The Most Effective Back Exercises [15 Killer Variations]
If there is one muscle group that doesn't get the attention it deserves, it is the back.
You need a nice sturdy back for just about everything in life.
Whether you want to develop that nice 'V' shape in your upper body, or you would like your back to have some definition for your wedding dress, then you've come to the right place.
In this post, we will go over how to the most effective back exercises so that you can stop wasting your time, and start developing the muscles you desire.
Welcome to the fourth installment of the WCT body building series:
In Part 1 The Secret To Bigger Arms [With Examples Of At Home & Gym Workouts], we go over proven strategies to grow and develop your upper body.
In Part 2, How to Build Bigger Glutes, we discuss the best exercises to help grow a natural bum (and no, donkey kick backs are not included)
In Part 3, The Best Leg Exercises to Develop a Strong Lower Body, we break down the most critical components of lower body training, and how to maximize each one.
This post will cover:
The Benefits of Making Your Back Stronger
How To Train Your Back Muscles
The Best Back Exercises (with At Home Variations)
The Best Exercises for Back Pain
A Simple Back Workout Routine
Alright, let’s get cooking…
The Anatomy of The Back Muscles
The back is composed of several different muscles, each with complex functions. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus our attention on just three major back muscles.
They are the:
Rhomboids and Other Upper Back Muscles
Lattisimus Dorsi (or Lats for short)
The rhomboids are small muscles that are located between your scapula. Together with other muscles of the upper back, they help to retract your scapula and pull things towards you in a horizontal plane.
The lats are large muscles that are located on your sides and attach from your arm to the side of your back. These are the muscles that look like wings and give a 'V' shape. They help in pulling things towards you in a vertical plane.
The Posterior Deltoids
These small muscles are attached to the back of your shoulder and help in pulling things towards your face and externally rotating the shoulders. They are necessary to provide definition, balance, and stability to your shoulder joint.
Why Is It Important To Develop Back Muscles?
The back doesn't get as much love as it deserves. This is partly because the back is, unfortunately, behind you.
Did you know that the back is often the most neglected muscle group of them all?
What if I told you that exercising your back is probably the most important muscle group for you to exercise?
The Back Muscles Improve Your Posture
The back muscles function to keep your spine erect and neutral, regardless of the activity you are performing. As such, they are a critical component in maintaining proper posture during sitting, standing, walking or exercising. You probably have bad posture. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
The Back Muscles Help Prevent Injury
To piggy back on the first point, posture also plays an important role in your risk of developing an injury. By strengthening your back, you are ensuring that your upper body remains in an optimal position during everyday movements. Did you know that a lot of musculoskeletal injuries occur during every day activities?
Training the Back Muscles Increase Your Fat Loss Potential
The back is composed of the largest muscles in your upper body. Training the back elicits greater hormonal responses and adaptations when compared to smaller muscle groups such as the biceps. More muscle mass means an increase in metabolism which equals more fat loss.
Now, let’s move onto the fun stuff.
The Most Effective Back Exercises of All time
Now is the moment everyone has been waiting for. Here are the best back exercises to develop an amazing upper body.
The #1 Best Back Exercise is...
1) Snatch Grip Deadlift
The snatch grip deadlifts trains MULTIPLE back muscles at once. The wide hand position will hammer your rhomboids and trapezius muscles as well as your spinal erectors.
Not to mention, it is also a deadlift, which means it also trains your core muscles, and your entire posterior chain (low back, glutes and hamstrings).
What more can you ask for?
The Best Upper Back Exercises
The best upper back exercises are the ones that require you to pull in a horizontal plane. Here I will show you the best back exercises with a barbell, cable and bodyweight.
1) The Barbell Row
The barbell row is the second best barbell back exercise after the deadlift. Contrary to what everyone in your gym does, every rep should actually start from the ground.
2) Seated Cable Row
The seated cable row is by far the best back exercise to perform with cables. Although it looks simple, many trainees perform this exercise incorrectly.
Avoid using excess momentum, and start the movement by retracting your scapula, NOT flexing your biceps.
3) The Horizontal Pullup/Inverted Row
The Horizontal pullup is one of the best upper back exercises without equipment. (Well I guess you need something to support yourself with but you can get creative).
Check out our tutorial to see how this exercise can be scaled for beginners or advanced trainees.
The Best Lat Exercises
All of the exercises we have covered thus far primarily focus on the upper back. Now we will go over some exercises for the lattisimus muscles.
The lats are primarily trained by vertical pulling exercises. Here are the only ones you need to know.
1) The Pull-up
Some people consider the Pullup to be the squat of the upper body. This is by far the best back exercise without equipment.
Don't worry if you cannot do one. We will show you one cool technique to help you get your first pullup in our tutorial.
2) The Lat PullDown
The Lat pulldown is very similar to the pullup. It trains the same muscle groups and it can be easily scaled for beginners and intermediate trainees.
