Training your back and bicep muscles is not only important for developing upper body strength, it is also enjoyable. Many of the back and bicep exercises are very popular in the gym. Bicep curls, rows, pulldowns, and cable exercises make up many a gym routine.
In this article, we will be developing a back and bicep workout for you to follow.
It is not necessary for you to perform a warm-up before a resistance workout. A few practice sets before your major compound lifts should be more than enough.
A practice set would look like this: Let’s say that your first exercise is barbell bent over rows, and you are going to lift 70 kg for 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Your practice set(s) would be around 50-60% of that weight for a similar number of reps.
If you were performing strength training, which involves heavier weights for fewer reps, you would lift less than 50% of the working weight and use more reps.
- Practice set = 2 sets of 8 reps at 50-60% of weight
- Working set = 3 sets of 6-8 reps at 50%
If you like to warm up before a workout, then some cardio and a few dynamic warm-up exercises such as a resistance band lat stretch or an active hang.
Back and Bicep Dumbbell Workout
When creating a back and bicep workout, the first thing you need to decide is what you are training for. Back and bicep training suits hypertrophy best, and it is pretty poor for strength training.
But you could use it to train for fat loss and/or endurance by incorporating high reps, super-sets, and shortened rest periods. As the vast majority of readers will be training for hypertrophy, this section will be based on this.
For back compound exercises (dumbbell bent-over row, single-arm dumbbell row, upright row, and shrugs), you want to keep the rep range to around 8-12. For the bicep isolation exercises (the rest), you can use the same rep range, or you can increase it to 12-15 or even 15-20.
Rest periods between sets should be around 45-90 seconds. It can be up to 3 minutes, with several studies indicating that this is ideal for hypertrophy . In practice, most people will find 3 minutes to be excessive.
When it comes to form, you want your technique to be almost flawless. If perfect form is 100%, then you want to aim for 85-100%. If your form drops below 85%, then you are using too heavy a weight, not resting long enough between sets, or your workout has gone on too long.
In this section, we have four back exercises that can be performed with a set of dumbbells. They are all compound lifts, meaning that they target multiple muscle groups, but mostly they focus on the upper back and, to a lesser extent, the biceps.
1. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
One of the best exercises for the upper back, the dumbbell bent over row requires a set of dumbbells and nothing else. Just ensure that you are able to maintain a flat back while performing this exercise.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms by your sides, shoulders pulled back, and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and then bow forward, keeping your shoulders pulled back so that you maintain a flat back. Your arms should be hanging down towards the floor.
- With your chest pushed out, pull the dumbbells up, keeping your arms close to your sides. Pause when the dumbbells have reached the sides of your chest.
- Squeeze your back muscles and then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Pause, and then repeat for the next rep.
Pro Tip: You want to keep your back as flat as possible while performing dumbbell bent-over rows. If you cannot manage this, then set a bench to a 45-degree angle and rest your forehead on the top. This makes it easier to maintain a flat back.
2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
The single-arm dumbbell row is a much more popular back exercise than the dumbbell bent-over row. Because you are using your other hand to support your weight, you are able to lift more, and you can add a little rotation into your row to target the lats slightly more.
- Place one knee on the end of an exercise bench and place your hand on the other end. Your other foot should be flat on the ground, with your spare hand holding a dumbbell.
- Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back so that you have a flat back. The arm holding the dumbbell should be hanging straight down towards the ground.
- Keeping your body as still as you can, pull the dumbbell up until it reaches your armpit. Pause, and then lower it back down to the starting position. Repeat for desired reps and then swap sides.
Pro Tip: When pulling the dumbbell up, you can rotate your body slightly so that you pull the dumbbell slightly higher, working the lats more.
3. Dumbbell Upright Row
This exercise works your trapezius muscle as well as your shoulders. It is much better than the barbell version allowing you a greater range of motion.
- Stand upright with your chest pushed out and your shoulders pulled back. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms straight and the dumbbells resting on your upper thighs.
- Take a deep breath and then pull the dumbbells up your body, making sure that your elbows rise first as the dumbbells rise.
- Pause when the dumbbells are near your collarbone, then slowly lower them back down to the starting position.
Pro Tip: You may find that the exercise feels better if you lean forwards a little with your knees slightly bent. Give it a try and see which one suits you best.
4. Dumbbell Shrugs
Dumbbell shrugs are a great exercise for your trapezius muscle, but they are also amazing for improving your grip strength. Something that is very important for improving deadlifts, rows, pull-downs and presses.
