A strong posterior chain enhances the V-taper and improves strength on compound exercises like deadlifts. On Feb. 5, 2024, fitness influencer Jeff Nippard ranked 20 different back exercises from worst to best for growing muscle in a video on his YouTube channel.
Best Back Exercise Criteria
Nippard’s ranking system was based on three muscle growth tenets:
- Stretch & Tension
- Feels Good
- Simple Progression
The first tenet was if an exercise stretched the working muscle with high tension. The second looked at whether the exercise in question could be performed smoothly with a sharp mind-muscle connection without pain. The third sought simple progression (i.e., adding reps and weight is straightforward).
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Bottom Tier — The 5 Worst Back Exercises
Nippard’s ranking system starts at the best, with S for “super” working its way down — A, B, C, D — to F for “failure” as the worst. (S+ refers to the overall best back exercise. F- refers to the overall worst.)
Beginning his list at the bottom, Nippard puts renegade rows and dumbbell row variations (row + curl, row + press, row + kickback) in his F tier. These types of movements have a limited range of motion while focusing on the wrong areas of the back. Fatiguing the wrong muscles, Renegade Rows leave the back underdeveloped.
Nippard puts deadlifts in his C tier. While the deadlift affects the spinal erector and can help grow the lower back, the back muscles only receive isometric (static hold) stimulus. The legs get most of the growth opportunity.
Deadlifts can train the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, depending on stance, but won’t maximize back growth. Due to the deadlift’s stretch and progression opportunities, Nippard would put deadlifts in the A or B tier on a leg day.
Above-knee rack pulls don’t optimize the use of the equipment and offer a smaller range of motion than deadlifts, earning a spot in Nippard’s F tier for back exercises.
Top Tier — Pull-Ups & Pulldowns
Getting into the more helpful back hypertrophy movements, Nippard showcases the wide-grip pull-up, neutral-grip pull-up, chin-up, wide-grip lat pulldown, neutral-grip lat pulldown, and half-kneeling one-arm lat pulldown as exercises in the A, B, or S tier.
Those variations all provide simple progression models with high tension and a decent stretch at the bottom of each rep. Nippard noted that pull-up variations are more challenging at the top of the movement than at the bottom, so the resistance isn’t super smooth.
Nippard ranked each pulldown variation into the lauded S tier. He loves the stretch, tension, smooth resistance, absent pain, and easy progression model pulldowns offer. The cross-body lat pull-around offers a good stretch and constant tension but can be challenging to execute, so it fell to the A tier.
Mid Tier — Row Variations
Starting with the standard barbell row in the B tier, Nippard explains it fits all the criteria yet isn’t super stable. He believes other row variations offer more back growth opportunities.
The Yates row (C tier) and the Pendlay row (B tier) — barbell row variations — offer some back growth but are limited by lack of stability and range of motion. Despite this, one could Pendlay row with a deficit to increase the stretch in the lats during the negative, so Nippard ranked modified deficit Pendlay in his A tier.
The Meadows row, named after IFBB professional bodybuilder John Meadows, looks like a sideways single-arm landmine row. There’s ample stretch in this isolateral movement, a personal favorite of Nippard, who puts this movement in the S tier.
Nippard feels free-standing T-bar rows are challenging to balance, and the weight plates can get in the way of a full range of motion. He puts them in the B tier, paying homage to eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman.
Nippard ranked inverted rows in the C tier (difficult progression), single-arm dumbbell rows in the A tier (smooth movement but capped progression), and the Kroc row in the A tier (momentum helps with the curvature of the back).
The chest-supported row is the superior version of the T-bar row in Nippard’s view because the former allows for more stretch and flexion. They sit comfortably in the S tier.
Horizontal cable row variations are also S-tier exercises. Face pulls and lat pullovers rank well due to the easy progression and deep stretch — cable machines provide the smoothness of movement. Finally, Nippard ranked dumbbell lat pullovers in the A tier for the quality of stretch.
Chest-Supported Rows are King
Nippard crowned chest-supported rows as the best all-around back exercise. Renegade rows ranked the worst for hypertrophy. The takeaway is fairly simple: prioritize pull-ups, pulldowns, and stable row variations that allow a full range of motion with the ability to easily progress over time.
Featured image: @jeffnippard on Instagram