5 Most Effective Exercises To Build Back Muscle

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
March 3rd, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
47.5K Reads
5 Most Effective Exercises To Build Back Muscle
Maximize your back muscle by giving traditional exercises a twist that takes full advantage of their motions, making them twice as effective.

It’s a no-brainer when it comes to listing what the very best back-building exercises are. Pull-ups, rows and deadlifts come to mind when you want to pack on slabs of beef to your back, so what else is there? The proverbial wheel has been invented already.
Let’s take a moment and teach old dogs new tricks. First, I’ll list the top 5 most effective back exercises and then put a twist on each to help gain muscle and build strength. Back training is tough, so it’s time to get mentally/physically prepared and get to work!

1. Barbell Row

The tried and true barbell row is a real-world back-thickener. Requiring a full-body contribution, the traditional barbell version (done correctly) will separate those who want real results from those who want to show off. The most important points to remember if you want serious results are to bend at the hips (not the lumbar), keep your upper body parallel to the floor and avoid heaving the bar up. Once you can master those simple rules you are ready to go to the next level.

The Twist: If you really want to gas-out your back then try progressive grips. For each set you will start with a more difficult grip and rep to failure. Without resting switch your grip to a slightly more advantageous grip and continue your reps to failure. End this giant set with the easiest grip and rep out even more. For example: Start with a wide, overhand grip, then switch to a shoulder-width overhand grip. Lastly, switch your grip once more to a shoulder-width reverse grip. Each grip will make the lift easier as you progress.

Athlete Performing Barbell Row

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2. Pull-Up

As one of the most difficult but highly effective back builders there is, the pull-up reigns supreme when it comes not only to giving you wings (the muscular kind) but also developing a sense of functionality that few, if any, machines can provide. The ability to literally pull up your own bodyweight repeatedly is a skill every gym-goer should possess if they want to build an aesthetic, balanced physique

The Twist: The first thing you need to do is master the pull-up and all of its variations: medium, wide, close and reverse grips. Next, start to work on the amount of reps you can do. Here’s the catch: don’t perform a traditional set/rep scheme such as 4 sets of 8-12 reps. Instead, pick a total number of reps and shoot for that no matter how many sets it takes you. If you choose 40 total reps, it could turn out to be 4 sets of 10, 8 sets of 5 or anything else you are capable of. The goal is to gradually perform more reps per set so you will eventually do fewer sets in all. Once you are to around 3 sets of 15, increase the total number or add weight to your waist.

Athlete Performing Pullups

3. Dumbbell Row

As a close cousin to the barbell version, the dumbbell row can be performed several different ways. From being supported on a bench (one-arm dumbbell row) or weight rack to free-style (without support) to double dumbbell rows, this exercise has a few specific advantages over the barbell such as being able to lift unilaterally (to shore-up a weak side), the ability to twist the wrist in such a way as to make the lift more comfortable on your joints and to lift the weight higher due to the fact your body will not stop the bar. Whichever version you choose, perform the one you have the most experience with and feel the safest doing.

The Twist: This trick is a literal twist! Grab a pair of moderate weight dumbbells (a weight lighter than you normally use). Get into position as if you were about to perform barbell rows. With the dumbbells twisted so your palms are facing behind you lift both weights and supinate your wrists (as in a biceps curl) all the way to the top of the motion. You should end up at the top alongside your waistline in a reverse-grip row position with your palms facing toward the front. Squeeze your lats hard at the top before lowering the weight in a reverse manner, pronating (twisting) the dumbbells back to the starting position.  

Athlete Performing Dumbbell Row

4. Deadlift

What back-building list would be complete without mention of the granddaddy of them all – the deadlift? Even the name implies difficulty. As if dead weight weighs more than anything else! The most effective mass builder can also be one of the most dangerous. Many lifters have damaged spinal columns by practicing incorrect form and an aversion for safety. However, done right and the benefits are endless – a thicker, stronger posterior chain, overall muscle growth and just feeling like a freaking strong dude.

The Twist: For those who find gaining strength in the deadlift a difficult task, there are a few ways around this without simply adding more weight to the bar. Try linear variable resistance (LVR). By utilizing bands or chains on the deadlift you will have created an instant training tool to get you stronger without adding additional plates to the bar – you actually may need to take a few off! Looping bands or adding chains will increase the amount of resistance felt during the exercise as the bar is lifted. This will create more work required near the top of the lift and help you gain strength along your weak point areas. 

Athlete Performing Deadlift

5. Inverted Row

Another great bodyweight move is the inverted row. Similar to the pull-up the inverted version is a slightly easier move to master since a portion of your bodyweight is supported. Normally performed either with your feet on the ground or on a bench for more difficulty, this row has you pulling your body horizontally up to a fixed bar (sort-of like a reverse push-up).

The Twist: Since the inverted row is one of the more easily mastered exercises, you will find yourself wanting more out of them. Adding weight is possible but not practical or comfortable. There is an answer: ladders. Ladders allow you to start the exercise in the most difficult position and gradually move to several “easier” positions to allow you to continue the sequence. Set the bar low and prop your heels onto a bench. Begin your reps until failure. Next, without rest, take your feet off the bench and to the floor and continue your set. Once failure is reached again, raise the bar several notches and continue your reps. Continue to raise the bar until you are near an upright position. Your lats will be spent!

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2 Most Effective Programs for Building Your Back

Try each program once per week. For example, Program A on Monday and Program B on Thursday.

Program A Sets Reps
Wide-Grip Pull-Up x 30-50 (Total)
3-Grip Barbell Row 3 5,5,5 (Each Position)
Inverted Row Ladder 1-3 (Total Rounds) x
Program B Sets Reps
Banded or Chained Deadlifts 3-5 4-8 (Total)
Twisting Dumbbell Row 3 10-15
Superset: Close-Grip Pull-Ups w/ Inverted Rows Straight, 3 Rounds x
Todd Leoanrd
Posted on: Wed, 04/08/2015 - 17:30

I'm 5'7 200lbs, tired, have a bad shoulder and a little lazy, where should I start?

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Posted on: Mon, 04/20/2015 - 15:11

Hi Todd,
Check out some of my other articles for beginner programs.

Posted on: Sun, 03/08/2015 - 18:35

Hello , liked reading your article and wanted to know if you would recommend this same workout fpr a woman.
Thank You,

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Posted on: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 11:44

Hi Sandy, absolutely! No reason not to. You'll obviously be using lighter weight than the average male lifter (or maybe actually more than some too!)

Posted on: Thu, 03/05/2015 - 18:31

Brad - can I swap out pull ups for lat pulls? I am not strong enough to do pull ups.

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Posted on: Fri, 03/06/2015 - 10:33

Hi Matty,
You could but I would still try to include pull-ups into your program. Start with only one rep if you have to. Add a single rep to your sets each week...