When it comes to athletic performance, presses and lower-body exercises tend to hog all the credit. If you ask someone to name some athletic performance tests, you'll invariably hear things like the bench press (max or for reps), max back or front squat, jumps, and sprints. There are reasons that these movements have been chosen so often as standard measures, but don't think they are the only important exercises to develop.
Great lifters know that, to be truly powerful, you need a strong back. There's a reason the "posterior chain" has become one of the most popular phrases in the strength and conditioning world. A strong back provides the support structure for everything you do in the weight room. The muscles in your back are part of your core, and a weak link there will cause power to leak elsewhere, preventing you from getting stronger and bigger.
This applies across the body. Most of the best strength and muscle-building movements rely on a strong back—deadlifts and squats in particular. It's also generally accepted that a big, strong upper back is one of the keys to an incredible bench. It adds stability to the lift and gives you a solid foundation to press from. A well-developed back is also crucial to shoulder integrity. Weakness down the back opens the door for overcompensation. Jacked-up shoulders are never a good thing.
I hope you don't need any further convincing that back training should be given priority in your workouts. If so, just consider this: No matter what you do athletically, having a big, wide back delivers the intimidating look most guys want.
Brutally Effective Back Exercises
At first glance you're probably thinking, "What gives? Those aren't back exercises!" However, the pull variations of the classic Olympic lifts are outstanding back-builders. Ever seen the traps and back of an Olympic weightlifter?
These moves are great because unlike, say the power snatch, they have almost no learning curve. Just grip the bar, hinge at the hips, and explode up while shrugging your traps—hard. Another reason they rule is that they train your entire back, from the hamstrings to the traps, while letting you move huge weights.
As a final benefit, these are explosive movements, which is critical if you have performance in mind.
OK, so this one is a lower-body movement, but stick with me.
You already know that the standard Romanian deadlift is one of the most effective hamstring and low back exercises in existence. Simply modifying it with a wide snatch grip shifts a lot of the emphasis to your upper back.
As with the pulls above, you hit your entire posterior chain from head to toe with one movement. How about that for training economy?
The Pendlay row is basically a bent-over barbell row with a small twist. You keep your torso as close to parallel with the floor as possible, exploding the bar to your sternum and touching the floor after every rep.
Why do this instead of the classic row? Pendlay rows build raw strength in the back and keep you honest at the same time. It's pretty hard to cheat on these if you are really touching the floor after every rep. This spares your low back from doing the work and puts the emphasis on the upper and middle back where it belongs.
Alternative: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row
Sometimes you won't be able to do the Pendlay row, or you may just not feel like it. Let's say you did some snatch-grip RDLs earlier in your workout. Your low back is already going to be tired, and you don't want to put any more stress on it than necessary. The chest-supported dumbbell row is an excellent alternative.
To do this, grab an adjustable bench and set it at a low incline. Grab two dumbbells and drive your elbows back, keeping your chest in contact with the pad. Stay honest! Maintaining consistent contact with the bench ensures that the right muscles handle the workload.
You can't talk about back strength without including pull-ups in the conversation. The pull-up is a universally-accepted measure of relative strength. How many out-of-shape people do you know who can knock out pull-ups for reps?
The mixed-grip pull-up is an underused and underrated modification. It's a strong position and works great as long as you keep balance by switching your overhand and underhand grip equally.
Another benefit to this grip is that it trains upper-body pulling strength in a position that you might recognize from heavy deadlifts.
Face pulls have become a dominant upper back exercise, and for good reason: They just plain work. When you add in an external rotation, you've got an upper back juggernaut.
To do it, drive your elbows up and back, squeeze the shoulder blades together, then squeeze and externally rotate at the top of the movement. You can split this pull into two distinct movements, or keep it as one. In either case, remember with this movement that good form is more important than using excessive weight.
This two-step movement hits the muscles around the shoulder blade hard and gives external rotation the attention it deserves. External rotation is an often undertrained movement, especially given that strong external rotators are the key to keeping your shoulders healthy.
Badass Back-Building Plan
Here's how to program these exercises into four weekly workouts.