top of page

Back Exercises That Build Strength & Size

A collage of images of back exercises.

These back exercises will help you build strength, size and shape across all the muscles of the back.

For the line-up of back exercises, inspiration has been taken from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding.

How to use the back exercises

The following back exercises can be used to develop a workout that targets specific muscles. Because each back exercise is accompanied by a list of muscles targeted, you will be able to select exercises to meet your training outcomes.

Alternatively, you could use the back exercises to engage all areas of the back. The exercises have been organised in ascending order – lower, mid, upper.

For example, the first back exercise, deadlift, engages primarily the lower back muscles – erector spinae. Other variations of deadlifts and different lower back exercises have also been included in this section.

From the lowest point we progress to the mid back where each exercise works the next muscle or muscles in the chain. In this section you’ll find single arm dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns.

The final selection of exercises activates the upper back muscles. Here you will find reverse flys and shrugs, which both engage the trapezius and posterior deltoids.

Use these back exercises to create a workout

If you wanted to cobble together a workout, you could select an exercise from each of the three sections. This way you would be able to target all areas of the back with minimal fuss.

But what if you want to select back exercises that build strength or improve muscle definition? Because each exercise has been labelled strength! or sculpt!, you’ll easily know which ones to select for your routine.

Lower back exercises

A diagram showing the muscles groups that the below back exercises engage.

Back exercise #1: Barbell Deadlift

Back muscles targeted: erector spinae, lower lats.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

Of course, the barbell deadlift is a whole-body strength developer. Schwarzenegger says that ‘deadlifts are an overall power exercise that involves more muscles than another exercise,’ (Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).

Delavier, in his book Strength Training Anatomy, sings the praises of deadlifts too. ‘This exercise, he proclaims, works virtually every muscle. It builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscle mass.’

Deadlift key techniques

  • Adopting a shoulder-width stance, start with your feet under an Olympic barbell. To reduce excessive hinging at the hips, which could result in the rounding of the lower back, raise the barbell by using spacers or blocks.

  • Bending at the knee grasp the bar; your hands are slightly wider than your feet.

  • Focusing on lifting with the muscles of the lower back, stand up erect. Do not lean back.

  • As you stand remember to drive the hips forward.

  • Once upright, return the bar to the floor for the next rep.

  • For safer lifting, use bumper plates if possible. This way you can drop the bar from the top position.

Back exercise #2: Sumo deadlift

Back muscles targeted: erector spina, lower lats.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

The primary back muscle engaged when sumo deadlifting is the erector spina. But, as Delavier says in Strength Training Anatomy, ‘Unlike normal deadlifts, this exercise places primary emphasis on the quadriceps and abductors and secondary emphasis on the back.’

However, for the purposes of this article, we’ve included the sumo deadlift as a lower back exercise.

Sumo deadlift key techniques

  • With an Olympic barbell on the floor at your front, space your feet one and a half shoulder-widths.

  • Grasp the bar taking a shoulder-width position. Ensure that they are spaced evenly on the bar.

  • Take a deep bend at the knee before initiating the lift.

  • Contracting the glutes, quads, and lower back, stand up smoothly.

  • Once you are perpendicular, pause momentarily. Do not make the common mistake of leaning back. This is poor technique that places stress on the lower intervertebral discs.

  • If you are using bumper plates drop the bar. If not, lower under control.

Back exercises #3: Stiff Leg Deadlift

Back muscles targeted: erector spina.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

Unlike other deadlift variations, the stiff leg deadlift is very specific in the muscles that it targets. When stiff leg deadlifting, primary emphasis is placed on the erector spina.

In addition, this exercise also stretches the hamstrings. It’s for this reason that, if you haven’t performed stiff leg deadlifts before, or you are particularly inflexible in the hamstrings, you should approach with caution.

Stiff leg deadlift key techniques

  • To get the Olympic barbell into position, execute the first phase of the standard deadlift.

  • Adopt a shoulder-width stance.

