Forget pull-ups — it only takes 5 dumbbell exercises to sculpt your back and biceps

a photo of a woman's sweaty back and biceps
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Building strength and definition in your upper body doesn't require an arsenal of gym equipment. In fact, with just a pair of dumbbells and five exercises, you can target your back and biceps in one simple routine. 

Your back and biceps are two muscle groups that play a key role in your functional movement and they look pretty darn good when shredded. Crafted by fitness trainer Alex Rice, this upper body session comprises five moves you will perform for three sets each. The beauty of this workout lies not in lifting super-heavy weights but in prioritizing proper form. 

This workout can be completed at the gym or at home. A pair of the best adjustable dumbbells are particularly advantageous for home workouts, allowing you to start with lighter weights and progressively increase the load, facilitating a safe and effective training journey. Our fitness writer explains here how progressive overload helps you build muscle and strength.

What is the workout?

All exercises are performed standing up so you don't need to worry about sourcing a bench to complete this workout. Once you've picked up a pair of dumbbells you will perform five exercises for the recommended reps listed below and repeat the entire routine three times. Allow yourself brief breaks in between sets to give your muscles the needed recovery time.

Bicep Curl with Static Hold: 10 reps

Start with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing forward. Perform a standard bicep curl, but at the top of the movement, hold for two seconds, squeezing your biceps. Lower the weights in a controlled manner, maintaining tension throughout the set. Remember to engage your core, this will help to stabilize your body.

Close Grip Rows: 15 reps

Hold one dumbbell in both your hands, palms facing your torso. Hinge at the hips, keeping your back straight. Pull the weight towards your chest, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together. Maintain a controlled pace, ensuring your back muscles do the work rather than momentum.

Close Grip Curls: 12 reps

Stand with one dumbbell between your hands, palms facing your body, and elbows close to your torso. Curl the weights upwards, ensuring your upper arms remain stationary. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the movement, then lower the weights in a slow and controlled manner. Keep your core engaged to prevent swinging.

Single Arm Rows: 10 reps each side

Place your hand on something stable like a bench or sturdy chair, with a dumbbell in the opposite hand. Pull the dumbbell towards your hip, keeping your back flat and core engaged. Focus on a smooth, controlled motion, avoiding jerky movements. Switch sides for the second set.

Rear Delt Pulls

Stand with feet hip-width apart, closely grip a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing upward. Bend slightly at the hips with a slight bend in the knees. Lift the weights out to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower the dumbbells with control to complete one repetition.

What are the benefits?

Firstly, the functional benefits achieved through strengthening the back muscles—such as the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius—translates into improved posture and helps you perform daily tasks with more ease such as lifting a heavy box down from the loft. In addition to this, strong biceps contribute to efficient pulling movements, making routine tasks involving lifting, pulling, and carrying feel more manageable.

The advantages of training your upper body extends to injury prevention. A robust back acts as a natural support system for the spine, reducing the risk of injuries and minimizing back pain. Also, while not primary stabilizers, strong biceps support shoulder joint stability, preventing injuries during activities involving the arms and shoulders.

Building muscle and definition in these upper body muscles contributes to the coveted V-taper, adding depth and symmetry to the upper body. However, it's important to regularly exercise for more reasons than aesthetic results. Strength building can be great for your mental wellbeing and for growing overall confidence.

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Jessica Downey
Fitness Writer

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food quite naturally led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat for reviewing then she can be found writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jessica is a massive fan of exercising and keeping active outdoors. When at home she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain. This continued as she studied and trained to become a PPA-accredited magazine journalist in Wales. And since working and living in London, she splits her time between weight training in the gym, trying new fitness classes, and finding scenic running routes. Jessica enjoys documenting this on her fitness-inspired Instagram page @jessrunshere where she loves engaging with like-minded fitness junkies.

She is a big fan of healthy cooking and loves learning more about this area with expert nutritionists she has met over the years. Jessica is a big advocate for building healthy relationships with food rather than building restrictive attitudes towards it. When she isn’t eating or running she also enjoys practicing yoga in her free time as it helps her to unwind and benefits her performance in other sports.