When you only have access to dumbbells, it is key to understand how to target all areas of the back with a variety of pulling exercises. Movements like rows and pullovers will be staples for your dumbbell back routine.
The 15 best back exercises with dumbbells are:
- Dumbbell Bent Over Row
- Incline Dumbbell Row
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Renegade Row
- Dumbbell Seal Row
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Flexion Row
- Dumbbell Elevated Plank Row
- Dumbbell Underhand Row
- Dumbbell Towel Row
- Kroc Row
- Dumbbell Iso Row
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Dumbbell Y Raises
- Gorilla Row
In this article, we will discuss what muscle groups make up the back, how to target the different areas of the back, and share with you some of the best dumbbell back exercises you can do to build a bigger, stronger back.
We will also share with you a sample dumbbell only back workout routine that you can use to upgrade your back workouts and get more out of your training!
On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
What Muscles Make Up the Back
The back muscles are located along the entire backside of the body, from the base of the spine to the back of the neck.
This group of muscles is responsible for posture control, pulling, and lifting objects, and are often trained at a variety of angles.
A strong back not only helps to increase overall strength, but it can contribute to a more v-shaped physique, more defined back muscles, and a healthier posture.
When training “back”, workouts typically will target the below back muscles:
Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
The lats are a large muscle group that spans the entire back. They run from the base of the spine (at the hips) to the back of the shoulders, in a “V” shape.
Due to the angles of attachment (diagonal) of the muscle fibers, the back needs to be targeted with both horizontal and vertical pulling movements.
Horizontal pulling movements are typically any type or row (45-90 degrees bent over row).
Vertical pulling movements are any movement where the arms are overhead and pulling towards the body (pull-ups, lat pulldowns).
Due to the fact that there are not any vertical pulling exercises you can do with dumbbells, developing a balanced back will be challenging. This is why mastering pull-ups is key.
The traps run along the entire spine (up the middle of the back), and span out across the upper back and shoulders (and back of the neck).
The upper traps are most visible (top of the shoulders/back of the neck), whereas the lower and middle traps lie underneath the lats and are much less visible.
To target the upper traps, lifters rely on shrugging movements, whereas the middle and lower traps are often indirectly trained during most back exercises (and are therefore not usually needed to be trained directly).
Rhomboids and Scapular Stabilizers
These muscles can be found around and in between the shoulder blades, and are responsible for stabilizing the shoulder blades and providing support as they move (which protects the shoulders)
Training these small muscle groups often is done indirectly through training the back, however, sometimes you will need to isolate them with more target exercises (such as Y raises) or focus harder on contracting them during other movements (such as squeezing the shoulder blades together during rows)
The serratus muscle runs underneath the armpit on a diagonal angle. This helps stabilize the shoulder blades but also assists in both pressing and pulling movements.
Targeting this muscle is done by exercises such as straight arm pulldowns (cables) or pullovers.
In dumbbell-only workouts, dumbbell pullovers will be your only serratus-focused movements, and also the closest you will be able to get to training the lats from a vertical angle.
Erectors (Lower Back)
The erectors run vertically along the lower back and are responsible for extending the trunk. Additionally, these muscles help to provide stability and support during most movements to ensure the spine does not flex or bend under loads.
Most bent-over rows, deadlifts, and squats will train the lower back, however when looking to truly isolate these muscle fibers with dumbbells (and not just train the legs in the process), then you will need to look at doing dumbbell flexion rows or bent over rows in which your back is parallel to the floor (90 degrees).
- Related Article: The Best Back Bulking Exercises for Muscle Growth
15 Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
Below is a list of 15 exercises that target the back that you can do with dumbbells.
Note to Fitbod Users: Some, but not all of these exercises can be found within the Fitbod app.
1. Dumbbell Bent Over Row
The dumbbell row trains the entire back. You can do this movement from a variety of angles, which will target different areas of the back.
The more upright your body is during the row (up to 45 degrees bent over), the lower the lats and back you will train.
For best back growth, you will want to make sure you are bent over the full 90 degrees.
