main

The 16 Best Back Exercises That Work for Men and Women [Guide]

In case you don’t know, a strong back can serve you well in all of your endeavors- athletic or not. Strong back muscles help you pull arms in & down from overhead, twist your torso, and also stabilize your spine. By training these muscles, you increase your efficiency in pulling/twisting motions. Additionally, a stronger back can help you efficiently deadlift and bench press more weight.

In this article, we’re going to define the various back muscles, explain some of the benefits of doing back exercises, as well as lay out some back training rules. Then, we will outline 16 of the best back exercises you should add to your workout routine. This should help you achieve the bigger, stronger back that you desire and may even be the best back pain relief you can do for yourself.

About Your Back Muscles

Before we can really get into the back exercises themselves, the advantages associated with them, and the best practices for doing them, we must first explain the various muscles in your back.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi, or “lats” for short, are known for their involvement in moving your arm toward and around the back of your body. During back exercises, they stabilize your pelvis and interact with your abdominal muscles to assist with respiration, maintain the position of your shoulders, and protect your spine.

Teres major

The teres major, also known as the “little lat”, is attached to your upper arm right next to your lat and stretches to the lower part of your scapula, or shoulder blade. Though not officially part of your rotator cuff, it is somewhat involved with those muscles, along with the teres minor in stabilizing your shoulder.

Trapezius

The trapezius, also referred to as “traps”, is a trapezoid-shaped muscle that covers most of your upper to mid-back. This muscle is involved in stabilizing your scapula and the middle fibers bring your shoulder blades together. During pulling movements, each of the divisions of the traps is hard at work to maintain stability and tension in your back.

Rhomboids

The rhomboids, both major and minor, are located below the traps in the middle of your back, between your shoulder blades. They retract, elevate, and rotate your scapula. It’s important to keep these strong because weakness/loss of function in this muscle could result in a winged scapula.

Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoid, also referred to as “rear delts”, are typically not listed as a back muscle. The primary function is to assist the teres major and the lats in bringing your arm back around your body- aka, shoulder extension.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae refers to the deep muscles that control the axial skeleton, including ribs, skull, and vertebral column. The primary function of these muscles is side bending, rotation of the spine, and flexion/extension. The lower back stabilizes your pelvis and spine during movements such as the deadlift and rowing motions.

Click Here to Buy the Best Supplement for Increasing Back Strength and Flexibility

What are the Advantages of Back Exercises?

Many times, when people talk about your “foundation”, they are referring to your legs and while this does make sense, the truth is, your back is what ties everything together. Your spine is held in place by your back muscles. If you didn’t have your traps, lats, spinal erectors, and rhomboids, you would have a difficult time standing up. Below are some of the advantages of back exercises.

Improves Athletic Performance

A strong back is vital for athletes. After all, your back muscles are what help you pull your arms in and, along with your core and your hips, help you rotate your torso. In jiu-jitsu, a strong back means you can drag/pull your opponents with force. Rock climbers can ascend more efficiently and hold a difficult position for longer. A strong back allows CrossFit athletes to perform a variety of moves, including carries/climbs, pull-ups, snatches, and more.

Carries over to Other Lifts

Even when you are not actively working on your back muscles, a strong back improves all of your lifting routines. For example, if you are bench pressing, a larger, stronger back gives you a stable base to work with.

Strong lats give your chest the stability required to maintain tension. When deadlifting, a strong back allows your spine to maintain a neutral position. This prevents spinal rounding, which could result in injury.

Improves Posture

Finally, a strong back does so much more than improving your athletic performance. It also has a direct impact on your posture. When you have a healthy low back, big lats, and well-developed traps and rear delts, you can sit upright for longer periods without slouching and stand up straight.

16 Best Back Exercises

Below, we’re going to look at the 16 best back exercises. Consider adding these to your workout to achieve the advantages we mentioned above. We will explain each exercise, mention the benefits associated with that exercise, and how to do it.

Deadlift

image

The first exercise we’ll look at is the deadlift. This is one of the best compound exercises you can do, so take your pre workout and grab that barbell. It increases strength and muscle mass to your back, hips, and hamstrings. It is a unique training stimulus because it can stress the back with moderate to heavy loads and can be trained into higher loads and volumes.

Deadlift Benefits

  • Activates back, glutes, hips, and hamstrings
  • Can load lots of weight (once strength is increased) to stimulate strength gains
  • Can be done with high loads/volumes to produce muscle/strength gains in both upper and lower body.

