You don’t need a barbell to build a thicker, stronger back.
Today, we’re looking at the best low back dumbbell exercises you can use to build mass and strength with dumbbells.
We’ll be using some of the unique properties of dumbbells and getting great variety, so let’s jump into it.
How Your Lower Back Works
There are 2 important muscles that you’re going to focus on: the back extensors (spinal erectors) and the quadratus lumborum (or QL).
The spinal erectors (and multifidus) extend all of the spine directly, and attach to the vertebrae and ribs alike. They are the main back muscles.
The quadratus lumborum is similar, but it only attaches to the ribs and the vertebrae’s edge. Its function is to tilt the ribcage to bring the chest up – and it’s a pair of muscles, one per side, with one stretching and one shortening as you reach towards your left or right side.
The exercises in our list will train both these sets of muscles, as well as the glutes and hamstrings, which also control hip and lower back health and strength!
Low Back Dumbbell Exercises
1. Dumbbell Reverse Plank
This is a super simple low back exercise with a dumbbell – you simply need to weight your hips while focusing on clenching your glutes and keeping your core and lower back active.
This is a perfect place to start because isometric exercises are great for back and hip health, build up the core, and anyone can do them. Learning to use your back and keep yourself in a strong, neutral position is step one – and this is the perfect exercise to do that.
The best approach is to build up more sets and more total time and add more weight. Make sure you’re always working hard – if you can hold the position comfortably, you need to add more weight!
You should always be actively fighting the weight, or you’re going too light.
How to perform a dumbbell reverse plank
- Set up with your feet and shoulders on a bench or raised surface
- Place a dumbbell on your hips
- Extend the hips and brace the core to keep a straight torso
- Hold this position for as long as possible, or until you lose back positioning
Pro tip: if it’s too easy, move your foot and shoulder supports further apart – it gets harder fast!
2. Dumbbell Good Morning: Goblet/Zercher
This is a great exercise to practice the hip hinge – the most important movement for the lower back and hips. As mentioned above, it builds control in the core and back together – key for heavy lifting and lower back health.
The lever of this exercise is relatively long, making light weights feel heavier than (e.g.) in a dumbbell deadlift. This is perfect for beginners to build back and hip strength while practicing movement quality.
The good morning profits from a pause in the bottom position, where the glutes and hamstrings are at their longest. This builds strength and flexibility faster, and makes each rep more valuable.
Of course, you can also build strength and muscle with more reps and more weight, but prioritize control in this simple movement first.
How to perform a dumbbell good morning
You can perform a dumbbell good morning in a goblet or Zercher position, both of which engage the upper back muscles.
- Take a dumbbell in a goblet or Zercher position with a hip-width stance
- Set your torso straight and pull the dumbbell into yourself as hard as possible
- Bend your knees very slightly, and keep your full foot on the floor throughout the movement
- Keeping your knees in position, ease your hips back as far as possible, keeping your chest ‘proud’
- Move you’re his as far back as possible without raising your toes off the floor or rounding your back
- Reverse the movement by opening the hips, standing up straight, and clenching the glutes
3. Jefferson Curl
The Jefferson curl is the perfect way to start training your back to move through its full range of motion. This is a completely safe exercise when used with light weights and proper, controlled movement – helping the spinal erectors become stronger, bigger, and more effective at their job.
Start with light weights for moderate-high reps, and patiently build more range, strength, and control. Getting stronger in these long positions is key to keeping your back healthy.
There are 3 major ways to progress the Jefferson curl – in order of importance:
- More range: more range gets better results per rep, which is the key to developing a healthy spine that’s safe in all ranges.
- More reps: adding reps and sets is the best overlap of strength, muscle, and control at the same time. This exercise loves sets of 12-20.
- More weight: the final and least important, you can slowly add weight to build more mass and strength. The highest risk, but not necessarily the highest reward!
How to perform the Jefferson curl
- Take a dumbbell in hand, standing on a sturdy raised surface.
- Keep your legs and hips stable, and lower the dumbbell by rounding the back.
- Round the back one segment at a time, reaching as low as possible/comfortable.
- Hold the bottom position briefly, feeling the stretch in the end range.
- Before reversing the movement to lift the dumbbell back to the starting position
4. Dumbbell Deadlift
This is one of the simplest dumbbell exercises for the lower back, offering a chance to lift more weight for more reps than the previous exercises. It trains the lower back as a secondary muscle group, stabilizing the spine while the hips and hamstrings lift the weight.
This is perfect for muscle and strength in the back and glutes because it’s so easy to load up.
