The Best Back Attack

Let’s consider, for a moment, that the “Back” exercises we’ve been told are “good”, might not be so good. Let’s assume—for a moment—that we have to reevaluate it. We’ll design our “back training” strategy from scratch.

Our mission here today, is to identify the muscles of the “back”, and identify precisely what those muscles do. Then we’ll select the best exercises for those muscles, with a clear understanding of their functions and some basic physics principles.

In fact, there are only THREE primary muscles of the “back”. Each of those three muscles have ONE primary function, and produces ONE primary movement. Any movement that is different than that one primary movement—for each of these three muscles—is a less “pure” and less productive version of the primary movement.

In fact, we don’t need a dozen exercises—most of which are not precisely correct. We only need, and would most benefit from, one, single “great” exercise for each of the three primary muscles of the back.

The three primary muscles of the “back” are:

1. Latissimus (The Lats)

2. Middle Trapezius (The “Inner Back”)

3.  Erector Spinae (The “Lower Back”)

It’s important to SEE what these muscles look like in human anatomy, in order to understand what they do. Only by knowing a muscle’s origin and insertion points, and which joint that muscle crosses (and does not cross), can we grasp what that muscle does—and does not do.

Lats

Notice that the origin of the Lats is on the lower two-thirds of the spine, as well as the top upper posterior part of the pelvis. All of those fibers then converge on the upper end of the humerus (the upper arm bone). Notice the direction of the fibers—how they angle diagonally. Now imagine those individual fiber origins being tiny men, holding those individual fibers, like ropes. Imagine them pulling on the insertion point on the humerus. 

In which direction would those fibers pull on that humerus? They’d pull the humerus downward because the insertion point on the humerus is above origins. In other words, the primary function of the Latissimus fibers, is to pull the arm in a downward—and slightly inward—direction. Which exercise would that be?

That would certainly be more of a Pulldown, than a Rowing exercise. Rowing exercises don’t pull the arm “downward”, so much as “backward”. Of course, the Lats would participate slightly in a Rowing motion, but they would not be doing the majority of the work—as would be the case with a Pulldown motion.

Chin-Ups produce a movement that is similar to a Pulldown, but Chin-ups are much more limited, in terms of the direction in which you can pull, and the amount of weight you can use. With Pulldowns, you can (and should) lean slightly back, so the resistance comes from slightly in front of you. That’s impossible to do with Chin-Ups, because the weight of your torso and legs pulls you into a vertical position, which forces you to pull on the Chin-up bar from straight overhead—rather than from slightly in front. That causes a degree of shoulder joint strain. 

Also, Chin-ups generally force you to use your entire bodyweight, whereas Pulldowns allow you to use the precise amount of weight, whether you want to do 20 repetitions, 6 reps, or anything in between.

The ideal exercise—if you have access to a single high pulley—is a One Arm Lat Pull-In. It has some significant advantages over standard Pulldowns. Namely, it allows you to bring your upper arm all the way down to the side of you body, thereby allowing the Lats to enter absolutely full contraction. Pulldowns do not allow that because—since your hands are gripping the pulldown bar—are the same width apart at the top, as they are at the bottom. But, in order to bring your upper arm all the way in to the side of your torso, the hand must move inward closer to the midline of the body.

Now, you might be thinking that you can do that with two arms simultaneously, simply by positioning yourself in between two high pulleys. That’s true, but you’ll find that it’s not as good as the One Arm version. This is because the One Arm version allows you to rotate your torso slightly toward the working arm when it’s brought down-and-in. Then you can rotate your torso slightly away from the working arm during the eccentric phase of the movement. Naturally, you cannot rotate toward each arm (left and right) at the same time, and—if you try to alternate (one rep to the left, then one rep to the right)—you’ll find that the arm that’s “up” prevents you from rotating toward the other side.

So, your first choice for “best” Lats exercise is the One Arm Pull-In and your second choice is Pulldowns. Chin-ups would be a distant third choice.

Do between 6 and 10 sets, starting with higher reps (20 reps) and lower weight. Then, add a bit of weight to each successive set, and reduce the reps. Your final set or two should be with the heaviest weight you can handle comfortably (using good form), for 6 to 8 reps. Do this once every 3 to 5 days (twice per week, or twice every 10 days).

“Upper-Inner Back”

As you look at the illustration below, notice that the biggest muscle (aside from the Lats) is the Middle Trapezius. Essentially, that—and that alone—constitutes the “upper-inner back”. The Teres major is essentially “part” of the Lats—it pulls the arm in the same direction as the Lats, so it participates every time the Lats are activated. The Infraspinatus does not actually “pull” the arm—it rotates the arm. It’s part of the Rotator Cuff. Therefore, it neither “pulls down” nor “pulls back” (as in Rowing exercises).

