Do you spend a great deal of your time with your back against a chair?
Slouching and not using your back muscles causes back weakness. Back muscles are meant to support your weight and keep your upper body upright.
When they’re weak, you can easily wind up with back pain from supporting your weight in unnatural positions.
Strengthening your back develops the support your spine needs to stay healthy and in proper alignment.
In fact, clinical research has linked back muscle training to a reduction in back pain for people who suffer from it chronically .
Keep reading to learn how you can strengthen your back using only dumbbells to improve your posture, protect your spine against injury and keep back pain at bay.
The Link Between Back Weakness and Poor Posture
If your posture is good, the vertebrae in your spine are correctly aligned. With strong torso muscles, your spine is correctly aligned and well-supported.
Poor posture can lead to muscle weakness because misalignment causes muscle imbalance, in which one muscle group is tight and shortened, while the other is loose and lengthened. In turn, the weakness exacerbates poor posture in a vicious cycle.
So how does poor posture usually start?
These days it’s due to the increased time we spend sitting down. Slouching in a chair and looking down at your phone are some of the most common causes of poor posture.
Sitting for long hours at a computer with your head craned forward, your shoulders rounded and your upper back hunched produces tension and tightness in your upper back and neck. Together these postural dysfunctions make up what is known as Upper Crossed Syndrome.
When your upper back begins to round, otherwise known as Thoracic Kyphosis, one of the primary reasons it does so is because of a weak back. When the back muscles are strong (particularly the upper back) the muscles help pull your shoulders back bringing your body into better posture.
This is one reason why exercising your back is so important.
The Muscles of the Back & How They Affect Your Posture
Improving your posture isn’t just about remembering to sit up straight. When you strengthen the muscles of your back, sitting and standing straight will come naturally, and you can correct muscle imbalances that are pulling your spine out of alignment.
Developing strength in each and every muscle in your back plays a role in improving your posture, so you’ll want to give attention to each one.
Your trapezius muscle group, or traps, includes your upper traps, middle traps and lower traps. They extend down from your neck to your mid-back, and are attached to each shoulder joint, forming a diamond shape on your upper back.
When your upper back is rounded because you’re slouching or hunched forward for long periods during the day, your middle and upper traps become lengthened. Because they’re overstretched for long periods, they fail to fire up to support your back, and with lack of use, they become weak.
When muscles are overstretched, they become taut in order to compensate and provide stability for your skeletal system . This results in tension that can be painful, and often this happens with the traps.
When your upper back is hunched, your neck cranes forward to keep your head upright. With your head in front of your body instead of on top of it, your upper traps work extra hard to hold up your head, causing tightness.
The tightening of your upper traps shortens them, which only exacerbates the lengthening of your middle and lower traps.
By strengthening your middle and lower traps and by stretching and releasing your upper traps, you can develop the support for your upper body and avoid having to crane your neck forward to keep upright.
Your lower traps play a major role in supporting your torso, so by strengthening them, you take the pressure off your spine and improve your alignment.
Your shoulder blade is known as your scapula, and the levator scapulae is one of the muscles involved in stabilizing and moving your shoulder blade. It’s a vertical muscle that reaches from your neck down along your back.
It supports the alignment of your head over your shoulders, but when the muscle is weak, you can easily develop a forward head posture.
This worsens when you slouch or if you use a keyboard or steering wheel that’s too high or too low for you, because your shoulder blades hold an unnatural position for extended periods. This overstretched the levator scapulae, causing it to weaken and become taut.
Your rhomboids are another muscle group responsible for keeping your shoulder blades aligned. They’re located in between your shoulder blades, and when they’re weak and overstretched from rounding your upper back, they aren’t tight enough to keep your shoulder blades down along your back.
This leads to hunchback posture and also the possibility of Winged Scapula, in which your shoulder blades stick out instead of lying flat on your back.
Winged scapulae has a cascading effect on your upper back posture, by causing your shoulder joints to round forward and your pectoralis (chest) muscles to tighten.
These effects only exacerbate a hunched upper back posture and over time can change the shape of your spine.
Your rear deltoids are at the backs of your shoulder joints. Whilst the rear deltoids aren’t technically part of your back they still play an important role in maintaining good posture.
If you round your shoulders forward, chances are your rear deltoids are overstretched and your anterior (front) deltoids are shortened and tight.
Opening up your chest and drawing your shoulder blades together and down your back can help fix this common shoulder muscle imbalance.
Strengthening your rear deltoids and stretching and releasing your anterior deltoids also helps improve the alignment of your shoulders.
Your shoulder blades are very movable bones, which is why they require so many muscles to move and stabilize them. The serratus anterior is another one of these muscles, and it’s located on either side of your rib cage, below your armpits.
It helps spread your ribs when you take a deep breath. Its role in posture, however, comes into play whenever you’re doing a forward-reaching task.
