man who did a good upper body workout

Simple Upper Back Workout With Dumbbells 2020 Guide

“Out of sight, out of mind” is a phrase that perfectly sums up how people treat different muscles.

Let’s face it; the vast majority of gym-goers are more focused on growing their biceps, toning their pecs, or building shredded 6-pack abs.

But how many so-called “fitness enthusiasts” actually target a balanced growth of every critical muscle group in the body? Those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, I am talking about your upper back.

Did you know that by default, the posterior chain is weaker than the anterior chain of muscles? In other words, the muscles that are not visible when you look in the mirror are overlooked even when it comes to fitness training.

Hi there! I am Michael Shaw, your average office-going guy who has been on the journey to being fit as a fiddle! And today, I want to talk about the best way to train your upper back – with a pair of dumbbells.

So, without further ado, let’s jump right in…

Upper Back Exercises

Before I talk about the exercises you should be doing, we must take a tad bit of time to understand the upper back muscles. If you look at the human anatomy, your upper back is scientifically known as the thoracic spinal region, which sits between the cervical (neck) and the lumbar spine (lower back).

Since it connects to the rib cage, it is more sturdy and less likely to be injured. But continuous lousy posture can be one of the frequent contributors to upper back pain. And training your upper back can effectively eliminate the chances of any such injury or pain. Now, the specific muscles that make up the upper back are lats, traps, rear delts, rhomboids, and the two teres muscles.

But that’s enough chit-chat about technical stuff. It is time to look at the exercises you should be doing to work those upper back muscles. Remember, all you need is a pair of dumbbells to do these exercises.

Romanian Deadlifts

This first exercise is not only for your upper back but also for your glutes and hamstrings (remember posterior chain!). Being a compound exercise, I recommend doing three sets of 12 reps each.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing out slightly. Make sure that your chest is out, shoulders are down and squared back, and your spine is straight. Keep your arms straight with the dumbbells in front of you. Slowly lower your body from the waist till the dumbbells are just below your knees. And go back to the starting position and repeat.

Row, Row, Row!

Here, instead of talking about just one rowing exercise, I want to talk about three. You can pick one or like me, mix it up and incorporate all three on different days.

A Single-Arm Dumbbell Row is perhaps the most common back exercise you can do. You may do it by placing the other hand on a bench or against the wall. But make sure that both your feet are planted firmly on the ground.

The most crucial component here is that you should be looking straight ahead, and your spine should be as straight as a tabletop (parallel to the ground). Moreover, the elbow of your dumbbell-bearing arm should ideally go behind your back for maximum contraction of the back muscles.


If you like to challenge yourself at the gym, you can do a Plank Row, which engages the core while you are working on those lats!

The third variant is the Bent Over Double Dumbbell Rows. I know that most of you have probably done this exercise using a barbell instead of two dumbbells, but trust me, you need to do it to see the difference! You can engage your back muscles like never before due to a better and fuller range of motion with dumbbells.

For any of these rowing exercises, I recommend starting slow with three sets of 10 reps each and slowly increasing the reps to 12 or even 15 per set.

Why Dumbbells Are Better!

I am a big fan of dumbbells, and the reason for that is two-fold. First and foremost is the convenience factor, which can be better understood by going through the following points:

  • Dumbbells are portable and easily accessible, meaning you can use them even in a hotel room or your home.
  • When the gym is quite busy, people may be lining up to use machines. But the dumbbell rack has enough pairs for everyone.
  • Dumbbells are safer than barbells and other elaborate gym equipment.

My next reason for preferring dumbbells is a bit more technical. You see, when it comes to training upper back muscles, the full range of motion requires you to take your elbows behind your back. For instance, rowing or rear delt raises are significantly more effective when done using a pair of dumbbells.

For the best dumbbells in the market, you can take a look at my reviews of the top all-in-one weight sets for home use.

My Experience

Do you want to know what the biggest motivator for me to join the gym a couple of months ago was? It was a significant reduction in my upper body strength as I moved into the 30s. Because I was never overweight, I wasn’t too worried about my fitness. But after getting married and clocking in more hours at work, I started feeling weaker gradually.

I remembered seeing Instagram posts of Jacob, my high-school buddy who was now a certified fitness instructor at a nearby gym. So, I got in touch with him and started going there five days a week.

The first couple of weeks were excruciating, but I could see steady progress in my strength. It didn’t take long for a professional like Jacob to identify that my upper back muscles were really weak. That’s why he started incorporating more dumbbell exercises for the upper back in my workout regime.

I still have a long way to go, but I can notice a considerable change in the way my upper back responds to daily chores and activities. In fact, it is safe to say that training my upper back muscles is one of my favorite things to do in the gym these days.

Final Words

I am no expert when it comes to fitness training, but I am a keen learner. The last couple of months have been a sort of a wake-up call for me, thanks to Jacob! And that’s another reason why I love going to the gym – it educates me about my strengths and weaknesses.

Before I sign off, I want to reiterate that focusing on your upper back is of utmost importance, irrespective of your fitness goals. Because those muscles play a crucial role in your posture, balance, and overall strength.

There’s this thing that Jacob says time and again, “Your posterior chain is only as strong as its weakest link!” Don’t let that be your upper back if you wish to be fit.

Till next time!

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