The Best Back Exercises

The Best Back Exercises

We tell you all about the Best Back Exercises.

The back is a body region that encompasses many muscles with similar functions that are sometimes difficult to develop.

And it’s undeniable that a strong and defined back is aesthetically attractive.

In this article, we divulge all our secrets for maximum muscle development of this part of the body through weight exercises.

What are the back muscles?

The “back” is a vague and insufficiently characterised concept that refers to the dorsal region of the torso.

There are many variants of this term “back” and what specific boundaries it has, as many people divide it into:

  • Upper back (trained by exercises such as pull ups and rows); and
  • Lower back (with hyperextension exercises and the star exercise, the deadlift).
Back muscles are traditionally classified as intrinsic and extrinsic, based on their role and anatomical structure.

In this case, the muscles that interest us most when developing a back routine that allows us a complete development are the extrinsic muscles:

  • Trapezius;
  • Major and minor rhomboids;
  • Levator scapulae muscle;
  • Serratus superior and inferior;
  • And above all, the latissimus dorsi (latissimus dorsi).

Face Pull as back exercise

Face Pul exercise.

This is the muscle whose development will contribute to giving us an image of a wide and hard back – like a rock!

Of all the muscles, the most important to make your back look big and developed are the:

  • Latissimus dorsi.
  • Rhomboids.
  • Trapezius.

Extrinsic back muscles

Main extrinsic muscles of the back. Trapezius (red), rhomboids (green), latissimus dorsi (blue).

How to grow your back

The principles underlying back muscle development are the same as those that can be applied to any other muscle group, and consist of:

  • Intense training.
  • Applying progressive overload until Maximum Recoverable Volume is reached.
  • Rest and starting again.

Bar row as back exercise

Bar row.

Each back muscle has a particular function, and sometimes several muscles share the same function and help each other.

That’s why it’s impossible to isolate a muscle group, even if we try.

This is why it’s particularly important to understand that the development of the back should be seen as a consequence of the application of training principles to the overall region..

The main functions of the large muscle groups involved are:

Muscle GroupRoleContribution
Latissimus dorsiShoulder extension**
Shoulder adduction**
Internal shoulder rotation*
TrapeziusEscapulae adduction**
Escapulae depression**
Escapulae elevation**
Rhomboid majorEscapulae adduction**
Escapulae elevation*
Rhomboid minorEscapulae adduction*
Escapulae elevation**

How many times a week should you train your back?

As with the rest of muscle groups, the number of times a week you train your back (frequency) depends on:

  • The training volume (effective sets) we’ve programmed for this muscle group;
  • Our recovery capacity; and
  • The time available for training.

As a general rule, we can establish the following distribution depending on the number of sets near the muscle failure we perform:

  • 0 – 10 sets: once a week.
  • 10 – 18 sets: twice a week.
  • + 18 sets: +2 times a week.

We would reach a ceiling of maximum tolerable volume of around 25-30 effective sets, an amount of training that would require a distribution over 4 sessions and would be limited to specific development blocks of the back.

In most cases, between 10 and 18 sets is sufficient for the efficient development of these muscles.

The best exercises for a wide back

Back width is created through the development of the latissimus dorsi.

Don’t miss the best exercises to get a wide, defined back!

Vertical tractions

For the design of these exercises we’re using chest pulls, pull-ups and pullovers; but what should we take into account??

The back muscles are slightly more active with hands in pronation (palms down) than with hands in supination (palms up) and in neutral position; even so, the differences aren’t significant.

The back musculature is similarly activated in a narrow, medium, and wide prone grip.

Vertical traction

Vertical traction execution with wide grip (A), medium grip (B), and narrow grip (C) (Andersen et al., 2014).

However, activation is greater when moving in front of the front plane of the body (pull to the chest) than behind the front plane (trasnuca pull).

Horizontal tractions

For the design of these exercises, all kinds of exercises based on rowing are great.