How To Do It
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and bend at the hips, making sure your back is flat or arched and your chest is up. Your back should be parallel to the floor, and the dumbbells should almost be (or be) touching the floor.
- Without moving the hips or lifting your torso, pull the weights to the middle of your torso.
- Pull the weights to be in line with the body, and then lower them down and repeat.
Your hips should not move as you row, at all.
2. Incline Dumbbell Row
The incline row is a supported row movement that allows you to isolate the back muscles without having to worry about holding yourself in a bent-over position.
This variation can be helpful for beginners who struggle to keep their back flat during bent-over rows, or more advanced lifters who want to train back row intensity but do not want to have the lower back or hamstrings limit them.
How To Do It
- Set an incline bench on a low angle, and lie face down on the bench. Your chest and head should be hanging off the end of the bench.
- With your arms fully extended below you (while holding dumbbells), row the weights to the sides of your body (to your ribcage/hips), without lifting the chest more than a few inches off the bench.
- Pause at the top of the movement, then lower theri weights slowly, making sure to fully straighten the arms at the bottom (and spread your shoulder blades apart).
Pro Tip: Think about pulling your elbows to your hips, as this will help you use more of your back muscles than if you think about pulling your hands to your body (people tend to then use more biceps).
3. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
The one-arm dumbbell row is a unilateral (trains one side of the body at a time) row that allows you to really focus on training one arm at a time to ensure proper form and muscle development.
Sometimes it is easier to train one limb at a time as you can focus all your efforts on that side, rather than having to coordinate both arms at once. The one-arm row also allows you to use your other hand to give you more support and stability when bent over.
How To Do It
- Stand in front of a bench (perpendicular) and place both arms on the bench. Your feet should be on the floor and your knees and hips softly bent so that your back is flat and your shoulders are in line with your hips.
- Grab a dumbbell with one hand, and keep the other hand on the bench for support.
- Pull the dumbbell to the side of the body, and then slowly lower the weight to the floor and repeat. Then switch sides.
You should not have any rotation happening at the hips or torso. Think about your back being flat as a table, one that if a glass of wine was on it you wouldn’t spill.
4. Renegade Row
The renegade row, also called a plank row, is a row in which you perform alternating one-arm rows while holding a plank.
This complex movement targets the back, but also the core (abs, obliques) and scapular stabilizers. It is important to note that this exercise shifts some of the demands on other muscle groups other than the back, so if you are looking to isolate the back, this may not be the best exercise to choose at that time.
How To Do It
- Assume a plank with both hands holding onto dumbbells.
- Pull one dumbbell to the side of the body (ribcage), without letting the hips rotate, drop, or shoot up.
- Hold the weight at the top of the row, slowly lower it to the floor, and perform alternate rows until completion.
The wider the feet, the more stability you will have. If you struggle with this, go light and slow the movements down, adding pauses where you feel you are unbalanced.
5. Dumbbell Seal Row
The dumbbell seal row is like the incline dumbbell row, however, the chest support is parallel to the floor rather than on an incline.
You can do this by lying down on a flat bench (face down). You may need to prop the bench legs up some so that you are able to let your arms (and dumbbells) fully hang and be extended below you.
The benefit of this exercise is that you can train the entire back (at the full bent-over angle), without having to worry about your lower back getting tired or controlling a challenging bent over posture.
How To Do It
- Lie face down on a flat bench. You may need to put something under the bench legs to make sure that your arms can be fully extended at the start.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells, and pull them to the sides of your body (ribcage or hips), without lifting the chest or torso of the bench.
- Pause at the top of the seal row, and then slowly lower the weights to the fully extended position (arms straight), and repeat.
If you cannot find a suitable way to elevate the bench far enough away from the ground to have your elbows straight at the start, then just do incline dumbbell rows.
6. Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover is the closest dumbbell exercise you can do to imitate a vertical pulling movement and will train the lats and serratus muscles.
This exercise will be critical to perfect if you are not planning on doing any vertical pulling movements like pull ups or lat pulldowns.
