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back workouts

THE ULTIMATE BACK WORKOUT GUIDE

When it comes to training the back, a lot of people think a few sets of pull-ups and rows is enough.

But, if you want to build strength and size, it’s definitely not.

The back isn’t one big muscle, but instead is a large group of muscles that all work together to support all our activities of daily living, and literally everything we do in the gym.

You can’t neglect any of these muscles or their functions in your back training, so one or two exercises that hit the lats only isn’t going to cut it!

In this comprehensive guide to back workouts, I’ll give you an overview of the different muscles that make up the back, and show you the best back-specific exercises and workouts to ensure you’re getting a complete workout.

Here are the topics I’ll cover in this back training guide:

Before we begin talking about back-focused exercises and workouts, let’s review back muscle anatomy so you’ll be oriented as we begin to talk about which region or muscle of the back we’re targeting with each move.

back muscles anatomy

1) BACK MUSCLES ANATOMY

The back is made up of 5 important muscle groups, all of which we need to hit in our training.

These are the lats, the upper and lower traps, the low back/erector spinae, the rotator cuff and the teres major.  I’ll use my handy Muscle Markers to illustrate where you can find each of these on your body.

THE LATS

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the lats

UPPER AND LOWER TRAPS

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upper and lower traps

LOW BACK / ERECTOR SPINAE

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low back/erector spinae

ROTATOR CUFF

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rotator cuff

TERES MAJOR

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teres major

2) WHY ARE BACK WORKOUTS IMPORTANT?

The back is not just one muscle so we shouldn’t think that lat exercises like a few sets of pull-ups or rows will adequately train the back.

Lat-focused training only works a fraction of the muscles that comprise the back and doesn’t begin to take advantage of the complete strength of the back.

As you saw above, we also need to find exercises that hit all the other muscles in the back including the traps, the low back, the rotator cuff muscles and the teres major.

In addition, most people pick exercises that train the back in the same plane (such as vertical pulling only) which means they’re not adequately training the range of motion of the back muscles. It’s just as important to include horizontal in your back workouts if you want to increase muscle size and strength.

Since the back is so important to literally everything we do in and out of the gym, we need to respect it and give it our full attention in training.

Let’s look at what it takes to get a truly complete back workout.

reasons not to ignore back in your training

3) WHAT IS THE BEST BACK WORKOUT?

The best back workouts hit all the back muscles, hit every function of the back, and work the back through its entire range of motion.

This means ensuring that you include compound movements and heavier lifts, switch up grip in your pullups and incorporate explosivity as well.  You also want to be sure you’ve got exercises that target the lats, upper traps and the other smaller muscles of the back.

Below are the elements of the ideal back workout, and an example exercise for each.

COMPOUND LIFTS

Heavy compound movements like the Barbell Deadlift can be done with heavier loads to boost your overall back development using overload.

The Barbell Deadlift hits the traps, the lats and the lower back all in one single compound exercise.

BARBELL DEADLIFT

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barbell deadlift

HOW TO DO IT: Load a barbell as heavy as you can without needing to sacrifice form. Starting position is holding the dumbbell with an overhand grip. Hinge at the hips, bend the knees and slide the barbell down close to your thighs and shins. Let it rest briefly on the floor before reversing the movement to lift the barbell as you come back to standing.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This classic back exercise hits traps, lats and lower back with a heavy dose of overload.

SWITCHING GRIPS

It’s important to change grips in your hanging exercises and not get locked into doing standard pullups only.

If you don’t, you miss an opportunity to work other muscles in the back like the teres major which occupies a significant space above the lats.

The Wide Grip Pullup is a great exercise to help us switch it up to a wider overhand grip.

WIDE GRIP PULLUP

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wide grip pullup

HOW TO DO IT: Perform the Wide Grip Pullup with your arms extended in a Y position on the bar.  For this exercise you are looking for a much wider than shoulder-width overhand grip. Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar, pause at the top of the movement and slowly lower down to the starting position.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Switching to a wider overhand grip in this demanding exercise variation helps you hit other muscles like the teres major.

EXPLOSIVITY

The Barbell Dead Row shares similar biomechanics to the deadlift, but it allows you to train explosively. If you’re looking to build athleticism and strength, it’s always good to speed up what you slow down.

For this reason, it’s great to perform the Barbell Dead Row as a follow up to the deadlift. You’ll be surprised that even a heavier weight seems lighter.

BARBELL DEAD ROW

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barbell dead row

HOW TO DO IT: Start position is with feet shoulder width apart grabbing a barbell on the floor with an overhand grip.  Start with a deadlift movement and finish with a barbell rowing movement.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is an explosive exercise that builds off the same movement pattern as the deadlift, but incorporates athleticism by allowing you to train explosively.

THE LATS

It’s important to dedicate some focus to the lats to develop the mind-muscle connection that is crucial to maximizing hypertrophy of the back.

The Alternating High Cable Row is a great exercise to target the lats.  Focus on taking them through their entire range of motion in this movement.

