T Nation

The Best Back Exercise

I didn’t write this post because when I hit search I couldn’t find that this debate hasn’t been hashed out about a 1000 times. I wrote it because when the conversation of pulls/chins vs. rows comes up EVERYONE (well, you know, a lot) say do both (usually the gym-myth of pull-ups = width and rows = thickness). Then a die hard will jump in and add “deadlifts”! Honestly that’s not a bad answer.

But I think the “do both” or “do A for width & B for thickness” are lazy cliche’s being repeated without too much thought going into them.

Because of the technique factor I didn’t look at Oly lifts–only reason. Also I used ExRx as a source because it’s been around for awhile and is a usually acceptable source to cite in terms of kinesiology.

I looked at pull-up/chins vs. DB rows vs. Barbell Bent Row vs. Deads. There seems a clear winner and it seems obvious right out of the gate: Barbell Bent Row. Allow me to explain my thinking:
Chin-up: Muscles

Target

Latissimus Dorsi 

Synergists

Brachialis
Brachioradialis
Teres Major
Deltoid, Posterior
Rhomboids
Levator Scapulae
Trapezius, Lower
Trapezius, Middle
Pectoralis Major, Sternal
Pectoralis Minor 

Dynamic Stabilizers

Biceps Brachii
Triceps, Long Head ---for those counting that's 13 muscles engaged and working--receiving stimulus.

NOW DB Row: Muscles

Target

Back, General 

Synergists

Trapezius, Middle
Trapezius, Lower
Rhomboids
Latissimus Dorsi
Teres Major
Deltoid, Posterior
Infraspinatus
Teres Minor
Brachialis
Brachioradialis
Pectoralis Major, Sternal 

Dynamic Stabilizers

Biceps Brachii
Triceps, Long Head 

Stabilizers

Triceps (supporting arm) (we really think the supporting arm is working that hard? No way. So we have a tie with chins at 13. Hell if I give you the triceps as "stabilizer" then rows win 14 to 13. But mostly I'd consider them a tie.

NOW Barbell Bent Row:Target

Back, General 

Synergists

Trapezius, Middle
Trapezius, Lower
Rhomboids
Latissimus Dorsi
Teres Major
Deltoid, Posterior
Infraspinatus
Teres Minor
Brachialis
Brachioradialis
Pectoralis Major, Sternal 

Dynamic Stabilizers

Biceps Brachii
Triceps, Long Head 

Stabilizers

Erector Spinae
Hamstrings
Gluteus Maximus
Adductor Magnus 

Antagonist Stabilizers

Rectus Abdominis
Obliques   --- 19 muscles. Bam. But wait surely the King, the Deadlift must beat it?! Well...

DEADLIFT: Target

Erector Spinae 

Synergists

Gluteus Maximus
Adductor Magnus
Quadriceps
Soleus 

Dynamic Stabilizers

Hamstrings
Gastrocnemius 

Stabilizers

Trapezius, Middle
Trapezius, Upper
Levator Scapulae
Rhomboids 

Antagonist Stabilizers

Rectus Abdominis
Obliques       --13 and one of the biggest is the quadriceps (so if you squat...)

It seems stacked up muscle stimulated for muscle stimulated Barbell Bent Rows win easily. As for width…width is associated with lats. BB Bent Rows clearly work lats, are people really thinking that chins stimulate lat muscle fibers and rows stimulate lat muscle fibers but the muscles “know” they’re contracting against tension from a “pull” vs. “row” and so grow differently? Muscle fibers don’t know anything but expand and contract against resistance.

From a purely systemic point of view Deads would win because of sheer poundage used but if you have a squat movement in your program this advantage is quickly addressed.

Muscle for Muscle Barbell Bent Rows appear, on paper, as THE best back exercise.

I wrote this tongue-in-cheek not troll-piss-off-the-crowd mode–but I think there’s some logic in what I’m saying given side to side comparisons. Curious what others think once they look at the issue the way I did.

