Nothing is more impressive than being able to bang out 30 pull ups in a row or finishing a set of 10 with 90 lbs hanging from a belt. Nothing LOOKS more impressive than being able to hit an impressive front or rear lat spread with confidence. Furthermore, how many women do you know who can finish a set of 10 pull ups? Trust me, there aren’t many.
The reality is that we can accomplish all of these things with intense free weight back training.
Your back muscles comprise the second largest set of muscles, after the legs. Therefore, putting some serious effort into training your back will pay off huge dividends whether you are looking to burn a large number of calories, better fill out your shirts, condition your body for functional strength, or even to fix your posture from focusing too long on chest training.
Strong back muscles will allow you to:
- Pick up anything heavy off the floor or ground, working in unison with the legs.
- Burn nearly as many calories as you would when training legs.
- Move your body more easily through space, specifically when pulling yourself up.
- Protect yourself from muscle imbalances that occur from overtraining the chest.
- Row a boat faster than any of your punk friends.
Anatomy of the Back
For this discussion we are going to focus on the mid to upper back only. I won’t be talking at all about the lower back or glutes, as this is a discussion in and of its own. You can find out a bit more about lower back and glute training in the post about the top 5 best hamstring exercises. I will focus more on lower back in a separate article at a later date.
There are two main muscle groups that are visible even when our shirts are on. These are called the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius.
The latissimus, or lats, are the muscles that run from the armpits to the waist. This is what you see when people flex their backs as with a lat spread bodybuilding pose.
The trapezius, or traps, are the muscles that start in a point at the base of the skull, sit to either side of the neck, above the shoulders, and extend in a diamond shape to a point in the middle of the back. A muscle called the levator scapulae works in conjunction with the traps and lats.
Trap are what cause some big dudes to appear to have no neck. This is also how you can tell if someone is really serious about their training. Typically if someone has completely flat traps it means that they probably do not engage in significant free weight complex exercises like deadlifts, bent over barbell rows, cleans, and definitely not barbell shrugs.
The Smaller Muscles of the Back
Some of the smaller back muscles include teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and rhomboideus (rhomboids). These are considered secondary muscles and are sufficiently stimulated when you train the larger latissimus dorsi with both vertical and horizontal movements.
The serratus is another back muscle that wraps around the body and it also visible from the font. If you desire to train the serratus directly, which many people do, the best exercise for that is probably dumbbell or barbell pull overs. In the past when I trained 4 days a week I often included pull overs on back day.
Functions of the Back
Contrary to what you might think when you picture a row, the function of the lats is to pull the arm down toward the pelvis. When the arm is in a fixed position such as with a pull up, the lats serve to bring the body up towards the arm. The function is the same, but the motion depends upon the position of the arms and torso.
Your traps function to facilitate scapular elevation (shrugging), scapular adduction (rowing) and scapular depression (pull downs). Often they work in conjunction with the lats and the other small muscles, especially when rowing or pulling down.
Top 5 Best Back Exercises
Because I have received so many comments ripping me for not including deadlifts on this list, let the record show that I did indeed mention deadlifts right here at the top of the list, but decided not to include them in the list because they are already in the top 5 best hamstring exercises.
Deadlifts are probably the 3rd best back exercise after barbell rows and pull ups, so include them in your back workout as you see fit. Similarly, you could include good mornings in this list. To reduce the angst of hardcore weightlifters, I have revised this list to include deadlifts as the #5 best back exercise.
My original comments regarding deadlifts are as follows:
Of course deadlifts are part of this list, but I intend to target exercises that train the upper and mid back directly. For more information on deadlifts and other lower back exercises, see my post about the 5 best exercises for hamstrings.
- Barbell Bent Over Rows – Horizontal training
Bent over rows with a barbell is arguably the most important back exercise you can do for pulling strength and thickness in the upper body. This is a compound movement that works everything from traps to lats to lower back and hamstrings. Using proper form, bent over barbell rows will help you stand apart with thickness and strength, from the people who only do pull ups, chin ups, or (God forbid) pull downs.
To set up: you should start by standing on a box or platform with the loaded barbell. This is necessary to avoid the plates hitting the floor when you use 45 lb plates. Your stance should be shoulder width for conventional barbell rows. Now, keeping your knees slightly bent, your head up, and your back straight, bend over until your upper body is lower than 45 degrees to the floor. My goal is always to get as close to parallel with the floor as possible.