Just like the seated cable row, many trainees perform this exercise wrong. It is important to initiate the movement by retracting your scapula, and not letting your shoulders go into internal rotation. Check our tutorial to learn more.
The Best Posterior Deltoid Exercises
When it comes to back raining, everyone seems to forget about the posterior deltoids.
The posterior deltoids are an important muscle group to train because they maintain a healthy shoulder joint.
If you don't train them, it's only a matter of time until you will have pain.
1) The Face Pull
The posterior deltoid and the rotator cuff often get neglected. It's a shame because they are the one muscle group that can keep your shoulders healthy. They also develop beautiful definition in the upper back. The best exercise? The Face Pull.
2) Rear Delt Flys
The rear delt fly is a simple exercise that also hits the posterior deltoid and rotator cuff. Be conservative and don't let your elbows bend too much.
The Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
If for whatever reason you only have access to dumbbells, here are the best dumbbell back exercises you can perform.
1) Chest Supported Rows
The chest supported row is a great exercise because it allows you to focus on your back muscles and less on keeping the rest of your body in an optimal position.
2) Dumbbell Rows
The dumbbell row can be performed by kneeling on a bench with one arm, or with both arms simultaneously in a "bent over" position.
3) Y,T,I Complex
This exercise is similar to the rear delt fly, but instead of only raising your arms in one direction, you make a Y shape, a T shape (shown below) and an I shape with your arms. Do not be shocked if you have to use the smallest dumbbells in your gym to do this exercise.
The Best At Home Back Exercises
It is actually very difficult to train your back muscles without equipment.
However, if you make a one time small investment, you could perform 5 great back exercises, at home.
That investment is a resistance band. It must be a closed loop resistance band. Not those weird ones that have handles on them.
Here are the at home exercises you can perform.
1) Good Mornings
2) Bent Over Banded Rows
3) Band Pull Aparts
4) Lat Pull Downs
5) Face Pulls
Back Exercises For Women
All of the exercises listed above can be used by men and women alike.
Women do not have to fear getting bulky, as they generally do not have high enough levels of testosterone to do so.
In addition, bulking up requires a calorie surplus (which is something that is difficult to achieve unless you are actively trying to gain mass).
As such, women can safely perform these exercises in the prescribed rep ranges and still obtain the benefits that they desire.
Guidelines On How To Create Your Back Workout Routine
Unlike many other muscle groups in your body, the back muscles can take a beating. Here are some general guidelines for you to follow.
How Often Should I Train My Back?
It is difficult to completely fatigue your back muscles. Because they have so many different components, you can easily train the back 3 times a week.
If this is too much for your current situation, then aim to train your back twice a week.
How Many Reps Should I Perform When Training My Back?
As always, it is a good idea to stick to the Hypertrophy rep range we discuss in How To Create A Fitness Plan in 3 Simple Steps.
This means that you can work in the 8-12 rep range.
With that said, the back can perform a lot of work, so if you are up for it, you can go as high as 15 reps per set.
In addition, you can also perform more volume on back exercises than other muscle groups. Aim for 3-4 sets at the minimum per exercise.
How Long Should I Rest in Between Sets
You need to hammer in a lot of volume in little time. Therefore, take as short a rest period as possible. Aim for no more than 2-3 minutes in between sets.
The Best Exercises for Back Pain
What about back pain?
Approximately 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives.
I did, and it sucks.
Believe it or not, having back pain does not always necessarily correlate with having a weak back. Many people assume that they have to strengthen their lower or upper back when they are experiencing pain.
First and foremost, it is absolutely important to avoid any exercise or activity that aggravates the back pain.
Do not perform any of these exercises if they cause pain!
If you are having back pain the best exercises to perform are the ones that strengthen your core without any spinal movement!
We will write an entire post about back pain at some point in the future.
For the absolute best resource and authority on back pain, check out Stuart McGill's work over at Backfitpro.com
An Easy Back Workout Routine Anyone Can Follow
Here is a sample back workout routine that you can perform. You can use this workout routine for 8-12 weeks to help develop a strong and beautiful back. It requires 2 days a week of back training.
Move fast and keep your rest periods short. You should be able to perform this workout in 30-35 minutes
A) Snatch Grip Deadlifts: 3x10
B1) Chest Supported Rows: 2x10
B2) Face Pulls: 2x12
A) Barbell Row: 3x10
B1) Pullups (w or w/o weight): 4x6
B2) Rear Delt Fly: 4x10
Continue to increase the volume using progressive overload and then rotate the exercises after 8 weeks.
The Bottom Line On The Most Effective Back Exercises
The back is powerful.
You need it to stand in the operating room all day.
You need a strong back when you're doing endless rounds on your patients.
You need it to carry your kids and your groceries.
Don't neglect the muscles that have kept you standing even in your lowest moments!
Now we turn it over to you.
Which of these 15 exercises is your favorite?
Do you train your back muscles sufficiently?
Have you ever dealt with back pain?
Comment below and let us know!
PS. Don’t forget to share these awesome exercises if you found them useful!
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