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Top 3 Back Exercises – Develop Your Back!

The back is an often neglected yet very important aspect of the body. For that reason, I am creating a top 3 back exercises post to help you have a more effective back workout. The back is very important for both strength and aesthetics. A big strong back in crucial for staying locked in during the deadlift, or to provide a stable platform to lift off for the bench press. Having a well-developed back contributes to an overall well-rounded physique, and adds to the appearance from behind your body. Let’s get into exercise number one.

Number One Back Exercise – Deadlifts:

Although deadlifts work much more than just your back (your whole posterior chain from your heels to the base of your skull) they are a great back exercise. One that effectively targets your lower back and engages your upper back isometrically.

Because the deadlift works your whole posterior chain and therefore uses different muscles that work effectively together, you can scale the lift up pretty heavy and therefore apply progressive overload. Progressive overload is great for both strength and hypertrophy. Although the main back muscle the deadlift works is your lower back, your upper back is relied on heavily, specifically your scapula through straight arm scapular strength. Though your upper back is being worked isometrically there is still a large amount of tension being applied because of its need for rigidity and stability. This is why often times people will find their upper back and traps sore after deadlifts and especially rack pulls. Lastly, I always do deadlifts as a primary movement on back day. I find they do a great job of working on strength and laying the base for my back workout, they also effectively target my lower back as well as prime my upper back and lat muscles. I believe this could lead to slightly better performance when going into my more hypertrophy focused movements.

How should we go about implementing the deadlift into our routine? Well, seeing as they can be trained heavy, and have lots of room for progressive overload in a variety of areas I typically train these for strength. This because strength training is easily applied and optimal for deadlifts, and I also feel like there are better movements to target the lower back and especially the upper back for hypertrophy. So for strength training, I would suggest doing the majority of your sets in the 1-5 rep range with heavyweights, and progressive overload being applied. Including variations can also be beneficial. If you do want to use deadlifts for hypertrophy (you see good results from them or you want to help maintain strength) than working in the 8-12 rep range is where you would want to see the majority of your sets being done. Don’t be afraid the go into the opposite rep range suggested for some sets, as they do have their place as well. Changing up your programming towards power training can make the deadlift extremely beneficial for this because it is a compound exercise, it has the need for great stability and is what I would consider an exercise that is highly conducive to power training. If you want to work the deadlift for conditioning, then touch and go sets can be beneficial, just make sure your form is consistently good from start to finish.

Deadlift

Exercise Number 2 – Lat Pulldown:

A fundamental back exercise, and one that focuses specifically on the lats. It has a movement pattern that does a great job of working the lats and can be done heavy enough to apply progressive overload (especially if you have the 5-pound increments on the cable machine). Once you get the hang of this exercise, there are many other benefits that I will get into below.

In order to effectively target the lats (which help with the width of our back), we need to be including vertical pulling movements; these will help to develop our back and give us a wider look. Also, when performing this exercise it has a movement pattern that allows you to get a full stretch and contraction on the lats. Seeing as you can apply progressive overload relatively easily I tend to use this as a primary lat movement when trying to specifically target them (I mainly progress with volume compared to weight). Unlike rowing movements, I find I am able to really focus on actually working my lats, which is an often difficult muscle group to feel being activated. This because of its specific targeting of the lats, but I also noticed when I started to really focus on the stretch and contraction as well as slowing the movement down, it allowed me to actually feel my lats working.

How should we use the lat pulldown in our training? Well, I wouldn’t consider the traditional lat pulldown a direct strength building movement. So I would suggest including some kind of deadlift or heavy row in before doing this exercise if strength is your goal. If you want to maintain or gain some muscle while focusing on strength, you could do the lat pulldown as an additional lat “isolation” exercise towards the end of your workout. Or, if you want to do the exercise in a way to get some small strength benefits, consider doing it at the midpoint of your workout. I would mainly suggest a moderate rep range, occasionally going into the high or low rep ranges relative to the different goals. All mainly done with strength training in mind. For hypertrophy training consider doing the lat pulldown as more of a main movement, typically done in the moderate rep range with occasional higher 12-15+ rep sets being done, more so as a burnout set. One of the ways I get the most out of my lat pulldowns is to really let the muscle stretch at the top and focus on trying to pull my elbows together at the bottom of each rep to contract. I wouldn’t consider this a very good power exercise, however, if you wanted to maintain your hypertrophy you could perform it in more of a power training style. This would not be an exercise I would do on conditioning/circuit training days.

I would also like to mention to never underestimate the pull-up. A very fundamental and beneficial movement. I included the lat-pulldown because it is often times a great transition exercise into doing pull-ups and more of them. Also, the lat-pulldown can often times be easier to actually feel your back working, and in particular, the lats working. However, the pull-up is not to be underestimated. It is a very functional movement overall, with great strength benefits. Pull-ups can also serve many roles effectively within a workout. The bottom line is, both exercises have their place, but the pull-up is a staple exercise.

Lat Pulldown

Exercise Number 3 – V-Grip Row:

Another main movement I am using for my back is the v-grip row, I find it does a great job of utilizing your lats while focusing on the mid-back. Since this is a horizontal pulling movement it will mainly work at developing the thickness of your back. There is room for progressive overload and you can change up how you perform this exercise for variety.

