5 Best Dumbbell Pull Exercises (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 27, 2022

A full range of gym equipment isn’t always practical or even available - making a dumbbell-only pull workout quite convenient if performed properly.

Fortunately, nearly every exercise that is possible with a barbell is also possible with a dumbbell, allowing home-gym owners or lifters with a muscular imbalance to reap the benefits of dumbbell workouts, no strings attached.

The majority of dumbbell pull exercises are those that target the back and biceps muscles of the body, usually featuring the exerciser creating counter-resistance towards themselves as opposed to away from them.

What are Pull Exercises?

Pull exercises are resistance exercises that primarily train the muscles of the back or biceps brachii, and will often feature the exerciser producing force angled towards themselves.

Among the most common pull exercises are the barbell row, the deadlift and the curl - all of which involve targeting one or multiple of the aforementioned muscle groups alongside a pulling motion.

push pull legs or ppl

Pull exercises are differentiated from other types of exercises so as to allow for what is known as a “training split”, wherein the exerciser will divide their training program over the course of multiple workout sessions according to certain criteria.

In the case of pull and push exercises, this criteria is the sort of muscles that are trained, as well as the angle of resistance placed on said muscles.

Muscles Worked by Dumbbell Pull Exercises

Dumbbell pull exercises will recruit the muscles of the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, posterior deltoid head, biceps brachii, erector spinae and trapezius in varying degrees of intensity. 

Other muscle groups that may be activated incidentally are that of the core and glutes, though these are more specific to certain exercises and not characteristic of pull exercises as a whole.

Certain dumbbell pull isolation exercises will only target one of the aforementioned muscles, whereas many compound pull exercises will target every single one.

Best Dumbbell Pull Exercises

1. Dumbbell Rows

The conventional dumbbell row and its variations are considered to be among the most effective compound pulling exercises for training general back strength - especially the more advanced variations that target the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi muscles to a greater extent.

dumbbell row

Dumbbell rows are generally performed with a moderate amount of weight and volume for multiple sets, and are meant to be the primary compound exercise within a pull day workout.

Variations

Dozens of dumbbell row variations are available to choose from, with exercises like the seal row or dumbbell arnold row acting as a method of progression by increasing specificity, while other variations of the dumbbell row such as the renegade row are meant to produce a different form of training stimulus instead.

Small changes in the execution of the dumbbell row can also be used in the form of unilateral or bilateral variations, or otherwise through angling the torso with the help of a bench, such as in the case of incline chest-supported rows.

How-to:

To begin performing a conventional dumbbell row, the exerciser will select a dumbbell of moderate weight and hold it in an overhead grip.

Spreading the feet shoulder-width apart, angling the torso and bending somewhat at the hips and knees, the exerciser will pull the dumbbell towards their ribcage. As they do so, the elbows will retract somewhat behind them while the scapula retracts, stopping once the back muscles have been completely recruited.

Then, the exerciser will allow the dumbbells to slowly return to their original position as they release their scapula and elbows. This completes a repetition of the dumbbell row.

2. Dumbbell Pullover

Unlike most pull exercises, the dumbbell pullover recruits the pectoral muscles alongside the latissimus dorsi - training both sides of the torso in a single exercise.

dumbbell pullover

Due to its widely-targeting muscular recruitment pattern, the dumbbell pullover is suitable for both pull and push days - so long as it is performed with a relatively low intensity so as to allow for full recovery.

Variations

Apart from the conventional pullover exercise, other variations of the dumbbell pullover alter the angle of the torso or the arm so as to greater target one muscle group over the other. These are the incline and decline pullover alongside the bent-arm or EZ-bar pullover.

How-to:

To perform a dumbbell pullover, the exerciser will hold a dumbbell in both hands as they lie face-up on an exercise bench.

Extending their arms overhead, the exerciser will pull the dumbbell forward, bringing it towards their chest in an arc. Once the dumbbell is parallel to the chest, the exerciser will reverse the motion, returning to the original position and completing the repetition.

