We know what you’re thinking. If you can’t see the effects of a workout in the mirror, what’s the point? And that’s understandable — you want gain as well as pain. But this short-sighted ideal could be slowing down your gym progress. If you want a beach-ready physique that’ll also protect you from injury and fix your posture, you need to put your back into it. Literally.
Sure, those chest exercises might look good in changing room, but effective exercise selection for your flipside has myriad benefits. For a start, it will add an inch to your height – finally bringing six foot within reach, no Cuban heel necessary. It’s weak upper back muscles that allow your shoulders to hunch forwards after hours at your desk. Strengthen your back, and you’ll inadvertently pull your shoulders back and down to both broaden and straighten your silhouette and make yourself stand taller.
Weak middle and lower back muscles also make you more likely to experience low back pain, a condition that leads to more than 10 million sick days being taken each year in the UK alone. Target these muscles with heavy metal, and it’s also a condition that can be solved in the gym, rather than with pain medication.
Strengthen the muscles in your upper and middle back, and you stabilise your shoulder joints, which has transferable benefit to every other upper body exercise, allowing you to lift more on chest day. Not only that, your arms will get bigger. Each back exercise centres on a pulling movement and your back works in unison with your biceps to complete each rep and, therefore, will help fill out your T-shirt sleeves. Win-win.
Finally, you may be chasing a pump in the gym, but back exercises will aid you in cutting fat, too. The reason behind this slimming side benefit is that your back muscles are some of the biggest in the body and the more muscle fibres you use, the more calories you burn. Plus, the bigger muscles you have – like the ones you’ll have after four weeks of using the exercises below, say – the faster your metabolism will be. You’ll then burn through belly fat and man boobs while sat on the sofa, basically. Which is well worth gritting your teeth through another set of pull-ups for.
To that end, we enlisted the expert help of Tom Kemp, founder of Farm Fitness and a man whose own V-shaped torso defies physics, let alone biology, to take you through the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the best back exercises for men.
The Best Back Exercises For Men
Wide-Grip Weighted Pull-Ups
How: Hold on to a bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Contract your glutes and abs to keep your core stable. To begin the rep, pull your shoulder blades back and down, forcing your elbows towards your hips to lift your chest up to the bar. At the bar, squeeze your lats (the large muscles from your shoulder blades down the sides of your back) hard at the top of the movement, keeping your elbows back and down to maximise the muscle activation of the rep. Lower yourself down to the start position slowly – the longer your muscles are under tension, the more strength and size benefit you’ll get from each set. Once the technique is mastered, add weight to the rep by hanging plates from a weight belt, or by holding a dumbbell between your feet.
Why: “The wide-grip pull up is an advanced bodyweight movement and is one of the most effective exercises to build strength,” says Kemp. However, if you keep at it, you’ll move from completing your first rep to bashing out sets of 10 relatively quickly. If you’re looking to build strength, not size, it’s better to do heavy sets of 3-5 reps with more rest. By adding weight and making the exercise more taxing you’ll be able to work in the lower rep ranges more effectively to make you stronger, faster.
Seated Cable Row
How: Sit at the cable machine and focus on a slight forward lean. Set your shoulder joint by pulling your shoulder blades back and down – this will ensure it’s only your back muscles that take the strain of the rep. Choose a handle with a neutral grip (thumbs pointing up) and pull towards you. Think about driving your elbows down towards your hips. Squeeze at the end of the rep and return to the start under control.
Why: “This is a great exercise if you want to target the mid and lower back,” says Kemp. “Just remember to think about the line of the pull – avoid pulling too high towards your chest as this will shift tension off your upper back.” Building strength in your middle back is excellent for achieving good posture and protecting your spine, to bulletproof your body against injury during day-to-day heavy lifting.
Front Banded Rack Pull
How: Position the bar on the rack below knee height. Wrap two thick bands around the rack and attach to either end of the barbell. Grip the bar and set up like a conventional deadlift – feet shoulder-width, hinged forward at the hips with a flat back, holding onto the bar with straight arms. Begin the drive with your feet by pushing hard into the floor. Pull the bar and bring your hips through as the bar travels up. Stand tall with a proud chest while pulling your lats back. Focus on a max squeeze at the top of the rep.
