Illustration of a man doing a dumbbell pullover workout to build bigger back muscles.

The Best Dumbbell Back Exercises & Workout

You can build a big, strong, and balanced back with just dumbbells. Chin-ups and pull-ups are the foundation of most back workouts, but it’s pretty easy to replace them with dumbbell exercises.

Our main Bony to Beastly Program heavily emphasizes dumbbells. Some of our best transformations come from guys training at home with a simple dumbbell home gym. You aren’t at much of a disadvantage. Dumbbells are fantastic for building muscle.

Still, good back workouts are difficult to program. Each back muscle is responsible for slightly different movements and thus benefits from slightly different exercises. That’s why a good back workout usually has around 3 different complementary back exercises.

A skinny guy building muscle. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Outlift.

How to Train Your Back Muscles

Your back muscles are mostly pulling muscles, but they each have their own specialty. We break it all down in our article on back training, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Your lats pull your elbows back towards your torso (like with rows and pullovers) and in towards your torso (like when doing wide-grip pull-ups).
  • Your rear delts can pull your arms back further behind your body than your lats can (like at the top of a row). They’re also better than your lats at pulling with flared elbows (like with a reverse fly).
  • Your traps can move your shoulder blades (like with shrugs), but they’re even better at holding them still (like with deadlifts).
  • Your spinal erectors can flex your spine, but when lifting weights, you mainly use them to keep your spine stable (like with deadlifts).
Diagram showing which back muscles are worked by which back exercises.

I’m not sure whether you’re looking for a pure back workout or more of a “Back Day” or “Pull Day,” where you also train your biceps, forearms, and hamstrings. We included those muscles, too, just in case.

The Best Dumbbell Lat Exercises

Chin-ups, pull-ups, and pulldowns are great for training your lats. If you don’t have a pull-up bar, it gets a little trickier, but not much.

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing dumbbell rows to work his lats and upper back muscles.

Dumbbell rows make for a good starting point. They work your lats quite hard, albeit not through a very deep range of motion. Training your muscles under a deep stretch is quite a bit better for stimulating muscle growth (full explanation), so we want to include at least one exercise that works your lats at longer muscle lengths.

Illustration of a bodybuilder doing dumbbell pullovers instead of lat pulldowns.

Dumbbell pullovers are perfect for training your lats under a deep stretch. They’re also toughest at the bottom of the range of motion, making them even better for building muscle. If you combine them with rows, your lats will grow like weeds.

The Best Dumbbell Trap Exercises

Most beginners focus on the part of their traps they can see from the front: their upper traps. And they train those upper traps with exercises like shrugs. That can work. But shrugs are far from the best trap exercise. I haven’t done them in 10 years. We don’t have them in any of our programs.

Illustration of a man working out his trap muscles with dumbbells.

Your traps are responsible for moving and stabilizing your shoulder blades. If you’re doing rows to train your lats, you’ve already done a good job of training your traps. Just make sure you’re rowing with good technique. Reach out at the bottom, getting a deep stretch on your traps.

Illustration of a man doing dumbbell rows to build bigger traps.

Your traps also get quite a bit of work from deadlift variations. If you include some dumbbell Romanian deadlifts in your workout routine, your traps will hold your shoulder blades steady. That’s more than enough to stimulate muscle growth.

Your upper traps also get worked with dumbbell overhead presses and lateral raises. Most lifters who follow balanced workout routines have huge upper traps. You probably won’t ever need to target them directly.

The Best Dumbbell Rear Delt Exercises

There’s this myth in the fitness industry that everyone is overtraining their front delts and undertraining their rear delts. That doesn’t make any sense. Your rear delts pull your arms back during rows and pullovers. They also help keep your shoulders stable during deadlift variations.

Still, it can help to train all the functions of your rotator cuff. We like to use an exercise called the TYI. It’s like a reverse fly, but it adds two slightly different movements, training more of the muscles in your rotator cuff. It’s also pretty good for your mid and lower traps.

Marco’s background is as a strength coach. Before we started this business, he was training college, professional, and Olympic athletes, helping them bulk up to improve their sports performance. TYIs and face pulls are popular with athletes, especially ones who need to throw things. Bodybuilders often do reverse flyes instead. That’s perfectly fine.

The Best Dumbbell Spinal Erector Exercises

The classic spinal erector exercises are deadlifts and front squats. You can do dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, and that will help. You can also do goblet squats. That will help, too. But these dumbbell variations are much lighter than the barbell versions. You need more.

A good solution is to do some of your back exercises without any back support. Instead of resting your hand on a bench while doing dumbbell rows, hold yourself up with your spinal erectors. You can do the same thing with reverse flies and TYIs.

Here’s a video of Marco teaching the 2-point dumbbell row. That’s a great place to start. When your spinal erectors grow too strong for that, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand, rowing with both hands at once, doubling the load on your spinal erectors.

The Dumbbell Back Workout

If you’re a beginner, I recommend following a 3-day full-body workout plan. You’d include a couple of back exercises in each of those full-body workouts. We’ve got a beginner full-body workout guide here. You can do the full routine with just dumbbells.

If you already know how to lift weights, and if full-body workouts are starting to become too difficult, it might make sense to split up your body into different muscle groups, doing a 4-day or even 5-day workout split.

If you’re packing all your back exercises into a “Back Day” workout, it might look something like this:

ExerciseSetsRep Range
Dumbbell Row3–5 sets8–20 reps
Dumbbell Pullover3–4 sets8–12 reps
Biceps Curls3–4 sets8–12 reps
TYIs2–3 sets10–15 reps
Wrist Curls2–3 sets10–15 reps

Rows work well for anywhere between 8–20 reps per set. If your dumbbells aren’t very heavy, it helps to have that flexibility. You could even go as high as 30 reps if you’re particularly fond of torturing yourself.

I haven’t included goblet squats, dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, dumbbell overhead presses, or lateral raises here. You should include those in your routine, too. They’ll help develop your spinal erectors and traps, even if they don’t quite belong in a back workout.

You could do this workout alongside dumbbell chest, leg, and arm workouts, aiming to do each workout 1–2 times per week. I recommend stopping 0–2 reps shy of failure and getting almost enough rest between sets. Something like 1.5–2 minutes of rest.

The Bony to Bony to Beastly Dumbbell Workout Program.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a muscle-building newsletterIf you want us to walk you through the entire process of building muscle, check out our Bony to Beastly Program. It includes a 5-month dumbbell workout routine, diet guide, recipe book, tutorial videos for every exercise, and one-on-one support from us in our online community.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified conditioning coach with a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 70 pounds and has over a decade of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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