Build a road map back with a variety of growth-inducing back exercises!
The back consists of several muscle groups which make up the upper posterior chain (Backside of the body) and these include the Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Infraspinatus, and Erector Spinae. (1, 2)
These muscles help us to twist, bend, stand upright, lift heavy objects, and protect the spine. And without a strong back; we can’t deadlift, squat, or even perform functional activities at optimal levels. (3)
They also play a big role in your posterior appearance giving width and thickness to your rear torso which is highly desired by many people who train for aesthetics…
But, the more muscles per surface area means you must train them each individually to ensure maximum muscle-building and strength benefits. But, there are so many different exercises and ways to get an effective back workout.
So… we chose 10 exercises which we felt would give you the best results in your back training endeavors…
1. Barbell Bent-Over Row
The barbell row is without a doubt, one of; if not the most effective back exercises we have available to us.
In fact, ACE-sponsored research tested the effectiveness of several back exercises by having 19 males perform them with all variables being equal, and the bent-over row showed significant muscle activation in essentially all back muscles. (4)
The row was significantly more effective for targeting the erector spinae than other rowing exercises, as well as pull-ups/chin-ups, and pulldowns.
But it was a close second in muscle activation for lower traps, lats, and Infraspinatus muscles. This information leaves us to conclude that the bent-over row is the perfect overall exercise which stimulates the back symmetrically according to research. (5)
So, we’d say it’s a pretty impressive movement and should be a staple for compound movements when aiming for the most development possible.
Barbell bent-over row training tips:
- Practice proper form before training heavy. Your knees should be bent with your back straight to avoid injury.
- When you row, pull the barbell to the bottom of your rib cage which will allow you to utilize your maximum strength potential.
- The bent-over row is best utilized as the first and heaviest lift in your workout.
2. Barbell Deadlift
A list of effective back exercises would not be complete without the king of posterior chain exercises… the barbell deadlift.
Now, the deadlift has so many variations, but we included the conventional version to keep things simple. The deadlift isn’t just a back exercise though. It’s actually an entire posterior chain (Backside of the body) exercise.
Which means it works all rear muscles from your calves, all the way up to your traps.
But what makes the deadlift such a special exercise is that you can maximally load the barbell and lift as much weight as your body you can handle. No other exercise works as many muscles groups as the deadlift.
Barbell deadlift training tips:
- Practice proper form with light weights if you’re a beginner because the deadlift is a compound exercise which can cause injury if done improperly.
- You should keep the bar as close to your body as possible and drive through your hips to the top.
- Your lower back should be arched and your upper back should be just slightly rounded for the most effective pull.
Any form of a pull-up will yield excellent results. But this exercise really shines is its superior activation of the Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) and research confirms this.
In a study, the pull-up showed significant lat activation compared to various forms of rows, and even the lat pull-down. (4)
Now, the pull-up is a simple exercise but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. You do need upper body strength but there are workarounds which is good news.
Most gyms often have pull-up assist machines which are fantastic and then there’s the cable pulldown which works the same muscles but to a lesser extent overall.
Pull-up training tips:
- Use a full range of motion when doing the pull-up to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and strength.
- If you’re a beginner, don’t worry about pulling yourself up all the way. You can also use a pull-up assist machine to develop your strength before you progress into the body weight only variation. Or do negatives by using something/someone to help you to the top of the bar and slowly lower yourself down.
- Use a weighted belt or dumbbell between your ankles for added resistance.
4. Underhand Yates Row
Named after the former 6-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, this row variation offers a different stimulus than the conventional barbell row.
Now, instead of using a pronated (Overhand) grip, you’ll use a supinated (Underhand) grip. This allows you to really stimulate the lower back muscles and the difference is noticeable during the movement when compared to an overhead row.
Using either a free weight barbell or Smith machine will yield similar results. But the free weight barbell will develop more stabilizer muscles.
Underhand Yates Row training tips:
- When you do the underhand row, you want to pull the barbell to your mid stomach area. This engages more of the lower back.
- Using a Smith machine is also a great way to do this exercise because you don’t have to stabilize the weight. You can just focus on the movement itself and training for the best contraction possible.
5. Sumo Deadlift
The Sumo deadlift (SD) is rising in popularity because it’s actually a safer alternative to the conventional barbell deadlift.
But how could it be so different?
Sumo deadlifts alleviate spine stress since the lift is closer to your center of mass, unlike with the conventional deadlift where you have to bend over and reach out to grip the barbell to lift it. With the SD, your back and the rest of your body can remain in a more upright position. (6)
But your stance should be very wide with your feet pointed slightly outward. This will allow you to lift heavy with a shorter range of motion, to maintain maximum balance, and to keep your torso upright.
Sumo deadlift training tips:
- Take a wide stance with feet pointed just slightly outward. Your torso should be erect, and you should not have to place your arms too much out in front of your body.
- You can use an overhand grip or an overhand/underhand grip.
- Drive through your legs first and thrust your hips forward while your spinal erectors assist in completing each rep.
- The Sumo lift can replace the conventional deadlift and taller people find it to work better for them.
