Building a thick, wide, and muscular back needs a variety of pulling movements from a variety of angles.
Most back-focused training programs emphasize some sort of horizontal pull (i.e seated row), vertical pull (i.e. pull-up), and a heavier compound exercise (i.e. deadlift or rack pull) to stimulate muscle growth.
In this article, we will discuss the 11 best barbell back exercises to build strength and mass:
- Barbell Bent Over Row
- Barbell Bent Over 45 Degree Row
- Barbell Underhand Bent Over Row
- Landmine T-Bar Row
- Meadows Row
- Barbell Pullover
- Barbell Back Extension
- Conventional Deadlift
- Wide Grip Deadlift
- Rack Pull
- Barbell Seal Row
The beauty of most of these exercises is that all you need is a barbell and some weight plates.
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What is Considered “The Back”?
The back is a general term used to describe the latissimus dorsi muscle, however it can also include the erector spinae (lower back), traps, and rear delts. Especially, when we talk about the back, as we are referring to the entire backside of the body, which can then be broken down into its individual parts.
For the sake of this article, we will specifically discuss the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae, as the rear delts and traps are often trained during shoulder sessions.
Training the back for optimal development should include exercise that hits the lats from different angles, most commonly in the form of rows, pull ups, and heavier deadlift movements.
Looking for a program to build a strong and muscular back? Check out the Fitbod app, which can build a program designed to help you gain strength, add muscle, track your progress, and progress you week to week to get the most out of your training.
1. Barbell Bent Over (Pendlay) Row
To perform the barbell bent over row, you first need to set up a barbell with plates on the floor, and step up to the bar as if you were going to perform a deadlift.
Your feet should be roughly hip width apart, with your grip slightly wider than shoulder width. With a soft bent in the knee, push your hip snack and keep your lower back arched and chest up, as you grab the bar with straight arms.
This position is the bottom of the row (back flat, chest up, and arms straight with the weight on the floor). Pull the bar to the chest or upper abdomen, without moving the back around or losing the arch in your lower back, and then slowly control the weight downward towards the floor.
- The bent over barbell row is a great exercise to build the back, traps, rear delts, and erectors. While most exercises target a specific muscle on the back of the body, this comount exercise targets the entire back every rep.
- This has broad carry over to Romanian deadlifts, deadlifts, and even back squats.
- This is often done incorrectly, and can result in injury or less than optimal training progress.
- Too many lifters focus on moving the weight with poor form than focusing on moving the weight with the back.
- Proper set up and execution of the row requires hamstring flexibility, awareness, and control of one’s spine
When in doubt, start with lighter reps and work proper form. Make sure your lower back is not rounded and you are bent over so that your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.
2. 45 Degree Barbell Bent Over Row
To perform this exercise, you will get set up in the same manner as the bent over barbell row from above. The only exception is that you will deadlift the weight up to the hip, and then hinge at the hips to lower the bar so that your torso is angled 45 degrees from the floor (instead of nearly 90 degrees).
By taking this more upright rowing angle you train more of the middle and lower lats, as well as the traps.
- This is a great movement to target the lats, and decrease the need for hamstring flexibility.
- Because you are more upright in the row, you are placing less strength and loading demands on the hamstrings and lower back.
- Some lifters may feel they can gain more weight in this range of motion (which they should), however this doesn’t mean that you should disregard proper form and technique.
- Lifting heavier in this range can be beneficial, however some lifers who’ll change the angle of their body as they get more fatigued.
Try to set your back at 45 degrees, and make sure that you are not moving your back up and down as you row, (more than a few degrees at most). Additally, always keep the hip pushed back, and never let them come forward (this often means your lower back is rounding or you are too upright).
3. Underhand Barbell Bent Over Row
The underhand bent over barbell row can be done from a 45 degree or 90 degree angle (Pendlay row).
The only difference between those and the underhand row is that the lifter takes a supinated grip (palms up) on the barbell, which will decrease the amount of rear delt involvement and increase demands placed on the biceps (especially when the elbows are not flared out).
- This can be used to target the lats and also add variety to your back workouts
- If you are looking to add some indirect arm training, you can use the underhand row to train the back and biceps in one movement.
- This can be done incorrectly, like most bent over rows, which is why it is important to use strict form
- This exercise may place a ton of tension on the biceps, which could be too much for lifers who have weaker arms or already train arms frequently.
Keep the elbows in and chest up as you perform the row to make sure you are targeting the lats.
