The Rock pulls himself up. / Under Armour

You can’t see your back muscles working. That’s why so many weight-trainers miss the target on back day, doing too many of one type of exercise and too few of another type. Don’t keep doing the same things, missing targets. Your back training probably needs a tune-up, if not a complete overhaul. Never fear, The Barbell is coming to the rescue with six approaches to help you get your back on track and distinguish you from the narrow norm. These are the best back workouts.


Let’s start with the basics. The four exercises we prescribe here were all “old favorites” by 1963, and yet over the decades, as more and more pulldown and rowing machines moved into bigger and bigger gyms, trainers did less and less free-weight back exercises. Today, though you may do one or two non-mechanical exercises in each back workout, it’s unlikely you do only free-weight exercises. Go back to the future with our rediscovered old school routine. By pyramiding deadlifts and barbell rows and doing three free-weight and one bodyweight lift, you can deepen your rear torso from your glutes to your traps.

best back workouts
Classic Physique Olympia champ Chris Bumstead goes classic with heavy deadlifts. / Instagram


Deadlift  —  4 x 12-5 reps*

Barbell Row —  4 x 12-5 reps*

Pull-up  —  3 x 8-12 reps

One-arm Dumbbell Row  —  3 x 8-12 reps

* pyramided sets


In science survey, five exercises were determined by EMG studies to be best for activating the upper back muscles. In order from best to almost-best, they were: pullup with a grip wider than shoulder-width, bent-over barbell row, pulldown (best with an underhand grip or done behind-the-neck), one-arm dumbbell row, and the two-arm chest-supported dumbbell row. Muscle activation is not the only determining factor in the effectiveness of an exercise, and these are certainly not the only effective back exercises. Nevertheless, a routine made up of lifts from this list is a great way to target your upper back muscles.


Wide-grip Pullup  —  4 x 8-15 reps

Barbell Row*  —  4 x 8-12 reps

Underhand Pulldown  —  3 x 10-15 reps

One-arm Dumbbell Row*  —  3 x 8-12 reps

* You can swap in the Two-arm Dumbbell Row, chest-supported or not, for either of these two rows.


The principal mistake most trainers make in back workouts is focusing too much on moving the weight while failing to feel the targeted muscles (or areas of muscles) working. An excellent way of correcting this is to train both sides of your back independently. Of the four exercises in our unilateral routine, you may have only done one-arm dumbbell rows before. One-arm low cable rows are performed like the two-arm version, though they allow for a longer range of motion at contraction. One-arm pulldowns are discussed with the unique lifts routine. As for one-arm straight-arm pulldowns, stand at arms-length from an overhead cable, holding a D-handle with one hand. Keeping your arm nearly straight throughout, bring your arm from overhead down to the corresponding thigh. This focuses on your outer lat and serratus.

best back workout
Chris Bumstead cranks out one-arm low cable rows. / Instagram


One-arm Dumbbell Row   — 4 x 10-12 reps

One-arm Pulldown  —  4 x 10-12 reps

One-arm Low Cable Row  —  4 x 10-12 reps

One-arm Straight-arm Pulldown  —  3 x 12-15 reps


So many of you do deadlifts and barbell rows first in your routine that you may be surprised how much more you feel your back working if you do them after lighter, more focused exercises. Our sample workout is not a textbook pre-exhaust routine wherein a compound lift (which stresses more than one body part) follows an isolation exercise (which stresses only one body part), because the exercises here are all technically compound lifts. Still, if you do pulldowns before pullovers, you’ll feel the pullovers working your back more than if you reversed this order. And if you then follow with one-arm cable rows then barbell rows and then deadlifts, by the time you get to the final two exercises your upper back should have been pre-exhausted enough that you’ll feel the heavy standards more in your lats, trapezius, and rhomboids than usual.


Behind-the-Neck Pulldown  —  3 x 10-12 reps      

Pullover (machine or dumbbell)  —  3 x 10-12 reps

One-arm Low Cable Row  —  3 x 8-10 reps

Barbell Row  — 3 x 8-10 reps

Deadlift  —  3 x 8-10 reps


When you train high-low style, you do all higher-rep sets of one exercise and all lower-rep sets of the following exercise. Alternate like this throughout the routine. This principle lends itself to back training because you can go light on a machine exercise, focusing on isolating muscles and holding contractions, and then slip as many plates as you can use on a barbell for sets of a heavy free-weight lift. Repeating this pattern throughout your workout stresses your muscles in two different ways. Those of you who tend to always slog through the same sets of 8-10 may be surprised at how varying your rep scheme in the same workout can hike your intensity and enthusiasm.

best back workouts
T-bar rows / Pexels


Chin-up or Pulldown — 3 x 12-20 reps

Deadlift — 4 x 4-8 reps

Low Cable Row — 3 x 12-10 reps

T-bar Row  — 3 x 6-8 reps

Straight-arm Pulldown  — 3 x 15-20 reps


Because your upper back is a complex muscle group, there are many exercises which work it in distinctive ways. Try the various machines in your gym. Also, try doing standard exercises with different equipment and grips. For example, an underhand row with a Smith machine will work your back differently than an overhand barbell row. You may be unfamiliar with some or all of our four unique back lifts. Work one or two into your current routine or try our regimen of all four in the same workout.