The most important way to progress this exercise is with more reps, sets, and weight. You can also add a deficit to make it more difficult – especially if you have limited access to heavier dumbbells.
Dumbbell deadlifts are a great staple lower back and hip builder, and you don’t need many variations to get value from them.
How to perform the dumbbell deadlift
- Take a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, in a stance between hip width and shoulder width.
- Stand up tall with active hips, keeping the dumbbells close to the body
- Lower the dumbbells towards your feet by easing your hips back and letting your chest angle down towards the floor
- Keep your torso straight, bending at the hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings or until the dumbbells touch your feet (or the floor!)
- Reverse the movement, pushing the hips forward and standing up tall to complete the rep.
5. Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
This is a similar exercise to the normal deadlift, but with more bias towards the glutes and quads, while still working the lower back isometrically. It’s a less intensive option that you can train with a single dumbbell.
It’s another great option for developing the back and hip muscles, and a popular way to build up the stabilizing muscles of the inner thigh and hips.
This is a simple exercise: you add more weight or more reps. You can add a deficit by standing on a sturdy object with either foot, too, but weight and reps are usually the best choices.
How to perform the dumbbell sumo deadlift
- Place 1-2 heavy dumbbells on the floor
- Take a wide stance with the dumbbells in the middle of your stance
- Keep the knees out to the sides, open up the hips, and bend the knees to lower yourself
- Grab the dumbbell(s), keeping your torso upright and back flat
- Extend the knees and hips, opening up and pushing against the floor
- Lock your knees, squeezing your glutes, before lowering back to the starting position
6. Dumbbell Death March
This is one of the best ways to combine single-leg hip exercises with long-range, functional low back strength.
It offers a full range of motion with added glute strengthening and an active core-stability component that offers just about everything your back needs.
This can be a challenging exercise, so make sure you get started with the simpler control-based exercises we’ve outlined above first!
Like the Jefferson curl above, you need to patiently progress the death march. It’s a long-range that involves rounding and extending the back, which requires more focus on control and reps than weight alone.
Focus on adding more steps to your “standard length” or sets, and adding more total sets. This helps you build back muscles safely while focusing on slow, controlled movement with “square” hips.
How to perform the death march
- Take a light to moderate dumbbell in each hand, standing up tall
- Take one step forward, with your front foot flat, and weight on the ball of your rear foot
- Ease the hips back and reach the dumbbells to the floor in front of your front foot
- Lightly touch the dumbbells to the floor, taking care not to bounce them
- Reverse the movement to stand up tall with the dumbbells close
- Take another step forwards and repeat on the opposite side to complete one rep
Pro tip: don’t fear rounding your back in this exercise – if you’ve trained the Jefferson curl, you should be well prepared to round your back and extend it again under reasonable weights
7. Dumbbell Straddle Toe-touches
This exercise helps you build all of the lower back muscles – especially training the quadratus lumborum.
Quadratus lumborum is an often neglected muscle that connects the spine with the hips. It can be easily injured if it’s weak and lacks mobility or control.
The straddle position helps you develop the deep core and hip muscles, while challenging your movement quality and strengthening neglected patterns.
Remember: your back is safe where it’s strong – so get strong everywhere!
Progress this exercise patiently, building up range and control before you worry too much about lifting heavy weights. It’s always easier to add more weight later, but overloading these positions too soon does carry more injury risk.
Be patient with these novel movements – you’re building strength with them, not testing your strength!
How to perform the straddle deadlift
- Stand as wide as is comfortable with a single dumbbell in two hands.
- Keep your legs extended and lower your torso to around parallel with the floor.
- Reach the dumbbell towards one foot, bending at the hips to reach forwards.
- Go as far as is comfortable or until the dumbbell touches your toe or the floor.
- Reverse the movement to a full standing position, extending the hips and spine.
- Repeat on the opposite side to complete 1 rep.
8. Dumbbell Swing
The dumbbell swing is like a kettlebell swing, offering a dynamic strengthening exercise for the lower back and hips. It’s a great way to add strength-focused conditioning, or a heavy exercise for mid-higher reps.
This is great for building power but also offers some of the best high-rep muscle building, as well as dynamic spinal control. These are the most important results from a low back training program, and the swing is a great way to benefit from the previous exercises.
