If you play sports, perform physical work or just like to remain fit, you’ll definitely want to develop your upper back muscles. As a bonus, you’ll look impressive in a backless dress. Several exercise machines specifically target your back, but if you prefer to use free weights there are plenty of exercises you can perform using just a pair of dumbbells.
Your upper back contains a series of overlapping muscles. If you read descriptions of back exercises you’ll often see a long list of targeted or stabilizing muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, levator scapulae, the rhomboids, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and the teres major and minor. When you design your program, make sure all these muscles or muscle groups are covered.
Rowing exercises, as you can probably guess, simulate the movements you’d make while rowing a boat. In dumbbell rowing exercises you use the rowing motion to lift one or two dumbbells. These exercises typically work muscles such as the trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor and the infraspinatus. You can perform one-arm rows by stabilizing yourself on a bench with one hand and one knee, bending over, then lifting a dumbbell to your chest. If you’d rather work both arms at once, lie chest-down on a bench that’s tall enough that you can extend your arms down without touching the floor. Hold the dumbbells beneath your shoulders, then pull them up at a slight angle, to your mid-chest.
In weight training terms, a shrug doesn’t mean that you don’t know what to do. It means that you do know how to build your upper and middle trapezius muscles, plus the levator scapulae along your neck, the rhomboids and the erector spinae along your spine. Stand erect with a dumbbell in each hand, your head up and your arms extended at your sides. Then you’ll shrug, raising your shoulders as high as you can while keeping your arms straight.
The trapezius and latissimus dorsi are the largest muscles in your back. But don’t forget about some of the smaller muscles around your shoulder blades, such as the subscapularis, infraspinatus and teres minor. You can perform a variety of rotation exercises to work these muscles while standing upright, lying on the floor or on top of a bench. To target the subscapularis, for example, lie on your right side, on the edge of a bench, then grasp a dumbbell with your right hand. Place your upper right arm on top of the bench and against your side, then bend your elbow at a right angle. Maintain the bend in your elbow as you lower and raise the dumbbell. Repeat the exercise with your left arm.
Deadlifts are typically performed with barbells, but the dumbbell variety will strengthen several upper back muscles. You can hold dumbbells in both hands to simulate a barbell deadlift, or try a single-leg version by standing erect with your feet together while holding a dumbbell in one hand. Hinge from the hips as you bend your upper body forward and lift the dumbbell-side leg back. You’ll end up with your upper body a bit short of parallel with the floor, your dumbbell arm extended straight down to the floor, and your leg extended backward with the knee flexed. Reverse your movements to return to the starting position.
M.L. Rose has worked as a print and online journalist for more than 20 years. He has contributed to a variety of national and local publications, specializing in sports writing. Rose holds a B.A. in communications.