Your back is important for several reasons. Symmetrically it is with the shoulders at the top of your V-taper so the wider the lats look, the smaller the waist can look which makes the physique overall more appealing.
From a functional standpoint, the back is crucial to pulling movements which means the stronger you can be, the better.
This means you don’t need to be wasting time figuring out which exercises you need to do. Fortunately, M&S has you covered.
We’re covering the top 10 exercises for the upper back to help you grow and go.
Keep in mind that the exercises that follow are for the upper back muscles. If you feel we need to address the lower back and make a list for that area, let us know in the comments below.
While you’re doing so, feel free to share your thoughts on your favorite back blasters.
10. Dumbbell Shrug
Wait, you were expecting this one somewhere else? It’s true that many people train the traps with the shoulders but the fact is the traps run down along the sides of the spine in the middle of the back. They’re involved in a supporting role with other back movements like the deadlift and barbell rows.
As to the type of shrug you should do, the dumbbell shrug forces each side to work on its own so it’s less likely you’ll deal with imbalances. You can also go heavy on these as you’ll have a better range of motion (when compared to the barbell variation).
9. Seated Cable Row
When it comes to the lower lats, the seated cable row can help you build mass. Since it’s a fixed motion, you can also focus more on the speed of the rep and not as much about controlling it.
The one caveat I add to this is the handle you choose makes all the difference. The wide handle goes more for the middle of the upper back and the v-handle can do more for the lower lats. I prefer using the rope attachment. The reason being, when you separate the ends of the rope at the top, you can get a better contraction than with the other handles.
8. Wide Grip Lat Pull Down
How many times have you seen someone lower the pin to the bottom of the stack, strap on to the handle, and swing themselves to pull the weight down as forcefully as possible? Unfortunately, the wide grip lat pull down has gotten a bad rap because of tactics like this.
If you use moderate weight, practice good form, and take your time performing the reps, the back will benefit a lot from doing the lat pulldown. If you have a wide handle with the ends angled, that’s even better because it will be easier on your wrists. Allow the lats to stretch at the top and you’ll improve flexibility as well.
7. Neutral Grip Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
Rows are awesome not only for getting stronger but also to develop that thickness and density in the upper back. The downside is that occasionally some lifters might get carried away and create momentum to move the weight.
The neutral grip chest supported dumbbell row allows you to be supported so you don’t have to worry about stabilization but since the dumbbells allow you to work each side, you can still make the back work hard to reap those benefits.
6. Straight Arm Lat Pull Down
The straight arm lat pull down is the cable version of the pullover (which you may or may not see later on this list). You can really blast the lats from top to bottom while keeping tension on the area at all times since you’re using the cable and the pinned weight shouldn’t touch the rest of the stack.
Any handle that allows you to use a neutral, or hammer type grip will serve you well here. A rope is a good example. Otherwise, a wide handle with an overhand grip will still provide muscle building benefits.
5. Meadows Row
This isn’t one that you’ve seen Arnold, Franco, or other guys from the Golden Era do but this might be the most popular back exercise to come out in recent years.
Named after its creator, IFBB Pro John Meadows, the Meadows Row provides benefits similar to the one arm row. But since you perform it with a horizontal grip, it also hits other areas of the upper back, not just lats. Using the end of a barbell while the other is in a landmine also makes this similar to a machine movement because you don’t have to worry about stabilizing the weight as much as you do a dumbbell.
If you don’t have a landmine, stick the bar in a corner with someone standing on the other end. You can also use a T-bar machine or even some versions of the seated calf machine. The different ways you’re able to do this one is why it’s on this list.
4. Bent-Over Barbell Row
When it comes to strength, size, and development, very few movements are as reliable as the bent-over barbell row. There are different versions of this exercise like the Yates row which calls for less bend and an underhand grip. There is also the Pendlay row which calls for you to take the weight off the floor.
The version that makes this list is the version where you’re bent over, using an overhand grip, and keeping the weight off the floor or racks. You keep constant tension, have to control the resistance, and can help you gain strength that benefits you in other ways. What’s not to love about this one?
3. Dumbbell Pullover
There’s a lot of talk about the dumbbell pullover for several reasons. Some feel it does a lot for the chest (and it does), others argue about whether it can expand the rib cage or not. What isn’t up for debate is that it’s proven to be a big back builder. The range of motion, stretch at the bottom, and pulling it up to the top blasts the lats in every way you want.
There’s no need to do singles or doubles here but you can still go heavy enough to train as low as 6 reps and still see great rewards for your efforts.
2. One Arm Dumbbell Row
For me and many others, the one arm dumbbell row variation is better than the barbell version because you can work on one side at a time since you’re using a dumbbell. You can also get a greater range of motion since you can pull the dumbbell higher than a bar that stops when it meets your body. Bracing yourself offers some protection for the lower back without negatively affecting the upper back.
All of that and you can still go heavy and improve power with this one. Just don’t go crazy with the momentum, you can still use good form and will still get both bigger and stronger.
1. Pull Up
There are a lot of great back exercises to help you build muscle and get stronger but at the end of the day you have to call a spade a spade. The pull up targets the lats, rhomboids, rear delts, and everything else in the upper back. If you’re good at pullups then you’re guaranteed to be good at other exercises. The same can’t be said the other way around.
If there’s only one exercise you can do to train the upper back from now on, this would likely be the one. The overhand, moderately wide grip version is going to hit everything in short but intense order. If you need to use an assistant, it’s still better than doing pull downs. If you can add weight and still do them properly, then you know all of the above to be true. Pull ups are where it’s at.