How to do it

Stand in front of the barbell with feet shoulder-width apart, back flat, and hips back. Your knees should be bent slightly, allowing you to grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width. Keep your back flat and chest up, tightening your back muscles and straightening your arms as you load the pull. Push your legs into the floor as you pull your chest/shoulders up, lifting the bar to your hips.

TRX Suspension Row

The TRX suspension row is a bodyweight exercise that can increase grip, back, and arm strength similar to an inverted row or pull-up. This is ideal for beginners because of the less restricted arm path, and it allows them to increase back strength and body control.

TRX Suspension Row Benefits

  • Engages arms, back, and grip like the inverted row or pull-up
  • Great for beginners, allowing them to progress to harder variations and eventually, pull-ups
  • Allows for a less restrictive arm path, letting you adapt the exercise to your personal structure

How to do it

Stand with feet shoulder width apart, grab handles and lean back into position. Adjust as needed for difficulty level- the more upright your torso is, the easier it will be. Keeping feet on the ground, set your body in the plank position. Then, pull yourself toward the handles, keeping elbows tucked in and shoulders from collapsing forward.

Pull-Up

image

Even though the pull-up is a bodyweight exercise, you should never assume that it is less effective. Pulling your own bodyweight recruits core muscles for stability. Additionally, if you are lacking equipment but still need to get a good workout in, the pull-up is a good option.

Pull-up Benefits

  • The only thing you need is a pull-up bar- which you can purchase one for your home gym or you can visit your local park
  • Pulling your bodyweight requires that your core muscles get involved as well
  • Muscles will respond to the fairly heavy load of your own body.

How to do it

Begin with a slightly wider than shoulder-width, overhead grip on the bar. Relax your arms and elevate your shoulders to your ears. Contract your core and upper back as you begin the pull-up. Ideally, you should pull your chin up to or above the bar, which pulls your ears up and away from your shoulders.

Cable Trap Shrug

The cable trap shrug is an exercise that is done by grabbing the handles of the cable bar and shrugging shoulders upward/inward towards ears. Typically, shrugs are done with a dumbbell or barbell, but can be optimized with the cable machine because the resistance from the cable matches the fiber alignment of upper traps.

Cable Trap Shrug

  • Constant tension from cables creates eve resistance for upper traps
  • Aligns resistance with the appropriate muscle fibers, maximizing tension and stress
  • Allows lifter to match cables based on their structure, limiting stress around the shoulder

How to do it

Set yourself between two cables with feet flat on the ground, with hands on the handles. Keep your core tight and your torso upright, drive shoulders up and in toward your ears, in a shrugging motion. Then, as the weight returns to the starting position, you need to resist it.

Bent-Over Row

image

The bent-over row offers some variability. You can stick with the traditional barbell variation, or you can use kettlebells or dumbbells. You can engage your posterior chain from your hamstrings to your traps by hinging at your hips to row the weight to your stomach.

Bent-Over Row Benefits

  • Variable- you can use a barbell, cable machine, dumbbells, or kettlebells to perform this exercise
  • You can move a lot of weight in this position to efficiently overload your muscles

How to do it

Set up for this exercise like you would for the deadlift. Hinge at your hips until your torso is parallel to the floor. Grab the barbell with a grip slightly wider than your deadlift grip. Lean back, putting your weight on your heels and row the weight, leading the pull with your elbow until it touches near your belly button.

Seated Cable Row (Lats)

The seated cable row for lats is a variation of the row that has you pulling a cable attachment to your torso. Your grip should be neutral and shoulder-width apart. The cable allows you to take advantage of the resistance, while the hand position and arm path create high tension for your lats.

Seated Cable Row (Lats) Benefits

  • Constant tension created even resistance for back muscles
  • Seated variation great for increasing muscle mass and strength in your back
  • Neutral grip effectively targets biceps and lats

How to do it

Set yourself up with your feet on the foot platform and hands on the attachment with a neutral grip. Keeping your core tight and torso leaned forward slightly at the hip, pull the attachment toward the top of your abdomen. As you return to the starting position, you should be slowly resisting the weight.

Chest Supported Row

image

The key element to the chest supported row is the “chest support”. This removes the momentum from the equation, forcing you to depend on your muscles to move the weight. Also, since you are not supporting yourself in a hinge position, it removes the strain from your lower back.

Chest Supported Row Benefits

  • Allows full activation of back muscles by isolating them
  • Not standing removes the onus from your lower back to support your torso, which relieves low back pressure

How to do it

Set your workout bench to a 45° incline. Lay face down so that your stomach and chest are supported. Grab a dumbbell with each hand and row them to your sides until your elbow goes past your torso. Lower the weight under control.

