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Top 10 Exercises For Back Training: Who’s Number 1? Deadlifts Or Pull-Ups?

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Dustin Elliott ranks the best exercises for building a massive back, listing pull ups as number one. Included in the list are several major surprises.

Author Dustin Elliott's back.Here is a ranking of the best exercises for building a thicker and wider back based on personal experience and the training articles of top IFBB pro bodybuilders. This is not necessarily a determination of exercise order, but the exercises that are most effective for muscle fiber recruitment and targeting the muscle group itself. Exercise order will always be determined by the stabilization requirement of the secondary muscle groups. Isolation exercises, while they may target muscle groups specifically; should still be performed later in the workout.

#10 Standing Pulldowns

You’ll notice with this exercise, it will be a staple in health magazines trying to get you involved in trying new workouts. However, in any bodybuilding publication that goes over the staple routines of pros, this exercise is nowhere to be found. It’s not that it’s not effective, if you perform this at the end of one of your routines and you’ll definitely feel it; however the target area is so small that if you don’t have overall back development as a base, this exercise won’t do much for you. It is, and will always be an add on, or a variation recommended only when your not a lifter who’s ready for heavy weights or if you need to try something new to chase a pump at the end of a routine.

#9 Reverse Grip Bent Over Rows

This is a variation to the much more popular bent over rows, it is designed to target the lower latissimus dorsi. However, the lower lats are closer to the insertion point and far from the ‘belly’ or middle of the muscle. So because of the location of its target area it won’t do much to initiate overall back development.

It is great however for any experienced lifter looking for variation in their routine, or anyone who is looking to bring up their lower lats so that it can appear as if your lats are ‘springing out’ from your waist. It is also an effective exercise for those with shoulder or joint injuries as it is easier on your shoulders than a pronated grip. At the end of the day however, it is an exercise that has a limited target area and is not good for overall back development.

#8 Seated Cable Rows

Seated cable rows have proven to be more of a staple in the routines of bodybuilders. It remains closer to the bottom of this list because it’s never going to be a primary movement by nature of the fact that the seated position negates trunk (lower back, hips, and abdominals) activity. Another reason why it is low on the list is because it predominantly activates what most consider not to be a back muscle at all. Sure, it hits your lats and rhomboids to some extent, but it is primarily responsible for working your mid and lower trapezius muscle (or traps).

Think of your trapezius muscles like ice bergs, what you can see sticking out the top is not the majority of the muscle, if you look at the overall anatomical structure of this muscle you’ll see that it extends down your inner back to your lower back (the T12 thoracic process of the spine). Although this muscle is important for stabilization, and it supports your overall strength, targeting it won’t put seated cable rows in the top spot for back development.

#7 Dumbbell Rows

Having dumbbell rows this low may surprise a few people, but outside of the exercise in the number six spot, the rest of the exercises listed are more of a safe bet for growing your back. The reason why the dumbbell rows fall so far is because they geared more towards function and strength than actual hypertrophy and development. Your back is a very complex group of muscles and it takes multi-joint movements to effective target all of them. The dumbbell rows do hit your latissimus dorsi, but similar to the seated cable rows, this particular ‘pulling’ motion mainly hits your rhomboids and your mid/lower trapezius.

Sorry deadlifts...pull ups are the oldest and undisputed king.

#6 Lat Pulldowns

This is probably the most popular exercise for back, and it beats out dumbbell rows for being responsible for development only under one condition: if they are performed correctly. Research has shown that grip width is not a factor in recruiting muscle fibers, and pulling it down in front is more effective than behind your head (which by the way is very dangerous and can cause rotator cuff damage when combined with other exercises. You may not hurt your rotators during this movement, but you’ll surely prime them for injury the next time your doing chest.)

This movement hits the bulk of your latissimus dorsi which is responsible for increasing the appearance of back width. Adding an extra count or to for the negative or rising portion of the lift will also go a long way to recruiting muscle fibers and inducing tension time. This movement stays out of the top five because it doesn’t do much for back thickness.

#5 Upright Rows

Upright rows also fall under the conditional category; the reason is because there are tons of upright rowing machines out there that are absolutely horrible for producing tension time on your back. The most they seem to accomplish is putting your shoulders and biceps under tension from the pulling motion involved. The exercises that allow upright rows to reach this spot are the hammer strengths that need to be loaded with plates. They fall short only to free weight exercises but are far superior to the exercises above in terms of stimulating multiple back muscles simultaneously.

#4 Deadlifts

That’s right! Deadlifts fall to number four. Now before all you hardcore guys stop reading and start to think this list is B.S., here’s the deal. This is for overall back development, not a list of the overall best exercises. Deadlifts are still one of the top exercises for increasing strength and trunk stabilization which will aid you in your efforts for every other lift.

The problem is, many pros are able to develop their back without deadlifts in their regimen; many who are still advocates of the deadlift for bodybuilding (like myself) perform this motion last in their routine as this is the time we feel it optimally recruits the entire back (for bodybuilding a pronated grip is best). You’ll notice that the motion at number three is similar, but as far as recruiting muscles In the back, it is more specific.

