The upper back is an often-overlooked area of the body, even though it plays a crucial role in many movements. The upper back is the base of support for the shoulders, neck, and head. It provides the foundation for the arms and hands, and contributes to posture.
And while the back is often trained with rows and deadlifts, the upper back is often neglected. The upper back muscles include three major muscle groups plus the small trapezius muscles. Most people rarely work on their upper back due to a lack of knowledge and patience in mastering the movements.
Yet upper back exercises are essential for good posture and maintaining proper alignment throughout the chest, shoulders, and neck areas. Here’s a list of some dumbbell exercises that focus on the upper back muscles.
Dumbbell Upper Back Exercises
Below are five dumbbell upper back exercises that can be performed in a home workout or gym session.
1. Dumbbell bent over row
The dumbbell bent-over row exercise is one of the most popular exercises in bodybuilding. For many years this exercise has been part of a bodybuilding ritual. It targets the whole of your back muscles, mainly focusing on your lats as well as your biceps.
Here is how you do this exercise:
- Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs.
- Bend forward at the hips, keeping your back straight, and lower the dumbbells to just below your knees.
- From this position, row the dumbbells up to your chest, keeping your elbows close to your sides.
- Pause for a moment at the top of the movement, and then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
The dumbbell bent-over row targets the whole of your back muscles, mainly focusing on your lats as well as your biceps. It also helps to build a v-shape physique and gives you a wide-shouldered look. Some people use to do it when warm-ups and some do it at the end of their workout or sometimes they alternate between dumbbell bent-over row and barbell bent-over row to achieve better results.
2. Dumbbell shrugs
Dumbbell shrugs are a great addition to weight training workouts. In addition to building your back muscles, they can strengthen and tone additional muscle groups including your deltoid muscle (shoulder), quadriceps (front of the upper leg), and gluteal muscles (buttocks).
If you suffer from lower back pain, lifting heavy weights on the dumbbell shrug will strengthen your back muscles, which in turn can help to decrease and prevent back pain.
To do this exercise:
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Bend your knees slightly and keep your chest up and shoulders back.
- From this position, raise your shoulders as high as possible.
- Hold for a count of one, then slowly lower your shoulders back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Dumbbell shrugs offer an alternative to barbell shrugs and are an integral addition to any weight training workout regime. They are a very effective form of exercise for toning, shaping, and strengthening the back muscles, upper arm muscles, abdominal muscles, and gluteal muscles.
3. Dumbbell single arm rows
A single-arm dumbbell row is a really useful exercise that is underused. It’s great for balancing out the physique if you have disproportionately big lats. It works your entire back and even some biceps although it focuses more on your lower back and middle of the back than the top of your back.
Here is how you do dumbbell single-arm rows:
- Start with one dumbbell in your left hand and your left knee and hand resting on a bench.
- Use your right hand to brace yourself on the bench.
- Let the dumbbell hang straight down from your shoulder.
- Bend at the elbow and row the dumbbell up to your side.
- Lower the dumbbell back down and repeat.
- Do all the repetitions for one side before switching to the other side.
Single-arm dumbbell rows are a great exercise if you have disproportionately big lats, a common problem. It works your entire back and even some biceps although it focuses more on your lower back and middle of the back than the top of your back.
4. Dumbbell upright row
There are many ways to train the back muscles of your upper body. One of those methods is a dumbbell upright row for the back with an emphasis on maximizing strength and creating a solid foundation for broad shoulders and sloping lats. The more muscles on your upper back you have, the wider it will look. This exercise will develop your shoulders and latissimus dorsi muscle.
Here is a simple dumbbell upright row workout:
- Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs.
- Keeping your back straight, slowly lift the dumbbells to your chest, maintaining the palms-down position.
- At the top of the lift, your elbows should be at shoulder height and the dumbbells should be close to your chin.
- Lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position and repeat for 8-10 repetitions.
The dumbbell upright row exercise adds a great new dimension to your back workout. By using a dumbbell rather than a weight machine you can use more weight and focus on your technique more than usual. It’s also a simple exercise so it’s easy to learn and get the hang of.
5. Dumbbell chest supported row
The dumbbell chest supported row is a great exercise for strengthening your upper back. It’s perfect if you have a weak upper back, but need to continue to strengthen it in your workout routine. The upper back is important because it’s used to help pull objects towards you and is vital for everyday activity. Here’s how to do the chest-supported row using dumbbells on a bench.
- Sit on the edge of a bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground.
- Place a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your body.
- Bend forward at the hips and lower your torso until it’s parallel with the ground.
- Let the dumbbells hang down at arm’s length from your shoulders.
- Brace your core and row the dumbbells up to the sides of your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Pause for a moment at the top of the movement and then lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
The dumbbell chest supported row is also a great way to combine a muscle group workout with a core workout. By contracting your abdominals and back muscles at the same time, you are working for multiple muscle groups throughout the workout. The upper back needs extra attention, so don’t be afraid to spend more time on it during your workouts!
Before starting any exercise routine, it’s important to warm up properly to prepare your muscles and joints for the upcoming activity. A simple warm up for the upper back could include some gentle stretches for the upper body, such as arm circles, shoulder rolls, and neck tilts.
You could also perform some dynamic stretches, such as bodyweight rows or reverse flys with very light weights to get your muscles moving.
Here’s an example of a warm up routine to try before doing the dumbbell upper back exercises:
- Arm circles: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height. Slowly make small circles with your arms, going in both directions for 10-15 reps.
- Shoulder rolls: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and drop your shoulders down and back. Roll your shoulders up, back, and down in a circular motion for 10-15 reps.
- Neck tilts: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and drop your shoulders down and back. Tilt your head to the right, bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat on the left side. Do this for 10-15 reps on each side.
- Bodyweight rows: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and lean forward, placing your hands on a bench or other sturdy surface. Keeping your body in a straight line, row your body up toward the bench, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower back down and repeat for 10-15 reps.
- Reverse flys: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a light dumbbell in each hand. Hinge forward at the hips and let your arms hang straight down from your shoulders, palms facing each other. From this position, raise the weights out to the sides, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Lower the weights back to the starting position and repeat for 10-15 reps.
Remember to listen to your body and only do what feels comfortable. Stop if you feel any pain or discomfort.
We hope that you enjoyed these upper back exercises and that you can gain the benefits of upper body strength training. Take your time throughout each exercise, slowly increasing the load over time. Always remember that safety is important, so when in doubt sideline yourself until you regain proper technique and form, increasing the weight slowly in the future.
Remember to always consult with a qualified healthcare professional before starting any exercise program, and to listen to your body and avoid overexertion. Happy lifting!