Why: You can pump up your upper back, too, you know. “If you are training for muscle hypertrophy [growth] and trying to create maximal tension in your target muscles, then using the bands is an effective addition to any rep,” says Kemp. “Adding bands ensures there’s tension at the top portion of the lift.” This stops you slacking half-way through the rep and taking a breather. The harder your muscles are forced to work, the more quickly they’ll grow.
Wide-Grip Lat Pull-Down
How: Grip the handle outside of shoulder width. Once again, set your shoulder joint with the shoulder blades compressed back and down. Sit up tall and begin the rep by forcing your elbows down towards your hips. Concentrating on leading with the outside of your hands will engage more of your back muscles. Pause at the bottom, focussing on contracting your lats hard while maintaining tension in your abs throughout to prevent you from arching your back. Return to the start of the exercise, focusing on stretching the lats before resetting your shoulder for rep two.
Why: This is the perfect exercise to add size and width to your back. “The wide lat pull-down mimics a pull-up, targeting the same muscles,” says Kemp. But the ability to use the lower weights of the cable machine has its advantages. “This allows for greater control on the return phase of each rep,” Kemp continues. More control equals more muscle activation and therefore speedier growth.
Singe Arm Dumbbell Row
How: Find your balance with one foot on the ground and a supporting arm on the bench. Set your core and hang the weight directly below your shoulder. Focus on pulling your elbow and shoulder blade back towards your waist. Focus on pausing and contracting the back muscles at the top of the movement. Return to the start position under control – be mindful only to extend your arm and don’t lower so far that you round your shoulders, this will release the tension from your back and make each rep less effective.
Why: “Unilateral work will sniff out any imbalances,” says Kemp. Which means that by only using one arm at a time you’ll be able to see if one side of your body is much stronger than the other. Imbalances are more impactful than just making your body look lopsided, too. If one side is weaker it can cause other muscles to compensate during day-to-day movements. It’s this overcompensation that can lead to a strain that’ll leave you sofa-bound. Even out your strength with unilateral exercises like this row and you’ll safeguard against any such issue.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
How: A dumbbell exercise, start with one in both hands and your palms facing each other, drive your hips into the bench. Slightly extend your spine up and look at the floor out in front of you. To begin the rep, think about dragging the dumbbells and your elbows back towards your waistline and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pause at max contraction and focus on flexing your upper back muscles. Return to the start position under control.
Why: “Locking your hips in position and being supported on the bench leaves no room for cheating,” says Kemp. By grounding your upper body on the bench, it isolates your upper body and stops any other muscles switching on subconsciously during the rep to help you out when things get tough. Focus on dragging the dumbbells in, pulling your elbows towards your waist to develop a strong mind-to-muscle connection. The more you can sense your back muscle engaging mentally, the larger the physical payoff.
Meadows Barbell Row
How: Position yourself over the end of the barbell landmine, hinged forward at the hip and with a flat back. Brace your abdominals to keep a solid posture and reach for the barbell end. Grip the barbell and drag the bar into your hip. Pause for a moment at the top of the rep focusing on max contraction. Return to the start position getting a full stretch in the lat.
Why: This modified version of a single arm dumbbell row positioned will allow for a great stretch and involvement of the entire lower lat while also challenging your grip,” says Kemp. “Although, if you struggle with your grip don’t let this limit you from how much weight you can lift, use wraps – this meant to be a back exercise, after all.” Again, you’ll benefit from working one side at a time, too, so be mindful of any imbalances if one side is stronger than the other.
How: The aim is to use a full range of motion on this exercise, so climb high enough so you can fully lengthen your arms at the bottom of the rep. Hold the ropes with feet off the floor. Drive your elbows down and contract your back to lift up your chest until it rises to in line with your hands. Pause at this position, focusing on a maximum squeeze in your back. Slowly lower yourself down and mentally prepare yourself for the burn in your forearms.
Why: “You’ll build a grip of steel,” says Kemp. “This exercise reaps more benefits than just working your back muscles.” While the back strength benefits of another pull-up variation are obvious, your grip can be a limiting factor in other major lifts like your deadlift, for example. Double up your gains by targeting both in this exercise to build size and strength, but also build a vice-like hold that will allow you to add extras kilo to almost every other exercise you do in the gym.