My girlfriend is a physical therapist. The number one complaint she deals with in terms of frequency?
Whole books have been written about back training. People all over the world have built a career from the human back. You can find hundreds of products designed to improve posture, ease pain, reduce lower back stress and the like.
The best approach to back health? Train it. Make it stronger. Make it healthier.
In this article we’re going to look at the 21 best back exercises for building a strong and healthy back.
Based on our testing, this is the best creatine for most people. It has the perfect dosage of creatine monohydrate per serving, which has been proven to increase muscle mass.
- Promote strength and muscle gains
- Tested for purity and safety
- Free from artificial colors
- 1 Why you need a strong back
- 2 Training the back – considerations
- 3 Warming up for a back workout
- 4 The best back exercises…
- 4.1 Barbell Deadlift
- 4.2 Trap bar deadlift
- 4.3 Kettlebell swings
- 4.4 Reverse hyperextensions
- 4.5 Good mornings
- 4.6 Bent over rows
- 4.7 Single arm rows
- 4.8 Dumbbell seal rows
- 4.9 Cable rows
- 4.10 Gorilla rows
- 4.11 Pendlay rows
- 4.12 Pull ups
- 4.13 Chin ups
- 4.14 Inverted rows
- 4.15 Feet elevated ring rows
- 4.16 Rope rows
- 4.17 Sumo deadlift high pull
- 4.18 Hang cleans
- 4.19 Dumbbell shrugs
- 4.20 Reverse fly
- 4.21 Panda pulls
- 5 Back training tips
- 6 21 Best back exercises, closing thoughts…
Why you need a strong back
Here are three of the main reasons you need a strong back if you want to look, feel and perform at your best…
If you want to be the best athlete you can, you absolutely need to put some real effort into your back training.
Any time you’re in a standing position, your back is going to be involved. If your sport involves any kind of pulling (think wrestling, Rugby, American Football, strength sports etc), the major muscle involvement is from the back. Grip strength is improved in conjunction with back exercises (pulling a weight involves grip work), and the low-back muscles are integral to upper and lower body movement coordination.
Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast, an athlete, or someone simply looking to improve their health, incorporating effective back exercises into your workout routine is essential.
All things being equal, strong muscles and connective tissues are more resistant to injury than weak ones. This is absolutely true when it comes to back problems.
A well-developed back helps stabilize the spine and supports proper posture. This, in turn, reduces the risk of injuries, especially those related to the lower back. A strong back can also alleviate chronic back pain by promoting healthy spinal alignment. There’s very good research to support this opinion.
A meta-analysis from 2017 titled Exercise for the Prevention of Low Back Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials assessed the impact that strength training for the back had on lower back pain. The researchers concluded…
‘…exercises designed to strengthen the spinal muscles in combination with stretching or aerobic exercise can reduce the subsequent occurrence of LBP by approximately 30%, with decreases in the intensity of pain and associated disability as well’.
Anyone who has suffered with a back injury in the past knows the importance of an appropriate strength training program for the back.
If you’re training for aesthetics, a strong back is essential to a great looking upper body. The v-shape that bodybuilders aspire to is only possible with muscle growth in the back. In particular the lats, which are the largest muscles in the upper body.
Adding muscle mass to your upper back muscles and upper traps is possible with row variations, horizontal pulling exercises, variations in grip position and grip widths. The stimulation of muscle is completely different with a wider grip versus a narrow grip. The same is also true for an underhand grip, overhand grip or neutral grip.
Back exercises can’t be performed without the recruitment of the arms, so your arm muscles are trained as well. Even though they aren’t the target muscles, many trainers only use compound back exercises such as chin ups for arm development.
Training the back – considerations
What do you need to think about when it comes to back exercises? You can’t just throw a bunch of exercises onto a program and expect great results!
Here’s what you need to consider…
Understanding the anatomy of the back is crucial for effective training.
Based on our testing, this is the best pre-workout for most people. It’s packed with stuff like Citrulline Malate, Beta-Alanine and Boron, which all promotes muscle building.
- Moderate dose of caffeine
- No artificial sweeteners or colors
- 60-day money-back assurance
- Lacks creatine
- Sweetened with stevia
The back consists of several muscle groups, including the lats (latissimus dorsi), traps (trapezius), rhomboids, and erector spinae. Each muscle group plays a unique role in back movement and stability.
In order to maximize the development of the lower, mid and upper back muscles, you have to train them all appropriately. Some areas will respond best to heavy lifting. Others, such as the traps and rear deltoids might well benefit from lighter weights and deliberate movements.
A range of exercises isn’t just important for muscle definition, it’s important for making sure the program is effective.
Back movements can be categorized into various planes of motion, including vertical pulls (pulling weight downward), horizontal pulls (pulling weight horizontally), and posterior chain exercises (targeting the lower back and hamstrings).