I really hate the phase, muscles “don’t know the weight they are lifting” or don’t “know the angle they are lifting in”.

First, the law of gravity is the law of gravity. mechanical load on planet earth is fairly consistent I’d say. Which is why techniques like “micro” loading (2.5Lbs) are effective in strength training. Second, with the 600+ skeletal muscles we have, there surely is a “firing sequence” or fiber recruitment depending on angle, torque, resistance and balance. In other words, it DOES make a difference, but probably not visible in the novice or intermediate trainee.

Anyway, rant/

I agree that BoRs probably are tops (with DL’s) for back mass building, but for me its all about the variations of the big basics. Chest T Row and SMith BoR are just too awesome…And rack pulls

Fair enough, I think (I love rack pulls myself). But I’m going to paraphrase what I read to make sure that’s what you wrote–so I can see where I got lost.

You think muscles do “know” things which are basically symantecs of language (we call an angle of retracting our elbows back “row” and the other “pull” and the strings of protein fibers know this–and you think this because microloading is a good technique?

Now, I love microloading. As I edge slowly past 95% of 1RM dropping to below 2.5lbs plates down to 0.25 discs makes ALL KINDS OF SENSE. But that’s gravity and I’m not sure the fibers have whipped out an abbacus to double check we’re saying this is a pull and choosing not to call it a row. They just feel a little more resistance and attempt to adapt.

I came off a little smart ass there for a moment, but I’m actually just playfully saying I don’t understand how the fibers get so intelligent and how laws of physics automatically translate to “movement vs. gravity” ='s fiber’s having wisdom.

Honestly, I might just need smaller words. But I did write this for the conversation so don’t think I’m dicking out on you.

[quote]pulphero wrote:
Fair enough, I think (I love rack pulls myself). But I’m going to paraphrase what I read to make sure that’s what you wrote–so I can see where I got lost.

You think muscles do “know” things which are basically symantecs of language (we call an angle of retracting our elbows back “row” and the other “pull” and the strings of protein fibers know this–and you think this because microloading is a good technique?

Now, I love microloading. As I edge slowly past 95% of 1RM dropping to below 2.5lbs plates down to 0.25 discs makes ALL KINDS OF SENSE. But that’s gravity and I’m not sure the fibers have whipped out an abbacus to double check we’re saying this is a pull and choosing not to call it a row. They just feel a little more resistance and attempt to adapt.

I came off a little smart ass there for a moment, but I’m actually just playfully saying I don’t understand how the fibers get so intelligent and how laws of physics automatically translate to “movement vs. gravity” ='s fiber’s having wisdom.

Honestly, I might just need smaller words. But I did write this for the conversation so don’t think I’m dicking out on you.[/quote]

With compound movements there are many muscle groups involved, and using them to target one muscle may sometimes fail because a different muscle group will fail first. Jim Wendler argues that dumbbell rows are better the barbell rows because the spinal erectors fatigue before the lats ever will. Also, there is the issue of peak muscle contraction. Bret Contreras did some EEG studies, I think some of his findings were that the lats contract more in chins/pullups and the lower/mid traps and rhomboids contract more in rowing variations. The issue isn’t just gravity, but also the way physics affects the movement at joints. If you think about it, near the top of a pullups, the lats are under a lot of load, but they are also taking MOST of the load. At the top of a row, the load is more distributed across the lats, mid/lower traps rhomboids, and low back

Some research on the topic: www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2012/11/19/rows-or-pull-downs/

“There is no logic in splitting a back routine into “back width” and “back thickness” days, if this is done based on vertical pull-downs being for back width and rows being for back thickness, as rows produce more activity in both the latissimus and in the mid-back musculature.”

[quote]Facepalm_Death wrote:
If you think about it, near the top of a pullups, the lats are under a lot of load, but they are also taking MOST of the load. At the top of a row, the load is more distributed across the lats, mid/lower traps rhomboids, and low back[/quote]

Right, the load is distributed across a broader portion of more working muscles so rep for rep “the back” would be getting broader stimulus across more muscles. So we’re agreeing that for one exercise bent row hits more?