Adding weight should be the last thing you do with a dumbbell swing. There are better ways to progress first, before adding more weight and repeating the progressions:
- More sets: a great way to build more muscle and control with less fatigue per set
- More reps: a challenging way to build conditioning and core-hip muscular endurance
- More power: producing hip power is a crucial benefit of dynamic exercise – and one of the most important ways to protect health and build performance
- Band resistance: a perfect way to build more back and glute strength and power, without adding more weight during the change of direction.
Then you should add more weight. There’s space for all progressions, and you don’t need to choose just one. But make sure you’re patient with the dumbbell swing, and you’ll get far more long-term value with it and less risk of injury.
How to perform the dumbbell swing
- Take a dumbbell in two hands, on one side, with a firm grip and active core
- Stand with your feet around shoulder width and slightly turned out.
- Begin the movement by hinging the hips back, bringing the dumbbell between the legs.
- Extend the hips and bring the chest up, pushing the hips forward – and the dumbbell forwards and up
- Stabilize the dumbbell in the hands, allowing it to rise to around shoulder height, keeping your core and upper back active.
- Absorb the down-swing of the dumbbell, letting it lower between the legs and pushing your hips back
- Use momentum to link reps, repeating steps 3-6 for as many reps as each set requires
Pro-tip: Always keep your core active in dumbbell swings, as this is one of the most important ways to put the load on the hips, keeping the lower back healthy while it grows stronger.
9. Dumbbell Reverse Hyperextension
The dumbbell reverse hyperextension is one of the best exercises for training spinal flexion and extension with hip control. It ties your hip extension and lower back muscles together while improving control of one vertebra at a time.
This is a great choice for back strength and injury resilience. It lengthens the spine on the way down, before contracting the erector set and QL on the way up. This means more eccentric gains, better control, and reduced stiffness in the lower back and hips.
Try to add range and slow down the exercise first. This improves the value you get from the exercise while also avoiding the injury risk that could come from adding too much weight too soon.
Add range by performing the reverse hyper on a bench or exercise ball, focusing on reaching your feet as far away from your body as possible. Holding the top and bottom positions can also exaggerate the effects.
Slowing down makes this exercise harder but far more powerful, so try to control the weight and move as slowly as you can.
How to perform the dumbbell reverse hyperextension
- Take a bench or other sturdy object with plenty of space around it
- Place a light dumbbell between your feet
- Lay prone on the bench, holding it tightly to keep your chest and torso flat
- Lengthen your spine as much as possible, letting your feet hang low
- Contract the spine, extend the hips, and raise your feet as high as possible
- Squeeze your glutes and lower back, holding the top position briefly
- Lower your feet down under control, completing the rep
Are There Other Good Exercises You Should Train?
Yes – adding more core exercises to your workouts will help your lower back health and function. The abdominal muscles and the lower back muscles must work together to keep your hips and spine healthy.
Dumbbells are great, but they’re not the only way to train.
Don’t forget to train muscles and their antagonists, and both together. This helps improve quality movement and build strength – your body moves as a whole.
Add in some of these exercises without dumbbells for lower back strength and health:
- Side planks with a twist
- V-ups or sit-ups
- 8-point planks
- Lying or Hanging leg or knee raises
- Dead bugs and Bird dogs
- Lying supermans
These will complement your dumbbell exercises for even better results and more training options.
How Do You Work Your Lower Back With Dumbbells?
You can work your lower back with dumbbells using isometric exercises, hip-hinging exercises like the dumbbell deadlift, long-range spinal extension, or any combination of the above.
Dumbbells are an excellent tool for building the lower back, especially because of the variety of exercises they offer. You can also use single or 2-dumbbell exercises to vary the challenge of dumbbell back exercises, which is helpful.
Dumbbells are more maneuverable than barbells, making unilateral exercises possible. Some of the movements we discussed above – such as the death march or straddle toe touch – aren’t possible with a large, heavy, and awkward barbell.
Building a Lower Back Workout With Dumbbells
The exercises we’ve outlined above are great choices – but you won’t typically use them all together. A workout for the lower back often needs to focus on a few key exercises, before lowering the weight and finishing with a control-based movement.
Here’s an example of how you might add these exercises into your workout as a way to train on a back day, or at the end of a full-body workout:
- Jefferson Curl: 2 sets of 5 reps as slow as possible
- Dumbbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Zercher Dumbbell Good Morning: 2 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Death March: 3 sets of 20-30yd walks
- Superset (Dead Bug + Bird Dog): 2 sets of 10 reps each
This will strengthen the lower back and teach it to move with related muscle groups. It’s a simple block of exercises that starts with long strengthening before moving into control-based exercises. This makes it perfect for muscle mass, mobility, and better health in the spine and hips.