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5 Dumbbell Back Exercises (Workout For Mass & Strength)

If you’re anything like me, dumbbell back exercises are one of the most satisfying things in existence.

Sure, chest day is great, and the less said about leg day the better, but back day? It’s worth adopting a 5-day split just to dedicate an entire session to this awesome muscle group.

While pull-ups and barbell deadlifts have their place, if you genuinely want a bigger, more muscular back, you need to incorporate some dumbbell back exercises.

Here are my top 5 dumbbell back exercises for mass and strength, combined for the ULTIMATE dumbbell back workout.

Dumbbell Rows

Dumbbell rows

Dumbbell rows are undoubtedly the most popular of all dumbbell back exercises. The reason lies in their simplicity and effectiveness.

Equipment required

Workout & programming

  • Goal: mass
  • Muscles worked: lats, deltoids, biceps, traps, rhomboids
  • Rep range: 10 – 12
  • Sets: 3
  • Rest: 30 – 45 seconds
  • Sequencing: schedule near the start of the workout

You can perform this isolation exercise in a variety of rep ranges.

If you need help getting the form right, then check out our guide on how to perform the one-armed dumbbell row before you start.

This dumbbell workout targets mass, so aim for 10 – 12 reps per set, for three sets, with 30 – 45 seconds rest between sets.

  1. Take a dumbbell where you can reach 12 reps with 1 or 2 left in the tank.
  2. Kneel on a weight bench with your supporting arm slightly in front of you.
  3. Draw your elbow back and squeeze the lats at the top of the move for 1 second, and lower slowly for a long 3 – 4-second negative.
  4. Perform 12 reps on each arm.
  5. Rest for a strict 45 seconds. I usually set a timer for 30 seconds after a set to allow for the time it takes to set the timer and return to the exercise.
  6. Aim for 12 reps on each subsequent set. If you manage only 10 or 11, that’s fine.
  7. Once you progressively overload to the point where you can complete all 12 reps on the first two sets, but not the final one, use rest-pause sets to complete the required number of reps. For example, you reach 12 on your first set (with a couple of reps left inside you), you manage 12 on the second set (at failure), and on the final set, you only manage 9. Rest after 9 for a few seconds and then try the last 3 reps. Next time you perform the exercise you’d be progressively overloading if you then manage 10 before resting, then 11. Once you can do all 12 on all 3 sets, then up the weight and aim for 10 reps on each set, adding a rep each week and repeating as above.

Dumbbell deadlifts

Not everyone has room for a barbell set in their home gym. Even if you’re heading out to a commercial facility, if it is busy, you might need to improvise.

A heavy set of dumbbells provides an excellent opportunity to mix up your deadlifts.

Workout & programming

  • Goal: strength
  • Muscles worked: lats, traps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, abs + many more
  • Rep range: 8 – 10
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 60 – 90 seconds
  • Sequencing: schedule at the start of the workout

The deadlift is a versatile exercise, but for this workout, we will aim for a balance between strength and mass. It’s not worthwhile purely targeting strength with dumbbells, as you won’t find dumbbells heavy enough to make this work.

Conversely, high reps with a lower weight are not as efficient.

Programme this for early in your workout, typically the first exercise.

As with the dumbbell rows, you can check out our detailed dumbbell deadlift guide before starting this exercise to ensure you use correct form.

Here we will aim for four sets of 8 – 10 reps, with 60 – 90 seconds rest between sets.

  1. Select a set of dumbbells where you can hit 10 reps without hitting failure.
  2. You will need to use more of your legs on a dumbbell deadlift, due to being closer to the ground.
  3. Rather than holding the weights out in front, you can accommodate them more to your sides (so that they become more like a trap-bar deadlift)
  4. Drive your legs as you explode up, squeeze your glutes at the top, and hold for one second.
  5. Return to your starting position, ensuring the weights touch the ground between reps.
  6. Aim for 10 reps on each set. If you fall short, don’t worry about it – just aim for more next time.
  7. Once you can perform all 10 reps on all four sets, you can increase the weight.

Dumbbell Shrug

Dumbbell shrugs

For some people, building bigger calves seems impossible; others struggle to add size to their arms. Everyone has a weak spot.

If you’re facing issues growing your traps, and you haven’t tried shrugs, then maybe it’s time you did? It is a fantastic upper-back workout.

Workout & programming

  • Goal: mass
  • Muscles worked: traps, erector spinae
  • Rep range: 12 – 15
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 30 – 45 seconds
  • Sequencing: schedule towards the end of the workout

While you can perform shrugs with a barbell, plates, or a smith machine, the trusty ol’ dumbbell does a cracking job, too.

