Welcome. In this article I will be discussing the best exercises you can do with a barbell in order to hit those back muscles.
Working the back is one of my favorite things to do in the gym. Since it’s such a large portion of your body, you can really make some notable progress quite fast. Not only that, but working the back helped me achieve a great posture, too.
Now, this article will not contain a regular list of exercises, ranking from one to ten. Why? Because I don’t believe in ‘get ripped fast’ schemes that don’t list exercises to actually get stronger.
Firstly, it’s important to learn how the back actually functions. By doing so, you can learn how to stimulate certain muscles, which can help you to resolve possible imbalances.
The Anatomy of the Back
Let’s first of all contemplate on how the back actually works. There are a lot of muscles in the back, even some that you won’t really get to see. I’m not going to be discussing all of them, since that will probably be quite a long read. However, I will be discussing a few of the most characteristic and important back muscles, as well as their functions.
The Lower Back
First of all, I’m going to talk about the erector spinae and the multifidus. These muscles are part of your core, as they are the antagonists to your abs. These lower back muscles are meant to stabilize your body, and it’s important to use this muscle when you’re lifting heavy weights, so that your spine stays straight.
Lesson 1: YOU are pulling the weight. Never let the weight pull you.
What I mean by this, is that it’s very important that you pay attention to your form. Not engaging in your core muscles will destroy your (lower) back, and we don’t want that.
Lesson 2: If you notice that a weight is too heavy to keep a good form, lower the weight and get over your ego.
Width of the Back
Next, let’s talk about the largest muscles of the back: latissimus dorsi (lats). These are the muscles that give a back the nice V-tapor that so many people crave. These muscles are, in my experience, fairly easy to train by doing Pull-ups or Bent Over Rows.
I personally adore training these muscles as you can really stretch them and feel the burn.
From Neck to Back
The trapezius (traps) is another muscle that is part of the back. This muscle goes all the way from the neck to about the middle of the back. The fibers in the muscle go two ways, and thus it’s important to do multiple exercises to really develop your traps.
The fibers in the neck are engaged when you perform shrugs, whereas the lower fibers require the shoulder blades to move closer to each other.
So… About Those Exercises…
Now, on to the exercises. First of all, I want to talk about the deadlift since that’s a bit of a special case in my opinion. The deadlift is a fantastic exercise and I would recommend it to anyone. However, it’s more of a full body exercise, and while it does work the back muscles to a certain extent, I am not putting it in this list. There are more exercises that specifically hit the back, so let’s begin.
I started doing this exercise relatively early in my workout career. What’s great about this exercise is that it works pretty much all the back muscles. When I stand in position, I contract my core, i.e. abs and lower back.
By engaging both of those muscles, you take a lot of stress from the spine whenever you pick up a weight. It’s a great ‘trick’ that you should ingrain in your workout routine.
When picking up the weight, you can do two things: an overhand grip, or an underhand grip. Yes, this does make a difference.
By performing an overhand grip, the movement you do targets the upper back (trapezius), as well as the lats and even the posterior shoulder muscles.
An underhand grip allows you to stretch the lats some more. By doing so, the range of motion increases, and thus more muscle fibers will be torn. Doing the underhand grip also works the lower lats just a bit more. The trapezius will be slightly less affected by an underhand grip.
Then there’s the angle of your back. Let’s say you’re standing almost upright, just slightly bent over. If you perform a bent over row this way, you’ll mostly target the trapezius and maybe even the shoulders. However, you want the back to do the work, so make sure the angle of your back is about 45 degrees.
When you’re starting out with this exercise, you’ll want to teach yourself the right movement so you don’t get injured when you’re putting on more weight.
The bottom line though, is that the bent-over row is a fantastic compound movement that targets the back. I personally switch up my grips every workout so that I get the most out of doing the exercise.
Just make sure that the weight you’re lifting is not too heavy!
T-Bar Row and V-Bar Row
The bent-over row really focuses on developing the back. It is however also possible to make the back wider and thicker, by doing the T-bar row and especially the V-bar row. Most gyms have a machine of some sorts that holds the barbell in place for you. My gym doesn’t, so to perform both exercises, I simply put a barbell in a corner with one end.
This ‘loose’ side sometimes lifts itself from the floor when I lift heavy weights, so I found it pleasant to put some extra weight on the backside of the barbell in the form of a dumbbell.
Both T-bar and V-bar Rows focus on the upper back and the lats. The T-bar row requires a wider grip than the V-bar row, and thus makes the back wider.
Doing an overhand or underhand grip gives the same effects as with the bent-over row.
The V-bar row has a smaller grip and you’re able to hit the lower lats, as well as the lower back muscles just a bit more. The smaller grip forces you to let your elbows slide over your lats, as it were.
When doing this right, it really allows you to squeeze the lats and the middle portion of the back, i.e. the lower trapezius. Another thing I find great about this exercise, is that it allows you to stretch the lats as far as possible before slowly contracting them.
Where the T-bar row is similar to the bent-over row andd focuses mainly on making the back wider, the V-bar row makes the back thicker. Both are excellent exercises to combine with the bent-over row.
Personally, I prefer the V-bar row because to me, the T-bar row is just a tad too similar to the regular bent-over row.
This exercise will mostly target the lateral deltoids, as well as your trapezius. Because this is quite a specific exercise, I’d recommend NOT putting on too much weight, as the lateral delts are small muscles.
Grab a barbell at about shoulder weight with an overhand grip. Push the chest forwards and bring the barbell up to your chest by pushing your elbows up. Doing so will contract the lateral delts and the traps.
Make sure your elbows are always pointing slightly upwards. If you cannot bring yourself to do so, lower the weight. It’s very easy to get injured with shoulder exercises, especially the lateral head.
None of the aforementioned exercises really target the lateral deltoids, so this exercise is a welcome addition! Implementing this exercise will make sure your shoulders get a more round and broad look.
You can experiment with this exercise, too! The more narrow the grip, the more you will be focusing on the trapezius. Widening the grip will make the shoulders work harder.
I can do regular pull-ups without any problems. However, after a few sets of the aforementioned exercises, my back is beginning to tire. I could get some more out of my workout, though. Regular pull-ups to me are a waste of time when I do them after I’ve already been working my back. Therefore, I do a similar movement by using a barbell.
Since a big chunk of your body weight is lying on the ground during this exercise, you can really focus on squeezing the back muscles, as well as the range of motion. These two factors result in an effective exercise.
Can’t do a pull-up at all? Well, then this exercise is for you, too!
I do think, though, that it’s important to note that you should not use your arms during this exercise. What do I mean by that? Well, you can hold the barbell, but you should not be moving because you’re working your bicep.
For this exercise (as well as many others), it’s more effective if you let the muscles that you’re targeting do the work. In this case: try to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Bring your elbows down. Do not simply pull using your arms or you won’t get the effect you want.
Barbells are great, and they allow for some really wonderful exercises for young and old. After performing these exercises, I’m sure your back is tired and sore. This is good. However, since it’s your back, I’d recommend anyone to take great care in choosing a weight to lift.
Always make sure that your back is straight!
Now it might only take you 40 to 50 minutes to complete a training session that contains these exercises and that might not seem like a lot. However, I’m here to tell you, that it’s not the quantity, but the quality of your workout. It’s all about the range of motion and the time under tension.
These two factors will determine whether your muscles will grow due to your exercise.
Knowing this, it’s clear that you should choose the difficulty of your workout carefully. Set your ego aside. Make your workout a challenge, but don’t force yourself to do things that you can’t.
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