I always make sure I incorporate vertical and horizontal pulling movements for back, both to focus on width and thickness, and to target my lats and mid-back individually. I use the v-grip row to focus on my mid-back, as I find I can get a strong stretch and contraction. I also like the fact that it allows for a stretch and a bit of a lat contraction as a secondary benefit. You can apply progressive overload relatively easily with weight if your cable machines have 5-pound increments. This can be beneficial, but seeing as this is not a main strength movement, progressing with volume would be my main focus. I also like that you can perform this exercise either strictly to really focus on isolating the back, or with a bit of a lean or “cheat” to allow for using some heavier weight.

When it comes to implementing this exercise into your workouts, there a few ways to do so. Let’s start with strength, seeing as you aren’t on your feet, and you can’t use a lot of weight, it isn’t the best strength exercise. You can still use it to maintain or get some small hypertrophy benefits and perform it in a strength/power way. Where this exercise shines is in the hypertrophy realm, I would suggest using it towards the beginning to midpoint of your workout, as more of a main movement, and one of your primary movements for your mid back/back thickness. I usually like to perform this exercise in the moderate 8-12 rep range with the occasional burnout set. This wouldn’t be an exercise that I would consider for conditioning/circuit training.

Final Thoughts:

After reading this article you now have three new back exercises to implement within your routine. You have the deadlift for a main progressive overload movement that works the lower back and provides a stimulus for the lats and upper back. Then you have the lat pulldown and v-grip row to target the lats and mid/upper back respectively.

I thank you for taking the time to read this article, and look forward to you being able to benefit from this information! As always, if you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to leave them below and I will be sure to reply!

 

Until Next Time,

 

Kohl Johnson

Please refer to my liability disclaimer to ensure you know who is responsible for use of this information after reading.

Support is much appreciated if you benefited from this:

Kohl Johnson

8 Comments

  1. You have expanded on three recommended top new exercises for developing your back and I most certainly appreciate your detailed explanations why each is desirable. I have known that I needed to add in some new focused exercises to my 3 x weekly exercise regimen, so found this post using Google.

    I like each and can add them easily to my routine. They build on one another too, which is important for me to get the maximum positive effect for my effort and trouble. I know how important having a strong back can be, as I run long distances and if you are not in shape it will affect your run.

    This is why I mix up to work on all parts of my body (lats are also important) and I was totally not happy with the exercises I have been doing for my back. They just were not giving me the results I am looking for. So I will add these three. The deadlift will work the lower back and provides a stimulus for the lats (good) and upper back. The lat pulldown and v-grip row will provide further means to build the mid/upper back respectively (and help with the lats).

    Thanks for a very helpful post and guide, I have bookmarked the website and will be back. I want to learn more. You know what you are talking about!  

    • Hi Dave, no problem! Glad you found the post helpful! Be sure to perform all exercises with proper form. Good luck with your training!

  2. Dear Kohl,

    Thanks for the back exercises procedure. I was recently diagnosed with herniated disc in my low back. Doctor suggests me to do back exercises to strengthen my back muscles. Among the three back exercises, which one is the best for my situation?

    As you mentioned in your post, you say that deadlift for a main progressive overload movement that works for lower back. In my case this could make my herniated disc worse? 

    Regards

    Anthony

    • Hi Anthony, I am not a doctor and do not know your specific circumstances/needs, therefore I cannot give you the guidance you are looking for. Do not do any of these exercises without consulting your doctor. Talk to your doctor for the guidance you need with your situation.

  3. You’re right, the back is one of the most important parts of the body but one that is also often neglected. 

    My job often requires me to do some heavy lifting and although I am very much aware that I should bend my knees instead of my back, there are times when I am caught unaware. I will just realize it when I feel my back aching. I guess I need to do some exercises to develop my back, that way, even when I forget to bend my knees when lifting heavy things, my back won’t hurt that much because it’s a lot stronger.

    These top 3 back exercises that you mentioned do not really look difficult to do, except for Deadlifts. LatPulldown and V-Grip Row, I think I can do. But because of my hectic schedule I do not think I have time to hit the gym. Are there other alternatives to these that I can do at home? 

    • Hi Alice, yes, having a strong back and posterior chain is quite important for day to day life. While you shouldn’t rely on a strong back to prevent injuries, it doesn’t hurt. As far as home alternatives go, I can’t think of any that are similar to these and the benefits achieved with them. However, if you did some research I am sure you could find some helpful articles or videos of bodyweight exercises that are still beneficial. Here is a video from Athlene-X that has some good exercises: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjnseqLiVXM

       Although not required, having some basic training tools like a pull-up bar or resistance bands to use at your home  can be beneficial.

  4. I recently found out that I have severe osteoarthritis in my shoulder and moderate osteoarthritis in my hip and legs. My physical therapist gave me some gentle strengthening exercises that have helped tremendously.
    People with osteoarthritis are told that exercise helps but I find that it increases my pain so I have been looking for additional information.
    Although I think the exercises you describe in this article are too difficult for me right now, I wanted to let you know that I found the information interesting, helpful, and well-presented.

    • Hi Theresa, thanks for the positive feedback! Be sure to follow medical direction for your situation as I am not a doctor and do not make posts for specific circumstances like yours.

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