The weight should be hanging straight down from your arms at this point, directly below your chest. You should have a pronated grip on the bar; your palms should be facing towards you. Feel free to use a bit of chalk if you are rowing really heavy. NO STRAPS!
To row: to start a row, use your back muscles to pull the bar straight up to touch your chest. The elbows should be tucked in, head up, back straight, and you should NOT bounce. Lower the weight under control and repeat.
Variations: close grip, wide grip, medium grip, two arm dumbbell rows, supinated rows (palms facing away).
There is also a machine called the T-Bar that can be used for rowing. Old school lifters might even put one end of an Olympic bar in the corner of a room, and use the other end as a T-bar and a neutral grip cable attachment as the handle.
The following is the best video that I could find on YouTube for a demonstration of barbell bent over rows by someone who doesn’t look like a complete puss, although I don’t advocate putting the bar on the floor between reps:
UPDATE: Since writing this article I have embraced barbell rows with a pause on the floor. I don’t recommend either variation over the other, but I do recommend trying them both. As with all exercises, you should probably use the variation that you hate most, but I don’t fault anyone for using the variation that they like most.
You should also watch this video just for fun: Bent Over Rows by Chrissy Zmijewski. She has some good points, but I believe in going deeper than 45 degrees with the upper body.
- Pull Ups and Chin Ups – Vertical training
Pull ups and chin ups are a true measure of strength. They are one of those exercises that can be used to gauge a person’s physical strength relative to their body weight. For example a powerlifter might be able to bench press 600 lbs at a body weight of 280 lbs, but maybe he can only do 4 pull ups. Meanwhile a 175 lb guy can only bench 315, but he can bust out about 30 pull ups.
So let me ask you, who is really stronger? Better yet, which person’s strength would you wish to have? Sorry, but I’d rather be the smaller guy.
To set up: stand on a box or a platform if you need to, or just jump up, so you can reach the bar. Pull ups are typically harder than chin ups, but I recommend you switch off between the two. Pull ups use a pronated grip (palms down, or in this case palms facing away), while chin ups use a supinated grip (palms up). Hands should be just wider than shoulder width for a medium grip pull up, or just inside shoulder width for a medium grip chin up.
To pull up: the goal is to pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your head up, possibly looking at the ceiling, and get that chin over the bar, pause just long enough to get a full contraction. Lower yourself back down so that your arms are about 99% straight, don’t bounce.
If you can’t do a pull up, most gyms have assisted pull up machines. Start there and work your weight towards your first bodyweight pull up.
If you can do more than 10 pulls up with bodyweight, it might be time to consider weighted pull ups and weighted chin ups. You can do this by hanging a dumbbell between your legs or ankles, or by using a belt with a chain to suspend the weight between your legs.
Variations: wide grip, medium grip, narrow grip, neutral grip (palms facing each other), pull ups, chin ups, towel pull ups to blast your grip and finger strength. Many people do lat pull downs on machines or with cables, but I’m telling you not to. Stick with free weights!
Here is our friend Scott Herman to show us how to do an interesting variation – tennis ball pull ups.
- Barbell Shrugs – Upper back
Shrugs are specifically a traps only exercise. The lats don’t come into play at all. You can go pretty heavy on shrugs. I built a decent set of traps back in the day by working up to 10-12 reps with between 495 and 585 lbs on a standard Olympic bar.
To set up: unless you feel like deadlifting the weight off the floor, your best bet is to unrack the bar at thigh height from a platform, squat rack, power rack, or whatever else you can use. This is one of maybe 2 exercises for which I condone using straps. You want to avoid using an alternating grip if possible, and sometimes using chalk just doesn’t cut it if you are using heavier weight than you typically deadlift.
To shrug: take a pronated grip on the bar just outside your hips and unrack the weight so that it hangs to mid thigh. Always stand straight with your head up, and knees just barely bent. Try to touch your shoulders to your ears by shrugging straight up, as high as you can. Hold for half a second to really get that contraction. Lower the weight under control back to mid thigh.
Variations: dumbbell shrugs are good too, but you can’t use as much weight.
