In most cases, “best” can be a relative term… and will often depend on goals! This article will contain opinions only, so feel free to disagree. But in my opinion there are certain exercises that are more effective in hitting specific body parts, and some that aren’t that great at all!
One muscle group at a time I will go over my favorite exercise and explain why it is my favorite!
We will first be breaking down the back exercises into 4 different and smaller muscle groups - Rhomboids (shoulder blades/scaps), Lats, Lower Back, and Traps.
Rhomboids - Bent Over Barbell Rows
There are so many variations of rows that could be intertwined here to take the #1 spot, but my favorite is Bent Over Barbell Rows. Bent over with your upper body at about a 45 degree angle, you “row” the bar upward toward your mid-upper abdomen and squeeze as hard as you can with your rhomboids (shoulder blades/scaps) at the top. Keeping the shoulder blades squeezed you then lower the bar until your arms are straight and then can release the shoulder blade squeeze. Here’s why I like it:
While this exercise does target the rhomboids, it also hits your low back/lats/and traps to a lesser extent. Essentially, it hits every single muscle group of the back!
Using a barbell slightly beats dumbbell rows for me because you can not use the rotation of the body to get momentum and get the row up. This allows you to focus more directly on the shoulder blades and forces you to do a strict row.
You can use a wide variety of different grips, all which will be effective at hitting the entire back. You can use overhand wide grip, overhand narrow grip, underhand narrow grip, underhand wide grip. Usually I recommend to go with what feels the most natural for people but also to go with the one that allows you to feel the rhomboids working the hardest!
Downsides: The bent over position is often hard for people to get into properly. You must maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise. If you experience low back pain while attempting this exercise, it is usually due to not keeping the core tight and the neutral (straight) spine. Also if you are not careful, you will end up using momentum to fire the bar up to mid/upper abdomen. Make sure the back maintains the same angle throughout the exercise without using momentum from the lower back to get the weight started.
Runner-Up: My second favorite is the 3-Point Dumbbell Row. This is performed with one hand and one knee on the bench, while you row one dumbbell at a time. Sometimes performing a single arm row allows people to feel the squeeze better and really focus on the tempo and shoulder blade retraction. This was not my first choice only because the rotation at the mid-section is often the main mover rather than the rhomboids.
Lats - Wide Grip Pull-ups
In my opinion, nothing hits the lats as well as wide grip pull-ups… when done properly. Setting yourself up under the bar, you want your grip to be out wider than your shoulders. Without swinging, you want to pull yourself straight up to the bar. I like to tell people to hit their chin right on the bar for a full range of motion. Here’s why I like it best:
You can’t help but use mainly your lats when performing this exercise correctly.
You can easily modify the exercise by using bands and putting your feet/knees in them to make the exercise easier if you can’t yet do bodyweight pullups (which not many people can!)
This exercise is often used as a “pillar of strength.” It would go in the same category as pushups when determining how strong someone might be. Bodyweight exercises are great to determine how strong someone is compared to their body weight.
Downsides: You’ll see this exercise performed wrong more times than right! It is very tough to learn the proper form and maintain it. People often swing out away from the bar then swing back in to get their whole head over the top, then that starts the legs swinging. You’ll need to focus VERY hard to not swing, and just pull straight up and down using the back/lats. This exercise is also just plain hard, and a lot of people will struggle at first even using resistance bands. It is important to realize that if you can not do pull-ups properly with the help from bands, you should be doing lat pulldowns on the machine or with bands until you can!
Runner-Ups: Machine lat pulldowns or band lat pulldowns. Both are excellent alternatives to the traditional exercise, and are especially beneficial for those people who are not ready for full pull-ups! You will need to still maintain proper form and make sure that you are not using momentum from the body to swing that bar/handles down toward you!
Low Back - Deadlifts (Either RDL’s or Conventional)
A lot of people consider deadlifts to be a lower body only exercise, but they really hit mostly your back (and some lower body as well! Hamstrings and Glutes mainly)! Your low back is the main mover on the deadlift, even more so on a Romanian Deadlift due to the angle of your back when you pick the weight up off the floor. In a conventional deadlift the angle of your upper body to lower body is bigger but you will still use your core (remember! Low back IS core!) big time. Here’s why I love the deadlift:
This is about as good as it gets for a full posterior chain exercise (posterior chain is your back-side muscle groups: calves, hamstrings, glutes, low back, upper back, traps). This one exercise targets multiple muscle groups at the same time, and hits each one very well!
