8 Best Back Exercises for Strength and Muscle Gain

Having a strong back is beneficial for various reasons. For one, the back musculature plays a crucial role in many upper body activities, including carrying weights and throwing objects. The back also offers torso support and plays a vital role in good posture. 

Second, having a developed back makes you look muscular, athletic, and well-proportioned. After all, who doesn’t want the impressive V-taper look? 

But what are the best back exercises? There are so many options to consider. Focusing on the right activities can prove to be a significant challenge. 

With that in mind, let’s go over the eight best movements to strengthen and develop your entire back.

1. Rack Pulls

Rack pulls, also known as raised deadlifts, are an effective compound exercise that overloads your entire back with a lot of weight and builds grip strength. The objective is to elevate a barbell inside a squat rack or on blocks. In doing so, you can focus on the second half of the deadlift, emphasizing your upper body and keeping your legs out of the equation. 

Interestingly, your back doesn’t play a significant active role during rack pulls. The collection of muscles mostly works isometrically to keep your spine in a healthy and stable position. But despite that, rack pulls add thickness to the entire back by developing your lats, trapezius, rhomboids, infraspinatus, erector spinae, and other muscles. 

The great thing about rack pulls is that it doesn’t take much time or effort to learn, and you can program the exercise in numerous ways. You can do more repetitions or load the barbell with more weight and focus on intensity.

2. Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do at home, in the gym, or outside. The objective is to reach up, grab a bar, and pull yourself up by engaging your back, biceps, and forearms. 

Unlike rack pulls, pull-ups don’t focus on your entire back. Instead, the movement mostly emphasizes the latissimus dorsi, which contributes to back width and the V-taper look. Performing pull-ups is also an excellent way to improve whole-body balance because your midsection musculature engages to keep you from swinging back and forth. 

Pull-ups are also great because you can overload the movement for as long as you’d like. You can start with the bodyweight version and increase the number of reps you’re doing. After a while, you can begin to attach external weight to yourself for additional resistance.

3. Lat Pulldowns

Like pull-ups, lat pulldowns are a fantastic back exercise that emphasizes your lats, contributing to back width. The great thing about lat pulldowns is that you can adjust the load to your strength level without ever having to sacrifice proper form. 

Lat pulldowns are fantastic because you’re doing the movement on a cable machine, which provides tension from start to finish. You can also experiment with the grip type and width to find what works best for you. For example, you can try a wider grip, but you can also keep your hands close together––whatever feels most natural. You can also have your wrists pointing back or forward, similar to pull-ups and chin-ups.

4. Bent-Over Barbell Row

The bent-over barbell row is an effective compound exercise that strengthens your entire back, midsection, biceps, and forearms. Keeping your torso almost parallel to the floor forces your core muscles to work extra hard. Your abs, transverse abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae support the torso position as you row. 

A simple modification of the classic row is to rest the barbell on the floor after each repetition. The variation is known as the Pendlay row and reduces the lower back stress.

5. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Single-arm dumbbells rows are an effective assistance exercise that emphasizes your latissimus dorsi and biceps. Similar to barbell rows, your midsection works hard to keep you in position as you row. But, unlike barbell rows, you get to train one side at a time, which allows you to establish a good mind-muscle connection and prevent muscle imbalances.

Dumbbell rows are also beneficial because they allow you to use a slightly longer range of motion, which can result in stronger back contractions for growth.

6. Inverted Row

Similar to pull-ups, inverted rows are an effective bodyweight movement you can do to strengthen your back, biceps, and forearms. The primary difference is that you keep your feet on the floor during inverted rows, making the exercise easier. 

Inverted rows train your lats like many other back movements, but the exercise also emphasizes your rhomboids, infraspinatus, erector spinae, and rear deltoids.

You can adjust the difficulty of the movement by changing your body’s angle. For example, you can begin with a more upright body, which allows you to pull less weight and get used to the exercise. As you get stronger, you can become more horizontal and increase the difficulty. You can even elevate your feet on a gym bench, block, or chair. 

7. Shrugs

Shrugs are one of the simplest and most effective exercises you can do for upper back development, grip strength, and shoulder health. Performing shrugs allows you to emphasize the trapezius, which covers the top of your upper back. The muscle plays a vital role in shoulder stability, scapular positioning, and posture. 

The great thing about shrugs is that you can do the exercise in numerous ways, depending on what equipment you have available and what you prefer to use. Good options for shrugs include:

  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Weight plates
  • Barbell
  • Trap bar
  • Shrug machine
  • Smith machine

You can also train one side at a time (such as by holding a single dumbbell) or both simultaneously.

8. Seated Cable Rows

Seated cable rows are a simple accessory exercise that emphasizes your mid-back musculature, resulting in thickness. Specifically, the movement emphasizes the rhomboids, infraspinatus, rear deltoids, erector spinae, and latissimus. Rowing from a seated position also works your biceps and forearms, making the exercise a fantastic muscle-builder. 

Similar to lat pulldowns, the seated cable row is also beneficial because it provides constant tension, forcing your muscles to work hard from start to finish. You can train one side at a time or use both arms simultaneously.

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