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While chest day is practically an official holiday at the gym, abs get all the attention and legs are the muscles group you should never skip out on training, it’s time to pay homage to the unsung hero of strength training — the back. Critical for supporting your torso, the back muscles are integral in their ability to help the rest of your body move, like your arms, shoulders, neck and legs.
We’ve covered the best lower back exercises in the past, but here we’ll focus on the mid- and upper-back, which in our opinion definitely deserves its own dedicated training day. But if you’ve spent the past 18 months building out your home gym, there are plenty of back exercises you can tackle without all the nuanced equipment you’ll find at the local fitness center. In fact, a simple set of dumbbells can take you pretty far when it comes to building up those back muscles.
Back Muscle Anatomy
Considering the size and complexity of the back, it’s unsurprising to learn that it comprises a number of different interconnected muscles, each with a different primary function. We can generally split the back into three primary muscle groups:
1. Superficial muscles assist in your ability to move your arms and shoulders. These can further be categorized into four different muscles, which get most of the love through dumbbell exercises for the back.
- Latissimus dorsi (lats) – Positioned on the side of your back, that lats help extend and rotate your shoulders and arms. You can really feel your lats working when you’re doing pull-ups.
- Levator scapulae – This begins at your neck and extends down to and helps lift your scapula (shoulder blade).
- Rhomboids – Split between the rhomboid major and minor, these two muscles work in tandem to pull the scapula toward the spine.
- Trapezius (traps) – These are the muscles you see building out of the t-shirts of bodybuilders, the ones that might feel sore after a day of tense work clacking away at a keyboard. Like the rhomboids, it helps with the movement of your scapula and shoulders.
2. Intermediate muscles sit between the vertebral column and rib cage and assist with elevating and depressing the ribs.
3. Intrinsic muscles lie deep within the body, and run along the spinal column, aiding with posture and movement of the spine.
The Best Dumbbells
Of course, to properly knock out dumbbell exercises for back, you’ll need some dumbbells. We’ve done plenty of research on dumbbells in the past, from the best dumbbell sets, best adjustable dumbbells and top-rated dumbbells on Amazon. We’ve included three of our favorites below, each of which are great choices for helping to strengthen your back muscles.
In general, you’ll want to decide whether you prefer a pair of adjustable dumbbells — which are great for saving space in a home gym — or a dumbbell set, which will be more expensive and take up more space, but ultimately provides that gym-like feel.
1. Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells
These adjustable dumbbells from Bowflex consistently top our lists of the best adjustable dumbbells, and for good reason. If you’re trying to get a good workout in at home, you need a set of dumbbells that’s versatile and spatially efficient. The 552s combines 15 different sets of weights into one, allowing you to adjust from 5 to 52.5 pounds with increments of 2.5 up to 25 pounds. Really, if you’re tackling dumbbell exercises for back at home, you need these.
2. CAP Barbell Dumbbell Set
For those who prefer a set of individual dumbbells (and have the space for it), we recommend this option from CAP Barbell, one of the best brands in the weights business. The set includes five different pairs of dumbbells, from 5 to 25 pounds in increments of five. Admittedly, this won’t be enough weight for the heavy lifters out there, but you can always buy additional dumbbells from CAP to complete the collection.
3. JAXJOX DumbbellConnect
HIGH TECH CHOICE
The adjustable dumbbell option is definitely the way to go if you’re trying to conserve space. And like most things in the fitness industry these days, there are some pretty spiffy high-tech, splurge-worthy options in the adjustable dumbbell market. The JAXJOX DumbbellConnect ranges from 8-50 pounds, which you can adjust at the touch of a button and sync to the company’s app to track your progress.
The Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Back
1. Dumbbell Row
Now that you’re equipped with the best dumbbells, we can get into some great dumbbell exercises for your back muscles. Let’s start with the dumbbell row, which is essentially the holy grail of dumbbell back exercises. Rows target the muscles between your shoulder blades, lats and traps, the dumbbell row should be the foundation of any dumbbell back workout. Resist the urge to rely on your arm strength here, and really focus on pulling those shoulder blades back.
Instructions: Place your knee and hand on a flat bench, bending over so your back is parallel with the ground. Kick your opposite leg out to create a wide base, and grab a dumbbell in your free hand. Beginning with the dumbbell touching the ground and your arm extended, pull it toward your body until your elbow creates a 90-degree angle, then return to the starting position. Switch arms once you’ve completed your reps on one side. Start with a low weight to ensure you exercise proper form and feel the tension in your back, not your arms. The video below has some awesome tips for dumbbell rows.
2. Dumbbell Deadlift
While the deadlift is traditionally a barbell exercise, you can easily translate it to dumbbells. It’s one of those full-body exercises that works your legs, arms and lower back, all while driving your heart rate up and burning calories. As is the case with many back exercises (particularly lower back), form is paramount here, so we’ll leave the instructions to the expert in the video below.
3. Dumbbell Shrug
Though big, muscular traps might evoke images of cartoon-like bodybuilders, it’s important to keep those muscles strong, as they help support the function of your neck and arms. The dumbbell shrug is one of the best exercises for tackling your traps.
Instructions: Stand up straight with heavier dumbbells in each hand, making sure to keep your arms relaxed. Again, the tension should be in your traps, not your arms. Raise your shoulders to contract your traps in a “shrugging” motion Pause at the top, then slowly return to the starting relaxed position.
4. Weighted Lower Back Extension
If there’s one exercise you do to strengthen your lower back, it should be this one. It does require a specific type of bench, but most gyms should have one. You can accomplish low back extensions without weight in order to warm up and understand the form. Reach for a light dumbbell to increase the resistance and create more of a challenge.
Instructions: Position yourself on the lower back extension bench, taking special care to adjust the height to your liking. Your torso should be able to move freely, so position the padded component around your pelvis. Begin with your body in a straight line at a 45-degree angle with the ground. With your arms across your chest (or in this case, securing a dumbbell against your chest) slowly hinge at the waist and bend over toward the ground. Control the motion to return back to the starting position. You should feel this in your lower back.
5. Dumbbell Reverse Fly
Though this exercise is similar to the dumbbell row, it utilizes lighter weight and a slightly different motion to really target those rhomboids. Not to sound like a broken record, but make sure you’re engaging your back while performing this exercise. It’s easy to let your arms do all the work, but it’s critical to keep the tension in your back in order to strengthen it.
Instructions: Using lighter dumbbells, stand with your feet shoulder with apart. Hinge at the waist and bend over so your back is parallel with the ground. Begin with your arms extended toward the ground and dumbbells in each hand. Keep your arms fixed and spread them apart until they are parallel with the ground, pulling back your shoulder blades to engage the muscles in your back.
7. Dumbbell Pullover
Targeting your lats is a little tougher to do with dumbbells, as most lat-centric exercises require the pull-down motion, whether that’s a standard pull-up or the aptly-named cable pull-down. The dumbbell pullover is a more advanced exercise that helps to strengthen those lats and engage your chest as well. If you’re just getting started with the exercise, use a spotter, as this is a more dangerous exercise that positions a dumbbell directly over your head. The dumbbell pullover is best learned visually, so check out the video below to see how it’s done.
Instructions: Lean against a flat bench with your knees bent and feet touching the ground. Your shoulder blades should be the only part of your body touching the bench. Grab a moderate weight dumbbell, holding one end with your palms facing toward the ceiling and your arms extended above your head. Drop your hips as you extend the dumbbell over your head towards the ground. Keep your elbows in to engage the lats and place less emphasis on the chest. Once you feel those lats engaged, bring your hips up and the dumbbell back to the starting position.