There is almost no better exercise for building all-around strength.
They’re a highly functional exercise! Aka - many time in life you will find yourself bending over to pick things up from the ground!
Downsides: When done with improper form the deadlift can be dangerous. The most common mistake you see is people rounding their back (mainly lower back). This usually is a sure sign that the weight is too heavy for them, or they just aren't sure how to keep a neutral spine. The deadlift can also be tough on the grip strength (this is also a positive being that it improves grip strength!) so you might have to build up those calluses or use straps. Starting with lighter dumbbell RDL’s is a good way to build up to the barbell deadlifts.
Runner-Ups: As a runner up I love the superman, and all the variations that can be implemented to the superman. There is no denying that it works the low back very well when you do them! And there are so many variations that you can do this exercise will never get boring. Good Mornings are also a great runner up, where you have the weight on your upper back/traps then follow the same movement pattern that a RDL would (stiff leg, bend at hips, neutral spine throughout).
Traps - Shrugs
I’ll be honest, I don’t do any direct trap exercises because they get hit during a myriad of other exercises (deadlifts, rows, shoulder exercise, etc…). BUT, if I were to want to do a direct traps exercise I would do shrugs. Straight and to the point, you hold weight and shrug your shoulders up toward your ears, that's it! So if you want to build stronger/bigger traps, here is why I like them:
Very simple to perform. You can’t really mess up the form on this one! Unless of course you’re trying to do too much weight and it turns into a very fast and jerky motion. You should be able to squeeze the weight up top for 1-2 seconds before lowering, that way you will know you have the right weight.
They are also a great grip strength exercise. Anytime you are holding weight you are also strengthening your grip (as long as you aren’t using straps). Because this movement is so simple, it is good for working on your grip at the same time.
If you want to look like an NFL linebacker… do more of these :)
Downsides: Usually you’ll see people loading up the bar with 4-5 plates on each side then look like they’re having a seizure doing shrugs at a super fast pace… and not really accomplishing anything at all. I guess they think it looks cool (I was guilty of this in high school and college!). It is very easy to make this an inefficient exercise by not performing it properly. Another downside is that all it does it hit this one muscle group, and not many people really need to if they are doing a well rounded exercise routine regularly. Another downside (could be an upside depending on who you are) is that it can make you look like an NFL linebacker :)
Runner-Up: The Deadlift! Just holding the weight in your hands throughout deadlifts and keeping your chest proud is going to work your traps plenty hard! After a day of heavy deadlifting you should feel that your mid-upper back and traps got a pretty darn good workout!
Biceps - Dumbbell Curls
If you know me, you should already know that I like to keep things pretty simple. Why go and make something more difficult when an easier version works perfectly fine? Well the same is true for the biceps, and dumbbell curls are perfectly fine! Here’s why I like them:
The simplicity. Stand tall, palms forward, bend only at the elbows, and keep the elbows at your sides throughout. Doesn’t get much easier than the dumbbell curl!
There are a TON of modifications you can make if you get bored of the regular version.
All of the variations hit the biceps very well and almost equally. If you ever see someone say “This is the only way to do curls!” they’re wrong.
Downsides: The dumbbell curl only targets the biceps, and the forearms to a lesser extent. If you are short on time you can find more efficient exercises that will hit more muscle groups at the same time while also still hitting your biceps. A lot of people will also swing their bodies and use momentum to get more curls up (again this goes back to the looking cool thing by doing more weight than they should be doing…). When curling it is essential that the body stays still, the ONLY part of your body that should be moving is your forearms.
Runner-Up: I am a big fan of Reverse Grip (also known as underhand) rows. The supination (outward rotation) of the wrist causes your biceps to now be one of the main movers of the row along with the shoulder blades. Two birds with one stone and still hits each of those muscle groups plenty hard. You will notice the difference when you switch your grip and start feeling the bicep working more even on back rows!
Well folks that is the end of part 2! Thanks for reading! Next time we will go over my favorite lower body and core exercises. Lower body will be broken up into quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves!
As always, let me know if you have any questions!