I’ve always been a big believer that our backs hold the key to athletic performance. Without question, leg strength and power derived from the lower body are the top predictors of health and longevity, but the back is a critical part of our posterior chain. It is and an asset that if not cared for and intelligently developed can hinder our true potential inside and outside of the gym.
A strong big back is crucial not only for pulling but also for both squatting and pressing. There are many variations of exercises to choose from to develop a strong back ranging across the spectrum of pull-ups, pulls, rows, and more rows. The following is a list of six that you might not typically think of or are familiar with that I have come to love and use regularly in my Weightlifting, CrossFit, Strongman, and movement training.
“Don’t ask for a light load, but rather ask for a strong back” – Anonymous
#1 ROPE CLIMB
Plenty of CrossFit gyms have them, but how often do we use them? In my humble opinion, it is the best exercise for strengthening your back with the added benefit of increasing grip and bicep strength, and stimulating the nervous system unlike any pull-up or chin-up could. This was a staple of physical education growing up in Eastern Europe but unfortunately, just like PE class in the modern world, it has gone by the wayside. It’s hard to believe how we as adults can lose track of and have difficulty figuring out what to do with our feet just to get on the rope, forget trying to climb it. Gymnasts are a classic real world example and swear by the rope climb and its variations (e.g., legless, double handed with two ropes, etc.) to increase upper body strength and transfer to overall performance when competing. It’s just you and the rope and getting to the top is a workout but the ascent is as challenging on the body. Beyond the physical and neurological benefits, it’s a blast to do. Be a kid again, get on that rope, and get crazy strong. When not programmed as part of a workout, start out the day with a 10 minute EMOM of 2 to 3 rope climbs every minute. If you are not there yet, working on form is a great approach as well.
#2 TRAP BAR DEADLIFT
– or any deadlift for that matter, but that wouldn’t be a surprise. Most of us are accustomed to the conventional or even sumo deadlift but due to the unique equipment required, few of us have access to the mysterious trap bar. In many ways it is a beast, heavier than a standard barbell, some also come with wider handles. Where the trap bar really shines is the flexibility, especially for novice lifters, in how one can set up prior to initiating the lift. Many also associate the deadlift with more of a low back strengthening exercise, however if you are properly engaging and setting your lats and spinal erectors during the setup, there is nothing more heavenly for the entire posterior chain. Add an inch deficit on a heavy day and your back will be lit up, in a good way. Enjoy it!
#3 SNATCH GRIP BENT OVER ROW
In the realms of Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit, we tend to either pull something up vertically (e.g. snatch high pull) or pull ourselves up vertically (chest to bar pull-up). What we don’t do nearly enough of is horizontal rowing. Dumbbell and barbell rows are great and have tremendous benefit certainly for the clean, but the movement that can more directly support the development of the snatch and the pull up is the bent over row with a snatch grip. The cue often used in Olympic Weightlifting is to engage the lats or keep the lats tight, however athletes often break or “lose” their back once off of the floor. This exercise then becomes a great way to strengthen the lats as it doesn’t let them rest during the movement allowing the athlete to sustain that tight back throughout the lift, especially the snatch. Great accessory lift, you guessed it, on snatch days, anywhere from 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps at a moderate to heavy weight. No swinging allowed!
#4 WEIGHTED CHIN-UPS
Are you able to perform a single chinup with an added load of .5 to .75 of bodyweight? Are you able to perform a chinup bodyweight plus load that is greater than your bench press? Doing higher volumes of pull-ups, especially if kipping, will not drive continued strength adaptation. It could also lead to beat up shoulders. By flipping the hands, adding load, and decreasing reps not only can we build a stronger back but we can also save your shoulders from excessive stress. To add weight you can use dumbbells held at your knees or ankles, weight plates attached to belt around the waist, or chains around the neck for extra flare. These can also be performed with a false grip, knuckles pointing up to recruit more of the forearms. Personally, I’m a sucker for 5 x 5 with increasing load over time, or even dropping the reps down to two or three but adding more load.
#5 SUPINATED DUMBBELL ROW
As a friendly public service announcement – we also have a mid back. It’s not just the lats, low back and the traps. The rhomboids not only help to hold the scapula onto the ribcage but also act to retract the scapula, which is key in athletic endeavors. There are only a few exercises that directly aim at strengthening the rhomboids but this is a simple variation on a tried and true staple than can help develop that mid back area. Bonus tip: if you have access to a t-bar row with a 45 degree handle and adjustable height settings, you can use it as well. When performing the row, squeeze at the top of the pull, and lower under control. Five sets of eight repetitions is a great starting point.
#6 DUMBBELL PULLOVERS
Which way to the gym, bro? Yes, some might consider this a pure bodybuilding movement but just think about movements this might mimic, especially in CrossFit. Anything? Kipping and chest-to-bar pullups, as well as muscle-ups (either on the rings or the bar) have a similar movement patter to the dumbbell pull-over without the use of the lower body. Great accessory exercise and finisher to a workout.
Work on that back! Keep it healthy and strong with the movements described above. When I first started lifting over 15 years ago, I picked up a little nugget that we should pull 1.5 times (sets and reps) the amount we press. Ever since then I have stayed true to that simple math. Placing a greater emphasis on the back and posterior chain will help offset the staggering amount of overhead work in CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting. Let me know your thoughts!
Pawel Wencel is CrossFit Level 1 certified and the Co-Creator Of Uncharted Performance, a website and podcast dedicated to pushing the boundaries of performance inside and outside the gym.