of using a dip belt. Just wrap it around the dumbbell, hang it on your hips, jump up on the bar, and go!

Even easier is to place the dumbbell on the floor, step up onto it and grab the pullup bar with your hands.  Then grab the dumbbell between your feet and start performing your pullups.

grab a dumbbell with your ankles for the weighted pullup
If you don’t have a dog leash or a dip belt to hang the dumbbell from, you can just grab it with your feet and start doing pullups.

The pullup with additional dumbbell weight in addition to the weight of your body creates a great opportunity for progressive overload. Simply add more dumbbell weight each time you do the exercise!

POWER

To train the back for power, you need to choose a dumbbell exercise that allows you to incorporate speed and explosiveness into the movement.

For me there’s none better than the Dumbbell Dead Row.

2) DUMBBELL DEAD ROW

dumbbell dead row for power back exercise
During the rowing portion of the Dumbbell Dead Row, you drive the dumbbells up and behind you.

You begin the exercise by generating a huge amount of force through your feet into the ground, and then drive up in one motion just like in the deadlift.  From that point on, you drive the dumbbells up and back behind your body into a rowing motion.

It is essentially a deadlift up to the level of the knee, at which point the elbows are driven behind the body with the strength and power of the lats.

The element of explosiveness in this exercise comes from the fact that the force is generated through your feet into the ground.

You can load up the weight here as much as you can handle.  This is a zero-momentum exercise that’s going to require a lot of coordinated explosiveness through your feet, up into your arms and ultimately through the back and lats to help you develop explosive power.

HYPERTROPHY

When we’re trying to create muscle growth, we look to do the opposite of what we’re doing when we have a strength or power focus.

Instead of trying to incorporate multiple muscles into the activity you’re doing, you want to isolate the muscle you’re looking to overload.

That means if we’re trying to create more lat growth, we need to make the lats do all the work!

We can do that best with the classic Dumbbell Pullover.

3) DUMBBELL PULLOVER

dumbbell pullover exercise for back hypertrophy

With this exercise there are a couple important things about the setup to take note of.

First, you want to position your body perpendicular to the bench instead of lying on it the long way.

Why?

Because it allows us to manipulate our hips to create more of stretch in the lats, which is a known stimulus for muscle hypertrophy.

We can do this by dropping the hips down, which causes the lats to get further from each other when the hips get further away from the arms. Then as we drop the dumbbell back in position, you should immediately feel a lot more tension placed on the lats.

drop the hips own in the dumbbell pullover to add stretch to the lats
Drop the hips down on the Dumbbell Pullover to create more stretch and get a greater eccentric overload on the lats.

Here’s one more tweak that I think is extremely beneficial!

You can do some assisted eccentrics at the end. When you’ve reached failure, just because you’re concentrically fatigued, it doesn’t mean you can’t do some more eccentric work.

All we have to do is simply cheat the motion back up to the starting position.  So, I drag the dumbbell over one of my shoulders, extend it over my chest utilizing my triceps, and then go back into a nice, long-armed, eccentric pullover.

assisted eccentrics in dumbbell pullover for back hypertrophy
After you’ve reached concentric failure in the Dumbbell Pullover, there is still room for you to work assisted eccentrics by cheating the motion up to the starting position and eccentrically lowering from there.

Do a few assisted eccentric reps this way and I promise you, you’re going to get even more out of what is already a very effective exercise for creating hypertrophy.

METABOLIC

When we’re training the back metabolically, we’re looking to create that burn and sustain it without compromising the low back in the process.

We know that any standing row variation that might give us that type of burn in the lats will cause our low back to fatigue first, which is going to compromise the safety of the exercise.

However, there IS a way around this problem!

You can protect your back by doing the Chest Supported Touch Row.

4) CHEST SUPPORTED TOUCH ROW

chest supported touch row for metabolic back exercise

There are a couple of reasons this exercise helps you protect the back.

When we’re training the back metabolically, we’re looking to create that burn and sustain it without compromising the low back in the process.

First, the prone incline position on the bench supports the back, which allows us to fatigue the lats without having to worry about the low back fatigue we would get if we were standing.

Second, this ‘touch row’ offers us some unique opportunities. To perform it, we have one set of dumbbells placed out in front of us on the ground, and another set in our hands that we’re going to try to touch the first set with.

a set of dumbbells is placed on the ground for dumbbell touch rows
In the Chest Supported Touch Row we use the dumbbells in our hands to touch another set of dumbbells we’ve placed on the floor.

Why are we doing this?

It gives us an additional stretch on the lats as we move outward with each repetition in front of the body. The anatomy of the lats is going to require the arm to travel up and ahead of us to get more of a stretch.

But additionally, those other dumbbells are literally sitting out there waiting for you to use them for a drop set to keep that burn going!

If you choose a lighter set of dumbbells for the pair sitting on the ground, you can just grab them and continue repping out once you’ve fatigued with your first set of dumbbells to metabolically increase the effectiveness of this exercise.

Remember, when you’re trying to train metabolically, you push to that level of burn, and then through it.  With this exercise we can accomplish that, and thanks to the setup we can protect the low back in the process.

TOTAL BODY

Next I’ll show you that it’s possible to find a total body exercise that hits the lats hard as well. 

The Manmaker is my favorite exercise for this purpose.

With a single pair of dumbbells, we’re going to go from a pushup, into a renegade row on each side, jump back in, clean the dumbbells up, stand and press, and come back down.

If you look at the component motions in this exercise, we’re getting a push, into a pull, back into a total body push.

