Are you ready to overcome stagnant back development and replace your weak, flat back with thick wings of muscle? Good, because we are here to talk about the best muscle building back exercises.
More often than not, back building is an afterthought for beginners and usually it all comes down to a few half-assed sets of pull-downs at the end of the workout. As you can imagine, this is hardly a good way to grow a wide, thick back that will make heads turn!
Although you can’t see your back when you look in the mirror, training it regularly is incredibly important both for achieving amazing aesthetics and building a strong foundation for all major upper body movements.
If you’re not really sure what to do on back days and what’s the best way to increase back mass, it’s time to stop wasting your time with ineffective back exercises done without full focus and print out this list of the 10 most phenomenal back mass-builders.
You don’t need a ton of back exercises in order to grow a monster back – but whatever you do, you need to perform it right and with maximum concentration.
Ten mass building back exercises that really work
To save you months or maybe years of experimenting until you find a routine that “kind of” works, we went through most of the available literature and compared different back exercises in terms of muscle stimulation and hypertrophy, ultimately designing this optimal list of back exercises to help you get on the right track and start making solid gains.
Break out of that rut. Make these 10 moves the base of your back training arsenal and you will get the job done a lot faster than you think!
1. BARBELL DEADLIFT
Besides being the best move you could ever do for overall back development, the mighty deadlift trains your entire posterior chain – everything from your calves to your upper traps – so it’s really an exercise you can’t do without if you’re looking to build an amazing upper body.
That being said, this is an exercise that can literally make you or break you, so you absolutely have to focus on mastering proper form and technique on this one, at least if you want to stay injury-free and make truly great gains.
Once you get it right, deadlifting will allow you to lift heavy weights and thereby destroy as many muscle fibers as possible and powerfully enhance anabolism. End result? You get super strong and super big!
On back days, stick to the conventional deadlift as it’s the best variant for maximum back activation. It’s recommendable to perform all of your sets, especially if you’re doing low-rep heavy work, at the beginning of the workout while you’re still fresh.
2. WIDE-GRIP PULL-UP
One of the best advantages of pull-ups is that there are so many different variations that allow you to target different muscle groups without any additional equipment. All you’ve got to do is change your grip! And when it comes to achieving maximum activation of the upper lats and getting them to grow nice and wide, there are virtually no back exercises like the wide-grip pull-up.
Simply grab the pull-up bar with a wider than shoulder-width overhand grip; this can be quite challenging but stick with it and the gains will be enormous. Try doing only negative reps at first to increase your strength. Once you become able to knock out a few sets of 10-12 reps, you’re all set for unlocking the benefits of wide-grip pull-ups, including monster grip strength.
Work on your form. In the starting position, make sure to retract your scapula before initiating the pull. Warm up your shoulder joints with several lighter reps before moving on to the heavy work, and if possible do your pull-up sets early in the workout. And if you find it impossible to train to failure in the growth-friendliest 8-12 rep range, consider using a weighted belt.
3. BENT-OVER BARBELL ROW
Bent-over rows are a great compound movement that comes at second place in terms of the amount of weight you can lift. Big weights equal big gains, so this is a good chance to ensure you’re getting as much benefit out of your back training sessions as possible.
Although it mainly involves the lats, rhomboids, rear delts, traps and biceps, the bent-over row has been also found to equally activate the big muscle groups in the upper and lower back, which makes it one of the fundamental back exercises that demands flawless form and good technique but produces major mass gains, just like the deadlift.
Perform heavy sets in lower rep ranges, for example 6-8 or 8-10, early in the workout. Keep in mind that bent-over rows place a lot of stress on the lower back, and if that’s a weak area for you, it’s best to avoid doing deadlifts and bent-over rows in the same routine to prevent lumbar spine injury.
The Smith machine version offers a fixed plane of motion, so it’s safer and will work great as well as long as you use it correctly.
4. STANDING T-BAR ROW
This is one of the back exercises that’s great for weight progression, but keep in mind that going too heavy will easily lead to cheating through the hips and knees. If you struggle to maintain a neutral back, it’s better to choose a chest-supported version.
Many beginners fail to position their legs properly and thereby miss out on the full benefits of the exercise. The legs should be locked in a bent angle all through the movement. To better target the lats, use a wider grip, and when you want to recruit more middle back fibers, go with the neutral grip variant. Stay focused and aim to achieve both full stretch and maximum contraction of the back muscles.
If you have solid experience with this exercise, choose slightly lighter loads than normal so that you can go through a greater range of motion and thereby increase time under tension.
You can increase the range of motion even further by allowing a slight protraction of the scapula at the bottom of every rep – just be sure to return to a flat back before beginning the next rep.
5. CLOSE-GRIP PULL-DOWN
It’s time for some close-grip action. As a multi-joint exercise that involves movement at the elbows, scapula and shoulders, the pull-down effectively trains a variety of muscles in the upper body, with the latissimus dorsi being the prime mover.