Cable Rope Pullover

The cable rope pullover is a standing variation in which you are pulling a rope/strap attachment from above your head down toward your hips. This exercise focuses on lats and is an excellent alternative to the dumbbell pullover. A longer rope/strap will allow you to create your own arm path, leading to less strain on your shoulders.

Cable Rope Pullover Benefits

  • Constant tension creates even resistance for lats as they are contracted through the full ROM
  • Can be done anywhere there is a cable rope and rope attachment
  • Provides more resistance than dumbbell pullover, especially for lats

How to do it

Set up in front of the cable pulley with feet flat on the ground and hands on the rope/strap attachment. Slightly lean forward, keeping core tight and torso rigid, drive your upper arm down as you pull the attachment down toward your hips. Resist weight as it is returned back to the starting position

Single-Arm Row

image

The single-arm row is a unilateral variation of the row exercise that increases correct muscular asymmetries, upper back strength, and hypertrophy. It can also improve grip and arm strength.

Single Arm Row Benefits

  • Addresses muscular imbalances by working one side at a time
  • Targets back muscles, as well as increases arm and grip strength

How to do it

Stand next to a bench. Place one hand and one knee on it (same side) and plant the other foot on the floor. Reach down with your free hand and grab the dumbbell. Make sure to keep your head in a neutral position and your back flat. Row the dumbbell to your side until your elbow goes past your torso. Do all reps on one side and then swap.

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown involves you pulling a bar, attached to a cable, to your chest. The tension of the cable increases your time under tension, which stimulates growth. This is great for those who can’t do a pull-up. The lat pulldown is basically the same as a pull-up, only you’re sitting down and you’re not pulling your bodyweight up- but pulling weight down to you instead.

Lat Pulldown Benefits

  • Tension from cable increases muscle activation in back
  • Move is similar to that of a pull-up, so a great step for beginners progressing toward doing a pull-up
  • Pronated grip means you target your lats, upper back, and biceps.

How to do it

Sit with your legs under the pad and set your grip on the bar with palms facing away, slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Keeping your core tight and your torso upright or arched, pull the bar to your chin. Make sure that you drive your shoulder blades together. As you return to the starting position, you should be slowly resisting the weight.

Seated Cable Row (Upper Back)

image

The seated cable row (upper back) is a variation of the row in which you are pulling an attachment toward your chest. Your grip position determines the muscles that are targeted in this exercise. Your arm path will be higher in this exercise than in the seated row (lats) outlined above- which targets the rear delts and upper back (teres major, traps, and rhomboids).

Seated Cable Row (Upper Back) Benefits

  • Constant tension creates even resistance for back muscles
  • Seated variation ideal for increasing overall muscle mass and strength in upper to mid-back
  • Higher arm path and partially pronated grip effectively targets upper back and rear delts

How to do it

Set up a cable rowing machine with feet on the platform and hands holding the attachment in an overhead grip. Keeping your core tight and torso upright or leaned slightly back at hip, pull attachment toward the top of your chest, extending arms behind you. Slowly return back to the starting position, resisting the weight as you go.

Landmine Row

The landmine row is a free-weight row variation using a handle attached to a barbell. This places tension on the entire back and is a great alternative to the chest supported row. It targets your core and lower back and can be performed in a variety of rep ranges based on your personal goals.

Landmine Row Benefits

  • Can be done anywhere you have access to a barbell
  • Challenges core stability and strength, is a great full-body exercise, and places lots of tension on back muscles
  • Adds variety of resistance patterns with the different attachments

How to do it

Set up the barbell by sliding it in a landmine attachment sleeve or wedging it into a corner of the wall. Stand over the barbell with one foot on each side. Fix attachment to the barbell and grab handles. Keeping core tight and torso rigid, slightly lean forward and pull the weight toward your chest. Resist the weight as you slowly return to start position.

Inverted Row

image

The inverted row is similar to a pull-up in that it uses your bodyweight to build arm, grip, and back strength. This exercise is great for beginners to increase their strength and body control because you’re not using your full body weight.

Inverted Row Benefits

  • Similar to the pull-up, engages grip, arms, and back
  • Great variation for beginners, allowing them to work their way up to harder variations and ultimately, pull-ups

How to do it

Place the barbell in the rack so that it is stable and supported. Lay underneath it so that your hands just reach it- adjust height if necessary. Firmly grasp the bar and set your body in a rigid plank position. Pull up to the bar, keeping your elbows tucked in.

Farmer’s Carry

The farmer’s carry is a carry variation that benefits the upper and lower body at the same time. It increases grip strength, improves posture strength/control, and increases core strength/stability.

