Isolating the back muscles can be tricky, especially if all you are doing is pull-ups and rows.
The reality is that most people will need to use a combination of machines, dumbbells, and other free weight exercises to isolate their back, regardless of their training level.
Below are 18 of the best back exercises you can do to isolate the back muscles. In addition to choosing the proper exercises, you need to also perform them with good technique and controlled repetitions, always focused on squeezing the muscle every rep.
In this article, we will first break down the muscles of the back, discuss how to isolate them, and offer you a sample back workout routine you can do to get more growth.
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What Muscles Make Up the Back?
The back is made up of a few different muscles, each working at different angles to help us maintain an upright posture and pull things into our body from different angles.
It’s easiest to break the back down into the three main groups:
1. Back Extensors
These muscles are responsible for extending the spine and keeping us upright during day to day activities.
The main muscles of the back that are responsible for this are the erectors and the multifidus.
For most lifters, isolating these is not a huge area of concern as they are often trained while doing most movements, such as deadlifts, back extensions, and bent over rows.
2. Vertical Pulling Muscles
The vertical pulling muscles are the same muscles that perform the horizontal pulling movements, however different fibers of the back work at different angles.
When performing vertical pulling movements (pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, straight arm lat pulldowns) you work the lats as well as the lower trapezius muscles.
3. Horizontal Pulling Muscles
Horizontal pulling movements are generally any type of row, such as dumbbell rows, machines rows, bent over rows, and the inverted row.
While the lats and traps are trained in vertical pulling movements, horizontal pulling movements train different fibers within those muscles to develop a more sculpted and complete back.
How Do You Isolate the Back?
When training to isolate the back, it is important to choose movements and loads that allow you to feel the muscle contract, and to be fully aware of the muscle stretching and shortening under load.
Below are four of the most important tips to remember when trying to isolate the back.
Tip #1: Focus on What You Are Doing
When doing a movement, take your time feeling the tension on the muscle as it moves throughout the range of motion.
Try to minimize resting between reps or releasing the tension on the muscle to make things easier.
Remember, the goal is to make the muscle feel the tension and be fatigued by the end of the set.
Tip #2: Choose the Right Amount of Weight
When the weight is too heavy, it can be challenging to control the weight while lowering or when trying to go all the way down.
Often, using too heavy of weight impedes your ability to use good form and maintain tension of the muscle.
On the other hand, using too light of weight often results in you not challenging the muscle enough (or you just get tired and bored of the movement before the muscles give out).
Weight selection can be a challenging thing to learn, but as a general rule of thumb, you want to train with as much weight as you can for a given rep range WITHOUT altering your form, speed of movement, or quality of reps.
Tip #3: Slow Down Your Movements
When trying to isolate a muscle, you will want to slow down the eccentric phase (lowering phase) of the movement.
This will help you keep tension in the muscle and not rely on momentum or gravity to assist the movement.
By making the lowering phase challenging, you force a muscle to work throughout the entire set, not just when the weight is being lifted.
Tip #4: Choose the Best Exercise For Your Body
If you have done all of the other tips above perfect, there may be a chance that whatever exercise you are choosing just isn’t the right one for you (at least for now).
A good example is if you can do a few pull-ups, but after doing 5 you can’t do any more.
Instead, you may want to use the assisted pull-up machine or lat pulldown so that you can train in moderate and higher rep ranges too, which will help you isolate the muscles more and deliver higher amounts of volume (sets and reps) and muscle stress to them (to induce more muscle growth).
Another example may also be when your lower back starts to fatigue out before your upper back during bent over rows (or if your hamstrings are very sore from a leg day a few days ago).
If other muscles are holding you back training back, choose an exercise that allows you to work around those sore and tired muscles to let you isolate the back.
In this example, it may be best to choose a machine or Hammer Strength row instead of a bent over row.
18 Best Back Isolation Exercises
Below are 18 of the best back isolation exercises that you can do to isolate your back and build muscle. The 18 exercises below are broken down into four categories (bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, and machines).
- Chin Up
- Inverted Row
- Back Extension
- Bent Over Row
- Barbell Underhand Bent Over Row
- Barbell Pullover
- Incline Bench Dumbbell Row
- Bent Over Dumbbell Row
- One Arm Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Machine Row
- Hammer Strength Iso Row
- Machine Assisted Pull Up
- Machine Assisted Chin-Up
- Cable Lat Pulldown
- Cable Row
- Straight Arm Cable Pulldown
Note for Fitbod users: all of the exercise below can be found in the Fitbod app, making them great additions to your next workout!
