The 10 Best Dumbbell Exercises to H …

Even if you skipped Latin class or missed boarding school altogether, most lifters in the gym are familiar with their lats — the large, fan-shaped muscle that occupies most of your back. This makes sense because “latissimus dorsi” translates to “broadest muscle of the back side.”

Well-developed lats enhance the breadth of your physique by filling the space between your rib cage and arms. The lats support your low back and transmit energy between your hips and shoulders during athletic endeavors.

Finally, the lats are massive contributors to upper body pulling strength. Whether hoisting yourself over a wall at an obstacle course race or drawing in an opponent during a grappling sport, the lats are as useful as they are aesthetic.

Muscular man performing dumbbell row exercise in gym
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

We all need a strong, substantial set of lats. You might already train them with pull-ups and pulldowns. Sure, those are great, but there’s an assortment of effective lat exercises that only require a few dumbbells. Here are the best dumbbell exercises to hit your lats.

10 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Lats

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Sometimes the simplest exercise is the most effective. The bent-over dumbbell row delivers a heavy training stimulus to the lats and other muscles of the back while reinforcing hip hinge mechanics. In fact, the bent-over row shows comparable low back extensor muscle activity to the Romanian deadlift (RDL). (1)

Unlike the barbell row, which is traditionally performed with an overhand grip on a straight bar, the dumbbell version allows an elbow-friendly neutral forearm rotation. To better target the lats, pull your elbows straight back out to the side. (2)

How to Do the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Stand upright while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Bend forward at the hips and keep a slight bend in your knees. Allow the dumbbells to hang from your straight arms, slight in front of your knees.

Row both dumbbells toward the bottom of your ribcage by pulling the elbows and shoulders back. Keep your trunk at a constant angle to the floor. Don’t jerk your upper body up and down to move the weight.

Benefits of the Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

  • Maintaining the hip hinge (bent forward) position trains your glutes and spinal erectors while you row. (1)(3)
  • Rowing from the bent-over position requires greater spinal stiffness, which may make the bent-over dumbbell row a great accessory exercise for those training to improve their deadlift. (3)
  • Depending on your flexibility, the bent-over dumbbell row may also provide the bonus effect of a mild hamstring stretch.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Closely related to the bent-over dumbbell row, the single-arm dumbbell row allows you to adopt a large stance and brace your off-side arm on your leg.

Tasked with managing only one dumbbell at a time, you can focus attention on the target muscles including the lats, teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius, and posterior deltoids (upper back muscles). Focusing on the mind-muscle connection has been shown to be helpful for engaging the lats. (4)

How to Do the Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Begin with one dumbbell on the floor. Take a staggered stance with your front foot next to the dumbbell. Your working arm will be opposite your front foot — left foot forward with your right arm working, and vice versa.

Lean forward and brace your non-working forearm on your front thigh. Grab the dumbbell with your working arm and row the dumbbell toward your back hip. Maintain a neutral grip with your palm facing your front leg. Lower the weight to a full stretch, nearly reaching ankle-level.

Benefits of the Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

  • Rowing one arm at a time with your off-side forearm supported on your thigh helps lock in good form by discouraging hip extension.
  • Unilateral (single-arm) rowing with off-side support is easier on the low back. It reduces lumbar erector muscle activity and likely decreases extension forces and shear forces experienced by the low back. (5)

Dead-Stop Dumbbell Row

Think of the dead-stop dumbbell row as a relative of the barbell-based Pendlay row. Like its more popular sibling, each repetition is performed from the floor, which builds raw strength at long muscle lengths.

And like the Pendlay row and the bent-over dumbbell row, discussed above, the exercise requires deep hip flexion and adequate hamstring flexibility. But unlike the bent-over dumbbell row, which can tax the lumbar region, the dead-stop dumbbell row offloads the low back between each repetition while the weight is reset on the ground.

How to Do the Dead-Stop Dumbbell Row

Stand with two dumbbells slightly outside of your toes. Assume a deep hip hinge position, bent at the waist, with your back as straight as possible.

Grab the dumbbells and row them alongside your thighs toward your ribs. Lower both weights to the ground and allow a “dead-stop” on the floor between repetitions. Pause momentarily to unload the weights, without loosening your grip, before initiating the next rep.

