There’s no sidestepping it — if you want a bigger, wider back, your back workout needs to include two types of movements. One is a pulling motion from overhead downward, such as in a pull-up or cable pulldown. The other is a row, where you pull against resistance from a position in front of your body into your torso. When it comes to rowing, the standing barbell row is a sturdy and valuable option, but dumbbells allow for a longer range of motion, as well as the ability to apply intense focus to each side of your back. For best results, you’ll want to schedule both for regular appearances in your workouts.
Muscles Worked: The fan-shaped latissiumus dorsi muscles running from underneath your arms down to your lower back are the main movers, with key assistance from the rhomboids and trapezius.
Starting Position: Bend at the hips and place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench. Keep your other foot on the floor beside the bench. You’ll hold a dumbbell in your free hand, letting it hang straight toward the floor with your elbow loose.
Action: Pull the weight toward your hip, keeping your elbow in close as you flex your back, bend your arm and bring your shoulder upward. At the top, your elbow should be pointed toward the ceiling as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Lower the dumbbell under control along the same path. Complete your reps for one side, then switch arms and do the same amount of reps for the other — that’s one set.
Do: Allow your shoulder to shift back on the ascent and down on the descent. This action means your back is contracting and extending. If this isn’t occurring, the biceps is taking on the brunt of the load.
Don’t: Turn the exercise into more of a curl by bending your elbow too much (inside 90 degrees) as you raise the weight. The weight should stay oriented toward the floor — think of your arm as merely a hook to connect the resistance to your lats and mid-back muscles.
Variations: The row is often done as described here, with one hand and one leg on a bench, but the bench isn’t required. You can also keep both legs on the floor and bend over, bracing yourself on the top of a short-back bench or even the dumbbell rack as you row.
Uses: The dumbbell row is at home either as an anchor exercise or an ancillary move. You can do it early on in a back workout and go heavy, down in the 5-to-8–rep range, or save it until later in a workout and approach it as a detail exercise, going lighter for more overall reps.
Advanced Technique: Because it’s easy to change weights, the dumbbell row lends itself to drop sets, repping to failure and then dropping down to the next dumbbell, continuing until you can no longer rep with good form. For an unorthodox option, you can also try one-arm rowing with a barbell, which introduces a lot of extra balance challenges and unique lines of pull into the equation.