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The Top 10 Best Back Exercises

OK, so top-10 lists are contrived. We flat-out agree that they’re nothing more than a cheap ploy by the media to get your attention. Even the most famous top-10 list, the one that debuted on David Letterman’s NBC show in 1985, was devised as a way to poke fun at the insipid lists in People and other celebrity tabloids … at least until it took on a life of its own that has now spanned nearly three mocktabulous decades.

But even though our inner cynic understands all that, we can’t help but be drawn in by the curiosity. What’s No. 1? What got aced out and fell to No. 2? What was unfairly left off the list altogether? We like to stir it up just as much as anyone else, so we’ve undertaken a challenge: objectively and subjectively rank the very best exercises for each bodypart, starting with the back.

The criteria were simple. Each of the exercises that made the cut has been proved through scientific research and years of practical testing in the training trenches to target the various muscles of the back. Millions of weightlifters and bodybuilders the world over have turned to these movements time and again to build a stronger, more muscular well-defined rear view. 

Now it’s your turn. After outlining each exercise’s strengths and weaknesses — and telling you how to do them — we offer three back workouts, each with a different goal, that incorporates exercises from this list.

10.Hammer Strength Iso-Lateral Row

The series of Hammer Strength branded equipment — which provide resistance through free-weight plates — are popular among serious lifters, and for good reason: They work. There are a handful of Hammer Strength back machines to choose from, but the iso-lateral row edges out the rest, targeting the largest portion of the back in an efficient and effective manner.

Main Area Targeted: midback (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius)

Strengths: The ability to row with two hands or one at a time is welcome versatility when constructing a complete, boredom-busting workout.

Weaknesses: Machines reduce the need for ancillary muscles to balance a load, so a Hammer Strength row simply won’t be as taxing as a barbell or dumbbell version. Machines, because they operate in a fixed range of motion, also may not be comfortable or ideal for every person, depending on your height and the dimensions of your arms and torso.

How-To: After loading the plates on each side, adjust the seat to a height at which your elbows will come straight back as you pull. Sit with your chest firmly against the front pad and reach forward to grasp both handles with a neutral or overhand grip. Expand your chest and sit upright, lifting the weight from the supports. From here, bend your elbows to pull the handles straight back, squeezing your lats and back at full flexion before slowly re-extending your arms. Don’t let the weight touch down between reps.

9. Barbell T-Bar Row

Two machines mimic the T-bar row, one with a chest support and one without. Still, for the old-school among us, neither comes close to the sheer simple brilliance of tucking one end of a barbell in the corner, loading the other, taking a hand-over-hand grip and rowing your back muscles into sweet oblivion.

Main Area Targeted:midback (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius) 

Strengths: The T-bar’s slight edge comes in the placement of the weight directly underneath the torso and a more advantageous angle of attack. “The angle of the body makes it easier to do correctly,” says Jason Kozma, 2004 WBFA Mr. America heavyweight division champ and Los Angeles-based personal trainer ( “It’s excellent for thickness in the midback area.”

Weaknesses:A practical concern when using a barbell is easily rectified. “The 45-pound plates are too big and you may not get a full range of motion,” Kozma points out. “Instead, use plates no bigger than the 25s — just stack more on as you pyramid.”

How-To: Load one end of a barbell with the other secure in a corner of the room. Straddle the bar facing the plates and bend about 45 degrees at the hips. Bend your knees and grasp the bar, hand-over-hand style. Keeping your chest up and back flat, head in a neutral position, strongly pull the bar up toward your chest as your elbows shift back behind you. Remain bent over as you pull the weight upward. Hold the peak contracted position momentarily before slowly lowering the weight, and don’t let it rest on the floor between reps.

8. Barbell Deadlift

It’s as much of a leg as a back exercise, but no matter — the deadlift puts the body in prime position to move maximum weight, engaging the strong muscles of the back, glutes and thighs, all in a straightforward effort to lift the barbell from the floor until you reach a standing position.

Main Areas Targeted: upper, middle and lower back (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius, erector spinae)

Strengths: Can millions of powerlifters be wrong? In this case, absolutely not. The deadlift — one of that sport’s three core movements, along with the squat and bench press — is about as pure a test of power as you can imagine. But doing it regularly doesn’t just help you gain superhuman strength. It also prompts plenty of muscle growth along the way.

Weaknesses: The deadlift involves a complex coordination of multiple muscle groups within the body. Of course, this is not a weakness, but it does mean you need to embrace practice — and the use of light weights — as you master the form. Don’t get ahead of yourself on this exercise. Patience is key.