A well-rounded back workout should include exercises that address each of these categories.
We should always prioritize compound exercise, but at the same time we can’t neglect explosive movement, bodyweight movement and movements that will benefit us from an injury prevention point of view. Sometimes there are exercises that aren’t fun or exciting, but they’re important.
The back is prone to overuse injuries and strains, especially if not properly conditioned.
It’s essential to warm up adequately before engaging in any back exercises and to prioritize proper form to minimize the risk of injury. There are particular exercises that I use in my coaching to help people avoid injuries.
With many back exercises it’s important to engage the abdominal muscles, keep your spine in a neutral position, feet flat on the floor and exercise with correct form throughout.
Warming up for a back workout
A proper warm-up is essential before diving into any back workout. I’ve seen too many people hurt themselves by jumping into lifting a heavy weight without having warmed up first.
I suggest you with five to ten minutes of light cardio, to increase blood flow to the muscles. I like cardio to include both an upper and lower body element to it. Here’s a list of my preferred cardio options before performing back exercises…
- Rowing machine
- Cross Trainer
- Jump Rope
- Air Bike
I’m not a huge fan of stationary cycling before a back workout – there isn’t enough of an upper body element to it. I like the list above because they incorporate upper and lower body movement to get you warm and mobile.
When the cardio is finished and the blood flow has been increased, I follow this up with the following exercises…
The McGill Big 3
I do 3 sets of 12 for each exercise.
I’m then ready to get to work with the back exercises. I tend not to do any stretching before I lift – I save that to post workout.
Movements and exercises
Here are the movements you need to cover in order to do a thorough job of training your back across a program…
- Hinge/Flexion and Extension
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Pull
All of these movements are covered in the list of the 21 best back exercises I have put together for this article. By ensuring you train the back in these ways, you give yourself the best possible chance of strengthening the back properly, reducing the injury risk and improving your back health.
The best back exercises…
The deadlift is a classic hinge exercise. It is likely to be one of the exercises where you can lift the most weight. It’s a perfect way to build lower and mid back strength. It has crossover benefits for leg and grip strength too. Keep your feet about shoulder width apart here for the greatest force generation from the bar.
Trap bar deadlift
I like the trap bar deadlift because it puts you at a mechanical advantage. The hands are higher, the range of movement is shorter and the weight is positioned either side of you, rather than in front. This means the injury risk is reduced because the forces on your lower back aren’t as large. The weight you can lift is likely higher too. It’s a great way to train for explosive power from the floor.
Another hinge exercise, the kettlebell swing is a great way to build endurance in your lower back. It’s an aggressive movement, but a perfect way to develop posterior chain strength, especially in the lower back. Keep only a slight bend at the knee to make the lower back do more of the work.
Reverse hyperextensions aren’t a fancy exercise, but they’re a great way to strengthen your lower back with only your body weight. You don’t need to add more weight here. It’s a controlled movement that builds glute and lower back strength, and helps people to recover from injuries. Keep the movement smooth here. Pay attention to technique.
These are another flexion exercise that demands spinal control. The aim here isn’t to go too heavy. Feet shoulder width apart, drive your hips back and lower your torso under control. You’re trying to bend to a 90-degree angle, or as close to it as possible. You need to exercise good upper body control to reduce the injury risk here.
Bent over rows
I like the barbell bent over rows because they are a great way to lift heavy weight with the mid back. It’s an excellent exercise for building muscle, strength and power in the lats. You can do the barbell row with either a pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand) grip. Both are excellent, so I suggest you mix them up.
Single arm rows
Single arm dumbbell rows are a great way to really isolate each side of the back. By performing single arm dumbbell rows instead of a barbell row, you iron out any muscle imbalance between the two sides. This also levels out strength from left to right as well. Use the bench for extra stability if you need to.
Dumbbell seal rows
Another great dumbbell back exercise, the seal row is my favorite chest-supported dumbbell row. It can also be done with a barbell, but as a dumbbell exercise I think it is even better. As a unilateral exercise it’s more functional, and as a chest supported row it takes the lower back out of the equation, reducing injury risk. It also means you can use heavy dumbbells without the potential danger to the lower back.
The cable rows have been a favorite of the bodybuilders for years. They allow an extended range of movement compared to other row forms, which means you can stretch the lats and increase the time under tension of the muscles. I tend to use these as a high (15-20 reps) exercise when I’m looking for more reps. Cable machines are great for high rep work.
The Gorilla row can be done with kettlebells or dumbbells. It’s another unilateral exercise that includes a slight rotational element to it. The slight twist is a variation on normal rowing movements, and it’s a way to do explosive work on both sides. As a single arm dumbbell movement, it’s one of the better ones for developing true strength and muscle.