Here is a really controlled version of the wide grip barbell shrug. It’s good stuff.
- One Arm Dumbbell Rows – Horizontal training
This is a great way for you to isolate each side of your back in turn. While you can’t go as heavy as barbell rows, you can still go pretty heavy and you can get a fuller contraction with a greater range of motion because the barbell does not restrict your scapula from fully retracting on each rep.
To set up: grab a dumbbell and place it beside a bench. Now kneel with one leg on one end of the bench and place your hand on the other end for support. At this point your upper body should be parallel to the floor, and your free leg should be planted just behind you and to the side of your body for support.
To row: grab the dumbbell with a neutral grip (palm facing your body), arm fully extended and lift the dumbbell off the floor. From this point you want to row the weight up and back, pulling your hand in just above your hip, and getting your elbow also up and back as far as possible. Experiment with wrist angles to make this exercise harder, easier, or more comfortable for you.
Variations: you can use a machine or a cable exercise for this, but I highly recommend you stick with free weights.
- Barbell Deadlifts
Deadlifts belong in this list as well as in the top 5 best hamstring exercises, so here it is:
Deadlifts are one of the primary, fundamental exercises for all serious weight training programs. Deadlifts work 100% of your legs and they require functional stability from 95% of the rest of the muscles on your body. Using proper form, deadlifts will help you get stronger, gain more muscle, and burn more calories than any other single exercise after the squat.
To set up: the barbell rests on the floor, sitting just above the ankles right in front of the shins. Your stance should be shoulder width for conventional deadlifts. Bending your knees, reach down and grab the bar so that your knees are actually inside your elbows. When going heavy, it helps to alternate your grip where one hand is pronated (palm facing you) and the other hand is supinated (palm facing away).
To deadlift: to start a deadlift, use your whole body to begin to lift the bar off the floor. Arms should be straight, knees should be bent. The object is to lift the weight with your legs, glutes, and hips, rather than with your lower back. In fact your lower back should not bend that much, should in fact be pretty straight, and should definitely NOT be rounded. You accomplish this by keeping your head up and by driving with your hips. It is of utmost importance to keep the bar close to your body during the lift.
At the top you should stand up straight, but do not over extend your lower back as if you were doing some kind of hyper-extension. The driving force at the top should be more of a hip thrust than a lower back spasm. Lower the bar under control, keeping it close to your body.
Variations: close stance deads, wide stance deads, sumo style deads, deads off a box, rack pulls or pin pulls, deads or rack pulls with chains or bands.
Honorable mentions: pull overs, cleans, snatches, and…
Dumbbell Reverse Flyes
This exercise used to be listed at the #5 best back exercise, but I really couldn’t live with myself for including it in that list. Therefore, read this section while keeping in mind that dumbbell reverse flyes are probably somewhere in the top 10 best back exercises, but it is not top 5.
OK, you might be thinking this exercise is foo-foo, but it really works the smaller muscles in your upper back, including your rear delts. I guess I wouldn’t really recommend this as a staple exercise for powerlifters or other strength athletes, but it is mandatory for bodybuilders. This will really help to separate the muscles in the back, and will build the rear delts, which are typically very hard to cultivate.
To set up: standing or sitting, grab some dumbbells, bend over so that your upper body is parallel to the floor. Allow the weights to hang at your sides, arms fully extended.
To reverse fly: keeping your back flat and straight, raise the weight vertically until your hands are at their highest possible position. Hold for half a second to contract. Lower the weight under control, but stop a couple inches short of where you started. The goal is not to pause at the bottom of the movement for rest. Tension should be kept on the muscles at all times.
Variations: because this is not a compound exercise, reverse flies on any number of machines or cables are usually an acceptable alternative to dumbbells.
To use this exercise list optimally, you will want to choose 1 horizontal movement and 1 vertical movement, to work into each workout. For full body workouts, choose only one exercise each day, but be sure to alternate between horizontal and vertical. However if you are in a back specialization phase you can definitely choose 1 vertical and 1 horizontal movement for each workout to really force your back to adapt.
If you use the outdated method of splitting up your body parts each day, you can choose to split your back into horizontal and vertical training by using 2 horizontal exercises on horizontal back day, and 2 vertical exercises on vertical back day. Often horizontal back is paired with chest and vertical back is paired with legs.