The Best Back Exercises

Improve Your Appearance, Posture and Health with The Best Back Exercises

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what is the most important body part of them all? Overall fitness and having good, well balanced musculature is knowingly important for several reasons.

Of all the muscle groups of our body that deserve attention, nothing could be more important to emphasize than a good strong and well developed back. Having one not only helps our appearance but also supports a strong core, our posture, spine and therefore overall well-being.

Working one’s back effectively requires some big lifts, and big lifts require a lot of energy, focus and a bit of education to do appropriately and safely. In this article we are going to cover 3 of the best basic but fundamental movements you should never ignore to develop your best back ever.

Best Back Exercises #1: Rows

Developing one’s back to be stronger with better shape should never exclude rows. Although the emphasis can vary a bit depending on your grip or angle you approach this with, you are definitely going to do a great job of working your latissimus dorsi muscles (“lats”), rhomboids, and trapezius (“traps”). In laymen’s terms, rows will help you to develop your mid to upper back muscles.

Rows can be performed a few different ways:

  1. With dumbbells isolating your left and right sides or rowing together in a standing bent-over position
  2. Using a plate loaded row machine
  3. Using a seated cable row

Although the rules apply to any of the above exercises, the seated cable row is one of the most commonly used exercises here, so we will use it as an example to explain.

  1. The first thing we want to do is grab the handle connected to the cable, retract your shoulder blades as you pull back and get some tension, then sit down with it in your hands ready to go with your hips at a 90-degree angle sitting on the padded seat with a neutral spine.
  2. As you start to row, slightly rotate at the hip (do NOT round your spine) forward to 80-degrees
  3. With a little “rock back” at the hip, pull the elbows back squeezing your shoulder blades together at the peak of the movement while NOT leaning back more than 95-degrees.

Too often common mistakes are made with rows that take away the focus on the intended targeted muscles of the back. Rounding the spine and leaning way back has the performer using too much body leverage and biceps to move the weight, versus fully engaging the back muscles.

Be mindful of this and focus on flexing your back at the peak of the movement while “popping your chest into the “row” as you bring your elbows back. Follow these rules here and you will be rowing like a champ!

Best Back Exercises #2: Deadlift

Hailed as one of the kings of all exercises, the deadlift is arguably the most important exercise to master and incorporate into your workout program. The deadlift is put on a pedestal for many reasons. The deadlift not only works our erectors in our lower back that support our posture, but it also works our quadriceps, hamstrings, forearms and upper back as well. The deadlift is a pretty demanding movement that makes you tough and strong!

There are two primary versions of a deadlift. The first is the stiff leg version, which the knees stay a tight (but not locked out) through the movement but have a “soft bend” in them. This version more emphasizes your erector muscles in your lower back, hamstrings and glutes.

The second is the Romanian version in which the user bends their knees during the movement engaging their quads and the other previously said muscles. Secondary muscles being used in both as well are those in the forearms and upper back.

There is a lot of work going on here and this is a demanding movement when done right! You can see a demonstration of these here.

  1. Those choosing to perform a stiff leg version will often use a platform where they pull a barbell off that is already at hip height to start. However, most deadlifts will often start with the weight on the floor.
  2. While keeping your back straight and shoulders tight, pull the bar up until you’ve locked your hips and knees.
  3. Return it to the floor by moving your hips back first and then bending your knees.

To Deadlift with proper form means that your lower back stays neutral. Excessively rounding your lower spine during heavy Deadlifts is dangerous for your back. It squeezes your spinal discs and can cause injuries such as herniated discs. Deadlift with your lower back in a neutral position to avoid injury. If you focus on engaging your glutes and keeping a mild shrug/retraction in the shoulders, this typically helps you stay neutral. Follow these rules to stay safe and keep this exercise as effective as possible!

Best Back Exercises #3: Cable Lat Pulldowns (Or Pull-Ups if Applicable)

As the name itself suggests, the lat pulldown has as its primary target- the latissimus dorsi muscles.  These are the large fan shaped muscles that takes up an exceedingly large portion of the back that give bodybuilders their “V” shaped tapered physique with helping the waist appear thinner.  While the mid-back is involved somewhat in the pulldown movement, the vertical line of pull tends to take the mid-back muscles out of the movement.

Since the arms are involved and there is bending at the elbow, the elbow flexors, biceps, and brachialis are also involved with the movement.  Which is involved and to what degree depends on the grip used. Like the cable row, there are numerous variations on the cable lat pulldown that involve changes in grip position (under hand vs. over hand) and width.  Since the lats do have different functions at the shoulder and lines of pull, varying the type of pulldown done can certainly be beneficial from both a strength and muscle building standpoint.

Without going through every single version and each different variation in grip approach for this exercise, we will use the slightly wider than shoulder width over-hand grip approach on the straight bar to go over a few important technique points as well as common mistakes to avoid. For the most part, these rules will apply to each variation and approach you take with pulldowns, and we should definitely incorporate all the different angles on pulldowns to change it up a bit with our workouts.

  1. In a standing position grab the bar with a tight grip and thumbs on the same side of the bar as your fingers. Sit down on the seat with your thighs snug and tight under the pad.
  2. As you begin to pull the bar down, you should have a slight lean back as you drive your elbows towards the floor while keeping your chest up with an erect and neutral spine.
  3. Your wrists will be straight and the bar will come down just below your clavicle bone to your upper chest, while you squeeze and engage your back muscles.

Common mistakes to avoid:

Somehow, folks find a way to turn pulldowns into a triceps pushdown at the end.  Many will bend wrists in an attempt to get the bar lower in which it doesn’t need to do. This is not necessary and should be avoided. This is often associated with the bar coming to the front of the body when pulling it down, this should never happen and it should come just below the clavicle bone to the upper chest while driving with the elbows, not the wrists.

If the puller is leaning too far back, he or she is turning the movement into a mid-back exercise.  This usually happens when the weight is far too heavy and the puller ends up using mostly body weight to get the bar down and cheating to make the rep. Don’t lean too far back and keep your posture upright.

Own Your Back and Develop it right

Too often, we allow the mirror to dictate our training emphasis—chest, biceps, abs. It’s the desire for the “beach appeal” and the reason most of us go to the gym—to look good naked. Focusing too much here and not enough on the backside of our body will have our posture slowly going to hell and being imbalanced. Overdeveloped mirror-muscles will internally rotate and slouch the shoulders and upper back and you’ll end up looking like a depressed gorilla. Work your back with these best back exercises. Do it for your health, well-being, and to look and feel great!

Best in fitness,

Roger Bowman, CPT

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