Benefits of the Dead-Stop Dumbbell Row

  • Because the dead-stop dumbbell row begins and ends in a stationary position on the floor, it interrupts the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and eliminates the stretch reflex. This decreases momentum and increases muscle recruitment.
  • The dead-stop makes the movement more strict by dissuading the use of passive recoil from muscles and other connective tissues. This makes the exercise more challenging and will help you to build starting strength, or strength off the floor.
  • As a bonus, dead-stop exercises are often extremely joint- and tendon- friendly, likely due to more gradual loading rates and lower absolute loads required for a training effect.

Cross-Bench Dumbbell Pullover

A hallmark of the “Golden era” of bodybuilding, the pullover has seen cycles of popularity and disuse. Along with straight-arm cable pulldowns, the pullover is a rare “isolation exercise” targeting the latissimus dorsi.

The lats are capable of moving the shoulder through a very long range of movement. (6) While rows train the lats through a significant part of the extension range of motion, the cross-bench dumbbell pullover trains shoulder extension from end-range (overhead position).

Peak resistance in the pullover is encountered when your arms are fully overhead, parallel to the ground. That’s when the latissimus dorsi muscle fibers are at their longest length. Training the lats at long muscle lengths is beneficial for building muscle mass. (7)

How to Do the Cross-Bench Dumbbell Pullover

Support your shoulder blades on a flat bench and bridge your hips to keep a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Begin with one dumbbell in both hands supported above your face. Lower the weight “overhead” behind you until you feel a strong stretch across your lats and chest.

Pull the weight back over your forehead. Stop before your arms are vertical to maintain tension, and repeat. Keep your elbows in a fixed, slightly bent position and turned slightly outward throughout the exercise.

Benefits of the Cross-Bench Dumbbell Pullover

  • By keeping your elbows slightly bent and flared outwards throughout, you’ve locked yourself into a position where the dumbbell applies resistance to shoulder extension and internal rotation. Both are actions of latissimus dorsi, leading to increased muscle recruitment.
  • The cross-bench dumbbell pullover requires isometric contraction of the gluteus maximus. Not only will you get bonus “glute work,” but contraction of the glutes may actually enhance tension on the lats. Force transmission occurs between the glutes and lats via the thoracodorsal fascia, a sheet of connective tissue in the small of the back to which both muscles attach. (8)(9)

Kroc Row

Some exercises are good for going heavy and others are great for high repetition sets. The Kroc row is designed for both. Dust off the biggest dumbbell you can find and consider using a lifting strap. Aim for no less than 15 reps per set.

Although the Kroc row encourages a small amount of body English to move the weight and get the reps, be disciplined here. Excessive trunk extension or rotation recruits more muscles that are not the target of the exercise. To keep the focus on the lats, the majority of work must be done by the shoulder.

How to Do the Kroc Row

Setup similar to a single-arm dumbbell row, in a split stance with a dumbbell near your front foot. Brace your off-hand on a sturdy bench or on the end of a dumbbell rack — don’t be the person blocking a row of dumbbells, set up to the side of the rack.

Strap in to the dumbbell, brace hard with your off-hand, and accelerate the dumbbell up toward the outside of your lower lower ribs. A small amount of leg drive is acceptable. Lower under control and repeat for high reps.

Benefits of the Kroc Row

  • Although the Kroc row is decidedly a lat-building exercise, it allows hearty contribution from the upper traps. The recruitment of this powerful muscle allows you to move more weight for higher reps.
  • The Kroc row provides a unique opportunity for heavy loading and “controlled aggression” during your training. It’s the kind of exercise that makes you want to crank up the volume on your favorite lifting music.

Three-Point Dumbbell Row

The lats act primarily on the shoulder with minor contributions to trunk extension and rotation. (10) Emphasis on the word “minor.” If you are struggling with keeping true form or experiencing low back fatigue during the bent-over dumbbell row or other standing variations, then it’s time for a different variation. The three-point dumbbell row may be ideal.

It’s sometimes considered the “default” method of performing a dumbbell row. It’s more supportive than either the single-arm dumbbell row or Kroc row because it requires a large, stable base for moving serious weight with clean form.