How-To: With your toes beneath the barbell, squat down and grasp it with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Allow the bar to rest flush against your shins. With your chest up and back flat, lift the bar from the floor by extending your hips and knees to full extension. Be sure to keep your arms straight throughout as you drag the bar up your shins and thighs until you are in a standing position. Squeeze your back, legs and glutes, then lower the bar downward along the same path until it touches the floor. Allow the bar to settle before beginning the next rep, refocusing yourself for the effort to come.

7. Seated Cable Row

Like standing and walking upright? Thank evolution — and your back musculature. But your back serves another notable function: to pull your shoulders backward, pinching your shoulder blades closer together in the process. A seated row is a quintessential method of performing this basic action versus resistance.

Main Area Targeted: middle back (rhomboids, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius)

Strengths: This exercise is versatile, thanks to the array of attachments you can use. From workout to workout (or even within a session), switch between wide, medium and narrow widths, as well as underhand, overhand and neutral grips. Each puts a slightly different emphasis as far as where the strongest contraction takes place.

Weaknesses: When your feet are planted on the floor, you create a sturdy kinetic chain. Elevating them, even onto a platform, breaks that chain to a degree, putting your lower back in a perilous, delicate position if you’re careless. Keep your lower back flexed, and don’t sway excessively to and fro as you rep — if you find you have to, you’ve selected too heavy a resistance.

How-To: Attach a close-grip handle to the seated row cable machine and sit upright on the bench, facing the weight stack. Place your feet against the foot platform with your legs slightly bent, then reach forward to grasp the handles, leaning back until your torso is erect and your arms are fully extended. Keeping your elbows in close to the sides of your body, pull the handle toward your midsection by bending your arms and shifting your shoulders backward, squeezing your shoulder blades together as the handle reaches your body. Hold for one or two seconds before slowly returning to the start position, not letting the weight stack touch down between reps.

6. Inverted Row

It’s easy to forget, amid all the heavy lifting that goes into building a broad back, that bodyweight exercises can be incredibly effective tools. (You’ll see a very prominent one later in this list.) The inverted row turns the typical movement of a dumbbell or barbell row upside down as you face the ceiling and pull your body upward.

Main Area Targeted: midback (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius)

Strengths: A steady diet of typical rows of the dumbbell, barbell and machine variety can get a little monotonous — all are similar variations on a theme. This exercise offers the benefit of being a very different way to row. That means a slightly different stimulus for the muscles. It also adds a core and lower-back element, in that you need to hold your body in a stiff “plank” position as you rep.

Weaknesses: The most glaring weakness of the inverted row is its inherent limitations on the resistance front. Simply put, you can only pull your own bodyweight, nothing more. That’s no problem for those who are still beginner to intermediate bodybuilders, whose weight offers ample challenge, thank you very much — but advanced trainees may be more limited in how they can use the inverted row.

How-To: Place a barbell in a power rack or rack a Smith-machine bar about waist high. Holding the bar with an overhand grip, about shoulder-width apart, slide under the bar until it’s at midchest level and your legs are extended straight out from your body with only your heels on the floor. (Imagine you’re preparing to do an upside-down push-up.) Contract your lats to pull your chest up to the bar. Hold at the peak, then return to the start.

5. Straight-Arm Pulldown

The straight-arm pulldown is a rarity in the back-exercise arsenal in that it’s essentially a single-joint movement. In other words, unlike compound rowing-type moves that call on assistance muscles to complete a lift, the straight-arm pulldown pinpoints the lats as the main mover. This makes it a versatile addition to round out almost any back routine.

Main Area Targeted: outer back (lats)

Strengths: In addition to being a welcome single-joint option, this pulldown also is versatile during a workout. It can be used as a heavy-weight strength-building exercise on its own or it can be used in pairing with a number of compound exercises as the tail end of a superset. (Good pairings include barbell rows, pull-ups, pulldowns and seated rows.) It also can be a final “burnout” exercise, going all out with high reps at the very end of a session.

Weaknesses: The drawback here is equipment specific — many pulldown stations don’t quite have enough range to accommodate a full repetition. Because you need to step back from the machine a couple of feet, you might find that as you reach the bottom of a repetition, the weight actually hits its terminus at the top. So you may have to compromise your full range of motion just slightly.

How-To: Stand behind the bench of the lat pulldown machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp the lat bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, contract your lats to pull the bar straight down toward your thighs. Hold that contraction for a moment, then return the bar to the start position. 