There is an aspect of this (facepalm) that I didn’t think about–the people obsessed with the 10% aspects of lifting (i.e. when doing a row vs a chin the subdermal follicles of the lower erector-dorsi convergence don’t register a bio-transmission of equal magnitude).

I think that stuff is easily dismissed by take your bent row from 95lbsx3 to 405x3 and everything else will fall into place–unless your elite Olympic coach thinks it’s time for you to do something else.

But a lot of people are very into the minutia and I didn’t even consider that when typing. (not saying “you” Facepalm just that your comment caused me to realize there was going to be an aspect of this argument I’d already stopped worrying about a long time ago. It was actually something I should thank you for reminding me of that)

Uh, Dave 101–I swear my google-fu didn’t lead me to this article. If it had I don’t think I would have even posted. It’s really good. Thanks.

Edit: this jumps out: [quote]Comparison between pull-downs and rows

The researchers also concluded that the seated row actually recruits the latissimus more than pull-downs. And it also has the benefit of recruiting the middle-trapezius and rhomboids more than pull-downs as well. So while rows certainly do appear to develop back thickness better than pull-downs, they may well also develop back width better tooâ?¦[/quote]

Add that into the body being forced to stabilize itself against falling over and you have contractions across all kinds planes.

I might have missed it, but I don’t think you’ve given enough credit to the deadlift building the lats. Deadlift wins in my mind.

It’s a cool thought, but I don’t necessarily agree that more back muscles worked = better back exercise.

For example, I hate bent barbell rows, because by the time I get to them I’ve already done a lot of deadlifting. I don’t feel like I can hit much of anything in my upper back very well, because I’m too busy thinking about my lower back. Hell the thing I’ve liked the most so far is just a machine row. I don’t have to do much of anything except concentrate on contracting everything in my upper back as hard as possible.

[quote]jdrannin1 wrote:
I might have missed it, but I don’t think you’ve given enough credit to the deadlift building the lats. Deadlift wins in my mind.[/quote]

You’re correct actually. I was using ExRx for my source because it’s handy, has a tradition of reputability, and is closely associated with sports kinesiology. I straight cut-n-pasted their breakdowns.

By their count the BB Bent Row works 5 more muscles than the Dead and the Dead isn’t shown there to work the lats at all.

Now I know Bret Contreas did a work activation test showing rack pulls or partial deadlifts worked lats as well as chins–but didn’t on floor. With the exception of systemic growth (of which Deads are one King Mother I fully admit) you have no real reason to think the deads work lats too much at all.

This really seems to make sense if there’s no elbow pull back and our arms are just “hooks” like taught in proper form.

[quote]csulli wrote:
It’s a cool thought, but I don’t necessarily agree that more back muscles worked = better back exercise.

For example, I hate bent barbell rows, because by the time I get to them I’ve already done a lot of deadlifting. I don’t feel like I can hit much of anything in my upper back very well, because I’m too busy thinking about my lower back. Hell the thing I’ve liked the most so far is just a machine row. I don’t have to do much of anything except concentrate on contracting everything in my upper back as hard as possible.[/quote]

I was re-taking up the old argument (because I thought a lot of the answer thrown out in typical bro-science were failing to make any sense to me) which is THE (as in singular) back exercise. So I have to disagree–if you can do one exercise that hits MORE back muscles vs. one that hits LESS back muscles…I have to fall on the side yeah, the one that hits more is by definition going to be better.

As an aside to the above admittedly semantically driven point; try this just one time (one time, what do you have to loose?) All those sets of Deads + all those sets of machine rows you do? Do them all and bust out Pendlay style bent barbell rows instead (vary # reps, keep # reps, add # reps, drop # reps I don’t care–but keep the sets).

Unless you’re a powerlifter, or your elite trainer coach for the Olympic or Pro team you’re on says do 'em. In which case don’t play around with your paycheck. But if you’re just a guy, in a gym, trying to look a little better and get a little stronger–try it…once.

