5 Best Back Exercises You’ve Never Heard Of
The back embodies all that is strong in the human body. When you here about a strong back or putting your back into it you imagine big, brutal acts of strength and endurance.
Those who grew up on farms or in factories or other harsh facilities all came out with a stronger mind, resilience and back. The back also carries a ton of responsibility. Atlas was famous for being cursed for carrying the weight of the world on his back. Strong indeed.
What about you? Are you in need of a little grind and grit for building a bigger, stronger back? Along those lines, are you front heavy? Do you work away at bench presses, shoulder presses and flys in hopes to building huge, massive chest and shoulders with little to show for in back development? Don’t be a victim of poor back strength and muscle mass development.
Okay, maybe you’re not that bad, you think to yourself. You’ve consistently bought into the meat and potatoes of back training – tons of pull-ups, rows and deadlifts to no avail. Maybe you’ve gone several steps further and tried every cool trick and intensity technique in the book or have recently cleaned up your form and technique to better execute each and every rep and set to exhaustion. But you still can’t get over that infamous plateau with your back development.
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Below are five unique back exercises you may have never heard of. They aren’t necessarily rocket science techniques but they may be just what you need to get you over the hump and start growing again. They are small shifts in technique and form that could have big impact. After some time and refinement you too could build a back worthy of Atlas status.
5 Best Back Exercises You’ve Never Tried
#1 – Staggered-grip pull-up
The standard pull-up still reigns supreme as the granddaddy of back exercises. Some will argue that the deadlift or bent-over row deserves the title. Well, I think people who claim that aren’t able to perform pull-ups. But we can argue that point all day.
The simple fact is that the pull-up is difficult and requires an enormous amount of coordination and strength when done properly. Contrary to popular belief the pull-down is not an equal substitute for pull-ups.
Why? Because the pull-up requires a ton more supportive muscle and creates whole-body awareness during the movement. Pull-downs isolate more on the area you are targeting and have you sitting down which will reduce even more muscle activation.
If standard grip pull-ups have you bored to death try a staggered grip. Here, I am talking about varying your grip in several fashions. You could try an overhand grip with one hand and an underhand grip with the other. Or you could try overhand and neutral grip or both overhand grips while pulling only to one side.
For the next set pull to the other side. Overall, these differentiating grips will create a very unique stimulus for your lats making them catch up to adapt. Whenever you subject a muscle group to a new type of stress it has to work hard to adapt, grow and get better. In this case your lats will respond with better development guaranteed.
#2 – Side-to-side inverted row
It has been researched that inverted rows activate more lat and overall back muscle mass than the bent-over barbell and dumbbell varieties. With that said the inverted bodyweight row should be included in every back routine at some point.
But there’s more – what kind of article would this be if I didn’t add a kick to this staple bodyweight exercise. The inverted row is a great exercise on its own but we can make it better and more challenging.
One way to up the intensity is to place your feet on a bench or, even better, on an exercise ball. This will provide both more weight placed on your lats due to the new distribution and the exercise ball will create an instability factor making your lats work overtime. But let’s take it a step further and add a dynamic element. Perform inverted rows as you always do but for your next session as you pull up alternate from side to side.
Pull up to one hand, lower back down to the center and then pull up to the other side. Another technique is to rise up to the bar and then shift your body to the other side and then finally lower back down. Rise up to the other side and repeat the motion the opposite way.
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#3 – Ab wheel rollout
Wait what? What is the word abs doing in this article? Well, bear with me and I’ll explain. If you have ever had the “pleasure” of using the ab wheel for anything you know it’s a heck of a workout.
It’s incredibly challenging in the fact that you have to have whole-body stability and strength just to force out a single rep. For those who have mastered this exercise can attest to the difficulty and have the body and strength to show for it. But what about using this exercise for your back?
The ab wheel is as much of a lat exercise as it is an ab exercise. When you pull in your arms back to the starting position you are invariably using your lats to pull as your abs are working hard to stabilize in much more of an isometric contraction. Start on your knees and holding an ab wheel with an overhand grip.
Place the wheel on the ground and roll out while keeping your arms straight and rigid. Reach out in front of you until you are fully extended. When you pull back focus on your lats activating and contracting. At the top squeeze your lats hard before starting the next rep. Think of this exercise similar to a standing straight arm pull-down on a cable machine.
#4 – Deficit T-bar row
You’ve most-likely heard of deficit deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts. Creating a deficit means increasing the range of motion by manipulating the distance of pull. For deadlifts this means that you would stand on an elevated surface so that the bar would be below the normal level of pull.
This develops strength in the bottom position as many lifter struggle with the initial pull of a deadlift. Let’s apply the same principle to T-bar rows with an added twist.
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One of the problems lifters have with T-bar rows is that they pile on 45-pound plates to the end of a bar which limits their range of motion. To circumvent this try using only 25-pound plates to increase the range so that you have to pull all the way up to your chest.
To execute this one-two punch set up a weight plate or two on each side where your feet would be planted on a T-bar apparatus. This will create your deficit. Next, use only 25-pound plates on the bar. To get the most out of these modifications grasp the handles and position your upper body parallel to the floor – not up at an angle as so many like to do.
Pull the bar all the way up into your chest until the weight plates lightly touch. When you descend stretch your lats and lower the weight below foot level. Think of this exercise as stretching and squeezing your lats instead of a hybrid upright row/deadlift/row combination.
#5 – Rope pulley row
What would an article about improving back development be without a good ole fashioned row namely pulley rows? Rows done with a standard narrow or wide bar handle attachments are great for building solid muscle but what if you could do more while adjusting one simple thing? Many static handles prohibit a full range of motion – they don’t allow for the natural extension and flexion of a specific muscle. The handle stops when it meets the body.
Using a rope attachment can fill this gap. Attach a double-handled rope to a seated pulley apparatus. Grasp the handles and start the exercise in a fully extended position with your arms stretched out in front and your torso slightly bent forward.
Begin pulling by simultaneously coming back with the rope and raising your upper body in a more upright position. At the top squeeze your lats hard by bringing the ends of the handles by your sides and back as far as you can go. Be sure you are getting deliberate stretches and intense contractions with each rep.
The Unheard of Back Workout Program
- Ab wheel rollout: 3 x 10 or as many as you can do with good form
- Staggered-grip pull-up or side-to-side inverted row: 3 x 10-12 or as many as possible
- Deficit T-bar row: 3 x 6-10
- Rope pulley row: 3 x 10-12