Wanting to build some serious upper body strength? Then you need to be performing a range of dedicated back workouts and back exercises every week when you hit the gym.
Not only will performing back exercises allow you to lift heavier weights, including for movements that predominantly target the legs or chest, having a strong back will also help to prevent injuries, and if you train it effectively, you’ll eventually end up with the coveted V-shaped upper body.
So, which back workouts should you be including in your gym program? Allow us to run through some of the best back workouts you can perform, t-shirt popping lats await.
Looking for further workout inspiration? Check out our complete guide to workouts for men here.
In this story…
What Muscles Are In The Back?
We’re not going to go through every single muscle in the back in this section, we’d be here far too long. However, there are 40 muscles made up of 20 pairs. Some muscles are large while others are small, and each has a varying purpose, which can include supporting the trunk, moving the spine, or assisting in moving other limbs.
Put simply, there is a lot to train, but fortunately, there are plenty of back exercises you can carry out to target all of them.
Best Back Workouts
Bent Over Row
Rowing movements of any kind are incredibly beneficial for your back muscles and the bent over row is one of absolute essentials of any back workout routine. This movement will help to target the traps, lats, rhomboids and even the rotator cuff, making it a killer of a back workout.
How to perform this back exercise: You can perform bent over rows with either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, but using a barbell will help to evenly distribute the tension throughout your back, making it the recommended piece of equipment.
Start with a low weight – bent over rows really are all about getting the technique right first and foremost – and with your barbell loaded up, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend over from your waist – almost as if you waist were a hinge – and have your knees bent slightly. Hold the barbell with your palms facing down and your arms straight and wider than shoulder width, so it is hanging down in front of you.
Lock down your shoulder blades, brace your core, and pull the barbell up towards your sternum. To make it a bit easier, think of pulling your elbows up behind your back, as opposed to pushing them out to the side. Slowly return the barbell to the starting position to complete 1 rep.
If performing the bent over row with dumbbells, you can elect to either row them up at the same time, or to alternate them. However, if you choose to alternate, you could benefit just as much from a single arm bent over row.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: Slow and controlled, 3 seconds up, 2 seconds down
One of the best back exercises to build huge back muscles is the lat pulldown. It can be compared to the humble pull-up, but is one that is much easier to perform and gives you the opportunity to progress with the amount of weight you can pull, resulting in huge lats. And it’s huge lats that help you give you a V-shaped physique.
The lat down pull down also helps to work your upper back muscles, and can even target your biceps in the same movement.
But, you can only reap the benefits if you perform it correctly, and many gym-goers fall foul to some common mistakes, such as pulling the bar either too far down, taking tension away from the lats, or leaning back and not targeting them at all.
How to perform this back exercise: Although we’ve just mentioned it’s possible to pull the bar too far down in front of you, the lat pulldown can actually be performed in a number of different ways using various attachments, although some can only be performed if the lat pulldown machine you’re using as individual cables. If it does have individual cables, you can perform single arm lat pulldowns.
But, going on the assumption it doesn’t, we’ll go through some of the best lat pulldown exercises using a single-cable machine.
The first is a wide-grip lat pulldown, which uses the long bar attachment, which you grip with your arms wider than shoulder-width apart, with an overhand grip. Gripping the bar like this helps to fully activate the lats muscles.
Position yourself on the seat with your thighs securely in place underneath the upper pads. Set the weight to your desired amount – start light to get a feel for the movement – pull the bar down until your elbows are roughly in line with your nipples, breathing in as you do so. This places the greatest amount of tension on the muscles.
Pulling the bar much lower takes away that tension, and you gain no benefit. You also want to minimise the amount you lean back when pulling the bar down too, as this also takes tension away from the target muscles. Exhale and slowly return the bar to the starting position.
You can also perform a narrow grip lat pulldown, either by holding the same bar further towards the middle, or by using the two handle attachment. You’ll work the same target muscles, but because your arms are in a stronger position, you should find you can pull more weight.
You could alternatively perform an underhand lat pulldown, which places more focus on your biceps too.
Sets: 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds pulling down, two seconds raising up
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
As we said earlier, any rowing movement has serious benefits for building a strong back, and second to the barbell bent over row in terms of effectiveness is the single arm dumbbell row. Introducing dumbbells, as opposed to using a barbell, means each arm has to work harder because the weight isn’t distributed evenly across your back.
This can help you to see if you have any strength imbalances on either side of your back, something that is entirely possible. The single arm row also helps to further target the lats, traps and other back muscles you’re looking to improve. Put simply, you need to introduce it to your back day program.
How to perform this back exercise: You’ll need to arm yourself with a flat weights bench to lean on when performing the single arm row to help stabilise your body. Starting with the lift on your right side, kneel on the bench with your left knee and grab the side of it with your left hand. Bend over so your upper body is parallel to the floor and place your right foot on the ground behind you where you feel secure.
Grab your dumbbell with your right hand, palm facing in, and start with your arm straight. Next, pull the dumbbell up and back towards your hip. Squeeze your back muscles and shoulder blades together at the top of the lift, hold for a second and lower back down to the starting position to complete one rep.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 10 to 12 reps per side
Tempo: Two seconds up, one second down
Another one of the quintessential back workouts that you can perform almost anywhere are pull-ups. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly difficult back exercise, and one of the hardest bodyweight workouts full stop, but perform it right and be consistent with your training and you’ll gain yourself a huge and strong back.
Unless you already have some serious upper body strength, chances are you won’t be able to perform too many pull-ups in one set. This is perfectly fine. If this is you, you can try some other back exercises to help you work up to nailing the perfect pull-up. These include dead hangs and using an assisted pull-up machine, which gives you a little extra help getting up to the bar.
