Discover the best back exercises to build a back so big that it’ll need its own area code! On this page, I’ll discuss my top 5 exercises choices for back training.
To give you an overview, here’s my top 5 pick for the best back exercises:
2. Pull Up
3. Pendlay Row
4. Inverted Row
Below, I’ll detail how to do each of the above exercises and their unique benefits.
Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet hip-width apart. Your shins should be about two inches from the bar.
Bend over at the hips to lower your torso. Bend slightly at the knees until your shins touch the bar. Grasp the bar with a shoulder width mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under). Keep your chest up, and your hips back and high.
Drive your heels into the floor and lift the bar up. When the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward until you lockout. The bar should be grazing your legs the entire way up.
Maintain a neutral spine (i.e. back straight, slight lower back arch, head in line with spine) and keep your abs tight throughout the lift.
Reverse the motion to lower the bar back to the starting position, and repeat.
Since deadlifts are arguably the “king” of all weight lifting exercises, it’s no surprise that they top the list of best back exercises.
You can lift more weight deadlifting than you can with any other exercise known to mankind (I’m talking raw lifts, here – I know powerlifters can squat and bench more with suits).
Deadlifting works your entire body. But it most intensely targets your posterior chain (lower back/spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, calves), traps and lats. They also provide a hell of a good forearm workout.
Deadlifts teach you how to lift safely by bending at the hips (not the waist) and using hip extension (not lower back extension) to pull the weight.
Most beginners gain strength on this fundamental exercise faster than all other exercises.
2. Pull Up
Grasp the bar with an overhand grip (palms forward) with your hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
Cross your ankles, squeeze your glutes and keep your abs tight. Bring your shoulders back, retract your shoulder blades (pull them together) and stick your chest out so that your upper back is arched. Focus on a point just above the bar.
Pull your elbows down while contracting your upper back and lats to pull your body up until your chin is over the bar. Give your back muscles a good squeeze at the top.
Slowly lower your body until your arms are straight, but keep your shoulder blades retracted. Repeat.
Pull ups are one of the best back exercises because they intensely work the entire upper back, lats and rear delts. They also give you a good biceps/triceps workout.
In addition to superior back and arm stimulation, pull ups are a highly effective tool for building grip strength and improving upper body stability/balance.
Yes, pull ups are difficult to learn if you lack the necessary initial strength. However, consistent practice will yield rapid strength improvements and accompanying mass gains.
Note: If you can’t do a single pull-up yet, try one of these pull up variations.
3. Pendlay Row
Use a hip width stance to stand in front of a loaded barbell on the floor, with your shins close to the bar. Bend over at the hips and grasp the barbell with an wider than shoulder-width overhand grip.
Your torso should be parallel to the floor. Create tension through your posterior chain (lower back, glutes, hams, calves). Arch your lower back slightly, and round your upper back (thoracic spine) slightly.
Explosively pull the weight up by drawing your elbows up and back (do not flare the elbows). Bring your chest up, arch your thoracic spine and retract your shoulder blades as you pull the bar to your lower chest/upper abs.
Lower the weight back to the starting position (close to your shins). And repeat.
Pendlay rows are one of many different row exercise variations. They are admittedly one of the more difficult back exercises to learn, but that shouldn’t stop you from learning it.
This back exercise is an asset to a beginner weight training program because it teaches you how to generate explosive power off the ground by activating your back muscles – not by using inefficient arm strength…
…The explosiveness trained on Pendlay rows also carries over somewhat to the initial lift-off on deadlifts.
Also, it teaches your how to use thoracic extension, which many people are unable to do. But it is very important because it allows you to engage your upper back on any rowing variation. It’s also necessary for proper technique on other lifts such as barbell squats and front squats.
4. Inverted Row
Inverted rows is like an upside-down, bodyweight variation of barbell bent over rows.
Place a barbell on a regular rack or Smith machine rack at a level that’s about a foot higher than your arm length.
Lie down on the ground so that the bar is above your chest. Reach up to grab and hang on to the bar with an overhand grip. Straighten your body and keep your arms fully extended.
Pull your elbows down and retract your shoulder blades to pull your body up until your chest touches the bar. Squeeze your upper back at the top.
Lower your body to the starting position, then repeat.
Note: You can make the exercise more challenging by elevating your feet onto a box. Also, take a look-see at these inverted row variations (see tip #5).
Benefits of Inverted Rows:
This is one of the least known of all back exercises. Luckily, popularity isn’t a prerequisite for being on the list of best back exercises. What matters is, how well an exercise works…
…And inverted rows are a beast of an exercise. They hit the upper back, rear delts and latsmuscles hard, but also bring your lower back and core into play.
What’s more impressive, though, is that it’s very hard to cheat on this exercise compared bent over rows because you can’t cheat by using hip or leg momentum. So you’re almost forced to work the target muscles (though you still have to focus on lifting with your back, not your arms).
The inverted row is also a highly versatile bodyweight exercise. You can easily up the intensity by adding weight. Or you make it less daunting by changing your body angle or position.
How to Do Hyperextensions:
Position yourself facing forward on a Roman chair, and adjust the settings as needed. Your legs should be straight allowing you to bend your body forward at the hips.
Cross your arms in front of your body, optionally holding a weight plate for additional resistance.
Slowly lower your torso by bending over at the waist. Lower your torso until you feel a mild lower back stretching sensation. No further.
Raise your torso until your body is in a straight line from head to toe. Don’t extend your back any further. Repeat.
Benefits of Hyperextensions:
Although they’re the last place on top 5 list of best back exercises, hyperextensions are still very useful!
They help target the lower back/spinal erectors that either get ignored (if you don’t deadlift) or that could benefit from extra protection as your big lifts become heavier.
The most important benefits of hyperextensions include the potential for big gains on the full body compound exercises (e.g., squats, deads, cleans) because you build a stronger center, and will be able to safely support much heavier loads.