Bodyweight Back Isolation Exercises
The pull-up is a back building exercise that when done properly can be a great way to isolate the back.
When doing pull-ups for isolation of the muscles, you need to ensure you are strong enough to do these slowly, and with the highest levels of control.
You also should be able to do at least 8-10 perfect pull ups to ensure you are doing enough volume (reps) to get the growth you want.
If you struggle to do these with perfect form, try doing them with the machine assisted pull-up variation that is discussed in the machine section.
- Hang from a bar with a double overhand grip (palms facing away), with the hands wider than shoulder width.
- With your feet together and arms straight, use your back muscles to pull your chin to the bar.
- Pause at the top of the movement, then lower yourself slowly, and repeat, making sure to fully straighten the elbows at the bottom.
Pause at the top of the movement, and slowly lower yourself all the way down. Most people will benefit from doing these with a machine assist.
2. Chin Up
Like the pull-up, the chin-up can be a challenging exercise for most gym goers to do for back isolation.
If you cannot perform these with slow and controlled reps, and focus on squeezing your back during the movement, you may want to opt for the machine assisted variation discussed below.
- You will perform this the same way you would a pull-up, with the only difference being that you use a double underhand grip (palms facing you) with shoulder width or slightly narrower.
Don’t allow the elbows to flare out during this. This will help you force the back muscles to work more than the arms.
3. Inverted Row
Unlike the pull-up and chin-up, the inverted row is a horizontal pulling movement that trains the back at a different angle than those vertical pulls.
This is a good exercise for all levels, as it allows you modify the difficulty by changing the angle at which the row is performed.
- Place a barbell in the J hooks in a squat rack, set to hip height.
- Grab the bar, making sure not to pull it in the direction that it could get pulled out of the J hooks. Your grip shoulder be shoulder width or slightly wider.
- With your arms straight, walk your feet under the bar until your chest is under the bar.
- Pull your body up to the bar and touch it with your chest, then lower yourself back down and repeat.
The chest should touch the bar, and your shoulders should not be rounded forward.
4. Back Extension
The back extension targets the erectors and can be done with bodyweight only or added weight.
This is often done to specifically target the lower back muscles.
- Set yourself up in a back extension apparatus, and have the thigh pad on your thighs, with your upper torso hanging off the edge.
- Lean forward, bending at the hip, and lengthening the lower back and hamstrings.
- Use your back to pull your torso back to the starting position.
Be careful not to hyperextend your lower back at the top.
Barbell Back Isolation Exercises
5. Bent Over Row
The bent over row is a great all around back exercise, training the erectors and lats.
When doing this, you can vary the angle at which your torso is, however having it perpendicular to the floor will be the most challenging angle (but also one of the best angles for overall back development).
- Stand over a barbell, with your feet hip width apart.
- With your back flat, softly bend your knees and push your hip snack, as if you are performing a Romanian deadlift.
- Grab the bar with a double overhand grip that is wider than shoulder width.
- While keeping your hips high in the air, and your back arched, pull the barbell to the middle of the chest (which targets the middle and upper back).
- You can also pull the barbell to the stomach (which trains the middle and lower lats more)
- Slowly lower the weight back down, and repeat.
- You can also do these with you back at a 45 degree angle to isolate more of the lower lats.
This is very tough to do with perfect form, so make sure you are paying attention to the body position. DO NOT let your hips drop or lower back round.
6. Barbell Underhand Bent Over Row
This is done exactly how the barbell bent over row is performed, with the only exception being that you do this with a double underhand (palms up) grip.
By using this grip, you target more of the lower lats and biceps.
- Perform a barbell bent over row as described, however use an underhand grip with your hands shoulder width apart.
Keep your elbows in to the body, rather than letting them flare outwards.
7. Barbell Pullover
This exercise is done to target the lats as well as the area at which the chest muscles come to meet the back muscles (near the serratus).
This can help give you a V-shape physique.
- Lie on your back with a barbell pressed up overhead.
- Your grip should be roughly shoulder width, but this may vary depending on your comfort levels.
- With the elbows straight, reach the arms and barbell backwards in an arcing motion, reaching the weight as far back as you can.
- You should feel a big stretch in the lats and on the sides of the body.
- Go as low as you can while still feeling a good stretch and being in control of the movement, then pull the weight back to the start position.