How to Do the Three-Point Dumbbell Row

Begin with a dumbbell on the floor next to a flat bench. Place your off-side knee, shin, and palm on the flat bench. Set your other foot a comfortable distance from your hips and keep the foot flat on the floor.

Maintain a neutral spine position as you grab the dumbbell. Keep a neutral grip (palm facing your body) as you row the dumbbell toward the outside of your hip. Lower to a full stretch without touching the floor, and repeat for reps.

Benefits of the Three-Point Dumbbell Row

  • Compared to standing variations, the three-point dumbbell row takes significant tension off the low back and hamstrings.
  • You’ve unofficially claimed the bench as your designated recovery zone between hard sets. Push your sets hard enough and you’ll need it.

Bird Dog Row

The bird dog exercise is a common rehab and performance exercise that trains “rotary stability,” or the ability to recover from challenges that would tend to rotate your shoulder girdle, spine, or hips. (11) It’s performed on the ground in an “all fours” position with support from only one hand and the opposite leg.

Take this challenging position, move it on top of a flat bench, and add a row. Now, you have a dynamite exercise that integrates the lats and core.

How to Do the Bird Dog Row

Start with a light dumbbell (roughly 20-30% of what you’d use for a single-arm row) placed on top of a flat bench.

Setup with your working-side knee and off-side hand on the bench, and your off-side leg extended behind you. Brace your midsection and stabilize your entire body. Row the dumbbell with a neutral-grip to the outside of your lower ribs. Focus on preventing any rotation of your hips, pelvis, or spine as the weight moves.

Benefits of the Bird Dog Row

  • Unilateral dumbbell rows have shown greater muscle activity in the obliques than bilateral rows, cable rows, and machine rows. (5) This variation will hit the obliques even harder than other single-arm rows due to the narrow base of support. (11)
  • The bird dog row requires the lowest weight dumbbell to be challenging and effective, making it an appealing exercise for “light” or recovery workouts or periods of injury rehabilitation.

Bench-Supported Dumbbell Row

Although standing dumbbell row variations may look simple, they are notoriously subject to sloppy form. The bench-supported dumbbell row, sometimes called the chest-supported row, restricts the work to only your shoulders to better target the lats. (2) (10)

Because your lower body is essentially removed from the equation and the bench provides rock-solid stability, this is one of the most strict and muscle-focused row variations.

How to Do the Bench-Supported Dumbbell Row

Set an adjustable bench to 45-degrees. If you have long arms, you may need to elevate the bench to maintain the same angle. Using a higher incline will shift focus off the lats and onto the traps and upper back musculature.

Hold two dumbbells and lie chest-down on the bench. The weights should not reach the floor when hanging down straight. Row both dumbbells by pulling your elbows up and alongside the bench. Keep a neutral forearm orientation throughout the exercise.

Benefits of the Bench-Supported Dumbbell Row

  • The bench-supported dumbbell row eliminates the use of “body English” in the hips or trunk to cheat the weights up.
  • Bench-supported rowing has been shown to result in reduced low back muscle activity, which may be beneficial for those looking to spare the low back in training— say, to prepare for an imminent deadlift session — or to offload the low back in the case of injury. (2)

Dumbbell Prone Bench Pull

Although it often takes a backseat to the bench press, the bench pull is a hallmark of athletic training and testing. The reason? It’s a pure expression of horizontal pulling strength.

The dumbbell version of the bench pull, sometimes called a seal row, alleviates some of the difficulties associated with the barbell version. Most notably, the potential for a shortened range of motion when the barbell hits the underside of the bench.

If you do not have a dedicated bench pull/seal row station, you can easily assemble one with a flat bench and several plates or aerobic steps. However, make sure your setup is secure and at an appropriate height. To ensure a full range of motion, the bench must be high enough to avoid reaching the floor in the stretched position.

How to Do the Dumbbell Prone Bench Pull

Lie on your belly on top of the bench with a folded towel under your forehead to maintain proper neck alignment. Retrieve the dumbbells from beneath the bench by carefully leaning to each side and grabbing them.

Row both weights toward your lower ribs with your palms facing each other. Keep your arms and the dumbbells close to the bench, not angled away.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Prone Bench Pull

  • The prone position dissuades compensatory actions such as “shrugging” during the row, which could otherwise rob tension from the lats.
  • The setup provides support to the entire spine and head, significantly reducing strain on the spine. You might even find the stretched position comfortable for a moment.

