The Ultimate Barbell Back Workout: 6 Great Exercises For Strength Gains

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A barbell back workout can be a great way to increase strength and get a defined, V-shaped taper along your back.

Barbell back exercises generally allow you to lift a lot of weight to maximize your strength and mass gains while mastering foundational and advanced movement patterns.

But, what are the best barbell back exercises? How can you put together an effective back workout for barbell training?

In this article, we will discuss how to program a barbell back workout and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best barbell back exercises for lower back, mid back, and upper back muscles:

Let’s dive in! 

Barbell pullover.

How to Program a Barbell Back Workout

Many back workouts focus mostly on the lats, or the latissimus dorsi muscles, the largest and strongest muscles in the back. 

However, it is also important that your barbell back workouts include barbell exercises for lower back and upper back muscles.

The upper back muscles primarily include the rhomboids, the traps, the rotator cuff muscles, the levator scapula, and the posterior deltoids.

The lats span the entire back, tapering down in a V shape from the shoulders all the way down to the lower back.

The lower back muscles include the erector spinae group, which are the spinal extensors, along with deeper muscles that stabilize the spine, which are known as the multifidus muscles.

When you are doing barbell back workouts for strength, aim for 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps using at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. For hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each barbell exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.

The Ultimate Barbell Back Workout

Here are some of the best barbell back exercises to include in back workouts with barbells:

#1: Conventional Barbell Deadlifts

The barbell deadlift is one of the foundational strength training exercises that everyone should master.

This exercise is often included in barbell leg workouts because it requires tremendous activation of the posterior chain muscles, including the glutes and hamstrings.

However, included in the posterior chain, and also strengthened through this barbell exercise, is the erector spinae muscle group.

As such, the conventional deadlift is actually one of the best barbell exercises for lower back engagement.

Even the lats and upper back muscles are worked during this barbell training exercise, as they are required to contract isometrically throughout the duration of the movement.

Here are the steps for this barbell back workout exercise:

  1. Stand with good posture and your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides, and the bar over your midfoot. 
  2. Squat down and grab the bar with your hands just outside hip-width while keeping your back straight and chest up.
  3. Engage your hamstrings and glutes to lift the bar while you raise your body up to the tall standing position. Your back should stay straight, and the bar should track vertically along your shins. 
  4. When the bar passes your knees, press through your heels to stand all the way upright.
  5. Sit your hips back again to slowly lower the bar back to the floor. 

#2: Barbell Pullovers

The barbell pullover is one of the best barbell back exercises for the lats.

It is a challenging move for this muscle group because the weight gets further from your shoulder joints as you stretch your lats and reach back.

Because you are loading the lats under stretch and tension, you can really maximize your gains in strength and hypertrophy.

With that said, make sure that you are properly warmed up before performing this exercise, and you should start with a lighter weight until you have mastered the technique.

Here are the steps for this barbell back workout exercise:

  1. Lie back on a flat bench as if you are going to perform a regular barbell bench press.
  2. Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the bar and bend your elbows to about 70°, which is an acute angle (less than 90).
  3. Lock your elbows into this position, and do not change the joint angle as you slowly bring the bar back over your head until you feel a good stretch in your lats. 
  4. Think about driving with your elbows to slowly bring the bar back up to the starting position.

#3: Close-Grip Barbell Rows

Most barbell back workouts include at least one variation of a row exercise. Depending on how you perform your barbell back rows, in terms of your body positioning and grip, you can target different muscles in your back.

The close-grip hand positioning helps to really recruit the lats because it forces your elbows to remain tucked by your side, thus far requiring more shoulder extension and shoulder adduction, which are functions of the lats.

By remaining in the hip hinge throughout the duration of your set, you will also require your erector spinae to contract isometrically. This helps make this a great barbell back exercise for lower back muscular endurance.

Here are the steps for this barbell back exercise for the lats:

  1. Place the loaded barbell in front of your feet.
  2. Keeping your core tight, sit your hips back and hinge from your hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your back straight.
  3. Reach down and grip the bar with your hands closer than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Bent your elbows, driving them up and into your sides. Do not allow them to flare out as you pull the barbell up toward your belly button.
  5. Pause and hold the top position, squeezing your lats, traps, and rhomboids.
  6. Slowly lower the bar back down by extending your elbows.

#4: Standard Bent-Over Barbell Row

Although the narrow-grip barbell row is a fantastic variation to help target the lats, the standard grip barbell bent-over row is a key exercise in your barbell back workouts for the mid- and upper-back muscles.

Because your scapula can fully protract and retract, you can experience some significant gains in mid-back muscle growth and strength.

To perform this barbell back exercise, use the same steps described above, but place your hand slightly wider and shoulder-width apart.

When you reach down to grab the barbell, really think about subtracting your shoulder blade, which means separated by as far as possible.

As you pull the barbell up towards the bottom of your ribs, retract your shoulder blades as much as you can, using them together trying to hold a fork between your scapulae.

Your elbows should flare out more than they did with the close-grip barbell row. Aim for about a 45° angle out from your body with the point of your elbows.

#5: Wide-Grip Barbell Rows

Lastly, when you add the wide-grip variation of the row to your barbell back workouts, you minimize the recruitment of the lats to better isolate the rhomboids, traps, and posterior deltoids.

To do this barbell back workout exercise, follow the same steps, but position your hands quite a bit wider than shoulder-width apart along the bar.

Pull the bar up to your middle chest, allowing your elbows to flare out almost 90° from your body.

Remember to hold the top position and really think about squeezing your shoulder blades together by engaging your rhomboid.

#6: Meadows Rows

If you have access to a landmine station, you can add the Meadows row to your barbell back workout.

Alternatively, you can put a towel into a corner of the wall and nest one end of the barbell into the towel.

The Meadows row was named after the legendary John Meadows.

It is a single-arm barbell back exercise that allows you to really engage your back in a unilateral way while performing a dynamic movement.

Here are the steps for this barbell back workout exercise with a landmine:

  1. Place the barbell into the landmine attachment.
  2. Stand at the end of the bar with your feet staggered. 
  3. The opposite foot should be forward as you hold the end of your barbell in one hand. For example, if you are going to do a row with your right hand, step your left foot forward and right foot back. Your body should be positioned perpendicular to the bar at the very end of the bar.
  4. Grab the very end of the sleeve of the bar in your right hand. 
  5. Protract your scapula to spread your shoulder blades as wide as possible in the starting position and flare your elbow out from your body about 80 degrees.
  6. Keeping your torso square, bend your elbow to row the bar up, retracting your shoulder blades.
  7. Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds.
  8. Slowly lower the weight back down.

For more back workout ideas, check out our complete back workout with dumbbells here.

A row.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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