4 Moves for a Bigger Back

by Chris on September 14, 2012

The upper back is one of those areas of the body that doesn’t seem to get much love in the gym until it’s too late. I suppose I get it. After all, face pulls just don’t have the sex appeal of bench pressing and don’t make your shirt sleeves feel a size smaller like high rep curls.

But here’s the thing: if you’re progress has stalled it might just be your back that needs some work. Are you failing to get that intimidatingly jacked looked? Has your bench stalled? Are you failing to lockout your deadlift? Guess what? Hit your upper back a little harder and chances are it’s going to remedy these issues. Here’s the thing though: you need to train your back with the same respect you give to everything else. Don’t just go in and do some token cable rows and leave. First things first: pick some badass exercises.


Rambo’s secret was jacked rhomboids.

Pendlay Row

The Pendlay row is a simple modification of the old fashioned barbell row. I use this version pretty much exclusively. By touching the bar to the floor between each rep and being very aware of your torso position you keep yourself honest and make sure that your upper back is really doing all the work. It also takes some stress off your low back.

Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlifts

RDLs are among the best bang for your buck posterior chain to begin with. Throw in a snatch (or wide) grip and you’ll make your upper back do much more work.

Standing 1 Arm Cable Row

This version of the basic cable row is one of my favorite upper back movements. Focus on driving the elbow back and it will do wonders for strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade.

Face Pull

The face pull is one of those exercises that is better with less weight, building the upper back and external rotators. Be strict on these and make the most of whatever weight you’re using.

Try these out the next time you train your back. I like to pair pulling exercises with presses but they fit in just as well with body part splits.

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steve t September 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm

most people do treat the back as the ugly stepchild
2 questions….I do those pendlay rows but in the squat rack with the bar resting on the bottom most pins not the floor…is that good/low enough?
second…love doing the face pulls I think without a doubt they helped with my shoulder issues….but I grab the end of the ropes not the middle like you and I do them with kind of heavy wgts(well heavy for me) I do say 10-12 reps(strict) with 80 lbs.I know it’s actually like a rehab exercise but can I continue like this or am I supposed to use lighter weights for more in the 15-25 rep scheme
great article… people should listen and use this stuff

Chris September 14, 2012 at 7:25 pm


Do the Pendlay rows as your mobility dictates. For face pulls, I usually go for between 10-25 reps.

Thanks for dropping by.

ben September 16, 2012 at 9:34 am

Nice article. I do the one arm rows as a supplement at the end of pulling training. I got that from eric cressey. It’s nice to see it here. I played with Pendlay rows a couple years ago but was stymied by programming. How do you program them? I approached them as kind of a main lift so I was going with a straight forward linear progression along the lines of a work up to 3 working sets of 5 reps. I stalled out quickly and ditched them in the end. However I do believe they’re a fantastic workout. Do you have some tips on incorporating them. Currently I’m on the “boring but big” wendler 531 program, following it to a T. I’ve had great success on it and I’m currently six cycles in.

Chris September 16, 2012 at 11:05 am

Hey Ben,

Glad you enjoyed the article. I always use Pendlay/barbell rows as assistance work, so I rarely go less than 6 reps. The goal on these is to build and strengthen the back, not become a great barbell rower so don’t fixate too much on weight. Do them with good technique and make sure that what you are trying to work (i.e. your upper back) is working. I could see them working very well with the boring but big template as well.

Hope that helps.

steve t September 17, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I also used the BBB with the 5-3-1 and felt great results.I did about 10 cycles.For me I think I made my progress with the assistance work rather than the heavy work.My technique got better and I think more lean muscle.I feel I only made gains on the Deadlift after the 10 cycles not much if any improvement on the other lifts but was thrilled my technique improved.
I was using a 5-10 rep scheme for the rows but I think you hit it right Chris,it makes no sense to me now to become a heavy BB rower,don’t think I had the right approach.
thanks for pointing that out

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