  • Lock a slight bend in the knees.

  • Under control, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the upper knee.

  • To start with constrict the range of movement (ROM). When you feel more confident with the exercise, increase the ROM until the bar is level with the midpoint of your shins.

  • Pause momentarily, return to the upright position.

  • As you stand erect focus on executing a smooth movement.

Mid back exercises

A diagram showing the muscles of the back that the following back exercises engage.

Back exercise #4: Seated cable row

Back muscles targeted: lower section of the latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius, rhomboids, infraspinatus.

Purpose of the exercise: sculpt!

In The New Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger tells us that the purpose of the seated cable row is ‘to develop the thickness of the lower back and lower lats.’

Seated cable row key techniques

  • Take hold of the close-grip handles, your feet are pressed against the support, knees bent.

  • In this position you’ll likely be leaning forward. To correct your posture, execute the latter part of a deadlift.

  • Now you should be seated upright, a 90-degree angle at the hips.

  • Initiate the exercise by rowing the cable to your lower stomach. You should feel your back muscles contort as they compact together.

  • Hold for a second or two as you squeeze your arms back.

  • Return the arms to the start position and repeat.

Back exercises #5: Single arm dumbbell row

Muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Purpose of the exercise: strength! And sculpt!

The single arm dumbbell row is an excellent exercise that builds strength in the latissimus dorsi. Another attribute of this classic dumbbell exercise is that it enables you to correct any strength imbalances that can develop from performing the barbell version. Single side (or unilateral) exercises prohibit dominant muscles from overcompensating.

Dumbbell row key techniques

  • With a dumbbell positioned between you and a solid object set about waist height, first form a stable position from which to execute the lift.

  • Space your feet so that the one opposite to the arm lifting is further forward.

  • The foot on your lifting side is set back and slightly out.

  • The supporting hand is gripping the solid object and your upper body is almost parallel to the floor.

  • Now grasp the dumbbell and proceed to row it until it touches the side of your torso.

  • Lower the dumbbell to the start position but stop short of touching the floor.

  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Back exercise #6: Barbell row

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, lower back.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

The bent-over barbell row is a terrific mid-back strength builder. But let’s not forget that ‘This exercise also helps widen the upper back and, to a lesser degree, adds density to the lower back,’ (Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).

However, though the row primarily targets the lats, it engages wide range of muscles across the body. That’s why the barbell row is dubbed a whole-body builder. And don’t forget, you can perform bent-over rows with dumbbells, kettlebells, and training bands.

All the key teaching points have been outlined below. However, there’s one important point that we should always keep in mind when rowing – and that is: ‘To avoid any risk of injury, make sure your back is never rounded throughout the movement,’ (Strength Training Anatomy).

Barbell row key techniques

  • Stand in the upright position with an Olympic barbell resting against the upper quads.

  • The feet and hands should be spaced a little over shoulder-width.

  • Keeping a slight bend locked at the knee, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the patella.

  • The back remains perfectly flat and you are looking to your front.

  • Under control row the bar until it touches your stomach. As you do so try and keep the elbows tucked in.

  • To complete the movement, straighten the arms.

Back exercise #7: Lat pulldowns

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus.

Purpose of the exercise: strength! And sculpt!

The lat pulldown is a brilliant mid back building. Though primarily used to sculpt defined muscles, it can also build strength. Bruce Lee used this exercise extensively in his workouts to forge his impressive ‘wings’. (When you're done here, try Bruce Lee's Workout.)

Lat pulldown key techniques

  • First, ensure that the lat pull machine is set up correctly. Adjust the leg supports so that you can wedge yourself in securely. Also, check the weight stack and to make sure that it is not too heavy.

  • Grasp the curved bar taking a wide grip. It’s important to space your hands equally across the bar. A seemingly obvious teaching point, but many make this mistake.

  • When your hands are positioned sit down and wedge your legs under the supports. This will stop you from being pulled up out of your seat during the lift.

