Your Back: There's A Lot Going On There
It's almost impossible to choose the "best" back exercise because the back isn't just one muscle. If you're doing only one or two pulling exercises, you're likely missing big swaths of the musculature.
Maybe you nailed your lats, but did you "miss" your rhomboids? Did you pummel your traps but forget about the teres major and minor? And what about those posterior delts? Yep, they're part of the back too.
Likewise, different back muscles respond better to different loading schemes. For instance, the lats respond well to heavier loading, but the posterior delts respond best to higher reps and metabolic stress.
Here are nine proven exercises and training methods for size, strength, and performance that'll cover all the bases.
1. The Gorilla Row
This is a fun variation that'll challenge you a little differently than a normal bentover row. These are typically done with kettlebells, but if you only have dumbbells just elevate them to about mid-shin.
Begin with the kettlebells between your ankles, brace your midline, and sit your hips back into a proper hinged position. From there, row the kettlebell into the hip pocket while squeezing and pressing down into the other kettlebell.
Like a Meadow's row, a slight rotation at the upper-back is good if you're properly braced and pressing down into the contralateral kettlebell. Not only will these blow up your back, but you'll likely get a good burn in the glutes and hamstrings.
Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 each side. Rest 90 seconds to 2 minutes before starting again.
2. Prone Rear Lateral Raise Tri-Set
This is a great variation that'll train both the upper back and the rear delts at the same time. The added support from the bench doesn't allow you to cheat the reps with momentum.
This variation will typically be used in a hypertrophy setting, so stay light since the reps will add up fast. Be sure to initiate the lateral raise by squeezing the shoulder blades together and then think about raising the dumbbells away from the body instead of just up.
Do 3 sets of 10 of each (pronated, neutral, supinated). Rest a minute between sets.
3. Supported One-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is an incredible tool for developing a strong, resilient back. It may seem simple, but it's still routinely butchered and can end up doing more harm than good.
You probably see people rowing the dumbbell straight up and down and inadvertently rolling their humerus forward. This is no bueno and will ultimately cause anterior shoulder pain.
Instead, begin the row by pulling the scapula back and down, packing the shoulder into a good position. Think about driving your elbow back behind your body, pulling the bottom of the dumbbell into the hip crease and contracting the lats hard. Return the dumbbell to the starting position without losing tension in the lats.
Do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. Rest 90 seconds to 2 minutes.
4. Symmetrical Stance One-Arm Row
This variation is essentially the same movement as the supported one-arm row but will challenge you in a different way. Without the support of the bench, you're forced to brace the midline even harder to avoid excessive trunk rotation.
You won't be able to use the same weight you used with the supported version, but I can promise that you won't need it to get smoked by these.
Do 3-4 sets of 10-12 each. Rest a minute between sets.
5. V-Handle Lat Pulldown
The pulldown is a classic move and the V-handle is especially effective. The closer proximity of your grip combined with higher loading capabilities – as opposed to a wide-grip pulldown – is a devastating combination.
Do 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between sets.
6. Elbow-Out Landmine Row
This variation can be done with just a barbell if you don't have a landmine attachment. Simply wedge a barbell into a corner and get to work.
Set yourself at about a 45-degree angle to the bar. Grip the end of the bar a few inches down from the top. As you row, your elbow should be flared out to the side at about a 45-degree angle to your torso. You'll be surprised at how soul-crushing these can be.
Do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side. Rest 1-2 minutes before starting again.
7. One-Arm Kettlebell Row with Band
This is a staple in any good back program but the added band takes lat recruitment to a new level.
Using a band this way is called "reactive neuromuscular training." It's a great way to develop a better neurological connection with a muscle that you may have trouble feeling during an exercise.
If you have any issue "feeling" the lats with any rowing variation, give these a try. All cues for a supported dumbbell row apply. Be sure to maintain tension in the band and your lats throughout the entire range of motion.
If you go too heavy on these you'll likely miss the point, which is a brutally hard contraction of the lats. So be conservative with the weight until you've done them a few times. Focus more on a hard contraction.
Do 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps with a 2-second count iso-hold at the top. Rest 1-2 minutes.
8. Inverted Row (Plus Variations)
Feet elevated or not, these will set your upper back on fire. Whether you do them with a pronated or supinated grip, you're bound to get an amazing pump.
This is one of our favorites for sculpting a ripped upper back and hammering the posterior delts in the process. That said, it's easy to turn these into an exercise that looks as if it can only be aired on Cinemax past 10 PM. So keep your hips out of the equation.
You'll need to stay tight from the midline down to make sure you're getting the benefits. Squeeze the shoulder blades back, drive the elbows behind you until your chest touches the bar, and return to the starting position under control.
Do 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest 60 to 90 seconds.
9. Chest-Supported Row
It's easy to use momentum and cheat most back exercises. The chest-supported row can fix that. It's one of the best ways to isolate the upper back and lats, and it's much harder to do wrong. You won't need as much weight for these compared to your non-supported rows.
Do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. Rest 60 to 90 seconds.
Most people go far too heavy when training their backs and their form looks like hot garbage.
We're not saying that you shouldn't go heavy. We're saying that Larry, that guy over in the corner trying to row the 100-pounder for sets of 10, may be better off dropping down to 70 and doing the row correctly. The Larrys of the world are ultimately not doing a damn thing to help build a stronger, more resilient back.
You need to feel the muscles working to actually work them. Put your ego aside and take the time to train properly. You'll feel and look better in the process.