How do you build a muscular back? By following this expert guide to adding width and thickness to your lats
There are a few physique-sculpting tricks of the trade that people who know what they’re doing use to make themselves look as good as possible. One of those is to make sure that they work their middle shoulders by doing exercises such as lat raises. It gives your shoulders that appealing ‘capped’ look and increases the angle of the muscle as it joins the upper arm. That angle increase, in turn, makes your upper arms look bigger, so it’s a great double win.
Another thing that smart people do is spend at least as much time training their back as they do training their chest. If you do that and combine it with some sensible food choices then you’ll create that classic V-shaped torso look. You’ll get a narrow waist and wide shoulders. You’ll look stacked and you’ll look strong. Here’s our guide to the best dumbbell exercises for building a bigger, wider and stronger back.
Why should I do back exercises?
Most guys tend to focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror – the chest, abs and biceps, for example. That’s understandable, and you’re right to want to work those muscles, but if you want to look as good as possible as quick as possible, you need to work the muscles on the back of your body too. Here’s why:
- You improve your posture: Ok, not the sexiest sell. But it really matters. If you only ever train your chest and you neglect your back, you’ll get that hunched over posture and you’ll encourage your upper spine to bend forwards. That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to injury and it will also inhibit the amount you can lift in key exercises such as the overhead press, squat and deadlift because you won’t be able to get into strong and stable starting position.
- You build a V-shaped torso: Building a V-shaped torso is probably the best thing you can do if you want to create an impressive physique. It gives you proportions that scream ‘I know how to train and I’m in great shape’.
- You build back thickness: This is something that so many guys miss. Again, because they tend to look in the mirror front on, they forget how they look from the side. When you train your back effectively, you improve the side-on width ratio between your upper back and your waist. Your training aim should be to increase the thickness of your upper back and shrink your waist. Without training your back, that’s unlikely to happen.
What’s the best way of using dumbbells?
Dumbbells are great because they’re versatile, accessible and you can use them either at home or in the gym. There are lots of different back exercises that you can do with dumbbells but the key ones are rowing movements, where you pull the dumbbells up to your stomach, usually in a ‘bent over’ position where you hinge at the hips.
What can’t you do with a set of dumbbells?
You can’t easily do vertical pull exercises, such as the movement you make when doing a pull up or using a lat pulldown machine. But that’s ok. There are still plenty of exercises that you can use to get a great all-round training effect.
What weight should you use for dumbbell back exercises?
This depends on your starting strength and experience. Generally speaking, you’re going to want to use a fairly heavy load for rowing exercises because your big back muscles, which are also called the lats, are among the strongest in your body. If you only have a set of 10kg adjustable dumbbells, you may find that they are too light to give you a real challenge on a set of 10 dumbbell bent over rows, for example. If that is the case, and you are able to, you could use the plates from both dumbbells to load up one side and do single arm rows. If you do that, you’re likely to be able to lift up to about 17-18kg. If you select the right rep range and speed of lift, that should be enough to give you a good challenge.
What’s the key to using dumbbells effectively to train your back?
There are a few things that you need to nail if you want to get the most out of the moves below. Get them right and you’ll make great progress:
Hinge at the hips to get into a strong starting position
When you’re doing dumbbell row exercises, you want your weight to be on your heels and mid-foot, not your toes, and you want to hinge at the hips by pushing your backside back towards the wall behind you without flexing (bending) your spine. You’ll know you’re in the right position when you feel a reasonably strong stretch in your hamstrings. If you don’t hinge properly, you’re likely to bend forwards in your upper back and that will put pressure on your lower back and could cause injury.
Row the weights so that they are level with your belly button
A common mistake that I see is guys rowing the weight up so that they are level with their chest. If you do that you’ll reduce your ability to effectively contract the big back muscles. So make sure that you row the weights up so that they are roughly level with your belly button.
Lead with the elbows and maximise range of movement
Don’t think about your hands when you’re doing dumbbell rowing movements. Think about your elbows. Lead with the elbows and move them back as far as possible. The further you go, the harder it feels. The magic happens at the extents of the range so don’t short change yourself with half reps.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the move
To help you maximise your range of motion and improve the quality of muscle contraction, try to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the rep if you are doing two-handed moves. Also imagine that you are almost trying to wrap your elbows around your body and trying to get them to meet in the middle. You obviously won’t actually be able to do this but trying to do it will improve the quality of the rep.
Lower the weight slowly under control
If you want to make progress then you need to exploit the potential benefit of the entire rep. That means lowering the weight under control, probably for a count of three or four if adding muscle size is your aim. If you just let the weights drop down then you’re missing out. Using a slow eccentric (lowering) speed is also a great way of maximising the benefit of the load when you don’t have particularly heavy weights.
Six best back dumbbell exercises
Do these moves to sculpt an impressive v-shaped torso
Best for adding size and strength: Bent-over dumbbell row
Why: This classic row exercise will build great all-round back size and strength.
How: Hinge at the hips and let the dumbbells hang straight down. Initiate the movement by bending the elbows to row the dumbbells up to your sides without letting the elbows flare out to the sides. Squeeze at the top then lower slowly under control.
Best for joint health: Neutral grip bent over dumbbell row
Why: A ‘neutral’ grip is where your palms are facing each other. Anyone with tight shoulders or elbows may find this an easier position than the conventional bent over row.
How: Get into the starting position of the bent over row but perform the exercise with your palms facing each other.
Best for building biceps: Reverse grip bent-over dumbbell row
Why: A ‘reverse’ grip is where your palms are facing up. That adjustment will emphasise the role of the biceps muscles in the exercise.
How: Get into the starting position of the bent over row but perform the exercise with your palms facing up.
Best for when load is limited: Single arm dumbbell row
Why: If you’ve only got two 10kg adjustable dumbbells, this is a great option because you can load all of your plates onto one handle.
How: Get into the start by using a split stance with one foot in front of the other. Place your free hand on your front knee and let the dumbbell hang straight down. Initiate the movement by bending the elbow to row the dumbbell up to your side without letting the elbow flare out to the side. Lower slowly under control.
Best for building core strength: Renegade row
Why: Rowing a weight when you’re in a press-up position requires a huge amount of effort from your core muscles to stabilise your body.
How: Get into a press-up position while holding the handle of two dumbbells. Row one dumbbell up to your side and lower under control. The wider your feet, the easier it will be to control the movement. You may also need hexagonal shaped, rather than round dumbbells. It’s a tough move, so only do it when you have built an appreciable level of core strength and shoulder stability.
Best for beginners: Chest-supported dumbbell row
Why: This row is done with your chest on the bench, so it removes the need for you to get into a strong hip-hinge position and lets you crack on with working your back muscles. It’s a very safe way to row.
How: Angle a bench at about 45 degrees and position yourself so your chest is supported by the top of the bench and your head is above the bench. Let the dumbbells hang straight down. Initiate the movement by bending the elbows to row the dumbbells up to your sides without letting the elbows flare out to the sides. Squeeze at the top then lower slowly under control.