6. V-Bar Pulldown
Why use a V-bar, or close bar? Well, the most obvious reason is that you can absolutely use more weight than if you were to use a long, bar attachment. This is ideal for muscular hypertrophy and will really hit all the back muscles sufficiently.
Now, a study showed narrow grip pull-downs to have similar electromyographic (EMG) activity to a medium or wide grip hand position, even if the medium grip has a slight advantage. (7)
But, the benefit of using more resistance is one reason why we chose the V-bar variation for an effective back exercise.
V-bar pulldown training tips:
- Warm up with a light weight for 2 sets of 12-15 reps before progressing to heavier weights.
- You should keep your elbows tucked in during the exercise and really focus on contracting and engaging the back muscles.
- Do not lock out your arms during the concentric (Positive) phase of the exercise as this can place a lot of stress on the biceps and cause injury.
- This variation is great as a compound lift or a finisher.
7. Seated Cable Row
Rowing is a phenomenal way to stimulate your back and it best targets the middle Trapezius muscles, the lats, and even the erector spinae according to a study. (4)
This benefits an individual by improving posture and promoting thoracic extension which helps to keep a straight and healthy spine. (8)
But the row is also a great exercise for burning lots of calories and building muscle at the same time since it’s a functional sporting movement.
Seated cable row training tips:
- Use any cable attachment handle which allows you to comfortably and effectively perform the seated cable row.
- Perform high reps to utilize the functional movement of the row.
- Avoid using momentum and keep your elbows slightly bent to effectively engage the back muscles.
- The seated row is a great exercise to begin your back workout with or use it as a burnout finisher.
8. Inverted Row
Also known as the Australian pull-up, the inverted row is a less difficult version of a conventional pull-up but it’s also like a bodyweight row.
Now, this exercise has shown to effectively target the middle Trapezius muscles and the Infraspinatus (Rotator cuff muscle which stabilizes the shoulder joint). (4)
And all you need is a Smith machine to perform this exercise. But, it’s a great movement which is sadly underrated due to being unconventional and overshadowed by other exercises.
Now, the inverted row really shines for lessening spine load stress and motion. But when utilizing this exercise, keep in mind that it targets the upper back significantly more than the lower back. This is ideal for isolation purposes. (9)
Inverted row training tips:
- Position your body beneath a Smith machine bar so that you can grab it at a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Then, you’ll pull your body up to the bar just as you would a pull-up while retracting your shoulder blades.
- The inverted row is just a reverse of the standard barbell row so it’s also a great functional exercise. You can use it as the first exercise in your back workout or save it for last to really burn out.
9. I-Y-T Raise
You may or may not have heard of the I-Y-T raise but when it comes to back training exercises, it’s one of the best.
A study showed the I-Y-T raise to significantly stimulate the Trapezius, and Infraspinatus muscles when compared to several row variations, and pull-ups. (4)
Now, you can do this exercise on an incline bench, sitting upright on a bench, or whichever way you feel the target muscles being worked the best.
The exercise motion looks exactly how it sounds. You’ll make an I, Y, and T with your arms to hit each muscle group.
I-Y-T raise training tips:
- Lift your arms straight up above your head to form an “I”. Then, you’ll bring your arms back down and form a “y”. Lastly, you’ll bring your arms down and then form a “T”.
- The goal is to feel the muscles working by contracting and squeezing during each repetition.
10. Rack Pull
The rack pull is a real powerhouse back exercise because you take a lot of your legs out of the movement which activates more of the spinal erectors.
This is very beneficial for back development and you can train heavy safely; which is another great reason to include this exercise in your workout routine.
Now, unlike the conventional barbell deadlift, you’ll start with the bar raised off the ground on a rack at about knee level. Your legs will help to lift the barbell through about a third of the movement while the spinal erectors and hips extend to complete the lift.
Rack pull training tips:
- Use a Smith machine if don’t have great balance/stability. However, if you want to build stabilizer muscles then using a free weight barbell is a better option. But, both are great and will yield muscle and strength gains.
- Set up the barbell slightly at, or above knee level on a rack so your back will have to engage to pull the weight. But you’ll extend and drive through your hips and knees while pulling the weight.
*Header image courtesy of Envato Elements
- Henson, Brandi; Edens, Mary Ann (2019), Anatomy, Back, Muscles, StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID 30725759, retrieved 2019-05-01
- Chapter 40: Muscles, vessels, nerves and joints of the back. www.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
- Back Muscles. Cedars-Sinai. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
- ACE – Certified™: April 2018 – ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH: What Is the Best Back Exercise?. www.acefitness.org. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
- Fenwick, Chad M. J.; Brown, Stephen H. M.; McGill, Stuart M. (2009-3). Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23 (2): 350–358. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 19197209.
- Biomechanics of Safe Lifting. ergo.human.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
- Andersen, Vidar; Fimland, Marius S.; Wiik, Espen; Skoglund, Anders; Saeterbakken, Atle H. (2014-4). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28 (4): 1135–1142. doi:10.1097/JSC.0000000000000232. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 24662157
- Video: Seated row with weight machine. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
- CHAD M. J. FENWICK, STEPHEN H. M. BROWN, AND STUART M. MCGILL