Your back is where most of your upper body muscle mass is. The majority of our lives nowadays revolves around working at a desk, driving and sitting on the couch watching Netflix, causing our shoulders to roll forward, which is bad news for your back strength and balance.
But the good news (or more bad news depending on who’s reading this) is there are back exercises you can do at the gym to whip those muscles right back into shape.
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to pull more than you push in your back exercises. This is unfortunate since most of the cool moves like military presses, dips, and pushups are pushing exercises. No one’s ever going to ask you how much you can facepull, but I’ve been asked “how much can you bench?” more times than I’ve been asked what my name is.
That said, here are the best exercises for training your back at the gym.
Vertical Pulling Movements
We can break down back training into three main categories: vertical pulling movements, horizontal pulling movements and erector strengthening movements. Vertical and horizontal movements should be incorporated into your training in about equal parts, meaning for every vertical pull you do, you should also do some sort of horizontal pull.
The pullup is one of the most classic back exercise that requires minimal equipment. All you need is a pullup bar and you’re good to go.
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How to do a Pullup
- Grab the bar with your palms facing away from you, hands positioned a little more than shoulder width apart.
- Keep your elbows rotated forward with a slight lean-back and make sure to push your shoulders back and down before you start the pull.
- Hang from the bar, then pull yourself up using your back muscles until your chin is above the bar.
- A good rule to follow is when you are at the top of the movement, you want to make sure your elbows are directly underneath your hands.
It’s all in the grip. Other variations of pullups can include a neutral grip, palms facing each other, or in a supinated grip, palms facing you.
If you are unable to do a pullup, using an assisted pull-up machine for a time while gradually taking away assistance over the course of a program is a good progression to get you on the right path. If you don’t have access to an assisted pullup machine, using different strength resistance bands tied to the bar with your feet or knees inside the band can also help you progress into doing your first pullup. You’ll get there, just stay consistent and don’t throw in the towel. I promise you, it’s worth it.
If regular pullups are too easy for you, you can always make them harder by holding a weight (like a dumbbell) between your feet, or by using a chain belt with weight attached to add more load to your workout.
An exercise that is very similar to the pullup is the lat pulldown. Essentially, instead of bringing yourself to the bar, you bring the bar to you with the added benefit of sitting down the whole time.
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How to do a Lat Pulldown
- Get a wide grip on the bar.
- Sit on the bench with your thighs beneath the kneepads.
- Pull the bar down to chest level in a slow and controlled motion, engaging your back muscles.
- Make sure to pull with your elbows, pointing them down to the ground, not back behind you.
- Since the pulldown is on a pulley system, you can use different attachments.
If you are having a tough time “feeling your lats” due to your biceps or traps taking over the lift, doing exercises like one-arm lat pull-ins or a straight arm cable pullover might be good pre-activation exercises for you to try before main back movements like these.
Horizontal Pulling Movements
In addition to vertical pulling, horizontal pulling, is extremely important for overall back development, especially for the traps. It’s said that the lats make you wide, but it’s the traps that make you thick. This is not to be confused with thicc, which is what glute training makes you.
The traps, which are the second main part of the back, do a lot of different jobs, but generally the upper traps are used in shrugging motions. Theses are the muscles you use whenever someone asks you a dumb question that you don’t feel like responding to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The mid and lower traps are used in scapular retraction, i.e. when the muscles between your shoulder blades squeeze in and out. That’s why back training targets the mid and lower traps, while shoulder training is more concerned with the upper traps.
There are a lot of different variations of rows. The variation you should choose however, should be dependent on a few things, not least of which are what equipment you have access to at your gym.
If all you have access to are dumbbells, then you should go with simple variations like a single arm dumbbell row or a dumbbell bent over row. In either case, it is important that you set up properly and brace your core at the top of the movement before beginning to row. Keep everything stable and move around that stability.
If your goal is to fix asymmetries or imbalances of the upper body, single arm work is a great idea. Grabbing a dumbbell and doing some single arm rows off a bench is a very easy and effective way to train your back. You should be relatively strong in this exercise, and in some cases may be limited in how much you can overload your back if your gym does not have heavy enough dumbbells.
If you are sensitive about straining your lower back, variations that don’t require much erector stabilization, i.e. using your lower back muscles to hold the weight in place, might make more sense.
Seated cable rows, chest supported rows, and inverted rows are all really great options for taking the strain off your lower back. Similar form principles apply. Keep your core tight, tuck your shoulders back and pull with the elbows.
With that in mind, it is also important to mention that training your erectors to be isometrically strong, meaning your back’s ability to stabilize and stay still as you are doing heavy compound exercises, is part of having a healthy, athletic back. So you should not totally neglect variations like the classic barbell or dumbbell bent over row, as well as Pendlay rows, all of which require your lower back to be engaged and to work to stabilize the weight as you work the other parts of your back.
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How to do a Bent Over Row
You can think of a bent over row like an upside down bench press, but instead of pressing, you’re pulling, and there is no bench. You can use a barbell or dumbbells for this exercise.
- Make sure to bend your knees slightly while bringing your torso forward and bending at the waist.
- Keep your back straight and stop just short of your back parallel with the floor.
- Keep the barbell, or dumbbells, hanging directly in front of you as your arms hang perpendicular to the floor and your torso.
- This exercise is best done with your palms facing you or each other as it will decrease the risk of a bicep tear.
- A Pendlay row is another great variation that is similar to the barbell bent over row, but with the exception that you are resting the weight on the ground again before each rep.
Erector Strengthening Movements
As mentioned above, erectors, also known as your erector spinae, are important for stabilizing heavy weight, and can be trained directly. Along with your lats and traps, your erectors are another major part of your back and in charge of extending your vertebral column. Basically this means that any time you hinge at the hip to lift a weight, you are training your erectors.
Hip hinging movements like deadlifts and kettlebell swings are a great way to functionally train your erectors. A deadlift is any time you are picking something heavy off the ground, and a swing is when you are using that hip hinge pattern to propel the weight in front of you.
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How to do a Deadlift
- In order to do a proper deadlift, make sure you approach the bar so that it is centered over your feet.
- Feet should be no wider than hip width apart.
- Bend at the hip like you’re going down for a ground ball before gripping the bar shoulder-width, all while keeping your shoulder blades tucked back. Drive your heels down into the ground and pull the weight up.
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How to do a Kettlebell Swing
- Proper kettlebell swings require you to push back with your butt and bend your knees.
- Make sure your back is flat and your shoulders are back.
- Swing the weight between your legs forcefully before reversing the direction and driving though with your hips.
You can also train your erectors with directed exercises like weighted lower back extensions and reverse hyperextensions, but you should be getting most of your erector stimulation through the bigger movements above.
Some of the more muscle savvy readers out there might be thinking, “but what about rhomboids?” which are the fourth main part of the back. Well, those are targeted with scapular retraction, so the same exercises that target the mid traps, like rows, would also stimulate and develop the rhomboids.
The back is a complex muscle group, so it makes sense that in order to fully develop it, it takes hitting it from multiple angles with different types of exercises.
Just make sure that when you are training your back, you are doing a full range of motion and fully contracting your back muscles, which allows for greater stimulation, and thus the most adaptation to occur in your back. In non-trainer speak, you’ll end up with the best results.