- Stand upright with your chest out and shoulders back. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms straight down by your sides.
- Keeping your arms straight, shrug your shoulders up as high as you can.
- Pause, and then lower the weights back down again.
In this section, we have four bicep isolation exercises. These are fantastic exercises to add to the end of your back and bicep workout. Focus on your form, don’t let your elbows swing and don’t rock back and forward to gain momentum. If you catch yourself doing so, then lower the weights.
1. Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Hammer curls are a great twist on the traditional dumbbell bicep curl. They target your biceps primarily, but due to the hammer grip, you also work your forearms. Lower the weight slightly, or you will really struggle with this one.
- Stand upright with chest pushed out, shoulders back, and feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand as if you were holding two hammers.
- Keeping your elbows pinned to your side, curl one dumbbell up to your collarbone as if you were swinging a hammer backwards. Pause, and then lower to the starting position.
- As you are lowering the first dumbbell, slowly raise the other dumbbell. This is one rep.
2. Dumbbell Concentration Curls
The concentration curl is instantly recognisable, yet it has certainly fallen out of fashion in the last two or three decades.
- Sit on the edge of a bench with one hand on your knee and the other arm stretched out, holding a dumbbell. Using your other knee as support.
- Push your chest out to straighten your back. The arm with the dumbbell should be resting so that the elbow is on the side of your knee.
- Curl the dumbbell upwards until it is resting close to your face. Squeeze your bicep and then lower the dumbbell back down until your arm is fully extended.
- Perform the required number of reps and then swap over to the opposite hand.
3. Dumbbell Drag Curls
Drag curls are great because they work the biceps slightly differently from a traditional curl. This exercise also works really well with a barbell.
- Stand upright with your chest pushed out and shoulders back, and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms straight down and the dumbbells resting on your upper thighs.
- Take a deep breath, and then drag the dumbbells up your body with your elbows close to your sides. You are not curling the weights, just dragging them upwards.
- Pause, and then slowly lower them back down to complete one rep.
Pro Tip: Imagine that there is a string tied to the top of each dumbbell, dragging them up your body. Don’t just curl the dumbbells as you would normally. It’s a completely different movement.
4. Seated Dumbbell Curls
The seated dumbbell curl is often mistaken for the concentration curl, as they both involve sitting down and curling a dumbbell. But there are differences, and many people will probably find the seated dumbbell curl easier to learn and perform.
- Sit on an exercise bench. It can be at a slight incline, but not too much. Place your feet flat on the floor, push your chest out, and hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms straight down towards the floor.
- Keeping your back flat against the bench and your elbows pinned to your side, curl one dumbbell up until it reaches your collarbone. Pause, and then slowly lower it back down.
- As the dumbbell travels down, you can raise the other dumbbell and repeat the same movement. Once both dumbbells have been curled, that is one rep.
Pro Tip: You can also perform this exercise as a seated hammer curl. Just adjust your grip to replicate holding a hammer in each hand.
Should You Train Back and Bicep Together?
There are many different training splits out there. You have the push/pull split, the upper/lower split, the full body split, and the muscle pairs split. This involves combining different muscle groups such as chest and triceps, shoulders and abs, and back and biceps.
This split has been popular for a long time, mostly because the two muscle groups are often worked simultaneously. Take the barbell row, for example. Using an underhand grip, you are working both the back (lats and traps) and the biceps.
There is no way to perform a barbell row without targeting both the back and the biceps, so the argument goes that you might as well combine these two muscles for the entire workout.
There are lots of benefits to this; you can cut down on workout time by training both muscles with compound lifts such as rows, pull-ups, and pulldowns. You can also train both muscles twice per week, particularly if you train them together as part of a push/pull split.
But there are some downsides too. Some people find that training back and biceps together leaves them too fatigued to really target their biceps. Claiming that the back exercises pre-fatigue the biceps, preventing them from performing bicep isolation exercises such as curls.
This is usually the case for people who are new to lifting. If this happens to you, then you can drop the bicep isolation exercises and instead place more emphasis on the biceps during your back workout. For example, using an underhand barbell row rather than overhand or a close-grip lat pulldown instead of a regular lat pulldown.
In this article, we have provided you with four back exercises and four bicep exercises. We’ve also given you the tools to create your own training program from it. You can perform this workout once or even twice per week (depending on the rest of your training split and the time you have available).
Remember to prioritise your form and tempo rather than worrying about how much weight you can lift. Pay attention to your body, and adjust your rest periods and rep ranges accordingly. This way, you will get better results, and you will reduce your risk of injury.