The booty, legs, and abs get a lot of attention when it comes to workouts. But what about the back? That particular body part doesn’t seem to get as much of the spotlight—despite how essential back muscles are for, well, everything. The back muscles are especially key for healthy posture, and let's be honest: We could all use some improvement there, given how long we spend hunched over our phones.
When it comes to back exercises, dumbbells are great because they require stabilizing your muscles as you’re lifting, making a workout more challenging. “More stabilization means that more muscle fibers are activated, which increases overall muscle activity and leads to more muscle growth,” says Bryant Reams, a certified personal trainer and instructor at Rumble Boxing and SoulCycle. “Dumbbells are also easier on your joints due to the nature of their ability to move freely.”
Furthermore, dumbbell back exercises help create muscle balance because you can work one arm at a time (called a unilateral movement). “We all likely have a side that is not as strong as the other, so unilateral movement can help us improve our weaker side, and it also helps improve range of motion,” says Jennifer Nagel, a certified personal trainer and CEO of Figured Out Fitness, an online coaching company for women over 30 who want simple fitness solutions.
Best of all, dumbbells are affordable and easily accessible. Many people already have some at home, so you don’t necessarily need to hit the gym to do dumbbell back exercises and work on your back strength. Sold on dumbbell back exercises yet? Grab your dumbbells and keep reading to learn pro-recommended moves to do (plus some no-equipment back exercises, too).
5 dumbbell back exercises
Grab a dumbbell in each hand and bend over slightly while keeping your feet apart and in line with your shoulders. “Your back should be flat and engaged,” Reams says. “Pull your elbows behind your spine, trying to touch them at the back. This is impossible to do, but the purpose is to try. You should feel a squeeze in your sides.” Then release and repeat for eight to 10 reps.
Reams recommends doing upright rows to target the upper back, also known as the rhomboids, which support many muscles in the shoulder and neck area. “To do this exercise, hold the dumbbells in both hands and bring them up to chest level with your arms extended,” Reams says. “Pull your elbows behind your spine while squeezing your upper back, making sure to rotate your wrists and the weights to the outside of your body.” Do eight to 10 reps.
Think of renegade rows like push-up rows. You’ll start on the ground in a high plank position with a dumbbell in each hand. “While keeping your back flat and your abs engaged, row or pull each weight individually with your elbow ending behind your spine, making sure not rotate your midsection or your hips,” Reams says. “You will feel the engagement all over your backside, but the main focus is the lat area.” Then return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. Do about eight to 10 reps.
Dumbbell deadlifts work out the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. To do the exercise, begin with your feet underneath your hips. "Hold your dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms down,” Nagel says. “Make sure your chest is lifted, your core is pulled in toward your spine, and your head is in a neutral position. With your knees soft, push your hips back and bend at the waist until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then raise your body and return to a standing position.”
Rear back fly
A rear back fly is excellent for working out the major upper back muscles. Start by getting in the starting position: feet underneath the hips, dumbbells in hand with palms facing each other in front of the thighs, chest lifted, core pulled toward the spine, head in a neutral position. Next, push your hips back until your upper body is about 45 degrees from the floor. “With your elbows slightly bent, raise your hands until they are slightly under 90 degrees and then return them to their starting position," Nagel says. "Make sure you keep your shoulders down away from your ears. You can make this a unilateral movement by using only one dumbbell.”
More back exercises (no equipment required)
A good old cat/cow stretch is great for working on flexibility in the neck, shoulders, spine, hips, abs, and chest. To do cat/cow, Nagel instructs getting on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and your core pulled toward the spine. “Round your back and tuck your hips under (cat position) and then release your back and rotate your hips backward with your chest up (calf position),” she says. “Move through these movements slowly while breathing deeply.” (Here's more about the cat/cow stretch.)
To get your Superman on, Nagel advises lying down on your stomach with your arms extended in front of you and legs extended behind you. Raise your arms and legs off the ground at the same time. You can also take it up a notch by raising one arm and the opposite leg, then alternating.
For the bird dog exercise, start in a tabletop position as with cat/cow. Keep your back flat. “Extend one arm in front of you while extending the opposite leg behind you,” Nagel says. “Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.”
Dumbbell back exercises: best practices
Begin with a warmup
As with any workout style, it’s important to start with a warmup before jumping into dumbbell back exercises. Nagel recommends doing five to 10 minutes of cardio to raise your core body temperature and prep your body for exercise.
Try a bodyweight version first
Before you incorporate the dumbbells, Nagel suggests trying out the exercise first with just your bodyweight to nail the form and prevent injury. Then start with light weights and work your way up as you get stronger.
Implement rest days
When lifting weights, scheduling rest days are essential. “Take about two days between working the same muscle groups,” Nagel says. "And don’t forget to add in active recovery such as myofascial release or massage if your budget allows. Keeping your back muscles strong and limber goes a long way for your back health.” And as the back goes, the rest of the body goes.
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