3. Dumbbell Deadlifts

Though the deadlift exercise is most often performed with the use of a barbell, it is entirely possible to perform a dumbbell-based variation that recreates the intensity and training stimulus of the former variant.

dumbbell deadlift

Performing the deadlift with the use of dumbbells allows for a safer and more balanced exercise to be performed, though it will also reduce total resistance as the arms of either side will be forced to work separately.

Variations

Much like the barbell deadlift, the dumbbell deadlift’s variations involve a change in the stance of the exerciser. Stiff legged dumbbell deadlifts and dumbbell sumo deadlifts are just a few examples of these dumbbell deadlift variations.

How-to:

To begin performing a set of dumbbell deadlifts, the exerciser will grip a pair of dumbbells and position themselves in an upright stance with the feet shoulder-width apart.

Keeping the elbows fully extended and the core braced, the exerciser will then bend at the hips and knees simultaneously as they lower the dumbbells below their knees. This should bring the hips within parallel depth to the knees as well.

Then, driving through the feet, the exerciser will slowly return back to their original upright position, ensuring that the arms do not bend at any point throughout the repetition.

This will complete a repetition of the conventional dumbbell deadlift.

4. Dumbbell Shrugs

Dumbbell shrugs are the dumbbell-variation of the conventional shrug exercise - an isolation movement meant to target the trapezius muscles with significant volume and moderate levels of resistance.

dumbbell shrug

Shrugs are usually employed around the end of a workout as a method of maximizing trapezius hypertrophy without being limited by other muscle groups found in the back or shoulders.

Variations

There are numerous variations of the conventional shrug exercise, with some of the more basic dumbbell variations involving placing the hands behind or to the side of the body so as to alter the angle of resistance.

How-to:

To perform a repetition of dumbbell shrugs, the exerciser will grip a pair of dumbbells at either side of their hips and squeeze their shoulder blades together, drawing the dumbbells upwards by several inches.

Holding this position for several seconds, the exerciser will then slowly release their trapezius muscle and shoulder blades, returning the dumbbells back to their original elevation.

This rather short movement completes a repetition of dumbbell shrugs.

5. Dumbbell Curls

A classic isolation exercise primarily used to target the biceps, dumbbell curls are considered to be the most basic of biceps brachii exercises - and arguably one of the most debated, as dozens of safer or more intense variations have been developed over the years.

dumbbell bicep curl

Like many other isolation exercises, dumbbell curls are often relegated to be among the last exercises performed within a workout (especially pull day workouts), as premature fatigue and early failure can occur during compound exercises if dumbbell curls are performed too early.

Variations

There are far too many dumbbell curl variations to name within a single article, but the majority simply alter the position of the elbow and wrist in relation to the torso, either for the purposes of reducing stress along the arm, or targeting a portion of the biceps to a more specific degree.

Exercises like concentration curls, Zottman curls, dumbbell preacher curls and drag curls are just a few curl variations that are possible with the use of a dumbbell.

How-to:

Performing a repetition of dumbbell curls is quite simple; gripping a dumbbell in an underhand position, the exerciser will draw the dumbbell upward until it is parallel or above-parallel with the shoulder, keeping their elbows as stationary as possible throughout the movement.

And with that, the repetition of dumbbell curls is complete.

Exercisers should avoid any swinging of the torso, excessive rotation of the wrists or failing to control the eccentric portion of the repetition, as all of these errors can easily result in injury.

In Conclusion

And there you have it, the most common and effective dumbbell pull day exercises out there.

Note that if these aforementioned exercises aren’t suitable for you or the needs of your training program, don’t worry - as there are dozens more, each of which are quite useful within their own specific niche.

Furthermore, keep in mind that not every pull day workout must be structured the same, or otherwise use the same types of exercises - it is entirely possible to substitute one pull exercise out with a similar one, keeping your workouts fresh and exciting.

References:

1. Gabriel, David A. C.S.C.S.; Pyka, Ian B. C.S.C.S.. PROGRAM DESIGN: The scientific basis of push-pull weight training programs. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal: August 1989 - Volume 11 - Issue 4 - p 30-32

2. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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