How to Do the Top 8 Back Exercises

by Tony Gentilcore

Do you disappear when you turn sideways? Then you need to train your back as hard as your arms.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Back training improves posture and fixes imbalances to improve performance in the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
  2. Your barbell row numbers should match, if not trump, your bench press numbers. He who rows big, bench-presses big.
  3. What most lifters “think” is a dumbbell row is anything but.

Most lifters only like to train what they can see, so the back often gets the shaft in favor of things like the pecs and biceps. That’s a damn shame because placing a premium on back training offers several advantages, from improved posture and fixing muscular imbalances to more weight lifted in the “big 3” (squat, deadlift, and bench press), along with improved athletic performance.

And lest we forget, training the back hard will also make you actually look like you lift weights, which doesn’t suck. Here are the top 8 back exercises.

1. Snatch-Grip Deadlift

Lifters don’t always have the ankle, hip, or thoracic mobility to get into the proper position for this exercise, and many resort to lifting with a rounded back. If that’s the case, an easy regression would be to perform snatch-grip rack pulls from knee height or mid-shin level. To keep things succinct, let’s assume you don’t have any such restrictions.

Because of the wide grip, you have to get into a lower position to pick up the bar, which increases the overall range of motion. This can be beneficial for those who are weak off the floor with their pulls. Furthermore, because of the wider grip, you place more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts compared to other variations.

I’m not a fan of using wrist straps because too many people use them as a crutch for a weak grip. That said, snatch-grip deadlifts are a rare instance where I’ll allow an athlete to use straps.

2. Iso-Hold Front Squat

Front squats aren’t often viewed as a back builder, but your upper back has to work like crazy during a set to prevent excessive flexion. If anything, front squats are a great way to help encourage more extension, which most people need after a day of sitting in front of their computer.

One way I tweak front squats to target the upper back is to have my athletes perform them as an isometric hold. I’ll typically start on the conservative side with a load that matches their 5-rep max and have them hold for 3-5 separate 5-10 second holds. To do this, we set the pins just a shade lower than normal so that all they have to do is set up underneath the bar, get their air, and then stand up and hold for the required amount of time.

The key, though, is the set-up. It’s crucial that before the weight is un-racked that your feet are set so that you’re gathering more tension in your hips (think, tear the floor apart with your feet, or rotate through the femurs). Then you just have to get your air and brace your abs.

Once you’ve gone through that checklist, un-rack the weight and continue to spread the floor and squeeze your glutes.

It would look something like this:

  • 5RM at 225 pounds
  • Goal: 3-5, five-second holds
  • Un-rack weight and hold for five seconds.
  • Rack for five seconds.
  • Repeat the process for the desired number of sets.

This can be done as a stand-alone exercise or as a way to “top-off” a squat session where you’d perform one set after your normal sets as a finisher.

In terms of progressions:

  • Increase the time held (time under tension).
  • Increase the weight. But again, start conservatively. This exercise is more about quality than quantity.

3. Squat-Pad Barbell Row

The row seems like an obvious choice, but it still amazes me how many guys fail to incorporate the barbell row as a staple in their back training. Your barbell row numbers should match, if not exceed, your bench press numbers. He who rows big, bench-presses big.

A few caveats:

  • The bent-over row is just as much a lower back isometric hold as it is an upper back exercise. To that end, I prefer to include them on a lower body day as a complement to squats or deadlifts. That way the lower back gets a bit of breather on subsequent upper body days.
  • A major technique mistake is going into too much glenohumeral extension (elbows go too far past the midline of the body), which compromises anterior shoulder stability, not to mention pissing off the biceps tendon.

As a way to keep people honest and make the movement more shoulder friendly, I place a tubular Velcro squat pad in the middle of the barbell to provide a target. The chest must tap the pad on each rep.

Because of the increased demand on the lumbar spine, use a low-rep scheme, typically in the 3-5 range.

4. Barbell Inverted Row with Tweaks

Place a squat pad in the middle of the bar to serve as a target as well as prevent any excessive anterior humeral glide. This time, however, pause at the pad for a 3-5 second count. I challenge anyone to do this for 10 reps and tell me their back isn’t on fire.

  • Elevate the Feet: This serves as a way to increase the range of motion so that you’re pulling more of your own bodyweight.
  • Add Weight: Adding chains as an external load will make these harder, but for those who train at gyms that aren’t well equipped, wear a backpack loaded with weights.

One minor coaching cue is to allow people to include a hip hinge during their set. Unlike many coaches who like to coach a “stiff” bodily position – which is perfectly fine – I lean towards allowing a hip hinge. I don’t mean allowing the hips to sag. This helps explain the rationale:

5. Chest Supported Row

This one helps build that coveted thick look. However, it does lend itself to one major technique flaw: most fail to keep their ego in check and use way too much weight, turning it into a hybrid lower back hyperextension.

I cue lifters to brace their abs, squeeze their glutes, and try to “glue” their rib cage to the pad, like so:

This isn’t to say that a little body English can’t be used to hoist more weight – no one said that lifting heavy things has to look pretty. But there comes a point of diminishing returns when you’re doing nothing but cranking through your thoracolumbar junction and causing more harm than good.