How To Do It
- Lie down on a flat bench, with your chest up.
- With your arms extended above you (holding a single dumbbell with both hands), reach the dumbbell back behind your head and let it go back behind you in an aching motion. Your elbows should be slightly bent.
- You should try to get a big overhead stretch, feeling it in the lats and serratus (under the armpits and sides of the back).
- Once you get to the bottom of the stretch, slowly pull the weight back to the start position, and repeat.
The goal of this exercise is to get a big stretch and then use the muscles to pull the weight back overhead. This should be done slowly to protect the shoulder joint.
7. Dumbbell Flexion Row
The dumbbell flexion row looks like a bent-over row gone wrong, but in reality, it is an advanced row that trains the entire back in the fullest range of motion.
To do this, you should have already mastered both bent-over rows (with a flat back) and have no lower back issues.
How To Do It
- Set yourself up like you are doing a dumbbell bent over a row.
- At the bottom of the row, keep your hips high and back, but allow the shoulders and chin to round forwards. This will result in the upper back hunching forward (stretching the upper back muscles and spreading the shoulder blades apart).
- Initiate the row by lifting the shoulders and pulling the shoulder blades together, and then lift the chest and torso to arch the lower back, all while not allowing the hips to move.
- Hold this top position, and then slowly lower yourself down to repeat for more reps.
The most important thing to remember is to not let your lower back round and do not let your hips move forward, up, or down during the entire movement.
8. Dumbbell Elevated Plank Row
The elevated plank row is similar to the renegade row and one-arm plank. By performing this one-arm row on a bench (elevated angle), you are able to train the back in a fuller range of motion than you would in the renegade row, but also offer more stability than the renegade row (which means you’ll be able to train more weight and put more emphasis on the back muscles).
How To Do It
- Place both hands on a bench, with your feet on the floor. The bench should be perpendicular to your body.
- With a dumbbell underneath you, take one hand off the bench (find your balance using your core muscles and legs), and grab the dumbbell.
- Pull the dumbbell up to the side of your body, without letting your hips rotate or drop, and repeat for reps. Then switch sides.
A wider stance will help you find a better balance, and allow you to lift heavier weights.
9. Underhand Row
The underhand row is a dumbbell row done with the palms facing forward at all times. By supinating the wrists (palms forward), you are able to train the middle and lower lats more, especially if you keep your elbows tucked into the body.
How To Do It
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and bend over, as if you were doing a bent-over row.
- Turn your palms forward and tuck your elbows into your sides, and perform a row. Pull the weights to the sides of your ribs/core.
- Once the weights reach the body, lower them back down and repeat.
Keep the elbows tucked into the body. This will help you target the middle and lower lats.
10. Dumbbell Towel Row
The dumbbell towel row is a variation of the dumbbell row that allows you to train the grip muscles while also rotating the wrist during the movement. By allowing rotation of the wrist, you are able to train the lats in a wider range of motion, especially if you end the row with your palms facing forward and elbows tucked into the body.
How To Do It
- Loop a small towel around the dumbbell handle, and use that towel as your handle.
- Bend over as you would in a bent-over row, and start with your palms facing you.
- Perform a row, and rotate your palms a full 180 degrees so that the palms are now facing away from you and your elbows are tucked into the sides of your body.
- Lower the weights down and rotate the wrists back to the starting position, and repeat.
You can do this with both arms (need two separate towels) or one arm at a time.
11. Kroc Row
The Kroc row is a variation of the one-arm dumbbell row and allows you to train the back muscles with more weight than you would in a standard one-arm row. The Kroc row has you perform a row with some momentum, which is generated by lifting the torso up somewhat as you row, and also rotating the body at the top. This is an advanced rowing movement and should be done by lifters who have already mastered the strict, dumbbell bent-over row.
How To Do It
- Set yourself up like you would during a one-arm row.
- Grab a dumbbell with one arm, and pull the weight upwards towards your chest. At the top of the movement, allow the shoulder on the rowing arm to lift upward, rotating the torso a few inches.