Do this for moderate to higher reps, and perform slow reps to make sure you minimize injury risks at the shoulders and elbows.
Dumbbell Back Isolation Exercises
8. Incline Bench Dumbbell Row
The incline dumbbell row is a great dumbbell back exercise that allows you to train in a variety of rep ranges and truly isolate your back.
Unlike other bent over row exercises, this one provides you with a bench to lie on. In doing so, you do not have to rely on your lower back or hamstrings for support during the movement, which is key when you want to isolate the back rather than have other muscle groups tire out first.
- Set an incline bench at a low angle(15 degrees), one that when you lie chest down on you can let your hands reach towards the floor and be straight (but not too far that you can pick up weights).
- Grab a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, and lie chest down on the bench.
- Your chest should be hanging off the end of the bench.
- With your arms straight under your shoulders, pull the weights upwards by pulling your elbows to the sides of your stomach.
- The weights should be wide enough that they can be on the sides of your ribs.
- Pause at the top, then lower the weights slowly and repeat.
Your elbows should be closer to your hips than they are to the shoulders at the top of the row.
9. Bent Over Dumbbell Row
This is the dumbbell variation of the barbell bent over row, and is performed in the same manner as it is with the barbell.
You may notice that you are able to take different wrist positions and even pull the weights past your body more, increasing the demands.
- Perform this row with one dumbbell in each hand, similar to how you would do a barbell bent over row (see above).
This exercise takes more coordination and just as much flexibility as the barbell version. Be sure to focus on your body position, and always keep your hips and chest high while your back is parallel to the ground.
10. One Arm Dumbbell Row
The one arm dumbbell row is a unilateral (one side of the body) back exercise that allows you to train the back at the same angle as a bent over row, however with more support (since your body hand is helping provide you with a base).
This can be helpful for those who struggle to assume a good bent over position.
- Stand in front of a bench, and have it run perpendicular to your body.
- With your feet shoulder width apart, bend over at the hips and place both hands on the bench.
- Softly bend your knees, so that your back is parallel to the ground and your lower back is arched.
- Take one hand off the bench and grab a dumbbell, and row the weight to the body just like you would in the dumbbell bent over row discussed above.
- Perform reps on that side, then switch arms.
Keep your hips and chest high, and never let you lower back round.
11. Dumbbell Pullover
This is the dumbbell version of the barbell pullover, and trains many of the same muscles.
The dumbbell version may be more comfortable for some people who find the barbell pullover creates shoulder discomfort. Due to the hand placement on the dumbbell, it also may be easier to get a bigger stretch (without aggravating the shoulders).
- Lie on your back with a dumbbell pressed up overhead.
- The handle of the dumbbell should be running vertically (as opposed to horizontally). You should have both hands grabbing the one end of the dumbbell, with the other end hanging overhead.
- With a soft bend in the elbows, reach the dumbbell back in an arcing motion just like you would in the barbell pullover.
- Pause when you stop feeling a big stretch in the lats, and then pull the weight back to the original starting position and repeat.
You should think about moving the weight in an arcing motion, rather than just lowering it straight down behind your head. The weight should move out and away from you, while also slowly lowering to the ground (again, in an arcing motion).
Machine Back Isolation Exercises
12. Machine Row
The machine row is a good exercise to isolate the back as it places you in a position that forces you to move in a fixed path, often the one you need to do.
Unlike free weight, it does not allow you to position yourself to shift weight to other muscle groups, keeping the focus on the back muscles.
- Depending on your machine, sit down and grab the handles. The chest pad should be at your chest level.
- Reach your hands forward, and pull the handles backwards, making sure to keep your chest on the pad as you row.
- Pull your shoulder blades together, pause, and then slowly lower the weight (straighten the arms) and repeat.
Focus on feeling the shoulder blades separating as you extend your arms out front, and then pull them together as you lift the weight.
13. Hammer Strength Iso Row
This row machine trains both arms at the same time, however they individually work to lift the weight.
This is a great way to train a fixed rowing motion, but also address weaknesses between arms. Unlike the machine row, the Hammer Strength Iso Row forces you to lift equal amounts of weight with each arm (instead of being able to use one side more than the other).
- Sit down on the machine.
- Grab the handles with your chest on the pad, and perform a row, keeping your chest on the pad (do not lean back).
- Pause in the row position, and then lower the weights by straightening your arm, and repeat.