Erector Spinae

Synergists

Gluteus Maximus
Adductor Magnus
Quadriceps
Soleus

Dynamic Stabilizers

Hamstrings
Gastrocnemius

Stabilizers

Trapezius, Middle
Trapezius, Upper
Levator Scapulae
Rhomboids

Antagonist Stabilizers

Rectus Abdominis
Obliques --13 and one of the biggest is the quadriceps (so if you squat…)

I don’t know but this list for DL feels really off…
Why is upper trapezius not included? Why are lats not included?
And HELLO my forearms and fingers are fried after deadlifting lol. So ya gotta include the 10-15 muscles down by the forearms and hands haha.

Anyway, I wouldn’t really rely completely on ExRx

For me I don’t even think of growing the erectors its more so for the traps, DL or better yet… rack pulls just completely fries the traps. Bent over rowing of any variation just don’t even come close.

Note: You have to include the lats for DL… unless that list was based off of a beginner who didn’t know how to activate them because its the lats that keep the bar close to your body as you drag it up. That’s why the cues for squeeze your armpit! lat tension! exist.

[quote]pulphero wrote:

[quote]jdrannin1 wrote:
I might have missed it, but I don’t think you’ve given enough credit to the deadlift building the lats. Deadlift wins in my mind.[/quote]

You’re correct actually. I was using ExRx for my source because it’s handy, has a tradition of reputability, and is closely associated with sports kinesiology. I straight cut-n-pasted their breakdowns.

By their count the BB Bent Row works 5 more muscles than the Dead and the Dead isn’t shown there to work the lats at all.

Now I know Bret Contreas did a work activation test showing rack pulls or partial deadlifts worked lats as well as chins–but didn’t on floor. With the exception of systemic growth (of which Deads are one King Mother I fully admit) you have no real reason to think the deads work lats too much at all.

This really seems to make sense if there’s no elbow pull back and our arms are just “hooks” like taught in proper form.
[/quote]

I have every reason to believe the lats are working very hard. The lats keep the bar close to our feet and our shoulders over the bar. Without the lats there is no pull from the floor. The entire back musculature gets worked isometrically. To disclude (not sure if that’s a word) the lats in that is short sighted IMO.

Elbows may not pull back but they’re also not being pulled forward. This is what allows us to lift our arms and body upward for the pull. Without the upper back AND lats our arms would tear themselves off if we tried to lift 400 pounds from the floor :slight_smile:

I agree about forearm/grip stimulus and in the narrative they do address this–though mostly to say chalk and strap can be used because grip is often the limit factor of hitting the main target muscles well.

I personally disagree about the very upper traps though. Middle? Hell yeah. And hard, but mostly I feel that stress not in the tie in up around the skull radiating down ward–I feel it as part of the stimulation of heavy brute weight across my upper back. I’m pretty traditionalist in my pull style and I’ve just never felt the same effect, response, DOMS, etc in those upper areas where the levator scapulea & sternoceleidomastoid all merge in with the upper traps. I believe you if you say you feel it hard there–but for me it’s always been the middle to right where they’re even with the shoulder line. Though I assume synergistic growth readily occurs.

As for ExRx net not being reliable. Eh. I admit I picked it because it’s easy for people to go and reference to see I’m not pulling crap out of my ass. This is from the home page:

[quote]
ExRx.net (Exercise Prescription on the Internet) is a free resource for the exercise professional, coach, or fitness enthusiast featuring comprehensive exercise libraries (>1400 exercises), fitness assessment calculators, and reference articles. The content of this web site is also available on CD-ROM.

ExRx.net is a recommended resource in ACSM's Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 5th ed. (pgs 224, 349). ExRx.net is also a NSCA authorized CEU provider. See our NSCA CEU approved study modules.[/quote]

That’s pretty good or reference. It’s obviously not a site like HIGH SCHOOL KIDS TELL YOU HOW TO BE COME AN EXTRA HUGE WELL HUNG GORILLA OF TWITTER AWESOMENESS JACKED!!! break down of exercises–or something, lol, that I’m trying to pass of as my source for coming up with my opinion/argument.

