Building a strong, powerful back is one of the best things you can do for your body. Targeted muscle along your lats and between your shoulder blades serves a variety of purposes, insulating your shoulders against injury, improving your posture and alleviating neck pain, and, of course, completing a dynamic V-tapered physique.
But not everyone can do the biggest, baddest back exercises out there. For a lot of us, pullups (a gold-standard back move) are hard, so hard that we can’t do enough reps to build muscle. Barbell rows can feel awkward. And heavy barbell deadlifts are very often just plain intimidating.
The good news if you dread all those moves: You don’t need to do any of them to build a supremely jacked, powerful back. You can pack on serious back muscle and strength with just a pair of dumbbells by building around row-focused moves and heavy farmer’s carries. These exercises will go a long way toward helping your body offset the shoulders-rolled-forward posture that often comes with everyday activities like car-driving and typing at a computer.
Start with the 10 best dumbbell moves for back and you’ll be well on your way.
The basic dumbbell row is one of the best exercises for your back, attacking both the lats and rhomboids. And if you do it right, focusing on keeping your hips and shoulders square to the ground, it’ll build serious core strength, too. Just make sure not to round your back. One of the best parts about the dumbbell row: It’s an exercise that you can eventually load up with serious weight, making it a key muscle-building move. Start with 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Not far behind the dumbbell row is the incline row, one of the strictest row variations there is. When doing standard dumbbell rows, it’s easy to wind up letting your torso rock back and forth, creating momentum instead of moving the weight solely with muscle. The incline bench helps eliminate that as you glue our chest to the pad. The incline bench also changes the angle of pull just slightly, helping you attack your lower lats more. Start with 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Elevated Plank Row Hold
The elevated plank row hold, a move from fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., will help you build a strong mind-muscle connection with your back muscles (and incinerate your core, too). After establishing a sturdy elevated plank position, you’ll row a dumbbell upwards and hold. But don’t let it be a mere hold; focus on continuing to pull upwards for the duration of the hold.
Half-Iso Incline Row Countup Series
Want to level up the incline row? Do it with the half-iso incline row countup series, which teaches your back muscles how to continue generating force even when they’ve pulled your arms back as far as they can. Understanding this principle is key to building back strength, and it’ll leave your lats and rhomboids with a major back burn.
The classic renegade row is a solid way to blast your entire upper body. You hammer your chest and triceps during the pushup phase of the movement. Then, as you press up and row the dumbbell toward your hip, you crush your abs and stimulate your lats and rhomboids, essentially finishing with a plank row. A good starting point here: 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side.
Towel-Grip Dumbbell Row
Ratchet up the forearm and stability challenge of the standard dumbbell row with Samuel’s towel dumbbell row. Mechanically, this seems a lot like a standard dumbbell row, but the towel adds two challenges. First, you’ll need to squeeze the towel aggressively to hold the dumbbell. Second, you get to work on keeping the dumbbell balanced and level, which will mean you’ll need to use a slower, more controlled pull on each rep and hone your mind-muscle connection in the process.
V-Taper Dumbbell Row Series
The V-Taper Row Series will help you build your outer lats and also add size and depth to your rear delts. Here, you’re mixing a traditional elbow-close-to-torso row with a row where your elbow flares outward. That flared-outward row will attack your rear delts, building much-needed mass behind your shoulders. The tempo used here will also blast your lats on the close rows, as you hold for a brief second.
Another classic exercise, and a move that man’s been doing since the beginning of time, the farmer’s carry has you picking up heavy dumbbells and walking with them, typically either for time or distance. Either way, as you focus on squeezing your shoulder blades and tightening your abs, you build a bigger, stronger back (and a resilient body overall).
Three-Way Elevated Plank Row
The three-way elevated plank row is all about back muscle subtlety. You won’t get to cheat much here, largely because most of your body is completely focused on maintaining solid elevated plank position. That means the “working” arm gets to pile up very focused back squeezes. By shifting wrist positions, you get to hit different parts of your back (as you also challenge your core in new ways): The elbow-flared position hits your rear delts, the standard elbow-close-to-torso row hits your lats and rhomboids, and the reverse-grip pull will focus in on your lower lats.
TRX Plank Pause Row
Think of the TRX plank pause row as a devastating challenge; you’ll need an extra piece of equipment for it in the TRX. Once you have that, you get to establish an ultra-challenging TRX single-arm plank hold, which will carve your abs and obliques. From that position, you’re rowing a dumbbell upwards; your lats and rhomboids will do this in near-complete isolation, in part because the rest of your body is almost completely focused on merely holding that devastating TRX plank.
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