  • Keep the back straight and eyes fixed on the bar.

  • In one smooth movement pull the bar to your chin. When doing so, keep the elbows pointing to the side – don’t allow them to close together.

  • Return the bar under control and repeat.

Back exercise #8: T-bar row

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, mid trapezius, posterior deltoid.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

Arnold Schwarzenegger identifies the T-bar row as a superlative exercise for developing the thickness of the middle and outer back (Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding).

He also reminds us that, because this is a mid and upper back builder, ‘you are not supposed to do much lifting with the lower back or legs.’ Thus, if you find that you are hinging at the hips or bending the knees when T-bar rowing, the weight is probably too heavy.

T-bar row key techniques

  • Straddling an Olympic barbell – or T-bar apparatus – take a narrow hand position.

  • Heave the bar off the floor and organise your body as you would when performing a bent-over row.

  • The knees are bent but locked into place. Also, the back is straight and almost parallel to the floor.

  • Keeping your eyes fixed forward, row the T-bar to your chest.

  • Pause at peak contraction for a second or two before returning.

Upper back exercises

A diagram showing the muscles of the back that the following back exercises engage.

Back exercises #9: Seated incline reverse flys

Back muscles targeted: rear deltoids, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Purpose of the exercise: sculpt!

The seated incline fly is a super-controlled movement that sculps razor sharp definition in the muscles of the upper back. Typically performed with a pair of dumbbells, you can mix things up by using cables or even a resistance band. To increase the effectiveness of the exercise, pause at peak contraction and squeeze your shoulder blades together as though cracking a walnut.

Seated incline reverse flys key techniques

  • Set a 45-degree incline on a workout bench.

  • Place two dumbbells at the head of the bench.

  • Take a reverse seated position so that your chest is pressed against the back support.

  • Pick up the dumbbells then, ensuring to maintain a shallow bend in the elbows, fly the DBs back as though you’re drawing open a pair of curtains.

  • When executing this exercise, focus on performing a smooth controlled movement.

Back exercise #10: Kettlebell single arm pulls

Back muscles targeted: trapezius, rear deltoids, rhomboids, teres minor and major, infraspinatus.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

No list of exercises is complete with at least one kettlebell movement. Of all the exercises in this list, the kettlebell single arm pull is the most dynamic. Somewhat similar to a single arm swing, you are pulling the kettlebell through your legs and up to your chest. But, unlike a swing, you are cutting the trajectory short as you pull the bell to your body. This movement is kind of like an upright row.

Kettlebell single arm row key techniques

  • Centre your mass over a kettlebell. Adopt a stance slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • Grasp the kettlebell with one hand.

  • To initiate the movement, pull the bell back between your legs.

  • Thrust the kettlebell forward with your hips.

  • When it passes your hips pull the bell to your shoulders.

  • Push it back away and down to initiate the next rep.

Related: Master the 10 Best Kettlebell Exercises

Back exercises #11: Dumbbell shrugs

Back muscles targeted: trapezius, anterior deltoid, rhomboids, infraspinatus.

Purpose of the exercise: strength!

The dumbbell shrug provides a very specific strength development function. Though the range of movement is constricted, shrugs are by far the best exercise for building bulging traps. But if you squeeze the shoulder blades together while shrugging you’ll also engage the posterior deltoid, rhomboids, and other smaller muscle of the back.

Dumbbell shrugs key techniques

  • Stand with two dumbbells by your sides.

  • Adopt a shoulder-width stance.

  • Keep your eyes fixed forward, core tight, chest out.

  • Attempt to touch your ears with your shoulders.

  • Don’t roll your shoulders – up, pause, then down.

  • To increase the focus on the lower section of the traps, force your shoulders back at peak contraction as though you’re trying to crack a walnut between your shoulder blades.

  • Hold at the top position before returning to the start.

Related: Try these Back Workouts on for Size


In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

65 views0 comments


bottom of page