Best Exercises For a Massive Back

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Let’s discuss, the most powerful exercises which you can do in the gym, to develop a stronger & wider back.

A 2018 study, compared the electromyographic (EMG) responses in the middle trapezius, lower trapezius, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae during eight back exercises to determine which produces the greatest muscle activation for each muscle.

Nineteen males completed five repetitions of the following exercises using 70% of 1 RM, or body weight resistance: lat pull-downs, inverted rows, seated rows, bent-over rows, TRX rows, I-Y-T raises, pull-ups, and chin-ups.

Here is what the study found:

Middle trapezius: The four exercises that best recruited this muscle were the bent-over row, inverted row, seated row and I-Y-T raises.

Lower trapezius: The I-Y-T raises outperformed all other exercises when it came to targeting the lower trapezius. The bent-over row was also significantly better than the other six exercises tested.

Latissimus dorsi: The pull-up and chin-up had significantly greater muscle activation than the other six exercises. The bent-over row, inverted row, lat pull-down and seated row also tested relatively well.

Infraspinatus: The I-Y-T raises, inverted row, bent-over row, chin-up and pull-up proved best at targeting the infraspinatus.

Erector spinae: The bent-over row proved to be best at targeting the erector spinae.

The results of this study indicate that there wasn’t one specific exercise that was the single best exercise to activate each of the five muscles to the greatest degree. However, if a person had to choose one exercise, the bent-over row activated three of the five back muscles to the greatest degree and was the second best exercise for the other two muscles.

A 2010 study, assessed muscle activation of 35 different exercises of back & biceps, and measured the mean & peak activation of the biceps, lats, & traps, during various back and bicep exercises.

For the study, researcher Bret Contreras used weight from which five reps could be performed, except for the weighted chin-ups and pullups, where 3RM rep range was used.

(Bret explains mean and peak activation as: “MVC stands for Maximum Voluntary Contraction. It’s a measurement of how hard a muscle can contract isometrically. When you record MVC, you simply position your body in an advantageous position and squeeze your muscle as hard as possible. You can also push against an immovable object. 

Each muscle has its own position that will yield the highest electrical value. Researchers typically use mean MVC for their data. I used to think that mean activation was more important as it measured the average activation throughout the entire repetition. However, muscles are not always active throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise, especially during compound lifts.

For example, one muscle might be very active down low in the stretched position, while another muscle becomes more active up top in the contracted position of the same exercise. 

For this reason, I believe that peak MVC is a more important figure. Peak activation is a measurement of the highest point of activation during the repetition. 

Still, I believe that mean activation might be more important for bodybuilding purposes in providing constant tension, occlusion, and “the pump,” while peak activation might be more important for sport-specific purposes in providing maximum tension at a certain moment for peak force production.”)

Based on the experiment, the top three exercises in terms of mean and peak activity for each muscle part were:


Mean: Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull-up, Weighted Chin-up, Barbell Curl

Peak: Weighted Chin-up, Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull-up, EZ-Bar Curl


Mean: Weighted Chin-up, Weighted Pronated Wide-Grip Pull-up, Rack Pull

Peak: Weighted Pronated Wide-Grip Pull-up, Rack Pull, Underhand-Grip Feet Elevated Inverted Row


Mean: Dumbbell Bent-Over Row, Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest-Supported Row, Prone Trap Raise

Peak: Prone Trap Raise, Dumbbell Bent-Over Row, Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest-Supported Row


Mean: Dumbbell Bent-Over Row, Prone Trap Raise, Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest-Supported Row

Peak: Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest Supported-Row, Prone Trap Raise, Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

Based on the results of this experiment, the following would be a workout that’d target the lats, mid, and lower traps.

  • Weighted Pull Up, Weighted Chin Up, or Weighted Parallel Grip Pull Up
  • Dumbbell Bent Over Row or Weighted Feet Elevated Inverted Row
  • Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest Supported Row or Prone Trap Raise
  • Deadlift or Rack Pull

Based on all the above experiments, here are the best back exercises:

  1. Wide grip pullup, supinated grip chin-up, neutral grip pullup.
  2. Bent over barbell row (pronated/supinated), T-Bar row, Dumbbell bent over row
  3. 1-arm Dumbbell row or both arm pronated bench dumbbell row
  4. Inverted rows (normal & feet elevated), Suspension Inverted rows
  5. Deadlift & Rack Pull
  6. Lat Pulldown, Seated Cable row