Now, notice the origin and the insertion of the Middle Trapezius. Do you see that those fibers originate on the spine, and then attach onto the outer edge of the scapula (the shoulder blade)? Do you see that those fibers DO NOT connect to the arms? The fibers of the Middle Trapezius—the largest muscle of the “upper-inner back”—do not (cannot) pull on the arms, because they’re not even attached to the arms. Therefore, when you’re performing any Rowing exercises, keep in mind that all that arm movement is NOT being produced by your “upper-inner back” muscle.

The arm movement that is produced by your arms, during any Rowing exercise, is being produce MOSTLY by the posterior deltoids, and—to a lesser degree—by the upper most Latissimus fibers (i.e., the ones that originate higher on the spine). So, Rowing exercises are neither “great” for the Lats, nor “great” for the Middle Trapezius.

When you do any type of standard Rowing exercise, the Middle Trapezius merely prevents the shoulder carriage (the scapula) from moving forward—which is a fairly passive and minor participation. It plays a more active role IF you emphasize pulling your shoulders back, as your arms are pulled back. But most people do not emphasize that action (pulling the shoulders back) when they perform a Rowing exercise.

In fact, the Middle Trapezius’ primary function is to pull the shoulders back. That’s important to note, because the shoulders can be pulled back just as well—if not better—without the participation of the arms. By definition, an exercise that is meant to work the “upper-inner back” should be ALL (or mostly) Scapular Retraction—pulling back the scapula (during the concentric phase), and then allowing the scapula to move forward as far as possible (during the eccentric phase). That is “full range of motion” activation of the Middle Trapezius.

That motion is best done with cable resistance, coming from two pulleys that are approximately 3 to 4 feet apart. Place your seat in between those pulleys, and allow the left arm to pull on the cable that comes from the slightly left side angle, and the right arm to pull on the cable from the slightly right side angle. Minimize the arm movement, and certainly do not allow the elbows to go beyond the sides of the torso. Any arm motion that takes the elbows beyond (posterior to) the sides of the torso is 100% posterior deltoids—neither Middle Trapezius nor Lats. Since the Middle Trapezius and the Lats originate on the spine, neither of them are capable of pulling the arms past (posterior to) the torso.

Scapular Retraction, with two separate cables, is the best exercise. If you don’t have access to two adjustable pulleys, the next best option is a wide grip row that is chest supported, with emphasis on scapular movement (forward and backward). Do 6 to 10 sets, with the same reps, and the same frequency, as the Lats exercise above.

Erector Spinae (“Lower Back”)

To be clear, there is no such thing as a “lower back” muscle, per se. As you can see in the illustration below, the Erector Spinae (aka “Spinal Erectors”) runs from the lowest part of the spine and the upper posterior edge of the pelvis, all the way up to the top of the spine. Only the lowest part of the Spinal Erectors is visible, as it peeks out from under the Latissimus. But, make no mistake, that lowest portion of this muscle cannot be worked alone.

Contraction of the Spinal Erectors causes the spine to arch, known as “spinal extension”. Elongation of this muscle results in the spine “flexing”, producing a rounding (curving) of the spine. Doing this type of spinal motion—deliberately—produces “dynamic” muscle contraction.

Unfortunately, most traditional exercises that are intended for the “lower back” are performed as isometric (static) contraction. This means “without motion”, and it’s significantly less productive than dynamic contraction. 

Deadlifts and the exercise typically known as “hyperextensions” or “low back extensions” are typically performed using exclusively hip extension (motion) and a rigid (immobile) spine. Attempting to develop the Spinal Erectors using only isometric contraction, will not produce optimal results.

Just as elbow extension is required for optimal triceps development, spinal  extension is required for optimal development of the Erector Spinae. The best exercise for this is the Seated Spinal Extension shown below. This can also be done while standing, and leaning your tailbone against a wall. You’ll be amazed how much muscle fatigue you’ll feel, when doing this exercise, even when only torso weight (no added resistance) is used. When you’re ready to add weight, you won’t need much—10 or 15 pounds makes it significantly more challenging.

Do 4 to 8 sets of this exercise, each for 10 to 20 reps, using the same frequency as the two exercises above.

Conclusion

These are the three motions that comprise the functions of the “back” muscles:

1.  Pulldowns (or Pull-Ins) for the Lats

2.  Scapular Retraction for the “upper inner” back (i.e., the Middle Trapezius) 

3.  and Spinal Arching for the Erector Spinae.

If you are unable to access the necessary equipment for the first two exercises, you might be able to use elastic bands, anchored to a wall at the appropriate angles. Elastic bands are not as good as using cables and pulleys, in part because the resistance may not be enough. But also, elastic bands increase their resistance as they elongate, and reduce their resistance as they recoil—which is not consistent with the strength curve of skeletal muscles. Nevertheless, it’s more important to perform the correct anatomical motion, than it is to use the heaviest weight possible.

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About the Author: Doug Brignole

Doug Brignole is a former Mr. America and Mr. Universe winner, with a 43-year trajectory of bodybuilding competition. He is the author of numerous articles, the co-author of “Million Dollar Muscle” (a university sociology book), and the author of “The Physics of Resistance Exercise”, which is widely regarded as one best books ever written on the subject of biomechanics in resistance training.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.