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Back Exercises

The Next 10 Best Back Excerises

These winning moves barely missed the cut last time around — and all are more than worth your time if your goal is a big, strong back.

Four years ago, we embarked on a daunting task — ranking the 10 best exercises for each major bodypart. Ever since, we’ve been sharing our picks in the pages of this magazine, starting with the 10 best back moves in October 2013, and most recently running down our 10 favorite functional moves this past December.

Ranking the best bodypart exercises was quite a challenge. It included passionate debates from experts and editors about every move that ultimately made — or didn’t make — the list. Friendships were strained, eye rolling became a workout in and of itself, and once published, we heard plenty from our readers who thought some of our choices were, well, nuts. So you’d think we’d breathe a sigh of relief when it was said and done.

Post-publication, though, we scanned the proverbial cutting-room floor and discovered a whole heck of a lot of exercises that were nearly as good — and, dare we say, perhaps even arguably better — than those we featured the first time around. So, we’re starting again, and are now delivering the “next best” 10 exercises for every muscle group, opening once more with back. All of the following moves merit consideration when planning your training regimen, and should be blended with the original 10 exercises for a balanced program. After all, for continued progress, variety is key. On that point, there’s certainly no controversy.


#10: Renegade Row

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, erector spinae
Bodybuilding purists would scoff at the inclusion of this functional movement, and if muscle mass is your one and only goal, there are certainly better exercises from which to choose. However, when it comes to developing synergistic body strength and total-body control, the renegade row delivers, calling heavily on your core for stabilization and your nonworking muscles for isometric strength while you row with the other arm. It’s an excellent finisher, and you also can slot it in as a warm-up or a secondary move after a bout of heavy barbell or dumbbell rows.

How-To: Position two dumbbells parallel on the floor and get into a push-up position with your hands on the dumbbells and your legs splayed wide. Your head, hips and heels should align, core tight, head neutral. Row one dumbbell up to your flank, driving your elbow skyward while keeping your hips level and your head neutral. Lower slowly to the floor and continue, alternating sides for reps.

#9: Kipping Pull-Up

Muscles Targeted: lats, midback, core
In article after article, we preach “perfect form”: Don’t swing your body, don’t use momentum, don’t cheat. So why would we put this controversial CrossFit staple on our list? Here, a little momentum can mean a lot more reps — and when it comes to developing your back, the more pull-up reps you can log, the better.

Kipping is borrowed from sports such as gymnastics or martial arts, and is a skill in which you create upward thrust by using your bodyweight to generate momentum. This reduces the involvement of the arms, enabling you to do way more reps than you could if using ultra-strict form while also preventing the smaller biceps muscles from becoming a limiting factor. It also relies on an explosive contraction of your lats and mid- and upper-back muscles, enough so that it lands solidly here on this list.

How-To: Take an overhand grip on a pull-up bar and assume a dead hang — arms fully extended, legs straight, feet off the floor. Keep your legs tight together as you swing them behind you, simultaneously pushing your chest forward and your head between your arms. Then swing your legs forward, contract your abs and snap your hips upward as you drive your elbows down and back to lift your chin above the bar. Hold briefly then lower back to the start. Work toward developing a rhythm to connect repetitions.


#8: Bent-Over Smith Machine Row

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, teres major and minor, infraspinatus
Some people hate the Smith machine, often to Bieber-esque levels. Internet trolls slam it for locking you into a strict up-and-down plane of movement, which is unnatural when it comes to most exercises, and they point out that the counterbalance tends to make exercises too easy by reducing the need for stabilizing muscle activity.

These so-called downsides of the Smith may be a detriment for some exercises — the squat comes first to mind — but a row isn’t among them. However, the Smith row shouldn’t be your only rowing exercise; it should be saved for later in the session when your ancillary muscles may be more worn down and in need of a little assistance.