ALTERNATING HIGH CABLE ROW

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alternating high cable row

HOW TO DO IT: Start by putting the attachment in a high position on the cable station and grab the cable pulley handle in the left hand. Pull your elbow in toward the torso twisting slightly. Engage the lats as you twist.  Return to the starting position and grab the cable pulley handle in the right hand. Repeat this motion on the opposite side.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise takes the lats through their entire range of motion. Unlike the limited range of motion of the seated cable row, this movement allows you to take your arm out in front of the body to get the lat out in full stretch.

SMALLER MUSCLES

Being sure to hit the smaller muscles will help improve posture and strengthen your entire back.  As I always say, we are only as strong as our weakest link, and the smaller muscles definitely tend to be the most ignored.

You should be aiming to train the rotator cuff at least 2-3 times per week.  The Hyper Y W Combo will allow you to hit not only the muscles around the rotator cuff shoulder joint, but another frequently weak muscle, the lower traps.

HYPER Y W COMBO

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hyper y w combo

HOW TO DO IT: Use a glute-ham raise or a stability ball for this exercise and a set of light plates in each hand. Raise your torso and raise the arms outward slightly beyond a 90-degree angle into a W position to hit the rotator cuff, and then lower back to the starting position. Then raise up again with arms in a Y position to activate the lower traps.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise hits some of the smaller muscles of the back which are often overlooked, like the rotator cuff and the lower traps.

UPPER TRAPS

The upper traps are another frequently neglected back muscle, and the Standard Barbell Shrug is a great exercise to target them.

The slightly wider grip allows you to hit the upper traps by bringing the angle of the arm more in alignment with the upper trap fibers.

STANDARD BARBELL SHRUG

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standard barbell shrug

HOW TO DO IT: Grab a barbell with a slightly wider than normal grip for shrugs and perform an explosive shrug movement sliding shoulders up the neck toward the head.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise hits the often-neglected upper traps by applying a slightly wider than normal grip.

To see one of the best back workouts with all of these exercises incorporated and more, check out my Perfect Back Workout article.

back workouts should include

4) WHAT ARE THE BEST LOWER BACK EXERCISES?

Your lower back is one of the most important muscles in your body, especially if you train.

It supports you for all the heavier lifts you do, so it’s important that it stay healthy and strong, or you may find yourself with an injury that keeps you out of the gym completely!

The key to supporting and building your low back strength is making the back work together with the glutes.  If the low back is taking the brunt of the work, you will eventually end up with low back pain that could become chronic over time.

Let’s take a look at 2 of my favorite lower back exercises to help make sure these two important muscle groups are working together.

FROG GLUTE BRIDGE

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frog glute bridge

HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is lying on your back on the floor with bend in knees out toward the sides and feet touching each other sole to sole. Bridge up as high as possible, squeezing the glutes and low back.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The turning out of the feet in this exercise helps you to activate the lower back along with the gluteus medius, which is a hip external rotator and muscle that feeds into the pelvis.

ANGEL OF DEATH

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angel of death lower back exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Lie flat on your stomach on the floor with a neutral spine. Lift the toes and thighs off the ground along with the upper body as high as you can to get extension through the hips and glutes.  Knees should stay slightly bent to keep them off the ground.  Squeeze your shoulder blades and pull your chest off the floor.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is one of my favorite advanced exercises for the lower back because it works the low back and glutes together in such an effective way.

To see more of the best lower back exercises, check out my article Best Lower Back Workout.

5) HOW TO FIX LOW BACK PAIN?

What if you are already suffering from low back pain and it’s getting in the way of your workouts?

If you have a job where you are sitting during most of the day you are basically weakening your gluteus medius muscle all day long.  Standing all day with unequal weight distribution can also create a weak and imbalanced gluteus medius.

To find out if this is the cause of your low back pain, there is an easy test you can do.

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Lift the left leg.
  • Notice how it feels to lift the leg up.
  • Do the same thing on the other side.
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weak gluteus medius test

If you had to shift your weight much more on one side than the other to lift your leg, then you have an imbalance or weakness in the glute medius that is likely causing your lower back pain.  It’s important that we fix this right away so that it doesn’t become a much worse issue over time.

Let’s take a look at two great exercises to help strengthen the gluteus medius so we can relieve and prevent that low back pain.

WALL DRIVERS

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wall drivers exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Stand sideways next to a wall so that your right hip is next to the wall, hips square.  Put your right arm on the wall for support and lift your right leg. You’ll notice that your left hip will drop out to the side, but use your glute medius to drive your right leg toward the wall and make sure that your left hip doesn’t drop.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: If you’re experiencing a lot of low back pain, do this exercise daily to get some relief.

THREADING THE NEEDLE

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thread the needle exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on one side on the floor using the bottom arm for support. Bring the top leg back behind your body and then lift it up with the toes pointing down. Bring the knee forward to touch the ground and repeat.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Strengthens the glute medius to help relieve lower back pain.

For more gentle exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius and a great technique to help release this area quickly, check out my article on How To Fix Low Back Pain Instantly.

