The Best Barbell Exercises – Pull Edition

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.

 

Bent-Over Row

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.

 

Upright 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.

Inverted Row

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.

 

In Conclusion…

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.

Was this article useful to you or do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to get back to you!

6 thoughts on “The Best Barbell Exercises – Pull Edition

  1. Jesse Reply

    Very helpful article; I specifically enjoyed the bit about pull-ups at the end, as I find them extremely difficult. I never thought to practice them on a barbell with my feet on the ground, so thanks for that!

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Hi Jesse, I’m glad that this article was useful to you. Pull-ups are indeed a difficult exercise for a lot of people. Doing inverted rows or assisted pull-ups with a machine or resistance band can do wonders for your progress. You can also change your grip to that of a chin-up. I personally find the difference in difficulty between a chin-up and a pull-up as well as a wide and narrow grip, very big. Try and see what works for you. I’m sure pull-ups will get easier for you. Good luck!

  2. Raff Reply

    Hey Kevin,

    Thanks for the great article with several progressions and regressions for various exercises as well as variations to hit specific muscles in the back. I appreciate the depth of info!

    What are your thoughts on Good Mornings? Yay, nay, or there are better exercises to hit the low back with less risk? Interested in your thoughts!

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Hi! Thanks for your kind words. I think Good Mornings are actually great exercises. Not only will you hit the lower back, but you can stretch the hamstrings as well!

      I personally don’t do them too often, simply because they’re not my favorite. Good Mornings are heavily focused on the lower back, and I wanted to list a few exercises that engage the back a little bit more. The ones I’ve described make sure the lower back DOES get engaged, because you need to make sure that you stay in control of the weight. The rest of the back though, also gets something to do, so they’re more of a full back sort of exercise.

      For me personally that is enough, and I think it is for the majority of the people in the gym. If the lower back needs some more loving, Good Mornings are great. An alternative are the Romanian Deadlifts. It’s basically the same movement, only you’re holding the barbell in your hands instead of having it in your neck. In my experience, it also allows you to work the legs just a bit more as well, because the weight is underneath you and you don’t need to be scared that it could fall off.

      I hope this helps!

  3. Schalk Reply

    Dear Kevin

    I am a strong believer in following a scientifically proven exercise program proven to produce results if you are willing to follow it religiously and willing to put in the hard work. There are way too many people simply going to the gym without knowing how to properly perform specific exercises in the gym, which either leads to injury or does not produce the expected results. And there are way too many people blogging away about fitness that has no idea what they are talking about and spread misinformation which could lead to injury or a lack of results.

    I am therefore grateful that you are putting in proper research and providing top notch information here on how to perform exercises with the correct posture and technique. Keep up the great work!

    • Kevin Post authorReply

      Thanks a lot for your kind words! I wholeheartedly agree with you, which is exactly why I want to teach people an extra bit about how certain muscles function. I strongly believe that this knowledge will reduce the amount of injuries and increase the effectiveness of exercises. By just listing a few exercises, I get the feeling that I’m keeping crucial information to myself.

      Have a great day!

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