4. Landmine T-Bar Row
The landmine T-bar row can be done with or without a handle attachment. If you do not have a handle attachment, you can use a towel or rope, something that is sturdy and where you can grab both ends of the towel. To make sure the towel doesnt slide down the bar, place a 10-25lb plate at the end of the barbell as a stopper.
Once you have the handle situation figured out, straddle the end of the barbell, with your back at the other end (the anchor point).
The anchor point can be a landmine attachment to a rig, or a corner.
Grab the handles and stand up. Softly bend the knees and push the hips back to lower the weight into position, which should be when the weights touch the floor and your torso should be bent about 45 degrees forward.
Perform a row, making sure it keeps the body in position and pulls the elbows back.
- This is a great row version to train the back, traps, and erectors.
- Unlike the bent over row, you do not have to be as bent over to get a great back workout as the landmine changes the angle of the row to allow you to be more upright and still target the lats effectively.
- This is a good row option for people who may experience lower back pain or discomfort, or generally lack the ability to control their body, during regular bent over rows.
- This, like most rows, can be done poorly, and should always be done with a flat or arched lower back, chest up, and hips pushed back.
Do not let the hips come forward. If the hips move forward, this means you are too upright or your lower back is rounding, or both.
5. Meadows Row
To perform the Meadows row, you will need to place a barbell in a landmine attachment or place one end in a corner so that it doesn’t move.
From there, load a weight plate on the end, and take a staggered stance with your body perpendicular to the end of the barbell.
You will perform a one arm staggered stance row, making sure to pull the hand past the side of the body.
- This is a great row variation to increase back strength and hypertrophy, as it has a massive range of motion and allows you to move heavy loads.
- By being perpendicular to the bar, you are able to pull the handle past your torso, which helps to get a fuller contraction.
- This can be tough to get set up properly for beginners who may not have great body awareness doing unsupported, staggered stance rows
Try using smaller plates (a ton of 25lbs instead of the larger circumference 45lbs plates, as this will increase the range of motion at the bottom of the lift)
6. Barbell Pullover
To perform the barbell pullover, you will want to lie perpendicular on a bench, with your chest up and hips off the side, like you would a hip thrust. Your shoulder blades should be on the bench, and your head slightly hanging off.
Take a barbell and grab it with a shoulder width grip. Reach the bar back behind you, letting it drop to the floor. You can have soft elbows. You should feel the stretch in the lats, as well as feeling tension in the middle of the upper back/shoulder blades.
Pull the bar back overhead in an arcing motion, and repeat.
- The pullover is a great exercise for the lats, as well as the chest muscles, and can be a great movement to tie the two groups together.
- This can be helpful for developing the serratus and lats, which help give the lats more appearance on the sides of the body.
- This can help to improve scapular stability necessary for heavier pressing movements.
- The pullover can be stressful on the shoulders when done incorrectly, or might just be uncomfortable for some lifters.
Keep the elbows softly bent as you lower the loads. Using too much weight will result in more shoulder and elbow discomfort, and less stretch and tension on the target muscles.
7. Barbell Back Extension
To perform the barbell back extension, you will need to have a back extension pad/set up. Set the pad height so that the top of the thighs are at the top of the pad, which will still allow you to flex the hip freely.
Set a loaded barbell on the ground and grab it with a shoulder width grip, as if you were going to deadlift. With a flat back, lift the load upwards using your erectors, hamstrings, and glutes.
You can also do this with the barbell on the upper traps, and flex the hips to lower the toes downwards towards the ground, keeping the back flat. Lift your torso back upwards to the extended position and repeat.
- The floor variation is a great way to develop the lower back muscles, and can have carry over to improve back strength for the deadlifts
- A strong lower and mid back is essential for most compound exercises, making this a great back strength and lower back movement to improve strength and injury resilience.
- The back loaded barbell back extension can be tricky to get set up in, as the weight is on the upper traps and must be placed there by the lifter, making it hard to use heavy loads.
If you want to work with heavier loads, try using the variation that has you lift from the floor. If you are looking for more higher rep work, then use the back loaded variation.
8. Conventional Deadlift
Step up to a loaded barbell with feet hip width apart, toes facing forwards. Your shins should be very close to the bar, but not necessarily, touching it.
With a flat back, and a soft bend in the knees, push your hips back to lower yourself down to the barbell, making sure that you keep the back flat and shins vertical (or almost perpendicular to the floor). Grab the bar with a double overhand, slightly wider than shoulder width grip.
With tension across the upper and lower back, push your legs down through the floor, making sure your hips do not shoot upwards faster than your chest, and pull.