How-To: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with the fronts of your ankles flush with the bar. If the bar does not go low enough, stand on a platform. Take an overhand grip on the bar just outside your ankles with your core tight, back flat, head neutral. Unlatch the safeties by twisting the bar, then pull it into your upper abdomen or lower chest, driving up with your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top. Lower the bar along the same path to the start.


#7: Sled Pull

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, erector spinae
Imagine competing in a tug of war as part of your back workout and you’ll understand the benefit of adding the sled pull to your program. This apparatus and the pulling movement recruits all the key back muscles involved in a row, but with a welcome dose of variety, whether as a warm-up, midworkout challenge or a finisher.

“What I like about the sled is that you can pull heavy loads and build up muscle endurance,” says Gerren Liles, a ReebokOne ambassador and Equinox master instructor based in New York City. “And because the eccentric workload is minimal when using a sled versus a more typical weighted exercise, you’ll probably experience less soreness. That means you can go super-hard without worrying that it’ll affect your upcoming workouts.”

How-To: Secure a rope to the front of a loaded sled. Position the sled at one end of an open area, stretch the rope toward the other side and stand there with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grip the rope with both hands, drop your hips and bend your knees, keeping your abs tight. Maintain this position as you pull the sled toward you, hand over hand, until it reaches your toes. Then stretch out the rope once more and repeat for the length of the area.


#6: Landmine Barbell One-Arm Row

Muscles Targeted: rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, levator scapulae, trapezius
One-arm dumbbell rows came in No. 4 on our original top-10 list, and this variation makes the grade for the same reasons: It directly punishes the muscles of the middle and upper back, and because you work each side independently, a stronger side can’t compensate for a weaker one, as can happen with a two-handed barbell row.

Besides the unilateral benefits, the angle of pull is slightly altered with this version, since the weight is not in front of your grip instead of equally balanced around your hand as with a dumbbell. These small tweaks recruit a different range of muscle fibers, making this a must-add complement to a standard row.

How-To: Secure one end of a barbell in a landmine and load the opposite end. Stand alongside the loaded end and bend at the hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor, back flat and head neutral. Grasp the bar with the closest hand either at the end (shown) or where the shaft meets the collar to lift it from the floor. Drive your elbow up and back to bring the bar toward your flank as high as you can without twisting. Lower along the same path, but don’t let the plates touch down between reps. Do all reps on one side before switching arms.


#5: Supported Row

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus
While the barbell T-bar row made our original list, this variation deserves a spot all its own. “The support allows you to isolate and focus on the back, as opposed to standing, where your leg strength and positioning — as well as your core — will play a role in your effort,” Liles says. “Although it presents the path of motion, it allows for a free-weight feel.” A row such as this can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells or unilaterally for variety.

One downside: Lying on a support pad compresses the diaphragm, which makes it a bit harder to breathe deeply when handling heavy weights. That said, the supported row is still excellent for moderate-weight, higher-rep protocols — a pure, simple row that directly targets the middle back.

How-To: Set an incline bench to a low angle, about 30 degrees. Lie facedown on the bench with your chest and shoulders supported, feet on either side, and hold a barbell in a shoulder-width overhand grip. Keeping your back flat and your head neutral, drive your elbows up and back while sliding your shoulder blades inward. Hold briefly at the top then lower slowly to the start. Note: Don’t allow your upper body to lift off the pad in an effort to pull the weight upward, since this puts undue pressure on the low back.


#4: Seated Good Morning

Muscles Targeted: erector spinae
If you care about your squat and deadlift totals — and you should — consider this variation of the traditional good morning as your new secret weapon. It works the core and lower back — notably the erector spinae, which are key for stabilizing the spine — allowing you to handle more weight when pulling a barbell from the floor or coming up out of the hole during a squat.

The traditional standing barbell good morning calls on a heavy dose of hamstrings and glutes to power the motion. But by taking a seat, those lower-body muscles are de-emphasized, allowing you to focus more on the lower back. This move is also superior to a back extension on a 45- or 90-degree bench, which gets the hip flexors involved and makes it all too easy to hyperextend your back, lifting your torso past horizontal and placing unnecessary pressure on the spinal disks.

