Co-written By Jason Brown & Jonathan Robicheau
As a young coach, I can remember spending a significant amount of time searching for new exercises. This was around the early 2000s so the available information pales in comparison to what is out there today.
I recall finding a bare-bones website – no frills just lists of exercises for each muscle group. Among the groupings were “barndoor back” and “horseshoe triceps” – both of which caught my attention. In fact, these are the ONLY two that I can remember to date.
Needless to say, having horseshoe triceps and a barndoor back that is noticeable regardless of how much clothing you’re wearing was cool AF to me then and now!
In terms of exercise selection, when we wrote this article we wanted to make sure that just about anyone could utilize these exercises and NOT be limited by their lack of equipment – we got your back garage gym heroes!
With that said, the listed movements do not require any special equipment with the exception of one exercise variation that we simply could NOT leave off this list.
Anatomy Of The Back
- Lattismus Dorsi: Adduct, extend, and internally rotate the upper arm as well as act as a synergist in trunk rotation.
- Rhomboids: Retract the scapula and rotate it downwards. The mid traps also function in scapular retraction, while the lower fibers cause scapular depression.
- Trapezius: A postural and active movement muscle, used to tilt and turn the head and neck, shrug, steady the shoulders, and twist the arms.
- Teres Major: A medial rotator and adductor of the humerus and assists the latissimus dorsi in drawing the previously raised humerus downward and backward. It helps stabilize the humeral head in the glenoid cavity.
- Teres Minor: Controls the action of the deltoid, preventing the humeral head from sliding upward as the arm is abducted. It also functions to rotate the humerus laterally.
- Posterior Deltoids: Functions alongside the Scapula Retractors, Rhomboids and Traps to pull your shoulders back.
Even if you have zero knowledge of functional anatomy it should be relatively clear that the upper-back complex is quite complex and a healthy dose of variation will be needed to ensure we are covering all of our bases.
Big-ticket exercises that will, in essence, give each muscle-group attention are obvious: pull-up & row variations with some twists on classic back building exercises. As the upper-back is quite complex we’ll need to encompass a variety of loading schemes to keep it guessing.
For instance, the lats being one the largest muscles in the human body responds well to heavier loading schemes whereas smaller musculature such as the posterior deltoids responds well in a metabolic stress setting.
Benefits Of Having Strong Back
- Decrease the risk of shoulder injury: The musculature of the upper-back helps restore natural posture and brings people out of internal rotation. Plus, the upper-back complex plays of a key role in keeping the most inherently mobile joint in the body – the shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) remains centered which means the ball & socket will have more surface area contact.
- Performance: Having a strong back will translate to better pull-ups, a better bench press, and a better deadlift. The upper-back plays key roles in assisting with all three of these movements. The upper-back acts dynamically with the pull-up and more so isometrically with the bench press and deadlift.
- Aesthetics: Having a well-developed back is the hallmark of a great physique and athleticism for both males and females.
One caveat, we did NOT include variations like banded pull-aparts, facepull aparts, and pulldowns – we are assuming you’re likely already using these variations as either finishers or activations drills. If not, check out this article here.
#10 Prone Rear Lateral Raise Triset
This is a great variation that will train both the upper back and the posterior deltoids at the same time. The added support from the bench does not allow you to cheat the reps with momentum and will really hammer the upper back.
This variation will typically be used in hypertrophy setting so stay light with this complex as 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.
3 sets of 10 of each (pronated, neutral, supinated); Rest 1 min
#9 Gorilla Kettlebell Rows
This is a fun variation that we like to throw in from time to time that will challenge you a little differently than a normal bent-over row. These are typically performed with kettlebells but if you only have dumbbells to work with you can simply elevate the dumbbells to about mid-shin.
Begin with the KBs in between your ankles and brace your midline and sit your hips back into a proper hinged position. From there you will row the KB into the hip pocket while simultaneously squeezing and pressing down into the other KB.
Similar to Meadow rows in nature, a slight rotation at the upper-back is good, given that you are properly braced and pressing down into the contralateral KB.
Not only are these fun and will blow up your back but you will likely get a good burn in the glutes and hamstrings.
3-4 sets of 8-10 each side; Rest :90s – 2 mins
#8 Supported 1-Arm Dumbbell Rows
This is one that will likely be on any list when discussing back training. The one-arm supported DB row is an incredible tool for developing a strong, resilient back. It may seem simple to most but this exercise is still routinely butchered and can end up doing more harm than good.
Often times we see people rowing the DB straight up and down and an anterior translation (rolling forward) of the humerus, 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 DB into the hip crease and contracting the lats hard. Return the DB to the starting position without losing tension in the lats.
3-4 sets of 10-12; Rest :90s – 2 mins
#7 Symmetrical Stance 1-Arm Rows
This variation is essentially the same movement as the supported 1-arm row but will challenge you in a different way. Without the support of the bench you are forced to brace the midline even harder to avoid excessive trunk rotation.
You will not be able to do the same weight as the supported version but I can promise you that you won’t need the extra weight to get smoked by these.
3-4 sets of 10-12 each; Rest 60s.