Stand up all the way, making sure you do not hyperextend your lumbar spine at the top.
- The deadlift is a compound exercise that train the entire backside of the body
- This not only can be trained for lat and back growth, but is great for developing a strong posterior chain
- This can be done improperly, and since you are able to use heavier loads with this exercise, the risk of injury may be higher if you are training improperly.
- This can be very fatigued on the body
- Some lifters may have poor body control, ad be limited by body positioning rather than muscle failure of the back (which is why they can use other supported movements)
Keep the back flat and chest up during the movement, and make sure your hips stay pushed back and you feel tension across your upper and lower back (spine is not rounding).
9. Wide Grip Deadlift
To perform the wide grip deadlift, you will do everything you normally would do in the conventional deadlift, with the only exception being that you take a wider grip. The width can vary, however in this exercise you will take a grip that is 6-12 inches wider than your normal grip (slightly wider than shoulder width). By taking a wider grip, you place more demands on the lats, traps, and upper back.
- This is a great exercise to develop wider lats and bigger traps
- This can help build back strength, especially for lifters who are not good at keeping their backs flat in conventional deadlifts
- This can be challenging on the grip muscles, which is great for building grip and back strength, however it can limit some lifters. If this is the case, you could use lifting straps.
This should be much harder than deadlifts with the hands closer in, however the goal is to force the back to stay flat and not allow the shoulders to round forward… so don’t get discouraged if you can’t lift as much weight.
10. Rack Pull
The rack pull is a deadlift variation that has the lifter pull from a higher starting height. To do this, you will want to either lift from elevated blocks, or from pins in a squat rack. Generally speaking, the starting height in a rack pull is at or just above the knees.
You will set yourself up just like you would a conventional deadlift (you can also use a wider grip on these), making sure that your hips are back and your chest is up.
Push through the floor and lift with your legs, making sure to squeeze the glutes at the top.
- You will be able to lift more weight with this, and are able to really reinforce a strong upper and middle back when compared to the deadlift from the floor.
- This is a great way to overload the lats and traps.
- Pulling from a rack position will place less stress on the lower back, but still can target the glutes and back.
- This is a good movement to overload a muscle group, however it can often be done with too much weight and end in injury if not properly programmed or executed.
Pause at the top of every rep to make sure you are standing tall and your shoulders are not rounded forwards.
11. Barbell Seal Row
To perform this exercise, place a loaded barbell underneath you as you are lying prone on a bench (face down). You will most likely need to raise the bench up (not adjusting the back, but placing plates or blockers under the bench itself to raise it upwards). You should be able to fully extend your arms while holding the barbell.
By placing your body on the bench, it is completely supported. Additionally, you are not able to move your body or change your angles to aid in the movement, meaning that all the barbell weight is being moved by your back and arms.
- This is an excellent way to train the back muscles without placing any stress of strain on the hamstrings, hips, or lower back
- This is a very challenging and humbling movement, and is great for higher rep, isolated training of the back.
- If you don’t have the ability to elevate the bench on blocks or other stable surfaces, it can be tricky to set up properly.
This is an excellent movement to train heavy, or for higher reps since you are supported throughout the movement. Make sure to use both rep ranges when training the back.
3-Day Back Strength and Mass Program
Here is a 3-day back program designed to build back strength and muscle mass. This program can be incorporated into your current training plan, and can also be combined with other sample programs from Fitbod, such as the lower pec workout plan or arm building plan.
Back Day 1
- Barbell Bent Over Row: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Rack Pull: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Chin Up: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Back Day 2
- Pull Up: 3 sets of 6-8 reps:
- Landmine T-Bar Row: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Barbell Pullover: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
Back Day 3 (Bonus)
- Meadows Row: 3 sets of 15-20 reps
- Wide Grip Deadlift: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Pull Up: 3 sets of 12-15 reps (use band if need)
Other Back Training Resources
- The Best Bulking Back Workouts: 8 Must-Do Exercises
- Back And Bicep Workout: 5 Examples (Science-Backed)
- What To Do When You Get A Sore Back After Squats & Deadlifts
- Back And Bicep Workout: 5 Examples (Science-Backed)
Building a stronger, more muscular back with a barbell is 100% achievable with the right movements, and workouts. When looking to build strength and mass, you want to make sure you train with heavier loads in your complex movements, and also train the moderate to higher rep range with more isolated exercises.
If you are looking to integrate these exercises and plans into your own training program, try using the Fitbod App. The Fitbod app will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
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.