6) WHAT IS THE BEST DUMBBELL BACK WORKOUT?

If you’ve got access to a set of dumbbells but not a complete gym, can you still get a good back workout?

The answer is ABSOLUTELY!

You can train your back for any goal using dumbbells, including strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic or total body.

Let’s look at one great back exercise for each of these goals.

WEIGHTED PULLUP – STRENGTH

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weighted pullup

HOW TO DO IT: Use a dip belt at the gym or a dog leash at home to add weight to your waist. Grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you.  First hang straight and then pull yourself up in a straight line until your chin clears the bar.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The pullup is one of the best back exercises there is, so when you add weight to it, you can build some serious strength.

DUMBBELL DEAD ROW – POWER

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dumbbell dead row for power back exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is with feet hip width apart, bending forward with knees bent, dumbbells on the floor in front of you.  Grab the dumbbells and perform explosive rows generating force through your feet into the ground. This is basically a deadlift up to knee level and then the elbows pull back into a row.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a great dumbbell exercise that also allows you to incorporate speed and explosiveness to develop strength and power in the upper back muscles.

DUMBBELL PULLOVER – HYPERTROPHY

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dumbbell pullover

HOW TO DO IT:  Starting position is lying across a bench perpendicularly with your feet flat on the ground, holding a dumbbell overhead with both hands. With a slight bend in the elbow, begin lowering the dumbbell over and behind the head with the arms extended. Then reverse the movement bringing the dumbbell back up and over the head.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is an excellent dumbbell exercise for laser targeting the lats.

CHEST SUPPORTED TOUCH ROW – METABOLIC

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chest supported touch row

HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is lying on an incline bench face down with one set of dumbbells in your hands and another lighter set on the floor. Perform the first set by touching the dumbbells in your hands to the dumbbells on the floor to allow you to get more of a lat stretch.  When you fatigue with the dumbbells in your hands, just grab the lighter pair from the floor and keep repping out to push to and through that burn.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Gives the sustained burn in the lats that we’re looking for without compromising the safety of the low back which any standing row variations would do. The prone position on the incline bench supports the back.

MANMAKER – TOTAL BODY

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manmaker exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Start in high plank position holding onto a pair of light dumbbells on the ground.  Progress from a pushup into a renegade row on each side, then jump back in, clean the dumbbells up to shoulder height, stand and press, come back down into pushup position and repeat.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is quite simply the best total body exercise that hits the lats hard as well. You won’t be compromising the back in this exercise because you need to use light weight for the renegade rows.

If you’re looking for more great dumbbell back exercises to add to your workouts, check out my article Best Dumbbell Back Exercises.

7) HOW CAN YOU DO A BACK WORKOUT AT HOME?

The pullup is the king of bodyweight exercises for the back, but what if you need to do a back workout at home and you don’t have a pullup bar?

You might think it’s impossible to get a good back workout at home with no equipment at all, but that’s not true!

I’ll show you how to hit your upper, middle and lower back with three bodyweight-only exercises.

BACK WIDOW – UPPER BACK

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back widow bodyweight exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is lying face up on the floor.  Bend your elbows up with your fists in the air. Pushing hard through the upper back and pulling your shoulder blade in, engage the rhomboids, traps and posterior delts to push your upper body and spine off the ground.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This bodyweight only move hits all the upper back including traps, rhomboids, and posterior delts.

SLIDING LAT PULLDOWN – MID BACK

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sliding lat pulldown bodyweight mid back exercise

HOW TO DO IT: Start position is lying face down on the floor with arms stretched out above your head and legs straight out behind you.  Engage your core and perform a total body prone pull down. Pull yourself forward and push your arms up into plank position. Then lower yourself back down to the starting position.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a creative and effective way to hit the lats with no equipment at all.

REVERSE SUPERMAN – LOW BACK

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reverse superman

HOW TO DO IT: Starting position is lying face down on the floor with arms beside you, hands facing up toward the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes as you lift your arms and legs simultaneously. Rotate your shoulder blades in as hands turn toward the ground. Use a 2-3 second contraction for each rep.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE:  This bodyweight exercise works the lower back with the glutes and lats… muscles it prefers to work with. Because this exercise is done with the arms behind the body, it incorporates the shoulder blades as well.

When you try these, you’ll be able to see that it’s definitely possible to build your back with bodyweight back exercises!

For more details on how and why this is possible, check out my article on Best Bodyweight Back Workout.

I’m sure you can see by now that training all the muscles and functions of the back is crucial, and that it’s possible to get a complete back workout even if you have only dumbbells or bodyweight exercise options.

Choose the exercises in this guide that best match your goals and equipment available and apply them to your back training routine. You’ll be surprised to see how quickly your back muscles will grow when you’re training the whole back and all its functions, not just the lats.

If you’re looking for a complete training program to build lean muscle and strength in every muscle group in the body, see which of our ATHLEAN-X programs best suits your goals and equipment possibilities:

Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your goals
AX1 ==> 
Train at Home With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment

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