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14 Best Exercises To Build The Perfect Back

by Jeremy Ethier - December 4, 2021

Want a wider, thicker, and more balanced back? Read this article. I cover 14 of the best back exercises you could do that'll level up your back growth.

If you want a wider, thicker, and more balanced back, then there are 4 main regions your back exercises need to target. In this article, I’ll first show you 14 of the best back exercises for each of these regions. Then, I'll show you how to implement them for the best results. By the end, you’ll have a personalized back routine that you can start right away.

But of course, if you’re not just looking to develop your back, then you’d benefit from one of our programs. These go through, step-by-step, how you can develop a well-rounded physique. If you’re interested:

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Common Back Training Mistakes Hurting Your Gains

Before we dive into the exercises, let’s talk about the most common mistakes people make when choosing their back exercises.

First mistake. Most people think of the “back” as one muscle. And will, thus, aimlessly put together a back workout without giving much thought as to what each exercise targets. For example, as you’ll see in our exercises, simply changing your elbow position as you row will completely shift the muscles that are being targeted (lats vs upper back). Being unaware of these differences can lead to a back that may have a lot of width, for example, but lacks thickness and definition. Or vice versa.

Speaking of muscle imbalances ... the second mistake people make has to do with muscles that you can’t see in the mirror. Underneath the big back muscles that we all care about most are the “hidden” muscles. These play an important role in keeping your shoulders healthy and posture upright. The “big” back exercises we focus on don’t train these muscles very well.

The last mistake has to do with your workout programming. Even if people are aware of the best exercises for the different back muscles, they often end up doing too much volume for some and not enough for others. Which, as a result, fails to develop the back in a well-rounded manner.

But not to worry. We’re going to solve each of these problems by:

  • Equipping you with the best back exercises AND
  • Show you how to properly use them

Let’s start with the upper back.

Best Exercises For The Upper Back

Of the 4 main regions of our back, this region is where most of your back thickness and definition will come from. It consists of the:

  1. Upper traps
  2. Mid traps
  3. Teres muscles

Now, given the unique anatomy and function of these muscles, they are best worked during exercises where the elbows pull at roughly a 45 to 60-degree angle away from the torso. We’ll apply this, along with a few other tips, to 6 exercises. Doing so will help make them the best options to build a thicker, more defined back.

Exercise 1: Barbell Row

First up, the barbell row. But the important thing here is that it'll be performed in a way that focuses on the upper back muscles. The keys to doing this lie with:

  • Your elbow angle AND
  • How high you pull the bar

Rather than keeping your elbows too close or too far out from the body, tuck them to about 45-60 degrees as you pull. Then, using an overhand grip, play around with the grip width until you find a placement that allows you to pull the bar to the level of your mid-chest. Focus on driving your elbows back and squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top.

Best upper back exercises barbell row

Exercise 2: Seated Rows

Next, seated rows. But similar to barbell rows, the key here is with elbow angle. As you pull, rather than keeping your elbows too close to the sides, keep them at about a 45-60 degrees angle out from your torso. Keep your shoulder down as you pull. And make sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end position. Using a wider angle here can make it even more effective.

Seated cable row for the upper back

Exercise 3: Meadows’ Row

This next exercise, the Meadow’s Row, is a great way to help prevent imbalances by working one side of the back at a time. Use a landmine attachment. Load it with smaller weight plates to increase the range of motion our back muscles will go through. Get into an athletic stance as if you were doing a barbell row. And then, while keeping your elbow angled at about 60 degrees, pull the bar up. It's worth noting that grip can get challenging here. So, use a lifting strap if needed to prevent your grip strength from limiting your back gains.

Meadows row for the upper back

Exercise 4: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows

This next exercise is one of my personal favorites because it takes the need for stability out of the equation. First, set up your incline bench. Too high of a bench angle will shift too much of the emphasis to the upper traps. So, what you want to do here is set it at a lower angle to about 30 degrees, which is often the second notch on the bench.

Then, grab a pair of dumbbells. Lay with your stomach on the bench, and pull up to the level of your chest with your elbows angled at about 45 to 60 degrees. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top. Let them open up at the bottom of each rep for a full range of motion.

Best upper back exercises chest supported dumbbell rows

Exercise 5: Overhand Grip Pull ups 

Now, we’ll get into vertical pulling movements like the pull-up. To emphasize the upper back muscles more rather than the lats, you’ll want to keep your elbows angled out to the sides. You can do so by using an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.

Overhand pullups

Exercise 6: Lat Pulldowns

The last exercise may come as a surprise given the name. But based on the wide elbow angle used during lat pulldowns, as we learned earlier, this will biomechanically favor the upper back muscles more than it will the lats.

Upper back focused lat pulldown

Speaking of lats, let’s now dive into how we can best target this next area of our back.

Best Exercises For The Lats

The lats are a broad, triangular muscle that wraps around the back. It's responsible for adding more width to the back. Based on the way the muscle fibers run, unlike the upper back muscles, the lats are best targeted during exercises where the elbows can pull as close to the torso as possible. We’ll apply this (along with a few other tips) to make the next 5 exercises your best bet for growing a wider back.

Ultimately, for optimal growth of any muscle group, you'll have to pick exercises that biomechanically favor them, allowing them to act as a primary mover for the motion. But actually knowing what these exercises are can be difficult. That's why I've designed every BWS program to help you train every muscle group in the way they’re supposed to. To experience the quickest gains possible:

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Exercise 1: Barbell Row

Remember how you performed the barbell row to target the mid-traps? We’re going to tweak that to emphasize the lats more with a few tweaks. First, use a narrower grip that’s about shoulder width. Then, when you pull, keep your elbows as close to your sides as possible. And finally, to maximize the range of motion your lats go through, instead of pulling up to the chest, pull lower down towards your belly button.