Most of us are looking to increase trap size, so we will target mass with this routine. Not sure how to do it? Check out our complete dumbbell shrug guide.

It is a high-volume exercise, so programme towards the end of your dumbbell back workout for maximum effect.

Aim for four sets of 12 – 15 reps to get an intense pump and force this muscle to grow. Keep rest periods short: 30 – 45 seconds should do it.

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells. Choose a weight where you can manage 15 reps without nearing failure.
  2. Lean forward a little, and explode up, drawing your shoulders up and back.
  3. Squeeze at the top for a second, and slowly lower back down. A long and slow four-to-five second negative is needed here to totally hammer the traps.
  4. Ensure your arms finish as low as possible to stretch the traps.
  5. Aim for 15 reps on each set. As with the first exercise, you can use rest-pause sets on the final two sets to maximise the volume. Once you can complete four sets of 15 with the minimum 30 seconds rest and no pauses, up the weight.

Dumbbell farmer walks (for mass)

This simple dumbbell back exercise can be done almost anywhere – and with nearly anything! If you’ve carried a couple of bags of heavy shopping back from the supermarket, you’ve effectively performed a set of farmer walks.

Workout & programming

  • Goal: mass
  • Main muscles worked: traps, biceps, quads, lower back
  • Rep range: dependent on individual; alternatively aim for 60 – 120 seconds
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 60 seconds
  • Sequencing: schedule at the end of the workout

I’m a massive fan of super-setting farmer’s walks (or the farmer’s carry, as it is sometimes called) with shrugs.

If you’re finding the shrugs are not challenging enough, add farmer’s walks to the end of each set until you almost reach failure; the pump you’ll get is insane – trust me!

Otherwise, they are still a great exercise to do on their own.

Regarding where you want them in your workout: these are a great finisher – you’ll complete your workout on a high, with a raging pump – what’s not to like?

Aim for four sets. You can use a timer, or base it on distance (for example, once to the end of the road is one rep) and leave 60 seconds rest between sets.

  1. Choose dumbbells that are heavy enough to hold for at least 60 seconds.
  2. Decide if you are going to track progress based on a timer or rep basis.
  3. Perform four sets with 45 – 60 seconds rest between each set.
  4. If using reps as your basis, stop at a point where you know you couldn’t manage another length of the gym/road/living room.
  5. If using time as your basis, aim for four sets of 60 seconds, stopping with enough time to not drop the weights from exhaustion (about 5 – 10 seconds short of failure).
  6. Once you can perform all sets with 60 seconds rest, you can either up the weight or up the time you spend carrying the load. For example, you could extend it to 80 seconds per set as your target.

Incline Dumbbell Rows

Incline Dumbbell Row

We finish off here with a variation of the first exercise we covered – the dumbbell row. The difference here (as the name suggests) is that we will perform it on an inclined bench.

This dumbbell row variation targets the lower lats.

One of the main benefits of this dumbbell back exercise is that it reduces the ability to cheat by stopping you from rocking back and forth.

Workout & Programming

  • Goal: mass
  • Main muscles worked: lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, rear delts
  • Rep range: 8 – 12
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 60 seconds
  • Sequencing: schedule early to mid-workout

This exercise is best performed early to mid-workout in the 8 – 12 rep range, with around 60 seconds rest. Check out our complete incline dumbbell row guide to see why.

  1. Set the bench up at a 30 – 45-degree angle.
  2. Take a set of dumbbells. Make sure they are not too heavy, otherwise you won’t be able to squeeze your shoulder blades at the top. You should be able to do 12 reps with a couple left before failure.
  3. Decide which area of your back you want to target. If you want more of the upper back, use a pronated grip (palms facing behind you); for lower back, reverse the grip to supinated. If you want the middle, use a neutral grip.
  4. Lie on the bench with your feet out behind, providing a solid foundation.
  5. Draw your elbows up and squeeze at the top for one second. Slowly return to the starting position.
  6. As with the first exercise we spoke about, use rest-pause technique on the last set until you can perform all reps on all sets, then increase the load.

Robin is the founder and CEO of Fitness Savvy. As a freelance writer he has written for publications such as Muscle & Strength, Sparkpeople, Inquisitr and many more. If he's not collating product reviews or working directly on improving the website, he is creating innovative content for the website's blog and Fitness Savvy YouTube channel

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