Back exercises are classified as either horizontal pulling movements or vertical pulling movements. Why? Because they are all typically done by either pulling a weight in towards your body horizontally from out in front of you (like a row), or pulling a weight down towards your body vertically from above you (like a lat pulldown).
Common examples of some of the best back exercises include:
- Pull Ups & Chin Ups
- Lat Pulldown
- Bent Over Barbell & Dumbbell Rows
- Seated Cable Rows
- T-Bar Rows
- Chest Supported Machine Rows
Figuring out which are the best back exercises for your specific workout routine and incorporating them all properly isn’t quite as simple and easy as just randomly picking your favorites and doing them all on “back day.”
There’s a lot more to the exercise selection and implementation process, and my articles about different types of weight lifting exercises, how to figure out which are truly the best exercises for your body and goal, my favorite workout plans, and my guide to workout routines will help you figure it all out.
Either way, no matter which you end up using in your workout routine, proper form MUST always be used. This is not only to avoid injury, but to ensure the muscles of the back are actually going through the full range of motion and doing most (if not all) of the work.
To help you understand the basics of proper form, here is a brief description of how some of the best (and most popular) back exercises should be performed…
Pull Ups & Chin Ups
Pull ups are done with an overhand grip where your palms are facing away from you, while chin ups are done with an underhand grip where your palms are facing you. A third lesser used (but still equally effective) grip is the neutral grip, which is done with your palms facing each other.
While each grip will primarily target your back (specifically the lats) as well as your biceps secondarily, there are some differences between them. For example, pull ups tend to put your biceps in a weaker position, while chin ups put them in a stronger position. The result? Well, for starters, most people will usually be stronger at chin ups than pull ups.
Plus, some people may feel a little more emphasis on their biceps during chin ups and a little more emphasis on their back/lats when doing pull ups. Either way, both exercises will train your back and biceps effectively.
Also worth mentioning is that different grip widths can be used (narrow, medium, wide). Wide tends to be the worst of all as it lessens the range of motion and puts the shoulders in a more injury prone position. I don’t recommend going any wider than slightly outside shoulder width.
Here’s how the pull up should be done…
- Grab the pull up bar with an overhand grip that is just SLIGHTLY wider than shoulder width.
- Allow your body to hang freely from the pull up bar with your arms fully extended.
- Using your lats instead of your arms, pull yourself straight up by driving your elbows down to your sides and your chest towards the pull up bar.
- Lower yourself back to the starting position (arms fully extended).
Once you can do a couple of sets of 8-10 reps using your own body weight, exercises like pull ups and chin ups should be weighted by either holding a dumbbell between your feet, wearing a weighted vest, or by adding weight to a pull up belt (also called a dip belt).
My article about How To Do More Pull Ups And Chin ups might also be of interest.
The lat pulldown is basically a machine version of the pull up and chin up. Instead of pulling yourself up to the bar, you pull the bar down to you. So, everything I mentioned above about the different grips applies to the lat pulldown just the same.
Here is how it should be done using an overhand (pull up) grip…
- Grab the lat pulldown bar with your hands just SLIGHTLY wider than shoulder width using an overhand grip.
- Sit down with your arms fully extended overhead.
- Pull the bar straight down in front of your head by driving your elbows down to your sides until the bar touches (or comes very close to touching) the top of your chest.
- Return to starting position.
The lat pulldown can also be done by pulling the bar behind your head. While many people can do it this way just fine, it tends to be the cause of shoulder problems for a lot of people. For this reason, I most often recommend pulling in front of your head. If you have any preexisting shoulder issues, then you should definitely pull in front instead of behind.
And as with most back exercises, the biceps are used secondarily. An underhand grip and/or a more narrow grip will put more emphasis on the biceps than an overhand/wider grip would. This applies not only to the lat pulldown, but really to every single back exercise.
Barbell Bent Over Row
The most basic type of back rowing exercise is the bent over barbell row. Once again, an overhand or underhand grip can be used. This is how an overhand bent over barbell row should be done…
- Hold a barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder width overhand grip.
- With your knees slightly bent, bend over at the waist so that your upper body is slightly above being parallel to the floor.
- Pull the barbell straight up into your stomach by driving your elbows back behind you.
- Lower the barbell back to the starting position.
The only other form tip to keep in mind is that you should NOT be rounding your back. Keep it straight and tight with your lower back slightly arched throughout. Speaking of which…
Unlike most other rowing exercises that are either done seated or with some type of chest support, the barbell row requires stabilizing yourself in that bent over position, which means some stress will be placed on your lower back. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is worth mentioning so you can plan other lower back intensive exercises (like squats and deadlifts) around it accordingly in your workout routine.
Seated Cable Rows
Seated cable rows require some sort of seated cable row machine to perform (obvious, I know). It’s typically done by sitting on a flat bench and putting your feet up on a platform in front of you and then rowing some type of handle which is attached to a weight stack.
Various types of grips and handles can be used (overhand, underhand, wide, narrow, etc.), but a neutral grip where your hands are facing each other (also called a V grip and a parallel grip) is probably the most common.
Here is how it should be done…
- Sit down at a seated cable row machine with both feet flat on the foot board and your knees slightly bent.
- Grab the handle with both hands and pull it into your stomach by driving your elbows back behind you and keeping your back straight and your chest up throughout.
- Return to the starting position (arms extended).
Again, the biceps are trained secondarily, and your chest should be up and your back should be straight and upright throughout the entire exercise. No leaning forward or backward to swing the weight where it needs to go.
Now Use Them Correctly
So, those are a few of the best back exercises, and that’s a basic break down of how they should be performed. Like I mentioned before, the key now is to actually use them correctly in your workout routine. Those articles I mentioned earlier will show you exactly how to do that.
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