Dumbbell Pull-Up Drop Set

The pull-up is not technically a dumbbell exercise, but I am including it here under the pretense that it can be loaded with a dumbbell. A cop-out? Probably, but the pull-up is too effective as a lat-builder to neglect.

It’s likely the latissimus dorsi is best trained at long muscle lengths. (7) Aside from the dumbbell pullover, which has a very small effective range of motion, no exercise on this list compares to the pull-up for the purpose of training the lats at long muscle lengths.

If you’re strong and can perform several bodyweight pull-ups with good technique, you can load the pull-up heavier by locking a dumbbell between your legs. If you’re up for a serious challenge, perform your dumbbell pull-ups with the drop set technique.

How to Do the Dumbbell Pull-Up Drop Set

Hold a relatively light dumbbell between your ankles, begin performing pull-ups with a neutral or, if available, rotating grip.

When you approach muscular fatigue and cannot perform another full repetition with good form, release the dumbbell on the floor and immediately continue to perform pull-ups until you approach muscular failure again.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Pull-Up Drop Set

  • Compared to hanging weights from a dip belt for your pull-ups, using a dumbbell is easier to quickly jettison during a drop set.
  • Pull-ups can be used to train shoulder extension by using a shoulder-width grip or adduction when using a wide grip. Both are actions of the latissimus dorsi, leading to increased muscle recruitment and growth stimulus.

The Latissimus Dorsi Muscles

All ten exercises on the list are effective for training the lats because they load or provide resistance to one or more of the actions of latissimus dorsi. The latissimus dorsi primarily acts to extend the shoulder, drawing your arm back toward your body as during rowing. (10)

Muscular man flexing back, shoulders, and arms.
Credit: RomarioIen / Shutterstock

The latissimus dorsi also adducts the shoulder, drawing your arm toward your midsection as during performance of a wide-grip pull-up or pullover. (10) Secondarily, the lats contribute to internal rotation of the shoulder. The lat muscles even contribute to low back extension and rotation, albeit, these contributions are small. (10)

Average gym-goers can simply plug one or more of the exercises into their training plan, perform their sets, then rest assured they’ve “hit their lats.” Bodybuilders and physique-minded lifters typically divide their back workouts upper body pulling into horizontal pulling and vertical pulling. Think of all the row variations on this list as horizontal pulls, while the pull-up and pullover are vertical pulling.

Due to the biomechanical differences between these movement patterns, it may be prudent to include at least one from each category during your weekly lifting routine.

How Often and How Much Should You Train Lats?

Start training your lats regularly and you’ll notice remarkable things. Clothes begin to fit better, your major compound lifts (like the squat, bench press, and deadlift) start feeling more secure, and you develop mind-muscle connection to the growing slabs of muscle on your flanks. But how often should you hit lats for optimal results? And how much attention should the lats receive?

While there is plenty of nuance to programming, a simple method to plan training frequency is to determine the target weekly total set volume for the muscle or muscle group. Then, work backwards by allocating those sets into your weekly workout split.

For already-fit individuals who want to build more muscle, experts recommend a minimum of 10 sets per muscle group per week is best. (12) More weekly sets (i.e. 20 or more) may offer additional benefits provided the lifter gradually builds to that volume over time. (12) If you are dead-set on improving your lats, a higher volume “specialization” program can be very effective, but again, that volume must be built gradually over time.

muscular person rowing two dumbbells
Credit: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube

Next, take your favorite lat exercises and allocate your target number of weekly sets to each exercise. For example, a moderately experienced lifter might aim for 14 sets per week targeting the lats. If this lifter prefers bent-over dumbbell rows, dumbbell prone bench pulls, and pull-ups, the allocation may be four sets of dumbbell rows, four sets on the prone bench, and six sets of pull-ups.

Now, if this lifter uses a push/pull/legs split and trains six days per week, those exercises can be distributed across the two separate pulling sessions. If the lifter trains with a whole body routine three days per week, the exercises can be distributed across all three workouts, one exercise per session.

Be thoughtful when you plan your lat training. For example, four sets of bent-over dumbbell rows might not be the best choice the day before or the day after a heavy deadlift session due to cumulative lower back strain.

