How to Get a Stronger Back With This Dumbbell Workout

woman doing a renegade tow

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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The back can often get overlooked in resistance training workouts—people tend to focus on the arms, legs, and glutes. Yet, back muscles get used for even the simplest of daily movements, from picking up groceries and showering to putting on clothes. Having a strong back can make these everyday tasks easier and even helps reduce pain should you pull a back muscle.

You do not need to head to a gym to build muscular strength in your back. Rather, a set of dumbbells, a bench, and some space to move is all you need. For beginners, be sure to start out with light weights to avoid injury—back pain can make even getting in and out of bed challenging. To start a back workout routine, we asked certified personal trainers provide their top exercises and tips, which we outline below.

Overview 

Why the back? Building strength in your back can stave off painful injuries, improve posture, and provide more flexibility and range of motion for everyday movements.

“We are constantly in an anteriorly rotated position,” says Kent Edwards, CPT, master trainer at Crunch 59th Street. “This can lead to nagging back and shoulder pain, or in some cases, be the precursor to injury.”

The following exercises are designed to work a number of your regularly used back muscles, along with your core. Here is a summary of the workout:

  • You need 30 minutes with 5 minutes for the warm-up and 5 minutes for 5 exercises.
  • The equipment needed are two dumbbells, which can range from 5 to 25 pounds (depending on your level) and a stable bench.
  • This workout is geared toward beginning to moderate levels.
  • Start out with fewer sets and stop if you lose proper form. Either switch to a lighter weight or stop the exercise completely.
  • This workout targets back muscles, arms, and legs.

According to Edwards, a strong back can help improve the quality of your life and reduce the risk of injury by allowing you to live in a more anatomically favorable position.

Warm Up

To warm up, perform 5 to 10 minutes of your choice of cardio. This could include fast walking, running, climbing on a Stairmaster, or cycling. Your heart rate should start to rise.

The Workout

This workout includes five beginner- to moderate-level back-strengthening moves. Beginners should start with 3- to 5-pound dumbbells while intermediate exercisers can use what feels challenging but is not heavy to the point that you lose form. You can do this workout two to three times per week.

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

This exercise works the upper and lower back and biceps. You need two dumbbells and a bench.

"This exercise allows you to focus on one side at a time, which can help you to get a more even workout," says Brett Kirkland, CPT, owner of Zone105.

Kirkland recommends this exercise for beginners and says to make sure your hips stay even through every set. Here is how you do a dumbbell row.

  1. Start by putting one knee on a bench and the other foot planted firmly on the ground.
  2. Bend down and put your arm on the bench for stability (the arm on the same side as the knee).
  3. Have a dumbbell in your free hand.
  4. Draw the free arm up toward the side of your chest.
  5. Squeeze the bottom of your shoulder blades as your elbow helps squeeze your back tight.
  6. Lower your arm to the starting position.
  7. Complete three sets of 10 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets.

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

This movement gives you strength to pick up objects in your daily life without as much strain. Recommended by Edwards, he says that once you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can change your grip with your palms facing up or down. The muscles worked include your lats, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and mid/lower traps. You will need two dumbbells. Here is how perform the bent over dumbbell row.

  1. Start by bending your knee slightly with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lean forward with your back 45 degrees and keep your back straight.
  3. Hold this position for the entire exercise.
  4. Extend your arms toward the floor as if you are shaking hands.
  5. Keep your elbows by your side and pull the dumbbells toward the ceiling until your hands are aligned with your belly button.
  6. Try to pull your elbows together behind your back and hold for 1 second.
  7. Return back to the starting position.
  8. Complete three sets of 10 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets.

Renegade Row

This movement, recommended by Edwards, can strengthen your back and your core, reducing your risk of injury when you twist and turn. If you can, remain in a plank position for the movement but you can come down to your knees to rest if/when needed.

The muscles worked include the lats, teres major, mid/lower traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoid, abs, glutes, and quadriceps. You need two dumbbells.

  1. Start in a high plank or push-up position with two dumbbells in each hand parallel to each other in a neutral grip position.
  2. Make sure your shoulders are in line with your hands.
  3. Maintain tension from your shoulders to your knees, contracting your abs, glutes, and quadriceps.
  4. Lift one of the dumbbells behind you as if you are pulling your elbow toward the center of your spine while using your opposite arm to stabilize your entire body.
  5. Return the dumbbell to the starting position under control.
  6. Make sure the dumbbell is in a stabilized position, then alternate to the other arm.
  7. Try to maintain an active plank throughout the movement with minimal rotation at the hips.
  8. Complete three sets of 10 reps for each arm with 60 seconds rest between sets.

