Last updated 11th August 2016: Below is our list of the top back exercises to build muscle mass. We’ve included what we (and other experts we’ve learnt from) believe to be the best exercises for overall strength, overall muscle growth and also muscle activation (mind-muscle connection.) Let us know what you think in the comments section and remember to share if you enjoyed the post.
The barbell deadlift is the number #1 ranked exercise for building overall muscle mass and strength. This is due to the number of large muscle groups used to perform the movement. The deadlift is a compound latissimus dorsi dominant movement, but has a number of secondary muscles, such as the hamstrings, glutes, quads and lower back. Your back training sessions should start with heavy deadlifts, in the rep range of 3-8 (obviously remember to warm up and perform a dynamic stretching session first.)
Pull Ups (Weighted if possible)
Weighted wide-grip pull ups were voted as the second most effective back exercise for mass. If you cannot start with a wide grip or with weight then simply work up to 5 sets of 5. Once you’ve achieved this then begin to move your grip wider and add weight as you become stronger. If you cannot perform 3 pull ups in a row, then use a resistance band to lower the resistance, or you can use a assisted pull up machine if your gym has one, although I would not recommend this, as this builds an incorrect motor pattern.
T bar rows
T bar rows can be performed on a t-bar row machine or simply using the corner of a weight room and placing the barbell (without weight) in the corner and then adding weight to the opposite end. T bar rows work the mid back to build the thickness. When training back you should aim to perform both types of movements that build width and thickness, this will give you the best physique in the long run. Personally I like to keep in the rep range of 8-12 on T-bar rows. At the top of the movement remember to squeeze your lats and pause for half a second.
Dumbbell Row / Bent over Barbell Row
Single arm dumbbell rows or the barbell bent over rows are very similar. They work the same muscles so as a result I’ve grouped them into the same exercise. Personally in any given back training sessions I will perform one or the other. The most efficient method is to probably switch each week. If you are not confident with the bent over barbell row, you can start with the dumbbell version as the form is easier to get right. Below is a video for the dumbbell row, simply search on Youtube if you need a barbell row tutorial, there are a number of great videos.
Lat Pull Downs | Cable pull-downs
Lat pull down is essentially the machine version of a pull up. Although extremely similar the “burn” is different when performing heavy lat pull downs. I like to perform lat pull downs near the end of the session and super set these with the close grip lat pull down, doing between 8-12 reps per exercise. This helps give the final pump to your back during the end of your training session. I also recommend going light(ish) on this exercise and keeping a slight lean back (not too far) so you don’t injure your shoulders. Also remember to never do the “behind the back” lat pull down. This is common in gyms nowadays but has been proven to have no additional muscle or strength benefits, the only benefit is you will injure yourself.
Chin Ups | Underhand Pull ups
There is a lot of (not hate) but misconception with chin-ups in the fitness community. Chin ups are a bicep dominant exercise, that also use the lats as secondary movers. Most of the time on back days you will also be working the biceps (even if you don’t add any isolation bicep movements at the end of the workout), the chin-up is a great transition movement to perform as the very last back exercise and your first bicep exercise. Bodyweight chin-ups with 2-3 sets of 10-12 is what I’d recommend.
Close-Grip Lat Pull Down
As previously mentioned I like to finish my back training sessions by super setting the close grip lat pull down with the conventional or wider grip lat pull down. This allows you to hit 2 slightly different areas of the back and also lets you completely exhaust the muscle at the end of the session. This exercise should be about fast positives (the pull down itself) and slow negatives (letting the weight back upwards.) Keep your lats contracted throughout the movement and again as previously mentioned I’d recommend a rep range around 10 per set.
Training back can be incredibly enjoyable, you get to throw around some heavy weights and the pump also helps your posture too! But remember with back exercises probably more than any other type, you want to keep your form as close to perfect as possible. If you feel your form breaking down, especially on heavy exercises such as the deadlifts, then you want to stop and re-asses the weight you are using. If you aren’t training for powerlifting then you don’t need to do sets of 1-3 in every back session. Heavy sets of 1-3 once per month is more than enough for the average individual looking to build strength and size.