This week we are introducing a new feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts; this may be exercises for your back, your core, your shoulders and more.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best’ exercises? It depends on your goal. If improving posture is your goal, you’d choose one set of exercises. If improved performance in your sport is your goal, you’d choose another set of exercises.
For our top 5 series, we’re assuming the goal is to look good, or better. For most people, looking good is essential for their self-esteem. And having a toned physique, with a well-proportioned shape can be just as important as having healthy body fat levels. Building that toned, balanced shape requires the building of muscle. But building muscle doesn’t just have an aesthetic purpose, it has numerous other benefits, so it’s in everyone’s interests to retain or build muscle.
To that end, our top 5 exercises are those that build muscle, or tone and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection, they need to provide an all-over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Why might an exercise not work for everyone? Well perhaps for postural reasons, or biomechanical reasons or for avoiding old injuries, for example. Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
To kick off the series I’m going to list my top 5 exercises for your back. The back has a complex collection of muscles capable of many different movements. Unlike the chest muscles, which only move the arms, the back muscles can move the arms and the shoulder blades. On top of that, there are muscles that extend and laterally flex the spine. If you’d like to understand more about how the back muscles work then there is plenty of good material on the internet.
The complexity of back musculature makes choosing a top 5 more of a challenge because those 5 exercises must stimulate a lot of muscles in a variety of ways to create a well-proportioned physique. If you want a back that is fully developed, has width and thickness, then you’ll need to choose exercises that create strong contractions and that work at various angles.
In general, exercises for your back are pulling movements falling into two categories: Pulling from above and pulling from in front. A good back routine should incorporate both in order to provide the variety of angles that will produce more complete development.
There are two more things I want to say about back training before I present the list of exercises for your back.
First, make sure your grip isn’t limiting your progress on back development. As your back becomes stronger your grip will need to keep pace. At some point, your grip will be the limiting factor. Unless you perform in a sport that requires a strong grip – such as strong man competitions – you should use lifting straps for back training. These will help you keep your mind in your back and not worrying about whether your grip is about to fail.
Two great exercises
Second, there are two exercises for your back that are supreme when it comes to back development but are not included in the list. They are the deadlift and the bent-over row. I currently have very few clients who can get into the correct position and execute the deadlift safely with a standard Olympic straight bar. They all have flexibility or biomechanical reasons why it is not safe or effective for them.
All my current clients, if they can deadlift at all, use the hex bar, and some of them use the higher handles. Most gyms don’t have a hex bar so this exercise isn’t going to work for a lot of people reading this. The bent-over barbell row is brutal, highly effective, but also high risk. It requires the lifter to bend at the waist and then hang a heavy barbell from their arms. It’s a recipe for a popped disc for those who don’t have the mind-muscle connection or strength in the spinal erectors, shoulder blades, glutes and hamstrings.
So, with the intro done, on to the list of exercises for your back…
1. Lat pull down
This is the first of the ‘pulling from above’ choices. Usually, this is done with a single wide grip cable attachment. But in the video, you’ll see that our studio has a cable system with two independent weight stacks. That means you can have a different handle for each arm. This helps to prevent one side dominating like it might if you had a single wide bar attachment. It also means you can create variety in the pulling angle and width. You can go wide overhand, medium neutral grip or narrow underhand. So, with the same exercise, you can create variety from workout to workout, set to set or even rep to rep. Variety works the muscles in different ways and prevents them from getting used to a particular stimulus.
There are certain things you should ensure when performing the lat pull down.
-Pause and squeeze for a count at the bottom of the movement. This will improve the mind-muscle connection, extend time under tension, maximally stimulate the muscle and give you a better pump.
-Ensure your shoulder blades are depressed, your shoulders pulled back and your chest high at the bottom of the movement. For most people, the lats are stronger than the muscles that keep the shoulder blades and spine in the correct position. The result is that they pull a lot of weight with poor form. With poor form comes ineffective stimulation of all the muscles in the back and an increased risk of injury. Start light, make sure you can adopt the right posture. Then increase the weight in line with the increases in the strength of your postural muscles.
If posture is a critical consideration for you, you should keep your shoulder blades depressed at the top of the movement. If you’d prefer to get maximum range of motion and stimulation in the lats then let them get stretched at the top of the movement by releasing your shoulder blades.
I like to start the session heavy and lighten up to get a pump as my muscles become fatigued. That way I stimulate both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
2. Bench row
This is the first of the ‘pulling from the front’ exercises for your back. I’ve chosen this because almost all gyms have a set of dumbbells and a bench. I’ve travelled a fair bit on business and used a lot of hotel gyms, and I can tell you that not many of them have a resistance machine for ‘pulling from the front‘. The bench row saves the day in these cases.
But it’s more than just an accessible exercise of course. I like it for a couple of other reasons. First, you are lying face down, so gravity makes it impossible to use your lower back and pull your chest away from the pad as you might do with an upright seated row machine. Like it or not, when the going gets tough, your instinct will be to pull away from the pad, so being prevented from doing that is helpful. Second, I like the fact that this exercise encourages you to rise up and extend your upper spine. Most people are kyphotic and could do with strengthening and mobilising their upper spine. Like the bent-over row, this exercise works every muscle in the back strongly, including the upper spine, and makes the list for that reason.
When performing the bench row, get high on the bench so your lower ribs are towards the top of the bench. Extend your legs and get them out of the way so you have room to bring the dumbbell back into the right position. Pull the dumbbell back towards the hip to perform the movement. And try to engage all the muscles of the back that retract, depress and externally rotate the shoulder blades. As with the lat pull down, if posture is a primary concern then keep those postural muscles engaged at the bottom of the movement to keep the shoulders back. Let the shoulders get pulled down if you want full range and maximum stimulus of the back muscles.
3. Pull up
Another ‘pulling down’ movement and, at first sight, similar to the lat pull down. Yes, these two exercises for your back are similar. But there’s something primal about the pull up that makes it very effective.
When we help our clients set goals, a lot of them say they want to be able to do a certain number of push-ups or pull-ups. There’s something very satisfying and, let’s face it, cool about being able to pull your body weight up to the top of a pull-up. There’s something about having to get your chin above the bar for it ‘to count’ that inspires herculean exertion and gets the best out of people.
With the right pull up bar, you can change your grip from set to set without having to queue in line for another machine or go and search for a different attachment.
If you can’t do a pull up with good form then start with assisted pull-ups. Over time, gradually reduce the weight to give yourself less and less assistance until you can do a bodyweight pull up.
4. Straight arm pulldown
A curious selection you might think, a departure from traditional pulling exercises for your back. Yes, exactly right, but read on.
For most body parts you’ll see an isolation exercise used frequently. An isolation exercise moves one joint and stimulates a smaller number of muscles than a compound exercise. For chest it’s flyes, for shoulders it’s lateral raises, for quads it’s leg extensions. Although they stimulate fewer muscles, isolation exercises work their target muscles in a very focused and intense way. They also provide important variety and a break from the usual compound exercises. Crucially, for me, they provide a way to pre-exhaust the target muscles before a heavier compound lift.
For example, on chest, if you tend to fail on bench press because your triceps give out before your chest, you’re not going to build a big chest. But if you pre-fatigue your chest with flyes first, then you can be sure your chest will give up first on the bench press, ensuring it is maximally stimulated.
So, the straight arm pulldown is the chosen isolation exercise for the back, specifically the lats. In most pulling exercises for your back both the shoulder joint and elbow joints articulate. With the straight arm pull down only the shoulder joint moves. This exercise is sufficiently intense that it works well on its own. But supersetted with a row or a pull-down, it’s highly effective at taking the target muscle to exhaustion.
When executing this move, try and get a good stretch in the lats at the top and a good squeeze at the bottom. Keep your shape and prevent the upper back from rounding.
5. High row
I really like this exercise. It’s a cross between a ‘pull down’ and a ‘pull from the front’. It requires you to both retract and depress the shoulder blades, plus you get very strong stimulation of the lats. In fact, the high row is responsible for some of the best pumps I’ve had in my lats.
A lot of gyms have a dedicated high row machine. But even if yours doesn’t, you can create one, as we have done, with a bench set a couple of yards from the handles or attachment.
When performing the lift, keep your ribs on the pad and your feet forward to lock the lumbar area and minimise its involvement in the movement. Get the stretch at the top and a squeeze and hold at the bottom. I find a wrist angle at 45° enables the strongest contraction of the lats and other back muscles. If you don’t have handles then an underhand grip would work best. But be sure to wear straps to avoid an early end to the set because your forearms are burning!
So, there you have it, my top 5 exercises for your back. When designing your back workout, try to choose one row and one pull-down, then vary the rest as you see fit. If you’re really going to town on your back then do all five of these. If you are able to do the deadlift or bent over row safely then also include them often in your routine. But if you can’t then these five will provide excellent stimulation and development of your back muscles.