Whether you’re cooking over a stove, picking up your coffee mug or typing on a keyboard, your serratus anterior should be firing to support your arms so that your shoulders and chest don’t lean forward and do all the work.
When your serratus anterior is weak, your deltoids and pecs pick up the slack during forward-reaching tasks with your arms . Over time, this muscle imbalance causes forward hunching and rounded shoulders.
Weak serratus anterior muscles can also lead to Scapula Winging.
The erector spinae muscle group supports your spine on either side. When it lacks strength, it fails to support your spine, causing slouching and forward head posture.
If the erector spinae isn’t strong enough to keep the spine upright, the spine will hunch forward, and your neck will crane forward to compensate and keep your head up .
Your hip flexors oppose the erector spinae, and when your hip flexors become too tight and short from prolonged sitting, your erector spinae becomes overstretched and taut. This can be a source of lower back pain if you sit a lot.
Strengthening your erector spinae and opening up your hips with effective hip flexor stretches can help fix the imbalance and bring better support to your spine.
Your lats, or latissimus dorsi, begins just below your shoulder blades and armpits, and extends down to the top of your hips. It’s the largest muscle in your upper body and it plays a huge role in posture and shoulder movement.
If you have a slouching posture in which your chest collapses inward, your upper lats are more than likely overstretched, weak and taut. Strengthening your lats will help open up your chest and straighten your spine, by supporting your torso and keeping your spine upright.
Dumbbell Exercises that Strengthen Your Back
To start strengthening the back muscles that support good posture, all you need a good pair of dumbbells. A lot of back exercises usually involve some type of chin-up bar or pulley bands, but we are going to start simple with dumbbells only.
Weight lifting gives muscles the resistance needed to break down and rebuild stronger tissue, so that you can correct muscle imbalances and develop support for your spine.
In this section, we’ll look at the best dumbbell exercises for your back, muscle by muscle. We also have a page which specifically targets lower back exercises without equipment so be sure to add those workouts to your routine for best results.
Traps & Levator Scapulae
Strong traps keep your shoulders and shoulder blades in proper alignment. Healthy trap muscles also help you maintain mobility in your arms and shoulders.
Exercises that target your traps involve shoulder movements and arm lifts, and they’re best done with your chest open, spine straight and shoulder blades squeezing toward each other.
Dumbbell shrugs target your upper traps, which lift your shoulder blades.
- Grip your dumbbells and let them hang at arm’s length by your sides. Don’t let your shoulders round forward or rotate inward.
- Lean forward at your hip about 10 degrees and bend your knees slightly.
- Shrug your shoulders, lifting them as close to your ears as you can.
- Slowly lower your shoulders back down.
- Repeat for more reps and focus on isolating the upper traps by not moving anything except your shoulders.
Incline Dumbbell Shrug
Doing a dumbbell shrug at an incline using a bench allows you to target your lower and mid traps, which are responsible for pulling your shoulder blades down.
Weak lower traps are a common factor in poor posture, as well as in shoulder problems.
- Adjust a bench to a 45-degree incline and lie chest-down on it, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Let your arms hang straight down, with your palms facing each other.
- Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears as you draw your shoulder blades toward each other.
- Slowly release and repeat for more reps.
Dumbbell Overhead Carry
An overhead carry utilizes your entire trapezius to stabilize the weight. As your lower body moves, your trapezius performs an isometric hold that stimulates its growth.
This exercise is also great for shoulder and core strengthening.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and press them straight overhead, with your palms facing each other.
- Walk forward for a set time, such as 20 seconds, and then set the weight down. Repeat for one to three more reps.
Toning up your levator scapulae can help get your head in line with your body, but it’s important to have proper form while doing this exercise.
Avoid sticking your head forward or downward, and instead, focus on maintaining a long neck with the crown of your head reaching straight upward. This exercise also strengthens your rhomboids, which are the muscles between your shoulder blades.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and let them hang down with your arms straight.
- Squeeze your upper back and lift your chest as you bring your hands behind your glutes, palms facing away from them.
- Shrug your shoulders upward as high as you can.
- Slowly lower down and repeat for more reps, with your neck long and your upper back squeezing tight.
Rhomboids are key muscles that keep your shoulders, neck and head aligned with your spine. Just by strengthening them, you can improve your posture.
Standing Dumbbell Rows
Rowing exercises target your rhomboids, which are muscles that keep your shoulder blades flat down your back. With that said, be sure to keep your shoulder blades down and squeezing toward each other as you do this exercise, so you know that you’re working your rhomboids.
Meanwhile, keeping your neck long and your head aligned with your spine will strengthen your levator scapulae by stabilizing your head.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them at arm’s length.
- Bend your knees so that you’re almost in a squat, and lean forward at the hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground.
- Engage your abs and squeeze your shoulder blades together to maintain a flat back and lifted chest.
- With your arms hanging directly downward, use the muscles between your shoulder blades to lift both dumbbells up toward your shoulders.
