Do you want a more muscular and stronger back? of course, you do. Who doesn’t? In this article, I go over the 9 best back exercises for strength and muscle gain.
But putting vanity reasons aside, a big strong back will make it easier for you to do stuff.
Stuff like becoming more efficient at deadlifting and bench pressing and just becoming more useful in general.
The back muscles also help stabilize your spine and they play a part in every pulling movement you can think of. From picking objects up to pulling yourself up. The back muscles play an important role.
The deadlift builds back strength better than any other exercise. The main back muscles the deadlift works are your spinal erectors, but it also works your lats, rhomboids, and trapezius.
The deadlift primarily works all of the muscles of your posterior chain. Think of your posterior chain as all of the muscles in your back. This includes the muscles of the back of your legs including your glutes and hamstrings. The deadlift is a full-body exercise and it hits all of your muscles apart from your chest.
Regarding the best deadlift variation for your back. The conventional deadlift works your back the most. Although the trap bar and sumo deadlift still work your back hard.
The deadlift when weights are sufficiently heavy is a brutally difficult and taxing exercise. But the results are worth the toil. I recommend a low-volume approach to deadlifts. I never do more than 3 hard sets of deadlifts. You simply don’t need to.
Read this article for a complete guide to proper deadlift form.
The Key Benefits Of The Deadlift Are:
- You can load it up with a lot of weight. Which will result in epic strength gains.
- You not only strengthen your back you strengthen your whole body.
- The deadlift is the ultimate trap builder. The deadlift will help you develop big strong traps.
- Back strength built with the deadlift is useful.
Correct Form For The Deadlift
Here’s how you assume the correct starting position for the deadlift.
- You stand with the bar over the middle of your foot. And your stance should be just narrower than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly out.
- Next, you take a narrow grip just outside of your legs. You want to keep your hips high at this point.
- Let your shins touch the barbell (do not move the bar).
- Set your back and make sure it’s in a neutral position.
- Lastly, take a deep breath and drag the bar up your shins keeping the bar as close to your body as possible.
The chin-up and the pull-up are both incredible exercises. Although I believe the chin-up is superior for a couple of reasons.
- The chin-up is easier to learn than the pull-up.
- You work more musculature training the chin-up.
The reason for this is because when you perform a chin-up your biceps are heavily involved in the movement. Whereas when you perform a pull-up you take out a lot of the bicep involvement.
So effectively because you’re taking out a lot of the bicep involvement in the pull-up, you won’t work as much musculature in comparison to the chin up. Therefore you won’t be as strong doing pull-ups.
And as a natural weightlifter, your main priority should be to get stronger over time.
The chin-up is the better choice for this.
The Muscles The Chin Up Works
The chin up primarily works your lats and biceps. Although it also hits your rear delts to a slightly lesser degree.
The Form For The Chin Up Is As Follows:
1. You take a shoulder width supinated (underhand) grip on the bar.
2.You let your body hang while fully extending your elbows.
3. Slightly arch your back and pull yourself up to the bar. For a gold standard chin-up touch your chest on the bar.
4. Control your descent and repeat the exercise.
Naturally, this is a bodyweight exercise, but when you can comfortably get 3 sets of 10 reps with this exercise, add weight.
The Benefits Of The Chin Up
- The chin-up will help you develop, strong lats and biceps.
- This exercise is a more advanced caliber of exercise. You don’t need much equipment to perform it (only a chin-up bar) It’s a great exercise for all training levels.
- You develop an amazing stretch in your lats.
The Barbell Row
With this horizontal pulling variation you’ll be able to lift the most weight in comparison to other rowing variations.
The muscles this exercise primarily works are your lats and rhomboids.
The Form For The Barbell Row
1. Walk up to the bar so that the bar is over your midfoot. And your stance should be about shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
2. You then want to take a grip on the bar just outside of your legs.
3. You then want to make sure your back is in a neutral position.
4. When the bar is over your midfoot and your back is in a neutral position (like the deadlift). You then want to slam your elbows back and touch the bar on your stomach.
5. Repeat exercise until you finish the required reps for your set.
The Benefits Of The Barbell Row
- The barbell row is sometimes called the 6th most effective lift after the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press and chin up as it’s so effective. Bearing in mind there are 100’s of different exercises you can choose from. Being coined the 6th most effective exercise speaks volumes.
