Back Exercises

Best Exercises for a Complete Back Workout

The back is comprised of four distinct muscle groups. Here's how to zero in on each one.

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The back isn't only one of the body's biggest and strongest bodyparts, it's also the most complicated in terms of being a series of interconnected muscle groups. For the purposes of this feature we're dividing the back into its four main regions: 1) the upper and outer lats, 2) the lower lats, 3) the middle back and 4) the lower back. Each area requires specific stimulation via the exercises and angles of attack used, and we'll show you the two best exercises for each.

With this menu, you can customize your own workout by choosing one exercise from each category to create a total program. Or if one region is lagging, you can pick additional movements that hit that area only. Either way, fully understanding which back exercises hit which portions of your back will allow you to build shape (in particular the V-taper), thickness and width.

Note: Many of the exercises we include here do not isolate but rather emphasize certain areas of the back musculature.

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Area 1: Upper/Outer Lats

Use moves in which you utilize a wide grip, typically outside your shoulders, which develop the area that makes up your V-taper. You'll usually pull from an angle above your head or perpendicular to your body.

Best Exercises: Pull-Up (wide grip), Bent-Over Barbell Row (wide grip)

Pullup (Wide Grip)

  • Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Fully extend your arms and relax your shoulders to stretch your lats in the bottom position.
  • As you pull up, visualize keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to raise yourself while contracting your lats.
  • Pull yourself up as high as possible to fully stimulate your lats.
  • If you can't make it all the way up, consider enlisting the help of a spotter or use an assisted pull-up machine.

Target Tip - To really stress the upper/outer lats and teres major in the bottom position, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you hang with your arms fully extended.

Bent-Over Barbell Row (Wide Grip)

  • Don't stand on a flat bench or platform to increase your range of motion; you're more likely to round your low back at the bottom. If you do need greater range of motion, use smaller plates to allow you to clear the floor rather than trying to balance yourself on a flat bench.
  • Using a wider-than-shoulder-width grip allows you to keep your elbows out to your sides and pull them back as high as possible for a full contraction.
  • Keep your knees bent and remainin the bent-over position throughout. It's easy to rise from this position when using heavy weights, but that recruits other muscle groups to assist in the move.

Target Tip - To target those outer lats and teres major, pull the bar high toward your upper abs.

Area 2: Lower Lats

Use reverse-grip moves and close-grip pull-ups/pulldowns to more strongly emphasize the lower lat area. One of the few single-joint lat moves, the straight-arm pulldown, does this as well.

Best Exercises: Reverse-Grip Pulldown, Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown

Reverse-Grip Pulldown

  • Take an underhand, shoulder-width grip. This allows you to pull your elbows back as far as possible, maximally stimulating the back muscles.
  • Keep your torso upright and a slight arch in your back as you fully extend your arms at the top. Keep your chest out and flexed throughout the move; this helps concentrate more stress on the back muscles.
  • Pull your elbows down and back as far as you can until the bar approaches your upper pecs. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the point of peak contraction.

Target Tip - To focus in on those lower-lat fibers, keep your chest high and your back arched. As you pull the bar down, bring it toward your lower chest for a better contraction.

Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown

  • Grasp an overhead lat bar and stand far enough back from the station to keep your arms nearly straight (with just a slight bend in your elbows) throughout the movement.
  • Pull the bar down in an arc with straight arms until it touches your upper thighs. Concentrate on feeling the movement in your lats; your arms should act only as levers.
  • Movement should take place at only the shoulder joints.

Target Tip - For optimal stimulation of the lower lats, don't just stop when the bar touches your thighs at the bottom - actually push the bar back into your thighs and squeeze your lats as hard as you can.

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