The Pendlay row is another way to develop explosive power in the back. With a shoulder-width overhand grip, you powerfully pull the bar up to the chest, returning it to the floor each time. This increases the time under tension and prevents cheating. It also reduces the strain on the lower back. It’s a more dynamic version of the bent-over barbell row.
The pull up is an overhand grip exercise. It’s a challenge for many, so work hard to be able to perform them. Use strict form (no half reps) and when you can perform multiple sets of 8+, add extra weight. Depending on your gym set up, you can use resistance bands to perform assisted variations of the exercise.
The chin ups are a go-to vertical pull exercise for me. The difference between the pull up and the chin up is the position of the hands. In the chin up, your palms are facing you. I like the depth of the lat stretch you achieve with the dead hang part of pull ups. I also like the bicep element – they’re one of the best bicep exercises that exist. It’s also one of the toughest and most effective bodyweight back exercises there is.
Inverted rows are a great bridging exercise. You need to engage your core muscles. This keeps your core tight and your body position rigid. From there, you are pulling your body weight up. The angle is easier than a pull up or chin up, but it’s still great exercise. It’s the sweet spot between challenging and effective. Perfect for people who can’t do pull ups and chin ups.
Feet elevated ring rows
If you want to take the inverted row up a notch, elevate the feet and add in the rings. The instability element makes it tougher, and the declining nature of your body position is more challenging. This takes a great exercise and makes it even tougher. It’s another bodyweight compound exercise that can be tweaked to change the level of difficulty.
By switching the barbell or rings for ropes, you change the row exercise again. You force the forearms to work harder, bringing grip strength into play as well. Like the rings, you also add an instability element to the exercise. With the instability it’s harder to maintain your body position under control. Start with your chest at a 45 degree incline, making it shallower to increase difficulty.
Sumo deadlift high pull
The sumo deadlift high pull is an exercise that trains the entire body. One movement hits the legs, lower back, mid back, upper back and shoulders. It’s a big, dynamic movement that is quite technical in nature so shouldn’t be taken lightly. Only perform the SDHP if you’re an experienced deadlifter. You’re pulling a weight from the floor to chest height, so switch on!
Possibly my favorite way to train and develop power. The hang clean is a test of everything – explosive drive, lower back control, mid and upper back pulling. It’s a great movement to develop athleticism. It also needs controlled movement – if you rip a heavy weight up without control, injuries happen…
It’s not often that you’ll see a dumbbell shrug in a list of the best back exercises, but it’s one that I think is important. I prefer the dumbbell shrug to the barbell shrug because I feel it offers more control. With the dumbbells you can position them as you want to, and have more freedom over the movement. It makes for a much better exercise.
Like the shrugs, I prefer to do the reverse fly with dumbbells. Many people like cables, but the dumbbell is better for precise control in my opinion. I set the bench on an incline, like a chest supported dumbbell row. From there I use light dumbbells and open them up to a full range of movement. It works well for me, and for my clients.
Panda pulls are an exercise used extensively by the Chinese weightlifting team. They are designed to work on the shrug motion during a clean or snatch. It’s a wide-grip exercise, and very explosive in nature. Grab a loaded barbell and pull it up powerfully, shrugging as you do.
Back training tips
A few additional tips to make the most of your back workouts…
Use great form
This goes for every exercise, but it’s particularly important with the back because of the inherent vulnerabilities of the body part. There’s also a risk with the weight involved. If you’re pulling a heavy deadlift for example, the risks associated with poor form are greater than with push ups, for example.
If these back exercises are new to you, study the form videos or ask a coach or a personal trainer. If they aren’t an option, film yourself performing them with a light weight, then make necessary technique changes.
Full range of movement
Time under tension is key to muscle building, as is working through a full range of motion. In addition to that, working through a full range helps with joint and tissue health.
Take pull ups and chin ups as an example. If you do them through a full range (from dead hang through to chest to bar), you’re stretching really well at the bottom. That is fantastic for shoulder health. The work the muscles are doing as well helps to build strength through the full range of motion – not just a tiny percentage.
Use the right weight
This is very important. Get the weight right and your technique is perfect. If you try to go too heavy, you can butcher your technique and risk injury. Take your ego out of the equation and focus on the important elements of the exercise. Creating mechanical tension, stressing the muscle with an appropriate amount of resistance, and working through a full range.
Go too heavy and you lose a lot of that. Go too light, and you don’t generate enough force to make serious physiological changes to the tissue.
21 Best back exercises, closing thoughts…
Back training is something many people get wrong. Mix some of these 21 best back exercises into your training and you’ll transform your athleticism, fitness and physique. They cover all of the bases you’ll need to.
Work with an appropriate weight. Push yourself to improve. Enjoy the process, and the results!