- Getting strong at the barbell row has carry over to deadlifts and over pulling movements. Because you’re bent over in this rowing variant, you’re hinging at the hips. So in a sense, you’re working all the same muscles in the deadlift but with a focus on your lats and rhomboids.
- Any rowing variation will help to improve your posture. The back muscles are key to maintaining good posture.
The Lat Pulldown
This vertical pulling variation works the same muscles as the chin up.
Although I like it for a couple of reasons.
- For people who aren’t strong enough to perform a chin-up, they can load the lat pulldown with light weights, until they build up enough strength to perform a chin-up.
- It works your lats and biceps as effectively as the chin up.
Correct Form For The Lat Pulldown (Supinated)
The form is very easy.
1. You take a shoulder-width grip on the bar.
2. Pull the bar down to your sternum.
3. Repeat this exercise until you hit your target rep range.
The Chest Supported T Bar Row
This is a great exercise especially if you have problems with your lower back. Because you’re supported by the pad it takes out the need to support yourself with your lower back.
This is good because it allows you to focus on progressively overloading your back muscles.
In particular, the muscles this exercise works are your lats and scapular retractors, although it also works your rear delts, bis, and middle delts.
The Chest Supported T Bar Row Form
1. For this exercise you can use the wide grip or the neutral handles. The wide grip will target your back more and the neutral grip will target your biceps more.
2. Take your grip, put your chest on the pad and start rowing.
3. Always extend your elbows and pull the bar towards you. This will result in you using a full range of motion.
The Benefits Of The T Bar Row
- It’s an extremely easy piece of kit to use.
- Your chest is supported so you can really focus on your back muscles.
- It’s easy to maintain a neutral back posture because your chest is supported.
The Dumbbell Row
This exercise is one of the best back exercises you’ll come across. Dumbbells are standard in basically every gym around the world. So you won’t need to rely on fancy machines to perform this exercise.
The Dumbbell Row Form
1. You first unrack a dumbbell that you can safely handle with good form.
2. Bring that dumbbell to the bench that you’ll be using.
3. Next grab the dumbbell and use a full range of motion to row it up off the floor. Pull with your elbows.
The Benefits Of The Dumbbell Row
- The dumbbell row helps to build a strong back, primarily working the same muscles as the barbell row.
- This exercise also strengthens your shoulders, upper arms and core.
The Seated Cable Row
This exercise works all of your back muscles.
Because your chest isn’t supported you also have to support yourself with your spinal erectors.
How To Perform The Seated Cable Row
1. You use the v handle attachment and put it onto the cable.
2. Set the pulley to a weight you can comfortably do.
3. Keep your back in a neutral position and your chest upright.
4. Pull the handle to your stomach and extend your elbows after every rep. This will result in you using a full range of motion for each rep.
5. Repeat the exercise until you’ve completed the required amount of reps for your set.
The Seal Row
The seal row is one of the most effective back exercises around. Although it can be hard to find a proper seal row station in many gyms. If you do manage to find a proper seal row station count your blessings.
The great thing about this exercises is that it completely takes your lower back out of the exercise.
A bit like the chest supported row but more effectively. It’s very easy to judge each rep. Because as long as you’re touching the bottom of the bench for every rep and getting stronger using this range of motion, you’ll do well.
How To Perform The Seal Row
1. Lie facing down on a bench using the seal row setup found at some gyms.
2. Grip the bar with a medium grip which should be in line with your elbows. This should be the same grip for how you bench press.
3. Pull the bar up so that the bar touches the bench and then lower the bar to the floor.
4. Repeat this exercise for the required amount of reps.
The Benefits Of The Barbell Seal Row
- The seal row takes your lower back out of the movement so you can focus on your back muscles fully.
- You can touch the bar on the bench. This makes it easier to standardise each rep. A bit like getting your chin over the bar in the chin-up.
The Machine Row
This exercise is extremely easy to perform, and what I like about it is that you can do unilateral work with it (work each side at the time like the dumbbell row).
You can also load it up heavy and your chest is supported somewhat so it takes your lower back out of the movement so you can really feel your back muscles work.