Incline Dumbbell Row This is also know as the two-arm chest-supported dumbbell row, and was included as an alternate exercise in routine #2: best back exercises. Lie face-down on an incline bench and row two dumbbells up, rotating your wrists from an overhand grip at the bottom to a palms-facing-your-sides grip at the top. This strict manner of rowing is a favorite of master trainer Charles Glass.

One-arm Pulldown With one hand, grab a D-handle attached to a pulldown cable. Pull the handle down to the side of your chest. With a longer range of motion, it’s easier to place more emphasis on the contraction than in a standard (two-hand) pulldown.

Seated Cable High Row With an overhand grip, grab two ends of a rope attached to a low-cable. Pull the rope back and up and separate the two sides so at the top position your hands should be on opposite sides of your face. This exercise combines a low cable row with a face pull and works your lats with your lower and upper traps.

High-cable Arms-out Pulldown Stand in the middle of a cable crossover station and hold D-handles attached to the two high cables so your arms are held out and up. Now pull your elbows down and to your sides at the same time. You should feel a strong stretch on your outer lats at the top and a firm contraction in your inner, lower traps at the bottom position.  

best back workouts
High-cable arms-out pulldowns / Instagram


Incline Dumbbell Row  —  4 x 8-10 reps

One-arm Pulldown  —  3 x 10-12 reps

Seated Cable High Row  —  3 x 8-10 reps

High-cable Arms-out Pulldown  —  4 x 10-12 reps


Which exercises best work the back?

Routine #2 above includes the five exercises which best activate the upper back muscles, as determined by scientific studies. They are: pullup with a wider than shoulder-width grip, bent-over barbell row, pulldown (best with an underhand grip or done behind-the-neck), one-arm dumbbell row, and the two-arm chest-supported dumbbell row (a.k.a. incline dumbbell row).

What is the number 1 back exercise?

That’s difficult to say, especially because the back is such a complex muscle group. The barbell row is arguably the best way to target both the upper and lower back and consistently use heavier weights. Maximally activating the target muscles and progressive overload are the two keys to muscle growth, and the barbell row is great for both.

Are back muscles hard to grow?

Many people find the back difficult to effectively train because they can’t see the muscles working. Instead, you need to go by feel. But once you master that feeling and mind-muscle connection, your back should grow at approximately the same rate as other muscle groups. That said, some people have particular muscles that grow much slowly than others. Back may be such an area for you, but it may instead be an area that grows quicker than others.

How long does it take to build back muscle?

To see significant gains, it will probably take 6-12 months of consistent training and proper nutrition and rest.

How can I get a bigger back fast?

There’s no secret (well, other than performance-enhancing drugs). Train your back hard at least once weekly and no more frequently than twice weekly, ingest sufficient protein throughout the day, and get at least seven hours of deep sleep nightly and you will maximize your back gains. Use the six routines above as your back training guide.

What is the ultimate back workout?

If we had to choose just one, we would go with workout #2 above, which consists of the best exercises. But different people will find different workouts (and exercises) work best for them. Switch it up and try each of our six suggested routines.

What exercise works all the back?

Again, the barbell row is a great way to stress both the upper and lower back. The conventional deadlift is another good way to work all the back, though it will stress the spinal erectors and trapezius more than the lats.

What are the 5 essential back exercises?

If we had to choose just five for a well-rounded back routine, we would go with deadlift, barbell row, pullup, one-arm dumbbell row, and low-cable row. To focus more on width, swap in pulldown for low-cable row.

What are good back workouts?

See each of the six back routines above. But if we were limited to just two, we would go with the first #1 and #2 above. The classic routine consists of deadlift, barbell row, pullup, and one-arm dumbbell row. It has a little bit of everything, and is focused on the free-weight and bodyweight basics. The best exercises routine is similar but swaps in the pulldown for the deadlift. It consists of pullup, barbell row, pulldown, and one-arm dumbbell row.

What are good back workouts with dumbbells?

You can do a wide variety of rows with one or two dumbbells. We also recommend including dumbbell pullovers to work your outer lats and serratus. A good all-dumbbell back routine would consist of two-arm incline dumbbell rows, dumbbell pullovers, and one-arm dumbbell rows, each for four sets of 8-12 reps.

What are good back workouts at home?

Unless you have a well-stocked home gym, back is the hardest muscle group to train outside a commercial gym. With two adjustable dumbbells you can do the preceding all-dumbbell back workout at home. And with a pullup bar, you can, of course, include pull-ups and chin-ups. Additionally, lower back can be worked anywhere with two, weightless, isometric exercises: the superman and the bird dog (as discussed here).

How many times a week should I do back workouts?

At least once and no more than twice. Some advanced bodybuilders divide their weekly back workload into two different workouts: one focused more on width (mostly pulldowns, pullovers, and pullups), the other focused more on thickness (mostly rows).

What should I train back with?

Because back is a complex area, a lot of weight-trainers train back alone on its own day, perhaps including lower back, rear delts, and/or trapezius. You can also follow your back routine with your biceps routine as part of a pull workout. Back in the ’70, when bodybuilders trained at a greater frequency, Arnold Schwarzenegger combined chest and back for a torso workout. Others have combined upper back with shoulders for a width workout. Those latter two combos are effective but rare today. Back alone or back-with-biceps are the most common methods.

See also: Best Lower Back Workouts