Barbell row for the lats

Exercise 2: Seated Row (Lats-Focused)

We’ll apply similar tweaks to the seated rows I showed you earlier to now make them more lat-focused. First, tuck your elbows close to your sides. Keep them there as you row. Second, avoid arching your back as you pull as that shifts the load to your upper back. Instead, keep your torso straight or if you can, maintain just a slight lean forward to favor the lats even more. And finally, rather than thinking about “squeezing your shoulder blades together”, think about driving your elbow down and back as you pull.

Maintain a slight forward lean in the seated cable row for lat activation

Exercise 3: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Lat Rows

Back to one of my personal favorites. It's none other than the chest-supported row - but now with the elbows angled close to the sides. You'll also be pulling lower down the body as if you were trying to tuck your elbows into your back pockets.

Chest supported dumbbell row for the lats

Exercise 4: Dumbbell Lat Rows

Similar to the meadows row for the upper back, to prevent imbalances from developing we can do single dumbbell lat rows. Here we’ll want to, again, keep the elbow tucked. You should also pull low towards your back pocket.

Dumbbell rows for lats

Exercise 5: One-Arm Lat Pulldown

Our last exercise will be a pulldown. But, well, one that actually targets the lats. To perform it, get into a kneeling stance in front of a cable machine. Grab the handle with a neutral grip and lean your torso forward slightly. Then, pull your elbow down while keeping your elbow as close as possible to your torso.

Best back exercises for the lats one arm lat pulldown

Best Exercises For The Lower Traps

Alright, so we’ve covered the big muscles that’ll add thickness and width to our back. Now we need to balance this out by working the lower traps. This is a small, yet important muscle that tends to get neglected. Research, such as this 2008 paper, has shown that this muscle is best worked by matching our arm angle to the direction the lower trap muscle fibers run. And that ends up being between a 90 to 120-degree angle.

Exercise 1: Prone Y Raise

A simple yet effective exercise to implement this is by either laying on the floor or bench and raising your arms to make a Y shape. Find this too difficult? You can make it easier by using an incline bench. While research shows that performing these with your shoulder internally rotated (thumbs down) leads to slightly greater lower traps activation, this may not be the most comfortable position for everyone. So, try it with thumbs down or thumbs up. See which best engages your lower trap muscles.

Prone Y raise for the lower traps

Exercise 2: Standing Cable Y-raise

Another great exercise is to utilize cables or a band to train the lower traps. That's because doing so helps provide constant tension throughout each rep. To do so, set up a cable to about waist level. You want to then grab the right cable with your left hand and vice versa to crisscross. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes to prevent your lower back from arching. Then raise your arms up in that same Y-shape at about 120 degrees.

Standing cable Y raise

Best Exercise For The Lower back (Erector spinae)

Before we dive into how to implement these back exercises, we need to cover the last area, the lower back. Research has shown that these muscles are already highly activated whenever we do compound lifts like rows, squats, and deadlifts. Still, including some form of isolation work for the lower back can be beneficial if you don’t do many of these lifts. Or if your lower back seems to be a weak link limiting your strength in these compound lifts.

Back Extensions

Back extensions will be our isolation move of choice. But it’s important you get the setup right to maximize its benefit. To do so, position your pelvis at the top of the pad, or just past it. Then, lower yourself down to the bottom position while keeping a neutral spine. Raise back up - but avoid going into hyperextension. Stop once your torso is in line with your legs and no further.

Back extensions

Structuring Your Back Workout For The Best Growth

Now is the most important part: putting together everything you’ve learned into a balanced back routine that works for you.

Here’s what I’d recommend you pick:

  • 2 exercises from the upper back category
  • 2 exercises from the lats category AND
  • 1 exercise from the lower traps category

Depending on your existing lower back training volume, you can choose to add in some back extensions as well.

Here’s an example of how you could do so if you have access to a gym, and here’s an example if you only have dumbbells.

Sample Back Workout Routine (gym)

Upper back

Exercise 1: Upper Back Focused Barbell Rows

Exercise 2: Lat Pulldowns

Lats

Exercise 1: Chest Supported Dumbbell Lat Rows

Exercise 2: One-Arm Cable Lat Pulldown

Lower Traps

Exercise 1: Standing Cable Y-Raise

Sample Back Workout Routine (Bodyweight Or Dumbbells)

Upper back

Exercise 1: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Upper Back Rows

Exercise 2: Overhand Grip Pull Ups

Lats

Exercise 1:  Single-Arm Dumbbell Lat Rows

Exercise 2: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Lat Rows

Lower Traps

Exercise 1: Prone Y-Raise

You can throw these exercises into 1 back workout per week or sprinkle them into a few of your workouts throughout the week. Anywhere between about 3-5 sets for each exercise will be the right amount of volume for most of you to maximize your back growth. But experiment with it.

Takeaway

Guys, hopefully, you were able to see that there’s a lot of thought that goes into picking the right exercises as well as putting them together properly.

Within my Built With Science programs, I take care of all the guesswork for you by showing you exactly how to train and how to eat week after week based on your specific goal. To start today just take my free 30-second quiz below and I’ll let you know which of my step-by-step programs will best help you transform your body:

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Oh, and don't forget to check out my past articles here:


Thanks for sticking around, and I’ll see ya next time!

By the way, here’s the article summed up into a YouTube video:

15 BEST Back Exercises For Growth (And How To Use Them)

14 Best Exercises To Build The Perfect Back

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