Farmer’s Carry Benefits

  • Can be done where you have free space and access to weight
  • Challenges postural control, grip strength, and core strength

How to do it

Find an area of open space and hold a pair of kettlebells, dumbbells, or a trap bar in your hands. Focus on stability and distance as you take slow, controlled steps in a straight line. When walking, the challenge is to maintain your steady, upright position. You don’t want to allow the weight to move or favor one side over the other. The goal is to keep the load close to the body as you walk in a straight, narrow path.

Neutral Grip Pulldown

image

The neutral grip pulldown is a variation that has you pull a neutral grip attachment to your chest. The neutral grip is where the palms face each other. This is also a cable-based exercise, meaning you can take advantage of the constant resistance. A neutral grip targets lats and biceps.

Neutral Grip Pulldown Benefits

  • Constant tension creates even resistance
  • Move is similar to chin-up, so it’s a great exercise to begin with and work up to doing a chin-up
  • Neutral grip puts focus on lats and biceps

How to do it

Set yourself up like you’re going to do a cable pulldown, with legs under the pad and grasping the attachment with a neutral grip. Keeping your core tight and your torso upright, bring the attachment down to your chin. As you return to the starting position, you should be resisting the weight.

Towel Chin-Up

The towel chin-up involves wrapping a large bath towel around a chin-up bar. This increases the grip demand of the traditional chin-up and offers a unique challenge if you’re tired of standard pull-ups.

Towel Chin-ups Benefits

  • Can be included in any program because all you need is a chin-up bar and a towel
  • Involves core muscles because you’re stabilizing your own bodyweight
  • Adding the towel increases grip demand, which improves grip strength

How to do it

Take a long bath towel (or two smaller hand towels) and wrap around a power rack/chin-up bar. Grasp the towels evenly on both sides with a neutral grip. Engage your upper back and core and pull your chin to or over the bar with your lats, forearms, and biceps.

Rules for Back Exercises

Your back muscles support a variety of functions within your body, structurally and functionally. When you are doing back exercises, there are some best practices you should keep in mind to improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury.

Stabilize

By establishing tension in your upper back, you add stability to your upper body. This allows you to produce more force, resulting in improved performance and quality volume.

Grip Matters

The muscles that are targeted in an exercise are dependent upon your grip position. A wider grip puts more focus on the upper back and less on the lats. On the other hand, bringing your hands closer in a neutral position puts more focus on the biceps and lats than the upper back. Finally, a grip that allows you to flare your arms puts more focus on the traps, rhomboids, and rear delts. This ability to make postural adjustments are what make back exercises customizable.

Train Full ROM (Range of Motion)

If you want to reap the full benefits of your back exercises, you’ll want to make sure that you are fully contracting your muscle and lifting through the complete range of motion. If you only do half of what you are capable of, you are leaving gains on the table.

Often, the movements in back exercises are long and sweeping, which means cable machines and free weights are best. While machine work does have its place, it’s restricted due to the fixed plane of motion.

Make sure that your shoulders can move freely during back exercises such as pulldowns and rows. Your lats are a prime mover in retracting your scapula. You don’t want to inhibit this by locking your shoulder down.

Use Momentum (When Appropriate)

If building strength and muscle is your goal, you must create and maintain tension in the target muscle. When momentum is generated, you can bypass the part of the rep that places the most tension on the muscle- this works against your goal.

However, there are times when momentum is appropriate- such as at the end of a hard set. You can use momentum at this time to squeeze out another rep or two. These are known as “cheat reps”.

Diet

Remember, you can not add muscle mass without the proper amount of calories and, most importantly, protein. I suggest tracking your macros and if needed, supplementing with protein powder, creatine and vitamins.

Click Here to Buy the Best Supplement for Increasing Back Strength and Flexibility

Conclusion

A healthy, strong back is critical for overall quality of life. However, it doesn’t just happen- you have to put forth the effort. Hopefully these 16 back exercises can help you get started on your journey to a healthier, stronger back. Of course, it’s important to remember that though these exercises do cover your entire back- these are really just a starting point. There is so much more you can do.

ALSO READ: Best Home Workout Programs (2022) Top Fitness Exercise Plans

References

Bashforth, Oliver. “Cable Rope Pullover Guide: Benefits, How-To, Alternatives & More.” Blackridge Fitness, 9 Feb. 2022, www.blackridgefitness.com/cable-rope-pullover-guide/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

—. “Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown Guide: How-To, Benefits, Alternatives & More.” Blackridge Fitness, 7 Feb. 2022, www.blackridgefitness.com/neutral-grip-lat-pulldown-guide/.