4. One-Arm Dumbbell Row

If you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, you will by the time this list is complete — any number of rowing movements, whether dumbbell, barbell, cable or machine, are as essential to back training as the interest of paparazzi are to a Kardashian’s self-esteem.

Main Area Targeted: midback (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, levator scapulae, trapezius)

Strengths: Versus a barbell row, the dumbbell variation allows for a more extensive range of motion while not allowing a stronger lat to compensate for a weaker one.

Weaknesses: Cheating is all too easy because you can twist your upper body to perform the exercise. The test: If you find your chest facing the wall at the top rather than the floor, you’re contorting rather than rowing.

How-To: Place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench with your other foot planted alongside. In your free hand, hold a dumbbell in the air, arm hanging straight down toward the floor. Now, pull the dumbbell up toward your flank — your elbow should bend and extend above the plane of your back as you shift your shoulder blade inward for a complete contraction. Then lower the ’bell along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.

3. Pulldown 

The apparatus is ubiquitous in gyms worldwide, and rightfully so: The pulldown machine pinpoints the lats, helping forge width and depth that make the very best developed backs visible from the front. (In competitive bodybuilding terms, think front-lat spread.)

Main Area Targeted: outer back (lats)

Strengths: Like the seated cable row, you can use a rotating array of handles and grip styles. This exercise also works the back at an important angle — while many back exercises involve a rowing motion, the pulldown operates in the vertical plane as you pull from above your head.

Weaknesses: It’s all too easy to turn a pulldown into just another row, and a dangerous one at that. Just select too heavy of a weight, then lean excessively backward, calling on plenty of body English as you perform repetitions. However, if muscle-building results are more important than poundage notations in your notebook, keep your wits about you and sit upright throughout.

How-To: Sit at a lat pulldown machine so the bar is directly overhead or slightly in front of your body. Adjust the pads so that your quads fit snugly over your thighs. Grasp the angled ends of the pulldown bar with a wide, overhand grip. With your abs tight, back slightly arched and feet flat on the floor, pull the bar down to your upper chest, your elbows back and pointed out toward the sides in the same plane as your body. Squeeze and hold for a brief count before slowly allowing the bar up along the same path. Don’t let the stack touch down between reps.

2. Bent-Over Barbell Row

Give a man nothing but a barbell, weights and plenty of protein, water and veggies, and you can build a world-class bodybuilding physique. One of the exercises he’ll surely do is the bent-over barbell row, which will expand the back in every direction, from the inner musculature out to the edge of the lats. It’s a can’t-miss, all-in-one powerhouse of a motion.

Main Area Targeted: midback (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius)

Strengths: In electromyography studies (EMG for short), which measures activation in a muscle group during an exercise, the bent-over row scores consistently high, along with one-arm dumbbell rows and T-bar rows. This means that the exercise serves its intention well, calling on a synergistic cavalry of muscles to fire as you bring the bar to your stomach.

Weaknesses: In bending at the hips and lifting a barbell in front of your center of gravity, your spinal column is vulnerable. You absolutely need to keep your core tight and flexed and not round your lower back while you do the barbell row.

How-To: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Lean forward at your hips until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor. The barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a brief count, then slowly lower along the same path.

1. Pull-Up

Forget the push-up. The pull-up, which calls on more pure strength and calls on more muscles throughout the kinetic chain (the series of joints from your torso to your extremities) is the ultimate test of strength when it comes to using your own bodyweight as resistance. 

Main Areas Targeted: upper and middle back (rhomboids, lats, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, middle and lower trapezius)

Strengths: “The latissimus dorsi muscle group can produce a tremendous amount of contractile force and strength,” explains Daryl Conant, CSCS, owner of the Fitness Nut House in Kennebunk, Maine, and creator of the AB Inferno exercise system. “In addition, the large tissue mass can metabolize significant amounts of glycogen [glucose] and fat. Very seldom do you see a person who has a well-defined muscular back have excess abdominal fat.”

Weaknesses: Because of the difficulty level, beginners and even intermediates have trouble completing a significant number of reps. But there are alternatives, including an assisted pull-up machine that provides a counterweight. A spotter at your ankles also can be advantageous as you build up strength. Or, as Conant suggests, you can use a platform placed underneath the bar to rest between reps or to keep your feet in contact with throughout a set.

How-To: Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your lats to raise your body upward, concentrating on keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to your flank to raise yourself. Hold momentarily as your chin crosses the level of the bar and then lower yourself down to the dead-hang, elbows-extended position. <