I started training with weights back in 1989 at the age of 14. Even back then (28 years!) my favorite body part to train was always back. I had no idea why but there was something primal about struggling to do my first pull up in my parent’s basement that provided extra motivation to train harder and get stronger.
Fast forward 27 years and a back workout is still the one that gets me amped up more than any other. And as a coach, some of my proudest moments are watching an athlete achieve their first unassisted pullup or deadlifting double bodyweight!
A strong, well-developed back is important for myriad reasons but two of the most important are:
Improved Athletic Performance: Powerful back muscles have direct transfer to countless athletic activities, from every contact sport (MMA, judo, wrestling, boxing, football, rugby etc.) to swimming, rowing, baseball, golf and many more.
Increased Resilience to Injury: Back injuries can be extremely debilitating (esp. lower back) and a big reason besides a lack of mobility is a lack of strength. Besides having the aesthetic benefits of a muscular back, staying injury free should be a high priority for you.
After 27 years and literally hundreds of back workouts completed, here are my 7 all-time favorite exercises for a strong, well-developed and bulletproof back:
This is one of two back exercises I can’t live without. It’s a staple exercise in the programs of nearly every athlete I coach. This is the strongest grip position for the vast majority of people and for those striving to do their first pull-up, this is the grip that will get you there fastest. Check out the video demonstration for proper technique here.
Medium-grip chin ups are an outstanding back and biceps builder. This grip position is the second strongest for the majority of people. Neutral grip pull-ups and medium grip chin-ups are also very favorable for athletes with minor shoulder issues, compared to wide grip pull-ups. For best results, make sure you are using a full range of motion. This means a full stretch at the bottom position and your head should clear the bar at the top. Check out the video demonstration for proper technique here.
Close Grip Pulldown
Pulldowns are an ideal complement to pull-ups and chin-ups. One advantage of the close grip pulldown is the ability to increase time-under-tension (a key variable for muscle growth) using intensity techniques like pauses, slow negatives and drop sets. To use these techniques with a pull-up, your strength level has to be very advanced. With a pulldown, you can introduce pauses and/or drop sets with most beginner/intermediate athletes. Check out the video demo for proper technique here.
Seated Cable Row
Cable rows are easily my favorite row variation. The stretch position at the beginning of the movement without aggravating the lower back offers an advantage over variations like the barbell row or T-bar row. Avoid using momentum to row the weight and strive to hold the weight in the finish position for a 1-count. Check out the video demo for proper technique here.
Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row
This variation of dumbbell rows is excellent for upper back development and shoulder health. It’s also a staple accessory exercise for many elite powerlifters to prevent strength imbalances from heavy bench presses. For increased time-under-tension, pause each rep at the top of the movement for 2-3 seconds. Check out the video demo for proper technique here.
I discovered these within the last few years after subscribing to the website of legendary bodybuilding coach John Meadows of Mountain Dog fame. Stretchers or standing pulldowns are an awesome exercise to start your back workout in preparation for heavier movements like pull-ups, rows and deadlifts. They’re also amazing as a finisher at the end of your session. Stretchers are an ideal high-rep movement and will give you an incredible pump. Check out the video demo for proper technique here.
This is the second back exercise I can’t live without. I started doing these after reading Bill Pearl’s excellent weight-training encyclopedia Getting Stronger and honestly believe they have helped me at every stage of my athletic career, from track & field, football and eventually powerlifting. The deadlift is central to the programs of all Strong Athletes, whether the goal is elite athletic performance, improved body composition, or injury rehab. For more on how to increase your deadlifting numbers, click here.
Yours in Strength,
Coach PK, Team Strong Athlete