The 10 Best Ways to Build Your Back

Overlooked Exercises and Missing Methods

Most people get back training all wrong. We asked our experts to give us their best training tips and tricks. Are you missing any of these moves?

The Question

What’s the best or most overlooked back exercise for hypertrophy?

Eric Bach – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Hanging High Pull.

This is one of the best moves for building insane total body power and adding size to your upper back.

By doing explosive high pulls at the beginning of your workout, you’ll prime your CNS and activate more muscle fibers. This results in what’s known as “the size principle.” According to the size principle, there are two ways to maximize muscle fiber recruitment: either lift a heavier weight or lift a lighter weight more explosively.

So while you’re directly stressing the rear delts, traps, and rhomboids you’ll also be potentiating hundreds of muscles from head to toe. As a result, you’ll boost muscle fiber recruitment for the rest of your workout, making your pull-ups, rows, shrugs, and farmer’s carries even more effective for muscle growth.

As a bonus, the high pull has a much shorter learning curve and less joint stress than more common Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch. Instead of beating the snot out of your wrists, the hanging high pull gets over 200 muscles to simultaneously relax and contract and explosively lift big weights, while the hang position adds eccentric stress to build dense, powerful muscle.

How To Do It

  • Start in the hang position with your back flat at about 45 degrees, a shoulder-width grip on the bar, and the bar at around knee level. Explosively extend your hips, driving your elbows up, keeping the bar close to your body. Keep your elbows higher than the bar and use as much explosive power as you can. Catch and reset each rep, starting back at the hang position.
  • For power and strength: 5 x 3 with 90–120 seconds rest.
  • For size: 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps with 90–120 seconds rest. Work from the hang position.

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Sweeping Deadlift.

This is a deadlift where you attach a resistance band to the bar and a post in front of you. The band actively pulls the bar away from you, so you need to engage the lats to keep the bar close to your body.

I like the snatch-grip variation the most because you can pull the bar all the way into the hip crease while keeping the arms straight. This is exactly like doing a straight-arm pulldown,which is the best lat isolation exercise you can do.

Keep the bar close to you at all times. The key point is when you pass the knees: this is where the bar will tend to move away from you. So as you pass the knees you need to actively “sweep in” with the lats even harder.

With the snatch variation, don’t fully straighten the torso when the bar reaches the hips. This require a lot more work from the lats. Hold the peak contraction about two seconds per rep. An advanced variation is to finish the set by holding the bar in your hips as long as you can on the last rep.

The snatch variation will teach you to integrate the lats in the deadlift motion. The sweeping style is the best way to overload the whole back. Pulling big weights will hit the lower back and traps hard while the sweeping component increases lat activation.

You can use a light bar weight and a fairly hard band resistance to focus on strengthening the lats. Or use a medium (70-80%) bar weight with moderate band resistance to overload the whole back. Or use a heavy bar weight with light band resistance to practice integrating the lats in your heavy pulls. Either way, it’s a formidable back exercise.

Bret Conteras – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

Horizontal Shrugs.

They’re the most overlooked back exercise for hypertrophy. Everyone does tons of chins, pulldowns, and rows for the lats. Most people train squats, deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, and bentover rows for the erectors. A majority of lifters shrug for the upper traps and perform rear delt raises and reverse pec deck for the rear delts.

While it’s true that the mid traps and rhomboids get a lot of stimulation from deadlifts and rows, when you start performing horizontal shrugs on the regular, you will likely realize that you’ve got untapped potential when it comes to full upper back mass.

Lie face down on an incline bench positioned at a 30-45 degree angle while holding onto dumbbells. Protract the scapulae and get a good stretch at the bottom of the lift, then retract and hold the squeeze at the top for a one-second count on each rep.

I’ll even round the upper back (thoracic flexion) slightly at the bottom of the lift to accompany the spreading of the scapulae and then extend the t-spine at the top to accompany the adduction of the scapulae. Try this and see if you prefer it. Do 3 sets of 10 reps with 1/1/1/0 tempo. Typical loads are 60-100 pound dumbbells.

Dr. John Rusin – Strength Training Specialist and Performance Expert

Loaded Stretching.

The most overlooked way to add mass to the back is through the process of loaded stretching out of the vertical pull position. Since the pull can be trained by so many angles, there are truly very few “new” movements out there. That said, progression is less about reinventing the wheel, but rather improving existing lifts and methods that have been staples for a hundred years.

Stretching the lats and posterior shoulder girdle overhead after a grueling pump set can elicit a huge training response without adding more reps to a set. Think of holding this stretched position as extending a set without placing your shoulders into a risky position for unwanted compensatory failure.

This method is best suited for the pull-up or even the cable pulldown. For the pull-ups, complete a set to absolute failure. After the last concentric rep, slowly lower yourself down under control while maintaining shoulder stability and tension at the bottom of this range of motion. Bring your feet out in front of you, activate the anterior core, and maintain the hollow body position for as long as you can.

For the lat pulldown, try using a neutral grip attachment which allows the shoulders to move through a better range of motion while maintaining a neutral and centrated position. On the last rep, allow the hands to raise up, straighten the elbows, and bring the head forward slightly to enhance the stretch of the lats overhead.

Use these methods on the last set of an exercise at the tail-end of a training day for better mobility along with a targeted growth response.

Joel Seedman, PhD – Strength and Performance Expert

The Seated Row, but not the way you normally do it.