How to perform this back exercise: To nail perfect pull-ups, jump up and grab the bar with an overhand grip. If your feet are practically touching the floor, you can bend the knees. Hanging with your arms straight, bring your shoulder blades together to lift you up slightly and prime yourself for the next stage of the move.
Now, imagine pulling your elbows into the ground below you, as opposed to pulling yourself up. Squeeze your back muscles as you rise up to the bar, and keep pulling up until your chin is over the bar. Lower yourself back down slowly to a fully extended position, and repeat.
Don’t be put off if you only manage a few reps. Pull-ups are a genuinely difficult move. But with some perseverance, you’ll soon be smashing your goals.
Sets: 3 sets to max reps per set
Tempo: Slow and controlled, 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down
Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
Another fantastic back workout is the chest supported dumbbell row. Similar to the other rowing movements on this list, the addition of the chest support helps to place greater emphasis on the back and even the biceps, resulting in serious muscle growth. It provides much of the same benefit as the bent over barbell row, but because there is extra stabilisation, you minimise the risk of injuring your lower back.
How to perform this back exercise: First, you’ll need to get hold of an incline bench. Set it to around 45-degrees, or slightly higher. Take a dumbbell in each hand and manoeuvre yourself onto the bench so that it takes the weight of your body, with your feet on the ground behind you.
Let your arms hang down in front of you, with your palms facing each other. Lock you shoulder blades down by squeezing them together to prime yourself for the movement, and then row the dumbbells up and back towards your hips.
Lower them back down slowly to complete one rep of the chest supported row.
Sets: 4 sets with 10 to 12 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds up, 2 seconds down
The deadlift is an absolute must-have in pretty much any gym program. Being a compound movement, it has multiple benefits for multiple muscle groups. You may think it’s more of a leg day workout, and that can certainly be the case, but it also has it’s place in any well-rounded back workout program.
As with other compound movements, technique and form are far more important than the amount of weight you load onto the bar. You don’t want to mess the deadlift up, as it has the potential to really cause some damage if performed incorrectly. If you’re adding the deadlift to your back workout program, then you want to aim for a lower number of reps, with a slightly higher weight.
How to perform this back exercise: Load your weight onto the bar and stand with your feet underneath it, shoulder-width apart.
Bend your knees and bend your upper body at the waist, to grab the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Lock down your shoulders so that your back is straight, keeping your neck in line with it by looking down to the ground.
Brace your core, breathe in and pull the bar up, hinging once again at the waist. Power up through the last section of the lift through your legs and push your chest out when you reach the top of the movement and exhale.
Lower the bar back down in the reverse sequence to complete one rep.
Sets: 3 sets with 5 reps per set
Tempo: 2 to 3 seconds up, 2 to 3 seconds down.
The T-Bar row is similar to the barbell bent over row, in that you need to bend over slightly when performing the movement. However, you’re able to use a variety of handle attachments, including narrow-grip and wide-grip, which can place greater emphasis on certain muscles in the back: narrow-grip for middle back and wide-grip for the lats, for example.
The T-Bar row also tends to allow you to pull heavier weights compared to the bent over row, and it’s because of this that you should place this back exercise toward the start of your session, since it requires solid form. If you’re fatigued from performing other gruelling back exercises, your form may suffer and you could sustain an injury to your lower back.
How to perform this back exercise: You’ll first need to check your gym has a landmine unit. This is a metal plate on the floor with an arm that you can insert a barbell into. If you can’t find one, then you can use the corner of a room instead, by placing one end of a barbell in the corner and placing some weights on top of the end to keep it weighed down.
With the bar secured, grab yourself a handle attachment, either a narrow-grip or wide-grip, and straddle the bar so that you’re back is to the landmine unit or the corner of the room. Slightly bend your knees and use your hips as a hinge to bend forward to around 45-degrees, making sure your back remains flat.
Load some weight onto the end of the bar and grab the handles of your attachment using a neutral grip (palms facing inwards). Lock down your shoulder blades and pull the bar until the plate weights touch your chest. If you find you’re struggling to bring the bar up high, lower the weight and perform again.
Slowly lower the bar back down and repeat.
Sets: 3 sets with 6 – 10 reps per set (weight dependent)
Tempo: 2 seconds up, 2 seconds down
Seated Cable Row
While it is argued that free weights offer greater benefit over machine weights due to them requiring your body to do all of the stabilisation, there is still much to be said of using machines. The cable machine, in particular, can be used to perform a wide range of exercises and is especially useful when performing back workouts.
The seated cable row is one such back exercise and easily one of the best cable machine back exercises going. This is because resistance is placed upon the back muscles throughout the duration of the movement, and with it, you’ll be targeting your lats, rear delts, along with your biceps and forearms.
How to perform this back exercise: Your gym will need to have a cable machine installed in order to perform this exercise. You may even find it has a dedicated seated cable row machine. If you don’t have this one, just get yourself a bench and set it up in front of the standard cable machine.
Set the pulley to around stomach height when seated and choose the desired weight. With your feet planted on the floor and your torso upright, grab the V-handle attachment (the most common one used, but you can use others to target other areas of the back) with palms facing in.
Keeping your torso upright, pull the handle towards your stomach, forcing your elbows beyond your back. You want to make sure your shoulders stay locked down throughout the movement, and when the handle reaches your stomach, be sure to squeeze your shoulders and upper back muscles as much as possible.
Slowly return the handle back to the starting position and repeat.
One thing to avoid is leaning back with the handle as you pull it towards you. This will completely disengage the tension placed upon the back muscles and render the entire exercise virtually useless.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 – 10 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds pull, 2 seconds return
Some other helpful DMARGE stories for gym workouts: