10 of the Best Back Exercises for Beginner to Advanced Weightlifters
In weightlifting, every day is back day. Moving the barbell involves using the strength of your whole body, and your back is a prime contributor to your success both on and off the platform. Whether you’re squatting, pulling, or pressing, your back strength is a foundational pillar of your performance.
Your back keeps you upright in all activities, especially when you lift weights. The main lifts of weightlifting are the snatch and the clean & jerk, which both involve standing up with the barbell from a bent-over position. Your back strength is responsible for this and other tasks, such as keeping the barbell close and stabilizing a weight overhead.
Credit: Riley Stefan
When it comes to back strength in weightlifting, more is always better. Back exercises hold a permanent spot on weightlifters’ weekly plans. Rather than just practicing any back exercise, there are some specific ones that most weightlifters stand to benefit the most from.
These are the top ten best back exercises for bolstering your weightlifting strength.
Best Back Exercises For Weightlifters
- Clean Deadlift
- Reverse Hyperextension
- Single Arm Bent Row
- Pendlay Row
- Prone Row
- Rear Delt Fly
- Scapular Push-Up
- Wide-Grip Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Inverted Row
The deadlift is historically known for training your back. It’s a pull from the floor to the hip with the barbell, which is simple yet effective for becoming comprehensively strong. Weightlifters have a specific way of training the deadlift so that the stimulus directly pays off in their Olympic lifts by involving a bit more leg work than hip extension.
Benefits of the Clean Deadlift
- The exercise works all of your back muscles together.
- It reinforces the correct technique of the pull to the hip in the clean.
- It’s an accessible way to build absolute strength for the Olympic lifts.
How to Do the Clean Deadlift
Start with your shoelaces underneath the barbell and place your grip comfortably outside of your legs. Get set by taking your eyes to eye level in front of you. Find tension through your back and push your knees out so that your chest is higher than your hips at the start.
The key a the clean (style) deadlift is to set up for the deadlift in the same position as your clean. Once set, push from the floor to a standing position with straight arms. The barbell should stay as close to you as possible throughout the lift.
You can also practice a different variation by using a snatch grip.
The hyperextension is one of the most important accessory exercises of weightlifting because of how strong and rigid it makes your back. The movement involves extending your hip flexors, with extra emphasis on your posterior chain. With enough practice, the hyperextension will make your back your strongest asset.
Benefits of the Hyperextension
- It’s one of the few ways to train your lower back independently.
- The action is similar to extending your hips in the Olympic lifts.
- It protects against injury by strengthening your lower back.
How to Do the Hyperextension
Secure your legs in a prone position and fold at your waist. A GHD (or glute-hamstring developer) is an apparatus designed for the hyperextension specifically. If you don’t have a GHD, you can also have a partner hold your legs in place.
Fold at your hips with your arms crossed at your chest or behind your head. Lift your shoulders to elevate your torso. At the top of the repetition, your body should be in a straight line. For increased intensity, hold a weight plate in your hands or grab a barbell.
The hyperextension is so important that they even made a second way to perform it. In the reverse hyperextension, your body faces the other way so that your torso is held in place. Your legs kick back and extend.
Since both kinds of hypers are so effective, you should make room in your weightlifting plan for both of them.
Benefits of the Reverse Hyperextension
- It keeps your low back healthy and strong.
- It trains full hip extension, which is beneficial for the Olympic lifts.
- Since you can hold yourself in place, it’s more accessible than the regular hyperextension.
How to Do the Reverse Hyperextension
A reverse hyperextension machine is most beneficial here, especially if you want to add weight. If you don’t have one, find a spot where you can lay face down that has a flat edge, such as a high plyo box. Hang your legs vertically so that your hips start at a 90-degree angle. Find your grip and secure your torso.
Complete a rep by kicking back with straight legs to a fully straightened torso. At the top of the rep, your body should be in one line, with your legs straight out. To add some extra tension, you can use resistance bands around your ankles.
Single-Arm Bent Row
In weightlifting, keeping the barbell close to your body is critical for success when you pull, and your lats (or lattisimus dorsi) are the back muscles that primarily ensure a tight and precise pull. You can forsake the barbell for a bit and use dumbbells to strengthen your lats quickly and easily.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Bent Row
- Supporting yourself with your non-working arm improves balance for better muscle isolation.
- The unilateral row identifies imbalances that may not present in barbell lifting.
- Using an arm for support takes the pressure off your lower back when in a bent position.
How to Do the Single-Arm Bent Row
For this exercise, find a single dumbbell or kettlebell. Set up by slightly bending your knees and hinging at your hips. Your torso should be at as horizontal as possible with a flat back. Plant your free arm as support. If you’re doing the exercise with a flat bench, you can plant both your hand and knee on the supporting side for more stability.
Complete a rep by pulling the weight towards you and bringing your elbow up and back. Pull to the height of your ribs. Let your lats do most of the work instead of your arms.
The barbell bent row is big for building lat strength, but there’s an even better way for weightlifters to modify it. Designed by weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, his namesake row is a fantastic way for weightlifters to apply a more specific stimulus to their rowing.
Benefits of the Pendlay Row
- Using the barbell for rows is applicable to the Olympic lifts.
- Resetting between lifts takes the pressure off of your low back when holding your torso in place.
- Teaches you to pull from a dead stop with explosive power.
How to Do the Pendlay Row
Start with your loaded barbell resting on the ground. Find your grip with straight arms. Elevate your hips slightly so that your back is flat and your body is horizontal. Keeping your torso in place, row the barbell into your chest at the height of your ribs. Return the barbell to the floor between reps for a true Pendlay row.
The prone row is a style of pull that trains your lats to the next level. In this exercise, you lay face down and row into your body. By doing so, you fully isolate your lats for the work, resulting in back strength that goes a long way in the lifts. Your posterior chain does essentially nothing here.
Benefits of the Prone Row
- It’s effective for strengthening your lats independently of your lower back or hamstrings.
- It helps you keep the barbell close to your body in the Olympic lifts.
- Great if you’re working around a back injury.
How to Do the Prone Row
Find a flat bench and a barbell (or dumbbells) of desired weight. Place the weight underneath the bench. Adjust the height of the bench so that when you’re lying face down on it, you can grip the weight with straight arms.
Find your grip with straight arms and align the weight under your shoulders. Complete a rep by pulling your elbows back, bringing the weight towards you. The weight should finish at the height of your ribs. Control the weight back to the floor to complete the rep.
Rear Delt Fly
Your upper back stabilizes your shoulders in your lifts by pulling them back. Your rear deltoid muscles contribute to this, especially when lifting the barbell from the floor. You absolutely need to give as much attention to the smaller muscles in your upper back as you do to your lats, and one of the best ways to do so is the rear delt fly.
Benefits of the Rear Delt Fly
- It activates the muscles of your upper back that hold tension.
- It strengthens your shoulders for better posture in the lifts.
- It helps fight against rounding of your back during heavy lifts.
How to Do the Rear Delt Fly
Grab a dumbbell in each hand. Slightly bend your knees and hold a hip hinge. Your torso should be as horizontal as possible with a flat back. With slightly bent elbows and palms facing each other, fly both arms outward so that they open up to a straight line. Control the weight back down to finish the rep.
Several small but integral muscles affect your scapulae, or shoulder blades, and are essential to keeping your shoulders strong and stable. Complete control of your scaps is important in weightlifting because of the constantly-changing shoulder angles in both lifts. As such, you need exceptional shoulder integrity.
Benefits of the Scapular Push-Up
- It activates the full range of motion of your scapulae.
- It connects keeping your shoulders tight with engaging your core.
- Scapular strength is essential in both the pulling and catching phases of the Olympic lifts.
How to Do the Scapular Push-Up
Set up in a straight-arm plank, or a standard push-up position. Brace your core so that it stays tight throughout your reps. While keeping your arms straight, lower your chest by pinching your scaps (shoulder blades) together. Once they meet, push away so that your shoulders are rounded at the top to finish the rep.
Wide-Grip Straight-Arm Pulldown
Your lats play a significant role in how well your pull goes in both the clean and snatch. They’re responsible for contracting isometrically and creating the "sweep" path of the bar from the knee to the hip. The straight-arm pulldown exaggerates this motion and helps you become closer with the barbell in your lifts.
Benefits of the Wide-Grip Straight-Arm Pulldown
- The wide grip mimics the lat work involved in the snatch grip.
- It challenges your core to stay tight while contracting your lats.
How to Do the Wide-Grip Straight-Arm Pulldown
There are two ways to do this exercise: the first is with a cable machine and a long straight bar. Since these aren’t always handy, there’s a second way to do it. Secure a PVC pipe to the pull-up bar or rig using resistance bands.
Once your resistance is applied, widen your grip on the bar similar to a snatch grip. Extend your arms out while holding the bar. With a slight bend in your arms, pull your palms in towards you and bring the bar into your hip. Control the way back to complete the rep.
You don’t need external resistance to put your put your lats to work. Although calisthenics aren’t the forte of most weightlifters, you can still blast your back without picking up a barbell by using the inverted row.
Benefits of the Inverted Row
- It strengthens the pulling capabilities of your upper body.
- You can easily adjust your intensity by changing the angle of your body.
- Works your grip strength.
How to Do the Inverted Row
For this exercise, use either a barbell in the rack, rings, or TRX straps. Hang under your grip with straight arms and walk your feet forward so that your body is roughly diagonal to the floor. Set your core so that it stays tight through your rep.
Once set, pull your elbows back and bring your chest to the height of your grip. Return to straight arms between reps. The difficulty of this exercise greatly depends on the angle of your torso. For maximum intensity, elevate your feet to above your shoulders.
Your back is one of the strongest parts of your body. Here are the main muscles that make the magic happen on the weightlifting platform.
The erector spinae, the main musculature of your lower back, run longways down your spine and attach at your hips. They control all movements of your axial skeleton (skull, vertebral column, and ribs), such as helping you stand up straight. Exercises such as deadlifts, snatches, cleans, and hyperextensions are controlled by your erectors.
The lattisimus dorsi, or lats, are the big muscles under your arms that span a large portion of your upper back. Regardless of your shoulder angle, your lats are always involved when pulling your upper arm back towards your midline. Movements such as rows, pull-ups and pull-downs work your lats.
The traps, short for trapezius, are the muscle that lies across your shoulders on the back of your neck. They have three distinct regions and are responsible for all shrugging motions of your shoulders, as well as general scapular control.
Credit: Riley Stefan
Your traps help keep your shoulders pulled together and back, and contribute to the "triple extension" that elevates a bar in the Olympic lifts.
The rhomboids are located across your upper back and assist in pulling your shoulders back. They stabilize your upper back during your lifts. Exercises that involve using your rhomboids are rear delt fly, scap push-ups, rows, deadlifts, and more.
Your shoulder muscles have three distinct regions, but the posterior section is of particular importance in weightlifting. Your posterior deltoid is a small but articulate and extremely important muscle for controlling the angle at which your scapula sits when your arm is over your head.
Moreover, your rear delt is particularly vulnerable when working with heavy weights, and it is a common site of injury. As such, training your rear delt to be ironclad and stable is incredibly important if you practice Olympic lifting.
How to Program Back Work
Weightlifting routines take plenty of time to complete. It’s common to be in the gym for upwards of an hour and a half — when you’re worn out from 10 sets of snatches and a boatload of squatting, the last thing you probably want to do is go through a full back routine.
Luckily, you can pepper in one to three of these exercises each session and tally up solid weekly volume without requiring endless hours in the gym.
Pick one or two back movements and perform them at the end of your workouts. Shoot for 2 to 4 sets in a moderate rep range of 8 to as as many as 15 total repetitions.
Attack Your Back
Your backside is a critical component of all the activities you perform both in and out of the gym, so you should strive to train it as much, if not more, than your mirror muscles, even as a weightlifter.
Featured Image: Riley Stefan