“Bent over Row: Video Exercise Guide & Tips.” Muscle & Strength, 16 Sept. 2009, www.muscleandstrength.com/exercises/bent-over-barbell-row.html.

BumTodd. “How to Deadlift: A Beginner’s Guide.” Bodybuilding.com, 22 Mar. 2015, www.bodybuilding.com/content/how-to-deadlift-beginners-guide.html.

“Chest-Supported Row: How to Do It Correctly.” Openfit, 12 Feb. 2019, www.openfit.com/chest-supported-row-dumbbell-incline. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Chin-up with Towel Form, Muscles Worked, Benefits.” Homegym-Exercises.com, homegym-exercises.com/chinup_towel.html. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

CNN, et al. “9 Reasons Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is the Perfect Martial Art – Evolve Daily.” Evolve MMA Singapore, 6 May 2015, evolve-mma.com/blog/9-reasons-brazilian-jiu-jitsu-perfect-martial-art/.

“How to Do a Farmer’s Carry.” Verywell Fit, www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-a-farmer-carry-techniques-benefits-variations-4796615.

“How to Do a Pull-Up: The Beginner’s Guide.” SWEAT, www.sweat.com/blogs/fitness/how-to-do-pull-ups.

“How to Do Single Arm Row.” Get Healthy U | Chris Freytag, gethealthyu.com/exercise/single-arm-row/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“How to Do the Cable Shrug.” Fitness Volt, 3 Oct. 2020, fitnessvolt.com/how-to-do-the-cable-shrug/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“How to Landmine Row: Technique, Benefits, and Three Variations.” Roman Fitness Systems, 26 Aug. 2021, romanfitnesssystems.com/articles/landmine-row/.

Kamb, Steve. How to Do an Inverted Row (Bodyweight Rows): Ultimate Guide | Nerd Fitness. 13 Jan. 2022, www.nerdfitness.com/blog/inverted-row-are-you-missing-out-on-this-great-exercise/.

“King of the Gym: Build Muscle, Gain Strength & Get Shredded.” Www.kingofthegym.com, 11 Apr. 2015, www.kingofthegym.com/posterior-deltoid/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Kyphosis (Roundback) of the Spine – OrthoInfo – AAOS.” Aaos.org, 2010, orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/kyphosis-roundback-of-the-spine.

“Latissimus Dorsi Muscle.” Physiopedia, 2010, www.physio-pedia.com/Latissimus_Dorsi_Muscle.

“Rhomboids.” Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com/Rhomboids?utm_source=physiopedia&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=ongoing_internal. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

Rogers, Paul. “How to Do a Lat Pulldown.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 8 Apr. 2008, www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-the-lat-pulldown-3498309.

Supplements, Steel, and Steel Supplements. “Seated Cable Rows: Proper Form, Muscles Worked & More.” Steel Supplements, steelsupplements.com/blogs/steel-blog/seated-cable-rows-proper-form-muscles-worked-more. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Teres Major.” Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com/Teres_Major?utm_source=physiopedia&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=ongoing_internal. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Teres Minor.” Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com/Teres_Minor?utm_source=physiopedia&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=ongoing_internal. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Trapezius.” Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com/Trapezius?utm_source=physiopedia&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=ongoing_internal. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“TRX Suspension Strap Rows – WorkoutLabs Exercise Guide.” WorkoutLabs, workoutlabs.com/exercise-guide/trx-suspension-strap-rows/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

“Winged Scapula – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Rehabilitation.” Sportsinjuryclinic.net, 12 Oct. 2016, www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/sport-injuries/shoulder-pain/chronic-shoulder-injuries/winged-scapula.

Affiliate Disclosure:

The links contained in this product review may result in a small commission if you opt to purchase the product recommended at no additional cost to you. This goes towards supporting our research and editorial team. Please know we only recommend high-quality products.

Disclaimer:

Please understand that any advice or guidelines revealed here are not even remotely substitutes for sound medical or financial advice from a licensed healthcare provider or certified financial advisor. Make sure to consult with a professional physician or financial consultant before making any purchasing decision if you use medications or have concerns following the review details shared above. Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed as the statements regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA, or Health Canada approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and do not provide any kind of get-rich money scheme. Reviewer is not responsible for pricing inaccuracies. Check product sales page for final prices.

The news and editorial staff of Sound Publishing, Inc. had no role in the preparation of this post. The views and opinions expressed in this sponsored post are those of the advertiser and do not reflect those of Sound Publishing, Inc.

Sound Publishing, Inc. does not accept liability for any loss or damages caused by the use of any products, nor do we endorse any products posted in our Marketplace.