- Pause at the top of the row, and then slowly lower the weight, and repeat.
If you are doing this properly, you should feel an intense stretch in the lats. If not, make sure you are controlling the weight on the way down and using your back to lift the load (not just jerking the body around).
12. Dumbbell Iso Row
The dumbbell iso row can be done by either bending over or on an incline bench (like the incline dumbbell row). The iso row has you perform an isometric contraction (hold and pause the muscle in the contracted position). This is helpful to get better contraction and growth.
How To Do It
- Perform either a bent-over dumbbell row or an incline bench dumbbell row.
- At the top of the row (when the weight is lifted), pause and flex your back, making sure to really feel the muscle working.
- Hold that position for as long as you want/can, and then slowly lower the weight and repeat.
You can perform one rep of an iso row for a timed set (4 sets of 40 seconds iso row), or you can add iso holds to each rep within a set (4 sets of 8 reps, each rep with a 5-second pause).
13. Dumbbell Shrug
The shrug targets the upper traps and can be done to improve overall pulling strength and back growth. While the traps are often engaged during most back exercises and deadlifts, isolating them can help contribute to their growth.
How To Do It
- While standing and holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides, lift the top of the shoulders up to the ears (or as high as you can) without bending the arms or letting the shoulder hunch forward.
- Pause at the top, and then slowly lower the shoulders down to feel the stretch across your upper back, and then repeat.
Drop your chin an inch or two during this exercise, and think about lifting the shoulders up and back.
14. Dumbbell Y Raise
The Y raise targets the lower and middle traps and is often done with very lightweight. This movement is highly targeted and should be done with controlled reps and/or pause holds at the top.
How To Do It
- Set a bench to the lowest incline, and lie face down on the bench (prone).
- With small dumbbells in your hands, fully straighten the arms so that the elbows are not bent, and reach them out in front of you as high as you can without lifting your chest off the bench.
- Lower the weights in an arcing motion, keeping the arms straight. You should be able to lift the arms so that they are in line with your torso.
Use very, very light weights, and train these for higher reps.
15. Gorilla Row
The gorilla row is an alternating bent-over dumbbell row and trains all the same muscle groups as bent-over rows. Some individuals may want to add some variety to their workouts, and this will suffice. It is important to note that this requires more pelvic and spinal stability to not allow rotation to occur when performing a single arm row.
How To Do It
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and bend over, like you would a bent-over row. The weights should be on the ground and your back should be flat.
- Row one of the dumbbells up, making sure to keep the other dumbbell on the ground. You should not have any hip movement or rotation.
- Lower that arm, and perform a row on the other side in similar fashion, and repeat for reps.
Do not allow the hip to move, at all. It can also be helpful to think about pushing the dumbbell that is on the ground through the floor as you row.
- Related Article: Try These 11 Back Exercises for Back Strength and Muscle Growth
Sample Back Workout Routine With Dumbbells
Below is a sample back workout routine you can do with dumbbells.
Note: Although this exact workout cannot be found in the Fitbod app, many of the movements below can. You should use this sample routine as an outline to construct your own workouts based on the information discussed above.
- Incline Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 90 seconds
- Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, superset with flexion row
- Dumbbell Flexion Row: 3 sets of 12-15, resting 90 seconds
- Dumbbell Underhand Row: 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90 seconds seconds
Related Article: Looking to build more lean muscle? Here are 19 tips!
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Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Build My Back With Dumbbells?
Training your back with dumbbells is not much different than with machines or barbells. However, targeting the lats from a vertical position requires pull-ups or pull-downs in addition to dumbbell rows, which focus on horizontal pulling movements like the rhomboids and middle traps.
How Do I Train My Middle Back with Dumbbells?
To train your middle back with dumbbell rows, pull the dumbbells to your lower chest/upper abdomen while keeping your back parallel to the floor. Including flexion rows helps target all parts of the back and take it through a full range of motion. This exercise is especially beneficial for the lower and mid back.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.