- Lower the dumbbells until your arms are straightened again, and then repeat for more reps.
Kneeling One Arm Row
The kneeling one-arm row, otherwise known as the dumbbell row, is one of the most common exercises you will see performed at the gym. It’s one of the best exercises for hitting the lat muscles.
To perform this you’ll need a bench.
- Place one knee on the bench with the other on the floor. Stabilise yourself with your arm.
- With the other arm, hold the dumbbell and focus on lifting your elbow back, rather than curling at the bicep.
- Ensure that you are lifting the weight without the aid of your legs.
Your rear deltoids, or posterior deltoids, are the backs of your shoulders. They need to be strong and tight to keep your shoulders down and prevent your anterior deltoids and pec minor muscles from tightening too much.
The back fly works the upper back particularly the rhomboids and rear delts.
- Bend at the hips with knees slightly bent.
- Lift the dumbbells out and to the side maintaining a long and flat back.
- Ensure you pick a light weight for this exercise.
Strengthening your serratus anterior will help keep your shoulder blades aligned with your back so you can have better posture.
Incline Dumbbell Shoulder Raise
- Sit on an incline bench at 45 degrees, with your back against the bench.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms straight directly in front of your chest, at shoulder height.
- Lift your shoulders to raise the dumbbells slightly upwards.
- Bring the dumbbells back down by bringing your shoulders back down.
Another great exercise to work the serratus anterior are dumbbell pullovers which will be covered shortly.
Latissimus Dorsi (lats)
As the largest muscle group in your back, the lats give you a sturdy base for daily activities and physical performance when it’s strong.
- Lie your upper back on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Be perpendicular to the bench so that only your upper back is lying on it, and your hips are suspended in front of it. This makes the exercise harder for your lats, but if it’s too difficult, you can lie normally on the bench, with your hips resting on it and your feet flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and press them straight upwards in front of your chest (you can also use one dumbbell and hold it with both hands)
- Keeping your arms straight and in line with your shoulders, raise the dumbbells up overhead until your upper arms are parallel to your torso.
- Squeeze your back to bring the dumbbells back to the initial position, with your arms straight out in front of your chest. Repeat for more reps.
Dumbbell Bent Arm Pullover
A dumbbell bent arm pullover is even more of a challenge for your lats than a regular dumbbell pullover, since it requires you to flex them a little bit further.
The set up and execution is the same as a dumbbell pullover, except your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle and the dumbbells go all the way past your head, toward the floor, until your upper arms are parallel to your torso.
This exercise is great for working not just your lats, but also the other muscles responsible for keeping your shoulder blades down your back and your spine up straight, including the rear deltoids, rhomboids and levator scapulae.
The erector spinae is the muscle you can feel most pronounced on either side of your spine at your lower back, but it actually extends all the way up to your neck.
It supports your spine on either side, helping your torso flex forward and back. Unsurprisingly, it plays a major role in postural alignment.
Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Without locking your knees, keep your legs straight and bend at the hips. As you lean your torso forward, maintain a flat back and keep your head aligned with your spine. Pull your shoulders back if they’re rounding forward.
- Continue to lower the dumbbells toward your feet as you lean forward, letting your hips shift back.
- In one movement, return the dumbbells to your sides and stand up straight in your initial position. Repeat for more reps.
Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
- Stand at a wide “sumo” stance, with your feet more than shoulder-width apart.
- Hold dumbbells at arm’s length, letting them hang straight down directly under your shoulders, with your palms facing back.
- Bend forward at the hips and at the knees, letting the dumbbells drop down all the way to your lower shins. Maintain a flat back.
- In one movement, return to your original stance, keeping your back straight. Repeat for more reps.
Tips & Best Practices
- Whenever you’re trying a new exercise with dumbbells, always start with less weight than you think you can lift. Even better, practice the exercise once without the weight so you can get used to the proper form. Or, work with a personal trainer to help you master the proper form.
- Especially when you’re working with weights, paying attention to your form is critical for injury prevention. You can always increase your weight once you have a good feel for the exercise and can perform it safely.
- For best results, do as many of these exercises as you can in one workout session, and then avoid back exercises for 48 hours, or even longer if you’re still sore after 48 hours.
- It’s important your muscles have the time they need to recover. When you lift weights, you’re breaking muscle tissue down. You only build muscle afterwards, during your recovery. Be sure to drink plenty of water and eat a meal that contains protein within 2 hours of your strength training workout.
- Make sure to stretch out your back after these workouts. By not stretching out your back you leave yourself prone to lower back pain. See this page on how to stretch out your back.
Poor posture is often thought of as a bad habit. In truth, it mostly results from muscle imbalances and weakness, especially in your back.
The good news is, you can improve your posture with simple dumbbell exercises. Focusing on correct posture and form while you do these exercises can go a long way in changing your actual posture in daily life, without you having to think about it.