How-To: Place a bench (or box) inside a power rack and set a barbell at your normal squat level. Position the barbell across your shoulders and upper back — as in a squat — and step back to clear the supports. Slowly sit on the bench and spread your legs with your feet flat on the floor for stability. Keeping your back flat and your core tight, bend forward from the hips, lowering as far as you can until your chest or outer flank touches the upper inside of your legs (if possible), and stopping before your lower back rounds. Reverse the motion to come upright. When you’ve completed your reps, stand and rack the bar.


#3: Clean Pull Off the Rack

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, erector spinae
This movement is a go-to among Olympic lifters and powerlifters training to increase their deadlift totals. In many respects, it’s a deadlift that starts from a higher position, reducing the focus on the glutes and hamstrings and activating more of the mid- and upper back. It also adds explosive elements and a shrug at the end, bringing the traps into play.

“By doing a more explosive deadlift you can work with appropriate weight for higher reps, increasing the overall tonnage of your workout, which is good for strength and hypertrophy,” says Heather Farmer, a New York-based personal trainer, fitness coach, CrossFit group class instructor and top-five nationally ranked Olympic weightlifting competitor. “Also, people are typically stronger from mid-pull than they are off the floor, and those with mobility restrictions that cause their back to round when pulling from the floor should be safer at this higher start position.”

How-To: Set the barbell at or just under knee level in a power rack and stand with your feet hip-width apart and the bar resting flush against your shins. Grasp the bar outside your legs and lift your hips so they are just higher than your knees, abs tight and back flat. Extend your legs and hips explosively, pulling the bar up along your quads as you come upright, and finish the rep with a forceful shrug at the top. Lower the bar along the same path, allow it to settle on the hooks, then repeat.


#2: Pendlay Row

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, erector spinae
During a regular barbell row, the plates never touch the floor during the set, keeping tension on the target muscles throughout. Not so with the Pendlay row, a move named after USA Weightlifting coach and former competitor Glenn Pendlay — but if gaining strength is your game, this change is definitely for the better.

Setting the barbell on the floor at the end of each rep reduces the time your lower back has to support the full weight of a loaded bar, giving those muscles a little break and allowing you to work up to heavier lifts. That dead stop also allows you to reset yourself so your form doesn’t stray, as tends to happen toward the end of a difficult set of standard barbell rows.

How-To: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the fronts of your ankles flush with the barbell. Bend down and take an overhand grip just outside your ankles on the bar, then lift your hips so your back is parallel to the floor, core and hamstrings activated and lower back arching naturally. Keeping your torso steady, pull the bar explosively into your upper abdomen, driving upward with your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top. Lower the bar along the same path and let it settle to the floor briefly as you ready for the next rep.


#1: Snatch-Grip Deadlift

Muscles Targeted: lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, erector spinae
There may be no purer expression of strength than the deadlift. It requires a complex array of muscle groups working in tandem to pull a heavy object from the floor (which is why it reigned No. 1 as our favorite functional exercise of all time in our December 2016 issue.) The snatch-grip deadlift, like the clean pull, is a variation on the traditional. “It’s awesome for back development largely because it engages the entire upper back even more than a conventional deadlift,” Farmer says.

To get the most out of it, focus on a few key pointers. “Keep the lower back tight and arched — avoid rounding at all costs,” Farmer warns. “And the grip itself should be wide, with your hands placed on or outside the knurling on the barbell. You also want to drive through your legs, finishing the lift with your chest up.”

How-To: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes beneath the barbell and shins flush against the bar. Squat down and take a wide, beyond-shoulder-width grip on the barbell. With a flat back, lift your hips so they are higher than your knees, brace your core and pull the slack out of the bar. Extend your legs and hips at the same rate and drag the bar up along your shins and thighs until you come to standing. Lower down along the same path until the plates touch the floor, letting it settle briefly before starting the next rep.