How To Perform The Machine Row
1. Sit down and Grab either the neutral or wide grip.
2. Keep your chest up and your back in a neutral position and pull the handles toward you using a full range of motion.
3. Repeat the exercise until you finish your set.
The Benefits Of The Machine Row
- Like most machines, the machine row is very easy to use.
- You can focus on different grips e.g. wider handles or neutral handles.
- You can either do bilateral (using both sides at a time) work or unilateral work ( working one side at a time).
How To Create A Simple Back Workout
Any back workout worth its salt will hit all of the back muscles using exercises that have you hinge at the hips, pull horizontally, and pull vertically.
For instance in this workout you’ll:
- Start every back workout with a deadlift variation (hip hinge). You can pick between the conventional deadlift, trap bar, and sumo deadlift.
- The second exercise of every workout will be a vertical pulling exercise like a lat pulldown, chin up or pull up.
- The third exercise will be a horizontal pulling variation such as a barbell row, dumbbell row, chest supported row, machine row, or cable row.
- The fourth and final exercise will be a bicep exercise. The reason I put a bicep exercise here is because all back exercises target your biceps to a certain extent. This means you won’t have to warm your biceps up and can go straight into a set of barbell or dumbbell curls at the end of your session.
Conventional Deadlift 3 Sets Of 6-8 Reps.
Chin Up Or Lat Pulldown 3 Sets Of 6-8 Reps (Bodyweight Or Add Weight If Possible For Chin-ups).
Machine Row 3 Sets Of 6-8 Reps.
Barbell Curl 3 Sets of 6-8 Reps.
How To Progress With This Workout
For this workout, you’ll be using a training system called double progression.
It’s really simple to use. You hit the end of your rep range, which in this case is 8 reps then you’d add 2.5-5kg depending on the exercise and then aim to get 6 reps.
Double Progression Example
Firstly for this example, I’ll use the deadlift. The deadlift is the only exercise for your back workout that you increase the weight by 5kg once you hit the top of your rep range.
For the rest of the exercises, you’ll just increase the weight by 2.5kg once you hit the top of your rep range.
Here’s an example for the deadlift:
100kg x 8, 105kg x 6, 105kg x 6.
105kg x 7, 105kg x 7, 105kg x 6.
105kg x 8, 110kg x 6, 110kg x 6.
110kg x 7, 110kg x 7, 110kg x 6.
As you can see this progression model is pretty straightforward. You’ll use the same progression with your other exercises although you’ll only increase the weight by a total of 2.5kg.
Your main goal should be to add 1-2 reps per workout. And once you hit the end of your rep range you put the weight up it’s really that simple.
A Quick Warm-Up Routine
For the first exercise of every back workout you should warm-up properly to avoid injury.
Here’s an easy yet effective warm-up you can do:
Set 1 warm-up with 50% of your working weight for 12 reps.
Set 2 warm-up with 70% of your working weight for 4 reps
Set 3 warm-up with 90% of your working weight for 2 reps.
Next sets: perform with your working weights.
Here’s what your warm-up sets might look like for barbell deadlifts if your working weights were 100kg.
Set 1 50kg for 12 reps.
Set 2 70kg for 4 reps
Set 3 90kg for 2 reps.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Can I still do well without deadlifting?
A: Yes you can as long as you swap it out for a horizontal pulling exercise such as the machine row, T bar row, barbell row, or cable row. As long as you’re training with enough volume (hard sets) for your back and getting stronger you’ll make progress.
Q: How Often Should I Change My Back Exercises.
A: You want to stick with your back workout for long enough to make progress. If you keep switching up your exercises every week it makes it very hard to get strong on any of them.
For this reason, I advise you to stick with your back workout for at least 8 weeks before switching your exercises up.
The Bottom Line On The 9 Best Back Exercises For Strength And Muscle Gain
- If you want to develop strength and size in your back you need to be prioritizing exercises like the ones in this article. Especially the deadlift.
- As long as you’re getting stronger at the compound back exercises like the ones shown in this article, you’ll do well.
- Make sure that you include a deadlift variation, horizontal and vertical pulling movement in your training for the best results. And remember you need to be getting stronger at these exercise’s for progress to occur.
What’s your favourite back exercise? Let me know in the comments below. And if you need any extra help send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org