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.
#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.
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.