In this case, a wide grip won’t necessarily build wide lats – in fact, studies have shown that the combination of a pronated wrist position and a close neutral grip will allow for maximal activation of the lats on pull-downs. You also get the added benefit of a greater range of motion and increased time under tension, which of course translates to better mass gains. Make sure to select a weight that you can remain in control of and that allows you to really feel your lats working.
This move can be inserted anywhere into your back routine, but it’s best to either perform it with lighter weights as a warm-up move for the shoulders or place it near the end of the workout if used as a mass builder. Aim to get 8-12 reps on each set, working with a smooth, steady tempo that includes a hard squeeze at the bottom and a good stretch at the top of each rep.
6. SINGLE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
Unilateral movements are vital for building a body that’s well-balanced in terms of proportion and symmetry, but they usually limit the amount of weight you can work with. The single-arm dumbbell row, however is one of those back exercises, that has it all: it lets you train each side of your back independently through a great range of motion and thereby correct strength imbalances, but it also allows you to move a lot of weight and build a big thick back.
When performed correctly, unilateral dumbbell rows will emphasize your lower lats. Place one hand on a bench to support your lower back that’s probably taken a lot of beating by now, and slightly rotate your trunk to better engage your core musculature.
Perform this back exercise in the second half of your workout and aim to get 10-12 reps on each set using heavy dumbbells. Always start with your weaker side first. Keep your abs tight and go super-slow on the negative portion of each rep.
7. REVERSE-GRIP SMITH MACHINE ROW
As rowing is one of the most effective movements you can do for back development, you want to make the most use of it in all of its unique versions. With the reverse-grip style, you need to tuck your elbows in close to your body so that you can keep your joints injury-free and move heavy weights that prompt serious growth. This calls for a greater engagement of the biceps, but the main target muscle is the lower part of the lats.
Furthermore, using the Smith machine will take care of stability and balance and leave you to solely focus on pulling as much weight as possible. For best gains, bend over about 45 degrees and stay close to the bar. As with any other exercise, stay away from weights that don’t allow you to maintain correct form and technique. Ensure that each rep is slow and controlled (four seconds up and four seconds down) and avoid jerky movements (typical when working with weights you’re not comfortable with).
Having one reverse-grip exercise in your routine will be quite enough, and this move is one of the best choices. Ideally, it should be done it after the heavy overhand pulls.
8. WIDE-GRIP SEATED CABLE ROW
Seated rows will strengthen your back, shoulders and biceps while also enhancing core stability and spinal alignment. As we mentioned before, a wide grip brings more upper lat fibers into play, so you want to also use it on a lat bar for cable rows.
In the peak position, as the bar is approaching your torso, your upper arms should be perpendicular to it and parallel to the floor, and you should be able to draw a line from your elbow across your upper lats, rhombs and middle traps. Bear in mind that the further behind your body you can pull your elbows, the greater the contraction will be.
However, if the lower and middle lats are your problematic area, going with a grip that’s about shoulder-width apart and keeping your elbows close to the sides will allow you to target them better.
Do these near the end of the workout with weight that enables you to complete no more than 12 reps with good form. Bring your shoulder blades together at the end of every rep.
9. SINGLE-ARM SMITH MACHINE ROW
This version of a single-arm row can provide your lower lats with a novel stimulus for growth, promote balanced development and also strongly engage the middle head of your deltoids.
Additionally, doing it in a Smith machine will minimize pain and injury risk at the shoulder, which are common problems during upright rows for many guys.
Stand sideways in front of the machine, grasp the bar toward the middle and use a split stance with bent knees, staying close to the apparatus. Using your back muscles, pull the bar up as high as you can but keep your back neutral. Perform this back movement in a controlled and slow manner.
It’s best to do single-arm Smith machine rows toward the end of your back routine and as an alternative to the single-arm dumbbell row – there’s no need to do both since they’re very similar. Keeping your head up will make it easier to maintain a straight back. Go for high reps, preferably in the 10-12 rep range.
10. DECLINE BENCH DUMBBELL PULL-OVER
Dumbbell pullovers are a great but underused single-joint move that kind of mimics the straight-arm cable pull-down but allows you to really exhaust your lats and make deep muscle gains.
During the Arnold era, it was a very popular move because when done properly, it works the pecs, abs, lats and triceps in a very unique way that creates visible upper body improvements that are hard to achieve with any other movement. To get optimal results, use a decline bench, as this will help you increase time under tension by expanding the range of motion.
The reason why many people get poor results from this exercise is because they rush through the motion and don’t focus on getting a good, deep stretch – don’t be one of them. Also, keep your hips and head down so that you can really feel your lats working and get a great pump. Perform dumbbell pullovers at the end of your routine and keep the reps high, around 12-20 per set.
There you have it, the ten best mass building back exercises. Pick three of these back builders (combine ones that build width with other build thickness) and do 2-3 work sets of each after you do a proper warm-up. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results in a few months.