#3 Bent Over Barbell Rows

The pronated grip for barbell rows make it similar to that of the deadlift. The proper form is to bend your knees, keep your chest and head up, but lower your trunk to below 45 degrees (around 30 degrees is best). The weight should be light enough for you to raise the bar as high as the upper part of your abdomen. It will activate your lats, rhomboids, traps etc. more so than the deadlifts can and for this reason it is performed as one of the first exercises in a bodybuilding routine, whereas many who still believe in the dead lift for bodybuilding perform it later in their routines when they feel it the most.

#2 T-Bar rows

Check out any back training video for any great bodybuilder and you’ll notice that their weapon of choice for adding back thickness is the T-bar row. It is far superior to any other exercises in terms of activating your mid-lower traps, rhomboids, and inner lats. It also hits the rear delts, and although it won’t do as much as the number one exercise in terms of adding width; nothing compares in terms of adding thickness.

#1 Pull-Ups/Weighted Pull-Ups

One of the oldest and undisputed kings of the back exercises is the pull-up. There are many variations to this exercise but the proper form that makes it king is with a pronated grip using your own body weight with added weight if possible. Not only does it activate the belly of your latissimus like no other, but it will activate every muscle in your back except for your trunk when it’s heavy enough. The pull-up is king of all back exercises.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.

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    Dustin Elliott has a Bachelors in Exercise Physiology, and is a member of the Betancourt Nutrition team.
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Comments (14)

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Coach
Posted Tue, 12/14/2010 - 12:56

Agreed 100% on the article! Pullups/Pullup negitives are amazing back builders!!

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Steve T
Posted Fri, 12/17/2010 - 22:17

Dustin,

Thanks for the note about grip width on pulldowns; I had heard just the opposite at one point and started incorporating wide-grip chins or pulldowns. With a little Googling, I was able to find the 2010 study that backed up your point.

Can you comment further on the biomechanics of the T-Bar Row and why it is so good compared to Barbell Rows? My gym doesn't have a T-Bar; can I get the same benefit from using a regular long bar with weight at one end?

Thanks,

Steve

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dustin (author)
Posted Tue, 12/21/2010 - 11:07

i've always had to make a t-bar myself while at the gym, only recently did i join a gym w/ a real floor t-bar setup as opposed to the plate loaded machines...simply put weight on one end, and put the bar of the other end into a corner or against a wall so it doesn't slide back...

the t-bar ro isn't one spot higher because it 'so good' compared to barbell rows, they are both almost equal, it is simply that barbell rows, while they are able to target almost your entire back...are not able to hit a specific like you middle back as effectively as t-bar rows. it's not that t-bar rows are that much better, for sports and performance application the bent over barbell rows would be ahead of t-bar rows. it is simply ranked higher for bodybuilding b/c it's target area is more specific

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Zane Brazil
Posted Tue, 12/28/2010 - 11:45

Dustin, great article. I agree that the pullup and weighted pullup are the number one back builders but I also believe that they are the number one builder of strength in the entire upper body. Thanks and keep more good articles coming in man.

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fran robles
Posted Thu, 01/27/2011 - 00:08

Dustin, I'm not able to do pull-ups on my own. I used to do pull-downs at the gym for my back, but now that I don't train at a gym I started using the Work Horse Trainer to do modified pull-ups the way I used to do them on the smith machine.

I don't know if modified pull-ups are as good as regular pull-ups but for most women who can't do pull-ups, this guy works great! Both my husband and I use it.

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Gym Monster
Posted Fri, 02/17/2012 - 13:10

I agree with almost everything this article is saying except the Dead Lift ranking as four. For Back development I personally think it is number 2. No doubt about it pull-ups and weighted pull-ups are the best, I use them in my routine, but everyone knows that Dead Lifts and Squats are the best exercises to enduce growth hormones. While I made great progress in my back development with Pull-ups, rows, and other back exercises it wasn't until I started doing deadlifts that my back made tremedous improvement in terms of density, width, and just overall development. Secondly, I don't know why people do dead lifts last in their routine. I always do dead lifts first reason being, deadlifts probably enduce the most growth hormones so I want to be as strong and fresh as possible when I attempt these lifts...same goes for squats. Then all the other detail building exercises come after because it will take a lot out of you body doing dead lifts last. If you have an intense routine, it's possible you can burn all the carbs in your system before you make it to dead lifts and your body would revert to using other sources for energy. Overall, I agree with the list but the dead lift comments hurt my soul...lol

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LEWIS TEER
Posted Tue, 12/04/2012 - 06:51

I absolutely agree with you. I have been building my back for a while now, but the development of literally every muscle in my body improved drastically soon after starting the dead lifts and squats. Deadlifts may not target the back but these big compound movements seem to promote much better results from your other movements. Deadlifts and squats have rocketet my growth, my definition and my strength in most areas even chest! I have always done pull ups and i do not doubt they are causing the width, but my progress was slower without the deadlifts.
I also agree that deadlifts and squats should be done fresh, when you can really keep form, nice controlled movements AND with maximum weight. If i hammer my low back with barbell rows then its much hard to hold nice tidy form with the max weight on the squat and deadlift.
I appreciate the specifically back targetting, the pull ups are king but deadlifts and squats really are the be all and end all of increasing your rate of growth.

