What are the best back exercises? It’s a complex question because your back is so complex. Many people think of only their lats on back day, but there’s also the middle and lower trapezius, infraspinatus, rhomboids, and spinal erectors. All have different functions, so all will be stressed differently by exercises, grips, angles, etc. Complex. We’re going to simplify things somewhat by focusing only on exercises for the outer back (latissimus dorsi) and mid-back (middle and lower trapezius). The infraspinatus and rhomboids will come along, too. Broadly, this is your upper back.
So, let’s delve into the science. According to scientific research, what are the best, worst, and just okay upper back exercises?
BEST BACK EXERCISES: REFERENCES
We looked primarily at two electromyography (EMG) studies, which measured the muscle activation during upper back exercises.
EMG STUDY 1: The American Council of Exercise, 2018, 19 subjects (young men), 8 upper back exercises, study link
Many subjects, not as many exercises. One of the study’s authors said: “For some subjects, a certain exercise would activate a muscle to the greatest degree, while for others it would have low activation of that same muscle….These findings may indicate the importance of an individual mentally focusing on the particular muscle he or she wants to work. Another reason for discrepancy between individuals could be due to the anatomy of the body, as some people have naturally larger, more dominant muscle groups.”
EMG STUDY 2: Contreras, Bret, 2010, 1 subject (male), 35 upper back exercises, including variations, study link
This study is limited by its single subject. However, a very wide range of exercises, grips, and angles were studied.
BEST BACK EXERCISES
🏆 1. PULL-UP OR CHIN-UP
For lats, the pull-up (overhand grip) or chin-up (underhand grip) ranked best. The pull-up ranks slightly better because the biceps do more work in the chin-up, but it’s a surprisingly close call between the two. Study 2, which tested a variety of grip widths, found the wide-grip pull-up (hands wider than shoulder-width) is most effective, but the differences are slight enough that you can try out various grips and use the one that feels best. That said, a third study, determined that rotating handles were not as effective as using a stationary bar.
If you can do more than 15 reps, add weight. If you can’t get 8 reps, use the helping hands of a spotter or an assisted pull-up machine to remove some of your bodyweight.
🏆 2. BENT-OVER ROW
Ranking highest in Study 1 as best overall back exercise (lats and mid back) is the traditional bent-over barbell row. It ranked high in Study 2, as well. Overhand and underhand grip ranked virtually the same: slightly more mid-back activation from an overhand grip and slightly more lat activation from an underhand grip. Also note that the two-arm bent-over dumbbell row ranked highest of any exercise tested for mid-back activation (much better than its barbell brother) and good for lat activation.
🏆 3. LAT PULLDOWN
The pulldown did not rank as high as either the pull-up or chin-up for lat or mid-back activation, but it still ranked well in both studies. It has the advantage of being easier for those who can’t crank out bodyweight pull-ups. Interestingly, in Study 2, which looked at four types of pulldowns, the underhand pulldown and the wide-grip behind-the-neck pulldown ranked higher for both lat and mid-back activation than the wide-grip front pulldown and narrow parallel-grip pulldown, though the differences were slight.
🏆 4. ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
The one-arm dumbbell row was only in Study 2, but it ranked high for both lat and mid-back activation.
🏆 4. TWO-ARM CHEST-SUPPORTED DUMBBELL ROW
This exercise ties the one-arm dumbbell row for our fourth spot. According to Study 2, it does a little better job of working the lats, while the one-arm dumbbell row does a little better job of working the mid-back. The best way to do these is face-down on an incline bench set at approximately 45 degrees.
WORST BACK EXERCISE
👎 TRX INVERTED ROW
The bodyweight version of this exercise with feet on the floor and pulling oneself up via a TRX Suspension Trainer from approximately 45 degrees to 30 degrees ranked lowest in both studies. It’s simply too easy for most trained people to go from leaning back to leaning a little less back. The researcher in Study 2 made these rows significantly more difficult and effective by positioning the straps overhead and elevating his feet, going from approximately 0 degrees to 15 degrees, and also adding 25 lbs. of resistance with a backpack. That’s certainly one way to work back if you only have TRX straps, but in commercial gyms you’ll have better back-training options.
Study 1 added this caveat to its last-place TRX ranking: “It might surprise some readers to see that TRX rows were outperformed by the other exercises tested in terms of muscle activation. However, it is important to note that suspension trainers like the TRX offer benefits far beyond muscle strengthening, including whole-body balance and stability training, as well as the development of accessory muscles. All of these elements should be addressed in a well-rounded exercise regimen.”
THE OTHER BACK EXERCISES
We wish the studies had looked at non-cable back machines, because most commercial gyms have lever machines for rows and pulldowns. Hammer Strength, for example, makes popular versions of both.
But let’s look at seven more exercises (all but two of which were in only Study 2). Three of the following exercises ranked okay for lats, three ranked okay for mid-back, and one ranked okay for both.
👌 STRAIGHT-ARM PULLDOWN
This is a favorite workout finisher for a lot of trainers. The straight-arm pulldown targets the lats and eliminates the biceps. Because they’re attached to the scapula, the long triceps heads also get work.
👌 DUMBBELL PULLOVER
Another lat-specific exercise that eliminates the biceps and also gets help from the triceps long heads. The serratus and pecs also do work, so some people include the dumbbell pullover on chest day. It’s a better lat exercise than chest exercise, but if you work chest and back together it’s an ideal transitional exercise.
👌 STANDING ONE-ARM CABLE ROW
The standing cable one-arm row is a unique exercise that allows you to get a good lat stretch and contraction on each rep, isolating each side.
👌 I-Y-T RAISE OR PRONE TRAP RAISE
Though the I-Y-T raise didn’t do much for lats, it ranked first for infraspinatus and high in both studies for mid and lower traps. While lying down on a bench at a slight incline, keep your arms straight and lift two light dumbbells first up to the overhead position (I), then out at 45-degree angles (Y) and then straight out (T). Contract your inner back on each rep. The prone trap raise is just the Y movement. Both exercises also work the deltoids.
Another popular workout finisher. The face-pull is better at working the mid-back than the lats, but it’s not particularly great at either. It scores high for rear delt activation and good for medial delt activation.
👌 TWO-ARM ELBOWS-OUT CHEST-SUPPORTED ROW
A variation on one of our best back exercises above, the two-arm elbows-out chest-supported row focuses more on the mid and lower traps. Your elbows should travel directly out as if doing a rear lateral, but keep your forearms vertical throughout. This will also target your rear delts.
👌 INVERTED ROW
TRX aside, not all inverted rows scored low. Grip a stationary bar, such as barbell in a power rack or a Smith machine bar. This also targeted the back better when the rower’s feet were elevated. As with the barbell row, an underhand grip worked the lats a little more and inner back a little less, while an overhand grip worked the inner back a little more and the lats a little less.
BEST BACK ROUTINE
Wide-grip Pullup 4 sets x 8-15 reps
Barbell Row* 4 sets x 8-12 reps
Underhand Pulldown 3 sets x 10-15 reps
One-arm Dumbbell Row* 3 sets x 8-12 reps
* You can swap in the Two-arm Dumbbell Row, chest-supported or not, for either of these two rows.