6. Seated Cable Row – 2/1 Technique

This is an exercise that Christian Thibaudeau popularized about a decade ago. It takes the standard run-of-the-mill seated cable row and adds a little flair to it by taking advantage of the eccentric emphasis.

We know that we’re significantly stronger in the eccentric (lowering) phase of an exercise. Research shows that eccentric training causes increased micro-trauma of the muscle fibers, which in turn can lead to increased hypertrophy or muscle growth. To that end, the 2/1 technique is an easy way to take advantage of the eccentric portion of the lift and to incorporate a bit more overload to the upper back.

Simply put, you’ll pull – explosively – with two hands during the concentric portion of the movement, and then return as controlled as possible with one hand during the eccentric portion. Not only is this a great way to increase time under tension, it’s also a superb way to train one limb at a time. For programming purposes, keep this exercise to 3-4 sets of 5-6 reps per arm.

7. Pull-Up/Chin-Up – Mechanical Advantage Sets

Your 1RM (or even your 3RM) bench should be on par with your 1-3RM chin-up. And to be blunt, an impressive chin-up is a better indicator of overall functional upper body strength than a bench press. There are plenty of lifters out there with impressive bench numbers. Go to any local powerlifting meet and you’ll see dudes put up 500 pounds without batting an eye.

Likewise, walk into any commercial gym in America and there are dozens of guys benching their body weight for numerous reps. However, put many of these guys underneath a chin-up bar and they’ll barely eke out one or two reps.

Granted, relative strength favors the lighter guys but rarely, if ever, will you find someone who can easily perform 10-plus, legit chin-ups/pull-ups with their body weight, let alone with an additional external load. Furthermore, for those whose chin-up numbers mirror their bench numbers, it’s uncanny how few have shoulder issues.

A great way to make pull-ups more challenging is through mechanical advantage sets. In short, you’ll start with the hardest variation and work your way to the easiest, performing 3-5 reps of each.

It’ll typically go as follows:

  • Pull-Up x 3-5 reps
  • Rest 10-15 seconds
  • Neutral Grip Pull-Up x 3-5 reps
  • Rest 10-15 seconds
  • Chin-Up x 3-5 reps

If you’re simply trying to increase the total number of reps you can perform, I suggest one of two ways:

  • Perform 1-2 reps in between each lower body exercise. So on days you train lower body, bang out a few reps of chin-ups when you’re resting in between sets. This is an easy way to increase volume, albeit not in a way that’s going to fry your nervous system.
  • Another way to gradually increase volume is to “grease the groove” throughout the day. Determine the max number you can do and then cut that number in half. So let’s say your total number is 6 reps. Throughout the day – whether it’s using a chin-up bar at home, in the office, or at the gym – try to perform 1-3 reps every hour or two.

By the end of the day, it’s easy to have accumulated 20-25 extra repetitions that you otherwise wouldn’t have done. Just think about how many additional reps that adds up to at the end of the week or month!

8. Deadstop One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Dumbbell rows are a single-limb movement, which carries its own advantages in that it’s easier to spot a strength imbalance or weakness between the left and right side.

As innocuous as the dumbbell row may appear, it’s surprising how much this movement is butchered. Simply put, what most lifters “think” is a dumbbell row is anything but. Here are three videos on how not to do it. You may be surprised to see ugly similarities to the form you use:

Explosive Arm Curl Guy

Look at this numbnuts! There’s really no emphasis whatsoever on the upper back. Instead, the movement resembles an explosive arm curl with momentum taking over.

Rotating Upper Torso Guy

This one’s quite common. The guy thinks he’s performing a “row,” only to completely rotate his upper torso because he’s using too much weight to do it correctly. Ideally, the torso should stay completely stationary, with the chest/nipple line pointing towards the bench the entire time.

Worst Form Ever Guy

I don’t even know what that is, but stop doing it.

The deadstop dumbbell row, however, seems to clean up a lot of technique faults, probably because it forces people to slow down and gather themselves with each rep.

While maintaining a neutral spine position throughout – the body should make a straight line from the head through the lumbar spine – start with the dumbbell resting on the floor. Grab the handle and crush it, gripping it as hard as you can. From there, row the dumbbell by bringing your elbow towards the hip, not just going straight up and down.

Effectively, you’ll be “pulling through the elbow,” finishing at the top by retracting your shoulder blade towards the midline of the body. To finish, return the dumbbell to the floor, coming to a complete stop. Pause for a second or two, and repeat for the desired number or repetitions.

For those with shorter arms, you may want to grab an aerobics step or a few mats to place on the floor to decrease the range of motion.

With dumbbell row, quality should be stressed over quantity. However, there comes a point where you can only use perfect form for so long before it’s no longer a strength exercise. So here’s the compromise – one week your form should be spot on. Make sure each and every rep is technically sound and make your inner ACE certified personal trainer happy. The following week allow your inner “Matt Kroc” to rage and go as heavy as you can for as many reps as you can.

Back To Work!

Everybody and their mom loves training their guns, which is why the average commercial gym warrior disappears when he turns sideways. For the next few months, show back training the kind of love you show chest or arm training. Your physique will thank you for it.