The barbell is an excellent training tool. You can load it up with a lot of weight, control it with two hands, and perform a myriad of moves with it. Yet, when when it comes to heavy barbell lifting, most folks think of the bench press back squat, and deadlift. Those are great exercises, there’s no doubt, but by limiting the barbell to just those movements you’re limiting your growth potential. When it comes to building a bigger back, we think the barbell is second to none — and we’re not talking about deadlifting with it.
Below, we outline seven barbell back exercises that you can work into your program for more muscle, improve strength, and some training variety. After all, you want your workouts to be fun and different. We also talk more about the function of your back muscles and how you can benefit from back training.
Best Barbell Back Exercises
- Pendlay Row
- Seal Row
- Meadows Row
- Good Morning
- Suitcase Deadlift
- Bent Over Row with Horizontal Resistance
- T-Bar Row
The Pendlay Row is a barbell row named after legendary weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. This row variation involves has the lifter row the barbell from the floor, as opposed to being in a bent-over position where the barbell is hovering above the floor. This allows the lower back to rest between reps and forces the lifter to generate more force to get the barbell from the floor to their stomach. Lastly, it also takes momentum out of the equation as you’re performing what’s known as a dead stop rep each time. This is a great movement to build both strength and power in the back.
Benefits of the Pendlay Row
- The Pendlay row develops power and explosiveness off the floor because you’re pulling from a dead stop.
- It is friendlier on the lower back, compared to the bent over row, as you’re resting the weight on the floor after each rep.
How to Do the Pendlay Row
Set up as you would for the regular barbell deadlift. Hinge down to the barbell and take an overhand shoulder-width grip. Squeeze your armpits together, bring your chest up, and explosively pull the barbell towards your sternum and then return the barbell to the floor.
The seal row is a rowing variation that has you lay face down on an elevated workout bench, holding a barbell with both hands so that it’s not touching the floor. This prone position takes any and all momentum out of the movement so that your back muscles are doing all of the (literal) heavy lifting. Also, this is as pure of a horizontal row as you can get. Because you’re completely supine as you row, you won’t be able to go as heavy, so start with a lighter load and slowly increase the weight.
Benefits of the Seal Row
- You can get yourself into a true horizontal position to optimally target your lats and middle back muscles.
- The prone position takes away all momentum, so you can really isolate the target area.
- This is another lower-back friendly variation, as it’s not working to support you in any sort of hinge position.
How to Do the Seal Row
The key here is to set up on a bench so that you can full extend your arms without the barbell touching the ground, Do this by propping up a bench on either two low boxes or a stack of bumper plates. Then, lie face down on the bench with the barbell underneath you and squeeze your glutes and brace abs. Think about pulling your elbows towards the hip as the barbell touches the bench. Lower down to the floor and repeat.
The Meadows Row is a unilateral landmine row variation named after elite bodybuilder and strength coach John Meadows. This row variation is done the barbell set up in a landmine and the body perpendicular to it. Because you’re holding the end of the barbell it’s great for improving grip strength. The weight is also pulled more to the shoulder, which makes it a great move to target the upper back muscles and rear delts.
Benefits of the Meadows Row
- The angle and set up of the row is a great exercise for overloading the lats, rear delts, and lower traps.
- Gripping the end of the barbell with an overhand grip is great for grip strength.
- It’s a great option when plates or dumbbells are limited.
How to Do the Meadows Row
Using a landmine set up, stand in a staggered stance with the front foot perpendicular to the bar. Bend over at the waist and grip the bar with an overhand grip. Rest the elbow on your front thigh making sure the hip closest to the bar is higher than the front hip. Row the weight up so your hand ends up outside your chest. Lower the weight back down and repeat.
The barbell good morning is a fantastic exercise to build strength and muscle in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Good mornings help develop better lockout strength with the deadlift and build a strong posterior that improves your athletic performance.
Benefits of the Good Morning
- This is a great exercise for improving hip hinge mechanics and posterior chain strength.
- Good mornings add muscle and strength to the low back erectors, helping to protect the lower back under heavy loads.
- Builds lockout strength for the deadlift.
How to Do the Good Morning
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell on your upper back and actively pull down the barbell to engage your lats. With your chest up and shoulders down, take a breath and hinge from your hips with a slight bend in your knees while keeping the spine in neutral. Stand back up and finish with your glutes.
The suitcase deadlift is a unilateral deadlift variation that doubles as a great core exercise. Because you’re holding a load in one hand, your core has to work hard to prevent too much rotation and unwanted flexion. This exercise is either performed with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell. The barbell is often a tougher variation and will be more demanding on grip strength because you’re stabilizing the load of the barbell with one hand.
Benefits of the Suitcase Deadlift
- Builds unilateral pulling and grip strength, strengthening imbalances that may exist between sides.
- Taxes the core as your ab muscles fight to stabilize an uneven load.