 Single Arm, Single Leg Dumbbell Row

According to Edwards, the single arm, single leg dumbbell row is designed to not only help you develop your back, but it is also core intensive. The muscles worked include lats, teres major, rhomboids, posterior deltoid, mid/lower traps, abs, and core.

"It will leave you feeling stronger from the inside out," he says.

You need two dumbbells and a bench. Here is how to do the single arm, single leg dumbbell row.

  1. Start in a single-leg stance (right leg) next to a bench. Have a dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Bend forward at the hip and lift your opposite leg (left leg) so that it is parallel to the floor.
  3. Use your left arm to stabilize your torso on the bench.
  4. Use your right arm to pull the dumbbell behind you as if you are pulling your elbow toward the center of your spine. At the top of the row, the dumbbell should be between your belly button and chest.
  5. Return the dumbbell to the starting position under control and repeat the movement.
  6. Complete three sets of 10 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets.

Seal Row

This exercise is recommended by Allison Sizemore, CPT, a certified sports nutritionist and online fitness coach. It is a variation of the barbell row and it allows you to isolate your movements, exhausting your muscles quickly, which builds strength fast.

"The key for the seal row is to set it up on a bench so that you can fully extend your arms without the dumbbells touching the ground," says Sizemore. "Think about pulling your hands toward the hip and row the dumbbells up until you feel your upper back engage."

The muscles worked are your deltoids, lats, traps, core, glutes, and biceps. You need two dumbbells and a bench.

  1. Lie with your face down on the bench with dumbbells hanging in each hand at the sides of the bench.
  2. Squeeze your glutes, tighten your core, and raise your arms to your side with your elbows bending. You are creating an L shape with your arms.
  3. Lower down until your arms are straight.
  4. Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets.

Safety & Precautions

Safety is always priority number one. You should stop if you feel pain outside of how you normally feel when lifting and stop if you feel a tearing sensation, you shake too much to control the movement, or you start to feel faint.

As a precaution, start by lifting weights with a weight less than what you think can lift and then move up from there. This will warm up your muscles and could help you avoid pulling a muscle in your back. Also, too much physical activity has been associated with low back pain, so do not overdo your workout—stick to the given routine.

A Word From Verywell

The back muscles are some of the most important to strengthen in the body, as they are used in almost every daily movement. Even getting into bed, climbing into your car, and opening the refrigerator requires using your back.

To help keep yourself as injury free as possible, incorporating back exercises into your workout routine is vital, and simple back movements with dumbbells can build strength if you stick with it. If you are just starting a workout program, be sure to speak with a healthcare provider. They can review your medical history and fitness level and let you know if this workout is right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you build muscle in your back with dumbbells?

    You can build muscle in your back with dumbbells. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dumbbells are recommended equipment to help with gaining strength, but make sure you use the correct amount of weight for your current fitness level.

  • Do shrugs work the back or the shoulders?

    Shrugs traditionally work the shoulder and are often used in shoulder rehabilitation programs. But shrugs do work the back as well, specifically the upper trapezius muscle. For beginners, you can do shrugs by holding dumbbells in each hand and moving your shoulders up and down (just like a shrug you would do in everyday life).

  • Why is a strong back important?

    According to a systematic review from the journal Healthcare, back pain is a serious health condition and is associated with rising medical costs and people missing work. It also is the most common musculoskeletal issue. Building back muscles can reduce chronic pain, support the lumbar spine, and improve your quality of life.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gordon R, Bloxham S. A systematic review of the effects of exercise and physical activity on non-specific chronic low back painHealthcare (Basel). 2016;4(2):22. doi:10.3390/healthcare4020022

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strength training for older adults: Growing stronger.

  4. Pizzari T, Wickham J, Balster S, Ganderton C, Watson L. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapulaClin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014;29(2):201-205 doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2013.11.011

By Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, CPT
Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, is a certified personal trainer, freelance writer, and author of "Growth Mindset for Athletes, Coaches and Trainers."