The back is such an important part of what makes an impressive physique. But with literally 100’s of different back exercises out there, it’s hard to tell which you should do in your back workout. That’s why we got Betty – our muscle activation measuring machine. Today we’re using her to test the best back exercises on 4 different people. At the end, we’ll use the results to create a perfect back workout you can trust is the best back workout that’ll get you the muscular, powerful looking back you’re after.
Different back exercises will target different back muscles. The two main features of a well-developed back are thickness, and width. Most thickness comes from the mid and upper back muscles. So we put a sensor on the mid-traps. We also put a sensor on the lower traps. The main muscle responsible for widening your back and building is the lats. Because it’s the largest muscle of the upper body, we put 2 sensors on it, one on the upper lats, and one on the lower lats.
Next, let’s cover the details of the experiment that’ll help us find the best back exercises. Subjects: Coach Alex, Raza, Tahnee, and myself. There was no wager this time around. We had to control 3 variables: 1) weight testing, sensor placement, and maximum voluntary contraction. We did 1 set of 5 reps, then took at least 5-minute rest before moving onto the next exercise. We also rotated between horizontal and vertical pulling exercises.
Note that Betty, and EMG research in general, has its limitations. More activation does not always lead to more growth, and there are other variables to consider when determining how well an exercise grows muscle. That said, after averaging the data, I did find some very interesting insights that align with other current research.
First, “overall back builders” to include in your back workout. The first is deadlifts. Your legs are mostly responsible for moving the weight, but all of your upper and lower back muscles have to work hard to keep your body stable as you lift. Although they aren’t taken through their full range of motion and are only contracting isometrically, this is still a powerful stimulus for growth especially because of the heavy weight used and the deep stretch that some of these back muscles experience. The second exercise is bent-over rows. Similar to deadlifts, you’re able to load it relatively heavy and your whole back, including the lower back, is helping you stabilize and move the weight. The overhand grip led to more mid back activation whereas the underhand grip, led to slightly more lats activation primarily in the lower lats.
Next, the best exercises for the mid and upper back. The exercise that came on top was the inverted rows. It led to the highest back activation for both Tahnee and Raza but didn’t do nearly as well for both myself and Alex. So while it is a great bodyweight exercise that I’d highly recommend for most females and beginners, as you get more experienced you’ll want to consider other movements that you can start adding weight to or save this exercise for the tail end of your workout. As for the other exercises that came out on top, wide grip seated cable rows and dumbbell chest supported rows with the elbows flared out and shoulder blades squeezed together at the end, both led to the highest activation after the inverted row. So, when talking about the “best back workout”, these two will definitely make an appearance.
Now, I want to talk about the lower traps. It’s an extremely important yet often overlooked muscle for overall shoulder health and posture. So I’d recommend including at least one lower traps exercise in your routine. And the one that came out on top during our experiment? Incline prone Y raises.
Last but not least, the lats. While lat pulldowns and pull-ups do a pretty good job of activating the lats, one move in particular however led to higher activation than any of those exercises. The lat-focused row.
Let’s put everything we learned into “perfect back workout” that you can start using right away. I’d recommend picking one exercise from each of the categories we went through and then adding in prone Y raises to the end to give the lower traps some extra love.
Sample Back Workout
Bent-Over Barbell Row
Dumbbell Chest Supported Row (elbows angled out)
Incline Prone Y-Raises
Click below for a step by step plan training plan that reveals all the best exercises you should do for each and every muscle group:
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