How to Progress Your Lat Training

Intensity (weight) and volume (sets and reps) must be progressed for long-term gains. A simple strategy for progressing intensity is the “two- for two- rule.” Once you can hit two or more repetitions more than your repetition target in the final set for two consecutive workouts, it’s time to use a heavier dumbbell. (13) To progress volume, add one or two sets for each exercise each month.

[Related: How to Do the Chin-Up for Bigger Arms and a Stronger Back]

However, these progression methods will not remain effective forever. After two or three months, or when your progress stalls, take a deload. Come back stronger and to a new program with subtle variations. Change up some of the lat exercises and start with a slightly lower set volume and higher intensity than your previous baseline.

How to Warm-up Your Lats

Complete a warm-up to prime your body for the dumbbell lat workout. Organize the warm-up in two parts: the general warm-up and the specific warm-up. Five minutes of cardio will suffice for the general warm-up. This activity serves to increase body temperature and promote general movement.

Although any form of light aerobic exercise works, an exercise that involves the upper body is preferable. Ideas include the rowing ergometer, ski ergometer, air bike, elliptical, or jump rope.

person on exercise bike
Credit: Dr. Merrick Lincoln

For the specific warm-up, start with the exercise that gives you the best connection with your lats — the movement that allows you to “feel” them most. This will vary from person to person based on your leverages, your experience, and your mind-muscle connection.

Complete two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions using dumbbells lighter than your working weight. Incrementally increase the resistance as you work through your warm-up. Depending on your level of strength, the pull-up might not be the best exercise to start with unless you have access to a pull-up assist machine or resistance bands to counterbalance your bodyweight.

Dumbbells Give You Wings

By surface area, the latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle of the body. (6) It’s not surprising that well-developed lats give your back the appearance of more size. Train them regularly and progressively, ideally while eating a slight calorie surplus, and you’ll notice wings of muscle filling in beside your ribcage. These “wings” won’t allow you to fly, but I suspect walking around with them will make you feel almost as good.

References

  1. Lane, C. L., et al. (2019). Comparison of the firefighter candidate physical ability test to weight lifting exercises using electromyography. Work62(3), 459-467.
  2. García-Jaén, M., et al. (2021). Electromyographical responses of the lumbar, dorsal and shoulder musculature during the bent-over row exercise: a comparison between standing and bench postures (a preliminary study). Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 21(4), 1871-1877.
  3. Fenwick, C. M., et al. (2009). Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(5), 1408-1417.
  4. Snyder, B. J., & Leech, J. R. (2009). Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research23(8), 2204-2209.
  5. Saeterbakken, A., et al. (2015). The effect of performing bi-and unilateral row exercises on core muscle activation. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 94(11), 900-905.
  6. Gerling, M. E., & Brown, S. H. (2013). Architectural analysis and predicted functional capability of the human latissimus dorsi muscle. Journal of Anatomy223(2), 112-122.
  7. Ottinger, C. R., et al. (2022). Muscle Hypertrophy Response to Range of Motion in Strength Training: A Novel Approach to Understanding the Findings. Strength & Conditioning Journal, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000737
  8. Santana, J. C., et al. (2015). Anterior and posterior serape: The rotational core. Strength & Conditioning Journal37(5), 8-13.
  9. do Carmo Carvalhais, V. O., et al. (2013). Myofascial force transmission between the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus muscles: an in vivo experiment. Journal of Biomechanics46(5), 1003-1007.
  10. Bogduk, N., et al. (1998). The morphology and biomechanics of latissimus dorsi. Clinical Biomechanics13(6), 377-385.
  11. Clemente, P. C., et al. (2022). Perceived exertion, postural control, and muscle recruitment in three different quadruped exercises performed by healthy women. Frontiers in Physiology, 1630.
  12. Schoenfeld, B., et al. (2021). Resistance training recommendations to maximize muscle hypertrophy in an athletic population: Position stand of the IUSCA. International Journal of Strength and Conditioning1(1), 1-30.
  13. Sheppard, J.M., & Triplett, N. (2016). Program design for resistance training. In: Haff, G., & Triplett N., (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed., pp. 459). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Featured Image: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

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