Horizontal tractions…

  • They activate the back muscles to a greater extent than vertical tractions, so they should be the basis of our routine.
  • Those where the scapula is retracted at the end of the movement activate the muscles slightly more than those where it is not retracted.
  • Dumbbells are more effective for the development of the back muscles than barbells; as the range of movement with a dumbbell is greater than with a barbell that hits the body.

Unilateral dumbbell row

Unilateral dumbbell row.

In addition to rowing, other exercises such as the dead lift can be especially useful for muscle development, minimising activation of the arm muscles and also contributing to the development of the legs. If you want to delve deeper into this exercise, click here.

Tips for performing Back Exercises correctly

It’s important to work all the movements that the muscles of the back can do to stimululate the maximum number of muscle fibres and their different regions at all possible angles.

As additional advice we can highlight that:

  • Vertical traction exercises usually work best with high-volume work.

If we use low repetitions and a high load, it’s usual to “cheat”, as the ability to exert force in an upright position of maximum shoulder flexion is less than in middle and final ranges of movement.

Vertical traction with a hammer machine


Vertical traction with a hammer machine.

  • While the “horizontal traction” type usually works better under higher loads.

This is becasue they allow much more weight to be handled without help from other muscle groups (such as the legs) for execution.

  • It’s important to perform the sets close to muscle failure.
With more margin in exercises like the deadlift, where structural safety should prevail, although exercises should be performed with a moderate weight to reduce arm activation.

Back Exercise Table

We propose a weight training programme based on the execution of rows and pulls, without using the legs, minimising activation of the lower back, and maximising the involvement of the upper back.

Exercise 1 – Unilateral dumbbell row with neutral grip -> 3 sets x 12 repetitions.

1-handed unilateral dumbbell row

Exercise 2 – Chest pull with neutral tight grip in front of body -> 3 sets x 15 repetitions.

Chest pull

Exercise 3 – Seal Row with bar at the hip -> 5 sets x 6 repetitions.

Seal Row

Exercise 4 – Pullover with narrow gripped bar, flexed arms -> 2 sets x 12 repetitions.


Exercise 5 – Shrugs with bar behind the body -> 1 set x 6 repetitions.


Exercise 6 – Shrugs with resistance bands -> Complete 100x in blocks to muscle failure.

Shrugs with resistance bands

What’s the best exercise to widen your back?

Pulls and pull-ups are undoubtedly among the most complete exercises for developing the width of your back, but do you know how the width of your grip affects its construction?

Substituting pull-ups for pulls (or vice versa)?

One study, performed specifically on people who perform habitual physical activity, looked at the possibility of substituting pull-ups for frontal pulls.

The results were conclusive:

The weight used in the pulls is closer to the weight used in the pull-ups but fewer repetitions are performed.

That’s to say, 1RM (1 repetition maximum) for pulls is practically the same as it is for pull-ups; however, the weight used in 8RM with pulls doesn’t get near the 8RM of the pull-ups.

For maximum strength ranges (1-3 reps) it may work to substitute the front pull-up for the pull-up because of the transfer shown between the two.

However, for higher repetitions (more than 5-6 RM), one should not be replaced by another.

This means that if you want to widen your back, you’ll get best results if:

  • You do pull-ups.
  • You increase the intensity for the same repetitions.
  • You have a wide grip: use a grip that’s between 1 and 1.5 times the bi-acromial distance.
  • Grip type: combining grips to work as many muscles as possible, perhaps emphasising a pronation grip.

Related Entries

  • The Bar Row is one of the best back exercises. If you want find out more about it, click here.
  • The Complete Guide to Pull-Ups: Direct Link.
  • Did you know that you can train your neck too? Have a look at this article for the best neck exercises.
Review of Back Exercises

Exercises - 100%

Tips - 100%

Advice - 100%

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About Alfredo Valdés
Alfredo Valdés
He is a specialist in metabolic physiopathology training and in the biomolecular effects of food and physical exercise.
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