Dumbbells: the most versatile piece of training equipment
Although the COVID-19 pandemic truly sucked donkey balls, it did teach those of us who live the iron life a few valuable lessons. Suddenly without access to a full array of equipment and with our gyms locked up and inaccessible, we had to figure out how to keep our gains, and hopefully make new gains, with whatever tools we could (a) afford and (b) use within the confines of our own garages, living rooms, and basements.
Because many of us started off lifting at home with just a barbell, a bench, and some weights, it was time to revisit those bare-bones roots and get creative so we could keep pumping iron.
A lot of us don’t have expansive living space, so equipment that took us as little room as possible was ideal.
Dumbbells were a godsend in this regard. They are without a doubt the most versatile piece of equipment you could ever hope to own, which is why unscrupulous types were price-gouging them during the lockdown.
Today I want to talk about how you can use nothing more than a pair of dumbbells and perhaps an adjustable bench to take your back thickness to a whole new level.
Your back isn’t thick enough
We all joke about guys whose legs lag far behind their upper bodies, which is why there are so many clever memes about skipping leg day. I would actually argue that it’s the back that is most commonly poorly developed relative to the rest of a person’s physique.
It’s easy to be tricked into thinking someone has better lats than they do if you’re only looking at the general shape, namely their “V-taper.” If a person has a gifted bone structure featuring wide clavicles and narrow hips, he or she will already appear to have a V-taper even without an ounce of actual muscle on his or her back.
Additionally, the most common type of back you will see is some degree of development in the upper back—the traps, rhomboids, and teres major and minor—while the latissimus dorsi is still paper thin.
When people with this look seek out my counsel on how to remedy this sorry state of affairs, they typically register shock or surprise when I respond with a single word: ROW!
Pull-ups and pull-downs are certainly valuable movements, but they will primarily target the upper back and won’t do much for your lats. All the greatest backs in bodybuilding history were built with plenty of rowing movements, all the way from Lee Haney to Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman.
Ronnie, who some consider to have crafted the thickest, densest back ever seen on a human being, even had a second weekly back workout he called his “back thickness day,” which was primarily composed of rows and deadlifts.
His Mr. Olympia successor Jay Cutler adopted the same strategy for his weekly training regimen. Rows are the key to a thick back, and all you need to do them are a pair of dumbbells.
Here are the back exercises with dumbbells you can perform at home or at the gym to turn your back into a rugged mountain range of muscle.
This is a true classic, and you only need one dumbbell to do it!
The standard method of performing one-arm rows for decades was to have one knee up on a bench. That never felt very grounded or secure to me. Then one day I saw a video of Branch Warren standing in front of the dumbbell rack with his legs splayed out behind him, firmly securing his center of gravity, and bracing the non-working arm on the rack in front of him.
Once I tried that variation, I never went back. Form matters a lot here. The pull shouldn’t be so much straight up and down as up and back toward your hip. I even tell people the dumbbell should finish right next to your hip bone.
Even more important, though closely related, is that you squeeze/contract the lats on each rep rather than just mindlessly yank the dumbbell like you’re starting a lawnmower.
Barbell rows are fantastic, but you can simulate the same movement and get a better range of motion with dumbbells. It’s a little trickier to maintain proper form, because your body’s natural inclination will be to stand up more erect rather than bend over as you should.
That’s why you need to set your ego aside here and work with a weight you can handle properly. As I said, you will be able to drive the elbows back further with dumbbells than you can with a barbell, allowing for a more complete contraction of the lats.
Supported dumbbell row
This exercise has become my favorite in recent years, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a current or previous lower back injury. I do them face down on an incline bench with my chest above the top of the bench, with either one or two dumbbells at a time.
With the torso safely braced, you can focus purely on pulling back and squeezing the hell out of your lats. There is absolutely no pressure or strain on the lower back.
Deadlifts and thick backs became synonymous after Ronnie Coleman’s epic 800-pound pull in his training DVD, The Unbelievable!! It should be fairly obvious that dumbbells can substitute for a bar in the deadlift, because the motion is simply pulling weight off the floor.
Because you should be able to handle some decent resistance here, don’t be shy about employing wrist straps to reinforce your grip. A lifting belt can also be useful for safety purposes.
Dorian Yates was the man most responsible for popularizing pull-overs as a means to build the lats during his six-year reign as Mr. Olympia, and in his case the old Nautilus pull-over machine was his tool of choice.
Pull-overs were done lying across a bench with a dumbbell for many decades before then, targeting either the chest or lats depending on where you shifted your focus.
What makes pull-overs unique is that they’re the only exercise for the lats that doesn’t involve the biceps, which can be viewed as a “weak link” in light of the fact that they’re so much smaller and weaker than the lats.
I prefer doing dumbbell pull-overs on a decline bench if possible, as the shift in torso position provides a greater range of motion, particularly in the critical stretch position.
Last but not least, you definitely want a set of beefy traps to go along with those thick lats. Dumbbell shrugs are actually a better option than a barbell in my opinion.
They allow you to keep your hands at your sides rather than in front, which if you will allow me to be graphic for a moment, keeps your privates from getting smashed by a heavy bar as you shrug up and down.
I always got better contractions and pumps with dumbbells. Straps come in handy here too, because most of you will eventually be using a pair of 100s or heavier. Be sure to shrug up high and also get a full stretch rather than doing those short bouncy reps that both look ridiculous and don’t do jack for your trap development.
Get Your Back Exercises Routine Going With Dumbbells
There you have it: a collection of killer back exercises with dumbbells that I promise will add new mass and density to your back. You can choose to incorporate one or more into your current back routine or really challenge yourself for a few weeks and see what using only dumbbells can do for your lats. Good luck and get pulling!
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