5) MANMAKER

manmaker total body back exercise

I love the effectiveness of this exercise and the sequencing that it provides.  But there are a couple other key things about it that make it a great exercise.

First, you’re not compromising the back in the process of doing a total body exercise.

Why is that?

Because the weight you use has to be determined by how much weight you can renegade row.

For example, you could use a pretty heavy weight for the explosive standing clean and press portion of this movement.  But you won’t be able to use that same weight for the renegade row portion.  So you’re already limited to a safe weight for your back by virtue of having to choose a lighter weight that you can use for the renegade row.

This exercise fits nicely into a total body program, and will hit your lats in the process.

CORRECTIVE

Corrective exercises really do determine your longevity and how you stay injury free in your training. 

When you start neglecting them, that’s when injuries crop up!

My dumbbell corrective exercise of choice for the back is the ‘W’ Raise.

6) ‘W’ RAISE

dumbbell w raise for rotator cuff and back

Where does it get its name from?

It’s the position of your arms in relation to your body. You’re literally trying to form a ‘W’.

Right away, you’re going to notice that this hits all of the muscles of the back and mid-scapular area. But most importantly, you’re hitting some of the back muscles that people don’t even regard as ‘back muscles.’

Namely, the rotator cuff.

rotator cuff engagement in dumbbell w raise
The ‘W’ Raise hits all of the muscles of the back and mid-scapular area, but is also great for hitting the often neglected rotator cuff.

People forget just how important the rotator cuff muscles are to the overall development of the back!

We know if we can get the muscles on the backside of the shoulder to externally rotate that shoulder, we’re going to incorporate the rotator cuff into what we’re doing.  We do this in the ‘W’ Raise by putting the hands back behind the elbow into this position.

hands behind elbows in w raise help engage rotator cuff
In the ‘W’ Raise we have to position the hands behind the elbow in order to ensure we’re getting the external rotation that allows us to incorporate the rotator cuff into this exercise.

If you’re not getting the hands back behind the elbow and you’re instead extending the entire arm back behind the body, your movement is going to be driven mostly by the rear delt instead of the rotator cuff.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what we’re looking to do with this exercise.

The ‘W’ Raise is a really easy exercise to do with a lot of bang for your buck.  It hits it all, from the rotator cuff to the mid-scapular muscles to the low back.  This all-in-one exercise is going to give you a lot of corrective benefits that are going to last long after this set ends!

LOW BACK

No dumbbell back workout would be complete without an exercise that strengthens the lower back.  

The Bench Reverse Hyper is an exercise that becomes even more useful for the low back if you are able to add a little weight to it.

7) DUMBBELL BENCH REVERSE HYPER

dumbbell bench reverse hyper for low back

Some people may not be able to tolerate any weight, but it’s still a great bodyweight low back exercise.

If you are able to add a light dumbbell, it’s going to apply a bit of additional overload that will make this exercise even more effective and beneficial for you.

The glutes and low back – which need to work together – are not only chronically undertrained, but they’re almost never trained with additional weight.

This exercise gives us a chance to do that.

The glutes and low back – which need to work together – are not only chronically undertrained, but they’re almost never trained with additional weight.

To do this, lie face down on the bench and let your legs hang off the bench right at the level of the hips.  Reach down with your feet and grab the dumbbell you’ve positioned on the floor between your ankles.  Then initiate and maintain a glute squeeze while you bring the legs back and straight out behind you.

It’s going to start as a glute exercise, and then it will transmit that force upward into the low back, forcing these two muscle groups to coordinate their efforts.

Do these for about 10 to 15 quality repetitions, making sure you’re initiating and maintaining the contraction with the glutes and low back.

Don’t try to cheat this by swinging the weight up as hard as you can. Quality contractions rule the day when it comes to this specialization exercise.

As you can see, no matter what it is you’re trying to accomplish there should be a prescriptive exercise selection based around that. I’ve given you a lot of great dumbbell exercises here, and you can choose from them based on your current training focus.

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THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
The BEST Dumbbell Exercises for BACK

  1. If you’ve only got dumbbells to work with, the best exercises for your back would be dependent on your training goal. I’ve shown you the best dumbbell biceps exercises for strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic, total body, corrective and a special focused exercise for the low back.
  2. For strength I’ve chosen once of the best exercises of all time and added weight to it. This is the Weighted Pullup, which you can set up with my dog leash trick or simply by grabbing a dumbbell between your ankles.
  3. For power I love the speed and explosiveness of the Dumbbell Dead Row, thanks to the huge amount of force you can generate by driving your feet down into the ground, up into your arms and then up through the lats.
  4. For hypertrophy we want to make the lats do all the work. We can isolate them with the Dumbbell Pullover.  We can stimulate the hypertrophy even more by increasing the stretch on the lats with a special hip position.  We can also employ assisted eccentrics to keep repping out beyond concentric failure.
  5. For metabolic, we can get the burn going in our lats without fatiguing our low back with the Chest Supported Touch Row. We can keep it going by grabbing the lighter set of dumbbells we were ‘touching’ to continue repping out.
  6. The ‘W’ Raise is my favorite corrective exercise for the back because it hits the frequently neglected rotator cuff in addition to the rest of the back and mid-scapular muscles.
  7. No list of favorite back exercises would be complete without one to hit the lower back. I’ve chosen the Dumbbell Bench Reverse Hyper because it allows us to hit the chronically undertrained glutes and low back – which prefer to work together – with a bit of extra weight.

If you’re looking for a complete workout program that hits not just your back but every other muscle in your body to create massive muscle growth and performance, be sure to try our Program Selector and grab the ATHLEAN-X Training System that best matches your current training goals.

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