If you’re looking for an incredibly potent mass builder for your entire back you’ll want to try this modified drop set on the seated row. Besides making you freakishly strong, this is one of the most effective hypertrophy protocols I’ve ever used with my athletes.

Here I have two of my NFL athletes, Jarius Wynn and Fernando Velasco, performing this deceptively difficult protocol as we prepare their bodies for the upcoming season.

Start the set by holding the weight in the stretched position (arms straight) for 10-15 seconds. Too easy? Here’s the catch. You’ll use a weight that’s heavier than your max row and hold it there.

This is technically called a “supramaximal eccentric isometric” since the movement starts in the stretched position, it’s held in place, and it’s over your max. So just set your spine and shoulder blades, then hold the position with your arms full extended and your back tensed.

Most lifters should be able to hold at least 25-30% more weight than they would typically use for rows. This creates an incredible amount of mechanical tension and muscle damage for maximizing muscle growth, particularly because of the combination of overload and stretch.

You’ll feel every muscle in your body as you hold this, not to mention your upper back will feel like it’s getting annihilated. This is also really good for posture and spinal alignment because you’re resisting incredibly high levels of flexion forces acting on the spine.

Then follow that hold with a drop set decreasing the load by about half. From there, blast out smooth reps with additional pauses in both the contracted and stretched positions.

Because the nervous system will be potentiated and hyper-activated from the prior heavy loading, the reduced weight for the rows will feel inordinately light.

Amit Sapir – IFBB Pro, World Record Holder Powerlifter

The answer is different for back width and back thickness.

Training back can be really tricky. If you want a thick and wide back, how you obtain these two qualities isn’t necessarily the same. Let’s separate what works best for each and then add a combo option as well.

For width: Most vertical pulling movements (weighted pull-ups with a neutral grip) are what you’re looking for to obtain a wide look. Here’s the trick – focus on both ends of the movement. Focus on both the stretch at the bottom and the peak contraction at the top, rather than just going through the motions. The stretch is invaluable in this particular group of exercises.

Side Pulldowns

A good rule of thumb is 2-3 seconds at peak contraction and 1-2 seconds in stretch. Do this for at least half the set and apply it to all pulling movements. My three favorite pulling exercises are neutral-grip weighted pull-ups, wide-grip pulldowns, and one-arm side pulldowns.

Back Giant Set

For thickness and density: Do rack deadlifts just over the knee with snatch grip; bentover barbell rows with various grips and widths; and old school T-bar rows. I like to combine these exercises in a giant set, and for a third exercise add a flushing exercise at the end like pullovers.

Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Meadows Row.

You’ll rarely see anyone do this lift, and it really is their loss. This exercise also helps people who suffer from ILS (imaginary lat syndrome) develop some real lats.

A number of years ago, before stepping on stage, I realized my lats were a weak point. So I started doing this exercise and the results were huge. This exercise was popularized by John Meadows, hence the name. It’s one of the fundamental exercises I use with clients if they need some gains in their lats.

Although it may seem like a pretty basic movement there are some subtle amendments to a standard row, apart from the elbow coming out sideways. Make sure your hip on your rowing side is slightly higher. This will help you stretch and work the lower lat (normally a difficult area to target) as well as increase the range of motion.

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

Briefly holding the flexed position and slowing the eccentric (lowering).

What I frequently see stifling back development is directly related to people lifting too heavy, regardless of the exercise. In their case, the weight moves via momentum on the concentric (lifting) portion, which makes a static hold in the contracted position or any semblance of a controlled eccentric or negative nearly impossible.

Therefore, the training method I recommend for back hypertrophy is accentuating a brief hold in the flexed position and slowing the lowering portion to about 3-4 seconds. This forces the back muscles to actually do the work. Even more importantly, it allows you to feel the muscles working.

Try a one-second hold in the contracted position, immediately followed by a slow negative phase with single-arm supinated-grip pulldowns, dumbbell pullovers, chest supported T-bar rows, or dumbbell rows. Check your ego at the door – you won’t be able to lift your usual poundage. Also, plan on supporting your training with some intra-workout nutrition (on Amazon) or you’ll be sore for days afterward.

Lee Boyce – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

The Single Arm Dumbbell Row, performed correctly.

Dumbbell rows are one of the most bastardized movements in the gym. This exercise is often even coached with the wrong frame of reference. It should actually be viewed more as a lat exercise than anything else.

Based on the way the muscle fibers run, and considering that the position of the load is at a 90 degree angle to the body, it makes much more sense to avoid the common directive of pulling the weight in a straight perpendicular trajectory. Going straight up and down won’t fully engage the lats.

How to Really Do a Dumbbell Row

So, create an arcing pattern instead with the upper arm and you will move the load in a way that better follows the path of the muscle fibers, resulting in greater recruitment. But don’t exaggerate the movement. It’s a subtle adjustment. Changing the emphasis can be the difference between a great back pump and a weak one.

Kelvin King Jr. – Strength and Conditioning Coach

Build the back from a different angle.

When it comes to building a strong and powerful back, try something new, like the landmine split stance angle press.

The back musculature is the largest posterior area of the human body, with the origin starting at the back of the neck and shoulders, and ending at the top of the butt. This exercise will strengthen the neglected muscles and fix poor posture all while helping you construct a massive back.

Granted, it’s an odd-looking shoulder press, but it targets the medial and posterior delts, the teres major and minor, the upper and mid traps, the rhomboids, and yep even the lats.

The split stance position will put you in a sports-specific base to support the pressing movement, and the angle from which you press targets the shoulders and back to the greatest degree.