Slow the lowering phase down and work on controlling both sides equally.
14. Machine Assisted Pull Up
The machine assisted pull-up is a great option not only for beginners, but for heavier (even stronger) lifters who struggle to do higher rep pull-ups with good form.
This machine allows you to adjust the weight assistance to help you do perfect pull ups and really isolate the back muscles (instead of using all your muscles to try to do pull-ups).
- Set the weight stack and then place your knees on the pad. The more weight on the stack, the easier it will be.
- Grab the handles like you would in a regular pull-up, and hang from the bar with your knees on the pad.
- In a slow and controlled motion, pull your chest up to the bar, pause, and then lower yourself.
- You should not be jerking your body around.
This is not just for beginners. Force yourself to do perfect reps on these, even advanced lifters.
15. Machine Assisted Chin-Up
This is nearly identical to the machine assisted pull-up, however you take an underhand grip (palms facing you).
Like the regular chin-up, this will train the back and biceps.
- You will set yourself up the same exact way that you would the machine assisted pull-up, with the only difference being that you take an underhand grip.
Do not let your elbows flare out when doing this.
16. Cable Lat Pulldown
This is a cable variation of the pull-up movements, and trains the back.
This is a great isolation exercise as it can be trained with a variety of loads, grips, and handle attachments.
- Grab the handle and sit down on the seat, with your thighs under the pad (to help hold you down in the seat).
- Reach your arms overhead (fully straighten the arms) and sit up tall.
- Pull the bar or attachment down to your chest, without leaning back.
- Pause at the bottom, making sure your chest is up and your torso is not leaning back.
- Lower the weight slowly until the arms are straight, and repeat.
Do not let your elbows flare out when doing this.
17. Cable Row
The cable row is done like the machine or Hammer Strength Iso row, however you do not have a chest pad to force you to stay upright.
When doing this cable row, make sure that you stay upright and do not let your torso lean back during the row, as this suggests you are using your lower back to lift the weight, not your lats.
- Sit down on the bench and grab the handles.
- With your arms straight and chest up, pull the handles to your chest or stomach, making sure to keep the chest up and torso vertical.
- Pause, making sure you are not leaning back (shoulders should be lined up over the hips), and then lower the weight slowly, and repeat.
Push your hips back as far as you can, and have a slight lean forward. This will help you isolate the back more.
18. Straight Arm Cable Pulldown
This exercise works the same muscles as the pullover (dumbbell and barbell) exercises from above, however it is often less stressful on the shoulder joint.
- Stand up tall and have the cable pulley at head level or higher.
- With either the rope or bar attachment, grab the handles with straight arms and bend your hips and knees and lean our chest forward.
- You should feel a stretch along the sides of the upper body (back and underarm area).
- In an arcing motion, pull the hands down while keeping the chest up and hips back (arch your back).
- Pull the hands down to the hips, and do not let the upper body round forward.
- Pause, and then reverse the movement, and repeat.
Do not let your upper torso (chest and shoulders) collapse forward as you pull the hands down.
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Sample Back Isolation Workout Routine
Below is a sample workout routine you can do at most commercial gyms. You should have access to basic gym machines and free weights.
All of these exercises can be found in the Fitbod app, however the workout below is just an example that can be used to help you design your own workouts.
- Barbell Bent Over Row: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds
- Machine Assisted Pull Up: 4 sets of 10 reps, superset with diamond push up.
- Lat Pulldown (underhand grip): 3 sets of 12 reps, resting 45 seconds
- Cable Straight Arm Pulldown: 3 sets of 12 reps, resting 45 seconds
- Machine Cable Row: 3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 45 seconds
Related Article: Looking to build more lean muscle? Here are 19 tips!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Best Back Exercise for Muscle Growth?
Ideally you would train a few movements for optimal back growth, making sure that you train both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises. It is important to remember that the best exercise is the one that you can do with the best form and proper intensity; all while isolating the muscle.
Can You Build Back Muscles Training Once a Week?
While some beginners may get some growth by doing back only once per week, most people will need to devote two days (sometimes three if you are more advanced or have a stubborn back) if you want to build the back muscles.
How Can I Increase My Back Size With Dumbbells Only?
If you only have access to dumbbells, make sure you are training all of the dumbbell movements above twice per week. You should also aim to add in the bodyweight movements (pull-ups, chin-ups, and inverted rows) to work the back at all angles for optimal development.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.