#6 V-Handle Lat Pulldown
When writing this article, we wanted to add variations that did not require any special equipment to be more inclusive to our readers, however, we simply could not leave the Lat pulldown and specifically the V-handle pull down off of our list.
Where we do love almost all variations of the cable pull-down; the V-handle holds a special place in our hearts though.
The closer proximity of your grip combined with higher loading capabilities as opposed to a wide grip pull down proves to be a devastating combination and will leave you having to walk out of the gym sideways.
3-5 sets of 12-15; Rest 60s – 90s.
#5 Elbow Out Landmine Row
This variation is one that can be done in any setting with just a barbell, even if you don’t have a landmine attachment. Simple 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 will be surprised at how soul-crushing these can be.
3-4 sets of 10-12 per side; rest 1-2 mins
#4 1-Arm Kettlebell Row With A Band
As mentioned before the 1-arm KB row is a staple in any good back program but the added band takes latissimus recruitment to a new level.
Using a band in this manner is called reactive neuromuscular training and is a great way to develop a better neurological connection with a muscle that you may have trouble feeling during a particular exercise.
If you have any issue feeling the lats in particular with any rowing variation, I suggest you give these a try.
All points of performance for a supported DB row apply and be sure to maintain tension in the band and your lats throughout the entire range.
If you go too heavy on these you will likely miss the point, which is a brutally hard contraction of the lats.
Be conservative with the weights on these until you’ve done them a few times; focus more on a hard contraction that you can feel deep in the lats.
2-4 sets of 6-8 with a 2 count iso hold at the top; rest 1-2 mins
#3 Inverted Rows Variations
Feet elevated or not these will light your upper back on fire. Whether with a pronated or supinated grip you are bound to get an amazing pump from these bad boys.
This is one of our favorites for sculpting a ripped upper back and a great way to hammer the posterior delts in the process.
With that said, it is easy to turn these into an exercise that looks as if it can only be aired on Cinemax past 10 pm. KEEP YOUR HIPS OUT OF THE EQUATION.
You will need to stay tight from the midline down to ensure you are getting the desired intent of the exercise.
Squeeze the shoulder blades back, drive the elbows behind you until your chest touches the bar/rings and return to the starting position under control.
Stop humping the air while you do inverted rows.
3-5 sets of 12-15; Rest 60s – 90s.
#2 Chest Supported Row Variations
As you can see, there are a number of great variations to train the musculature of the back. However, most variations have some aspect that can allow for cheating reps with unwanted momentum or just simply breaking down in form.
In comes the chest supported variations; these variations are one of, if not the best way to isolate the upper back and lats. Not to mention they are much harder to do wrong.
Initially, you will most likely have to reduce the load you would typically use for a non-supported row but you will quickly see that it won’t as much weight for these.
3-4 sets of 10-12; rest 60-90s.
#1 Pull-up Cluster Variations
We have talked about clusters in the past here and how they are a great way to add volume to your training. Pull-up clusters are incredibly effective for building a strong back but they are also devastatingly hard.
Aside from being one of the single greatest modes to building a thick, yoked up back, this cluster set will give you an arm pump that will tighten up the sleeves of any shirt you own.
This method is reserved for those who already have a good amount of strict pull-ups under their belt (10+). Within each cluster set is four different grip variations of a pull/chin-up:
1) Pronated shoulder-width pull up
2) Pronated close grip (4-6 inches apart) pull up
3) Supinated shoulder-width chin up
4) Close grip (4-6 inches apart) chin up
Assuming that you have the requisite strength requirements discussed earlier here is how you can add this cluster to your program.
- Males: 3 x 22.214.171.124 > 24 total reps
- Females:3 x 126.96.36.199 > 15 total
*Both rest :15 between grip/ 2-3 mins between clusters
- Males: 4 x 188.8.131.52 = 32 total
- Females: 4 x 184.108.40.206 = 20 total
*Both rest: 15 between grip/ 2-3 mins between clusters
- Males: 3 x 220.127.116.11 = 36 total
- Females: 3 x 18.104.22.168 = 24 total
*Both rest :15 between grip/ 2-3 mins between clusters
Once you complete that three-week cycle I would suggest adding time under tension with a pause before adding more volume.
Then once that is completed you can further progress without adding more volume by reducing the rest to ten seconds between grip sets and try to complete the cluster with less time to recover.
Perform anywhere from 2-4 sets of 2-4 reps with each grip. Resting: 10-:15 seconds between each cluster and 2- 3 mins after a full 4 compound set.
Remember, these are for those individuals who have already mastered the pull-up and want a way to switch up their training a bit to keep things fresh.
If you have not mastered the pull up you need to build the requisite strength before using this method.
An overwhelming majority of people go far too heavy when training their back and in turn, their form looks like hot garbage. Don’t get this twisted, I am not saying that you should not go heavy when training your back.
As we mentioned earlier, the back and in particular the latissimus dorsi respond very well to heavy loading.
What I am saying is that Larry with the imaginary lat syndrome over in the corner trying to row the 100s for sets of ten may be best suited dropping down to the 70s and doing the row correctly.
The Larrys’ of the world are ultimately not doing a god damn thing to help build a stronger more resilient back. Put your ego aside for 5 minutes and take the time to train properly. You may just find that you’ll feel and look better in the process.