How to Do the Suitcase Deadlift
Stand to the side of the bar near the center of the barbell. Bend and set yourself in the same position as your regular deadlift with your shoulders down, chest up, and back in neutral and pick it up as you would a suitcase. Keep your core engaged to avoid lateral flexion and slowly hinge back to the starting position and repeat.
A common error when rowing is not having your shoulders down and back, known as scapular depression. If the shoulders aren’t depressed, the lats have trouble being fully engaged, which is the point of rows. With the band pulling the barbell away from you, this forces you to retract and depress your shoulder blades while improving your posture and rowing form.
Benefits of the Bent Over Row With Horizontal Resistance
- Improves your hinge and pulling technique at the same time.
- With the resistance pulling you in two different directions this helps improve your grip strength.
How the Do the Bent Over Row with Horizontal Resistance
Secure a light to moderate lopped resistance band around an anchor point and secure it to the barbell before you put the plates on. Use a light band, one that is equal to 10 t20 pounds of resistance. Deadlift the bar up and walk back until you feel that the band is taut. Hinge forward until the barbell is below your knee and then pull the weight to your sternum and return the starting position and repeat.
The T- Bar Row is a go-to back exercise for a lot of old school lifters. It works the same muscles as the bent over barbell row, but forces your elbows to be closer to your sides, which allows you to better squeeze your rhomboids and middle traps at the top of the movement. This is a great upper and middle back builder.
Benefits of the T- Bar Row
- Can be performed with a variety of instruments (towels, rope, handles) to help improve grip strength.
- It adds thickness and strength to your upper back muscles.
- The neutral grip with the barbell variation is generally easier on your elbows and shoulders.
How to Do the T-Bar Row
If you don’t have access to a landmine, wedging a barbell in the corner with a towel and a heavy dumbbell on top will work. Load the opposite end of the barbell with plates and straddle it. Hinge until your torso is 45 degrees and hook a v-grip attachment, towel, or rope under the bar and hold with both hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the bar up towards your sternum and return to the starting position and repeat.
All About The Back
Your back consists of a series of muscles (which we go over below), that are responsible for all of the pulling your body does as well as keeping your spine stable. Strength of the upper and lower back muscles play a huge role in keeping neutral spine under compressive and shearing loads while deadlifting and squatting. Upper back tightness keeps the bar close while deadlifting, which is essential for lower back health and a stronger pull.
A bigger upper back also provides a place for the bar to sit during back squats. It also keeps the upper back braced and straight during hinging movements like the good morning.
A strong and muscular back is great for performance and vanity but it’s important for posture too. In today’s technological society where sitting and looking down at the screens causes a loss of upper back strength and postural conditions such as rounded shoulders. This leads to the muscles of the upper back getting stretched, weak, and inhibited and if left unchecked, shoulder and back injuries may occur.
Anatomy of the Back Muscles
Your upper and lower back consist of multiple muscles, and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger and muscular, better-looking back. Here’s a breakdown of the major back muscles.
The lats, as they’re also called, originate from the lower part of the back, where it covers a wide area, and it attaches to the humerus via a narrow tendon and that’s how it extends, adducts, and medially rotates the shoulders and arms.
They originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down and attach to the inside of the scapula. Their functions include scapula adduction (coming together), scapula downward rotation (when you’re bringing your arm down from a lateral raise), and scapula elevation (when you’re reaching above your head.)
This is a large flat triangular superficial muscle on each side of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. Its main functions are scapula adduction, elevation, depression (lower fibers), and scapula outward rotation.
This not one muscle, but three major muscles which run the length of the spine on the left and the right, from the sacrum or sacral region of your lower back [lumbar] vertebrae and hips to the base of the skull. They play an important role in keeping the neutral spine under load.
The Benefits of Training Your Back
A lot of lifters neglect training their back because, well, they can’t see it. Chest, arms, and abs all day, baby, right? Wrong. Not balancing your pushes and pulls combined with sitting is a recipe for disaster for your posture and back strength.
It’s not only a vanity issue because being anterior (or forward) dominant leads to a lack of mobility in the shoulder area and can lead to shoulder issues further down the road. By strengthening your back, you’re strengthening the main support structure (spine) of your entire body.
A strong and healthy back will stabilize and brace your spine to enable you to perform the big three (the squat, deadlift, and bench press) with good technique and to protect against injury, be able to show off your ’wings’ and give you great posture also.
How to Warm-up Your Back Before Training
Like with all major muscle groups it’s important to warm up and mobilize your back muscles. It gets the blood moving through the muscles and it readies the tendons and ligaments for load
Some suggestions are wall slides to get the scapula and shoulders rotating and moving well. Spiderman with rotation will train your shoulder stability and thoracic mobility and is a great warm-up move.
Face pulls or band pull apart will help strengthen and provide the endurance to rear deltoids and upper back and both a great low-intensity moves to get you ready for bigger exercises. Choose two to three of the moves mentioned in this section and perform two to three sets of 10 reps before training your back.
More Back Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best barbell back exercises to strengthen your back, you can also check out these other helpful back training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.