My friend, have you actually worked out before?

I ask as if you have performed a deadlift, row and chinup, you will soon realise that deadlifts use as many muscles as rows, perhaps working a few to a more extreme degree that rows. And yes, the muscles of your legs are not involved in a chinup as you are suspended in the air.

FWIW I love rows. They are probably the best synergy of heavy weight and controlled focus on the back musculature. However, the assertion that your lats are not involved in a deadlift would not be made by a person who had ever deadlifted. It’s confusing.

This might not really be much of a different exercise, but I like old fasioned T bar rows, better than BoBr’s. After years of doing bobr’s i found at some point in the loading, your lower back becomes the limiting factor. With the proper handle set up, this dosen’t seem to be the case with T bar rows, I can lean back into the movement, sharing the load between hams, and low back, because of the angle of pull. I can’t do this on BoBr’s, it’s all low back. i also find I get alot better upper trap development from Tbars, than from BoBr’s. The last point that Csulli brought up, is that as a PLer i’m usually doing rows after deads, and the T bars allow me to rest my lower back a bit, vrs BoBr’s while still hitting the same muscles.

Either way I think your on the right track, for most people, after general fitness / looking good naket, That were looking to do only one exercise for they’re back BoBr’s would be the best choice, but would still find at a certain point ( 350-450) the lower back tires before you can fully stimulate the upper back. Thats what I’ve found, but mabey you haven’t reached that point yet. good topic, and a good debate though. 2cents

Oh and Paul Carter, at Lift-Run-Bang, agrees with you, has been training and recomending BoBr’s as a main lift for years. There’s lots of vids on his blog of him doing BoBr’s with 400-500lbs for 10-20 reps. He feels the BoBr should be the 4th core movement in your routine, instead of military, as Wendler sugests. thought you might be interested to check this out, and add to your debate. Latter

I agree with your sentiment, but I think the discussion isn’t focused on the right premise. Each movement should have a purpose definitely, but I don’t see a point to limiting myself to one exercise. What I do:

wide grip pullups - teres, some lats
close grip pullups - lats
db rows, or preferably these:

really it is all about where your elbow is moving

[quote]dannyrat wrote:
My friend, have you actually worked out before?

I ask as if you have performed a deadlift, row and chinup, you will soon realise that deadlifts use as many muscles as rows, perhaps working a few to a more extreme degree that rows. And yes, the muscles of your legs are not involved in a chinup as you are suspended in the air.

FWIW I love rows. They are probably the best synergy of heavy weight and controlled focus on the back musculature. However, the assertion that your lats are not involved in a deadlift would not be made by a person who had ever deadlifted. It’s confusing.[/quote]

I understand the point you’re making. But let me be a little wise ass and ask you a question.
If your life depended on it, would you take the information you gained from people with advanced degrees in Anatomy & Physiology and Kinesiology and who are licensed by educational agencies to provide Continuing Education Units to degreed professionals…

OR

some guy who says he’s done a lot of rows, chins, and deads and this is what he thinks he feels in his opinion?

Now, to be fair, I have zero idea what your degree is in. But come on. The people running ExRx have a bit on the line to lose if they’re wrong. In light of that, the idea that they would “forget” to mention the largest muscle group in the back as working in the deadlift of all things seems…suspect.

But hell, throw the lats in 'cause you feel like you feel like you feel 'em. That still brings us to 14 muscles vs. 19 muscles so it still lags behind the BB Row by 5 so the point of a singular exercise still goes to where the math points. (for the point of this thread proposal anyway).

And for the record, other than a thigh master, no I’ve never worked out 8-P. But that thighmaster was bitch, let me tell you. I could feel it killing my triceps like hornet stings.

I should note–browndisaster is 100%. Why limit yourself when you’ll never have to? I was just cruising the threads on this ONE exercise debate (of which there are tons) and the reasoning was so lockeroom superstition I went a little crazy.