Great article but my 2 cent..... ALWAYS SQUAT AND DEADLIFT alongside great isolation excercises or during regimes where you target specific muscle groups to get the maximum benifit long term.

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Jerry
Posted Tue, 09/25/2012 - 18:14

Really good list overall, but where are the power cleans, or cleans of any kind. My traps just exploded when I started doing power cleans and power db snatches. Use good form and give them a try, they'll also help you increase your deadlift max.

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Paul Harmer
Posted Fri, 11/02/2012 - 09:22

THis is a great article, but i have one question and that is, i ussually dont do pull ups and the reason being it seems to put quite a lot of discomfort in to my shoulder joints, so what i have been doing is using a seated pull down machine instead. i get no pain this way(apart from the good pain, but is this an exceptable substitute for pull ups? my current routine is:- Bent over rows(x5, 2of them are warm ups, T-bar rows(x3)pull downs(x3) and Deads(x3) to finnish. what do ya think?

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Bodybuilding Novice
Posted Wed, 04/17/2013 - 17:57

Hey, I was just wondering, I max out at 8 pull-ups so it's not much of a workout 4 me. Plus I workout at my home with limited workout resources. What would you guys recommend I do to develop my back enough so I'm able to do a significant amount of pull-ups? Thnks.

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rohit agarwal
Posted Sat, 06/01/2013 - 07:38

this exercise is very good

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DaTruth
Posted Tue, 09/10/2013 - 14:47

Good list but it is indeed fundamentally flawed for having the deadlift so low. 

That's like saying that the foundation is the fourth most important part of a building. The fact is that you likely will not reach the full potential of a strong back without doing deadlifts. In addition you can be more prone to injury, especially so if you decide to do weighted pull ups, thereby negating the effectiveness of the pull up excercise. Your mid/upper back are crucial stabilizers when performing this lift. 

It is true that there are a select few genetically gifted individuals, like Phil Heath, who can build a phenomenal back without doing deadlifts. But for the rest of us it's a necessity.

If you start your workout with deads your mid and upper back will also be warmed up and properly stretched for the rest of your workout. Deads do this like no other exercise can. With your deep back muscles properly primed you will be able to safely lift heavier on subsequent exercises. 

The author has a Bachelors in Exercise Physiology and should know all this. Objectively, and from a physiological standpoint there is no way the deadlift falls below 2nd spot.

At issue here is the title of the article vs the explanation that top exercises means targeted muscle recruitment instead of most effective. The lead in blurb even says that the article is about the best exercises for building a massive back. By that logic then flat bench is 4th for pecs behind cable flyes, incline dumbbell and incline bench.

With the concession that it is not primarily a back exercise, deadlifts still reign over bent over rows and  edges out TBar rows just because of the sheer weight you can use.  Even "just" acting as stabilizers your back muscles will be prompted to grow from the static stress placed on them.

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DaTruth
Posted Mon, 09/16/2013 - 23:57

Good list but it is indeed fundamentally flawed for having the deadlift so low. 

That's like saying that the foundation is the fourth most important part of a building. The fact is that you likely will not reach the full potential of a strong back without doing deadlifts. In addition you can be more prone to injury, especially so if you decide to do weighted pull ups, thereby negating the effectiveness of the pull up excercise. Your mid/upper back are crucial stabilizers when performing this lift. 

It is true that there are a select few genetically gifted individuals, like Phil Heath, who can build a phenomenal back without doing deadlifts. But for the rest of us it's a necessity.

If you start your workout with deads your mid and upper back will also be warmed up and properly stretched for the rest of your workout. Deads do this like no other exercise can. With your deep back muscles properly primed you will be able to safely lift heavier on subsequent exercises. 

The author has a Bachelors in Exercise Physiology and should know all this. Objectively, and from a physiological standpoint there is no way the deadlift falls below 2nd spot.

At issue here is the title of the article vs the explanation that top exercises means targeted muscle recruitment instead of most effective. The lead in blurb even says that the article is about the best exercises for building a massive back. By that logic then flat bench is 4th for pecs behind cable flyes, incline dumbbell and incline bench.

With the concession that it is not primarily a back exercise, deadlifts still reign over bent over rows and  edges out TBar rows just because of the sheer weight you can use.  Even "just" acting as stabilizers your back muscles will be prompted to grow from the static stress placed on them.

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johny
Posted Sat, 10/04/2014 - 20:09

why does every comment have low ratings... sheeeeesshhhhh

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