Although there are lots of good bodyweight back exercises it is defiantly one of the most neglected body parts and it seems most people would rather train the muscles you can see which is why biceps, chest and shoulder exercises such as the crucifix rollout are far more popular.
I understand the psychology behind this as you can look in the mirror and see the muscles of your chest, biceps and shoulders getting bigger as you train. However, neglecting back training is always a big mistake as this results in a body that is completely out of proportion and the imbalance usually results in pain or injury.
How effective bodyweight back exercises can be is demonstrated by the fact that most body builders use the pull up as fundamental part of their back training and the military always use this exercise as a test of strength.
The results of good back training can be best shown by the martial arts legend Bruce Lee who used bodyweight back exercises to build one of the most impressive backs ever. In fact I will go as far as saying that for his size Bruce Lee had the best back I have ever seen with lats that seemed to spread out like the wings of a super hero. Anyone who has not seen his film Enter the Dragon should give it a look and you will see what I mean and why everyone should do back exercises.
The benefits of back exercises
1 The back muscles are the second biggest and strongest muscles in the body; only the legs have more power so if you do plenty of back workouts you will have plenty of power.
2 A wide back creates the illusion of having a much smaller waist than you really do so you look a lot trimmer than you really are.
3 Back training will burn more calories than most exercises because they are the second biggest muscle group in the body.
4 In sport you will always be able to throw further, pull higher or punch harder with strong back muscles which is why Bruce Lee spent so much time building up his back resulting in his awesome punching power.
5 The lower back is used in nearly every exercise that you do for your whole body. As the saying goes “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” which is why people who neglect this muscle normally end up with lower back pain when doing exercises such as squats or the military press.
This fact can be demonstrated with the full ab roll out. When your body is fully extended in this exercise the only points of contact are the feet and hands and all the other muscles of the body are incorporated. However, when people fail with this exercise (and most people do) I guarantee it will be the lower back muscles that collapse. So as you can see if you want to build real strength you must train these muscles.
The best bodyweight back exercises
For muscular endurance
The horizontal pull up because you place your feet on a bench and therefore reduce the amount of bodyweight that you lift you can soon build up to a high number of reps with this exercise which is why it is great for increasing muscular endurance.
Squat pull ups although these are only an easier version of standard pull ups they are perfect for building muscular endurance because you can soon build up to 50 – 60 or even 100 reps which is perfect for endurance. For this exercise begin in a full squat position with your feet on the floor and pull up to the bar as you straighten your legs.
Note because this exercise only requires you to lift a small percentage of your bodyweight it will not build any real strength. However, for the same reason you can soon manage high rep sets which is exactly what muscular endurance requires and this makes it a great exercise for boxers and martial artists.
As always the reps for strength building need to be in the 1-6 range and there are lots of bodyweight back exercises that are demanding enough to keep to this even for a strong athlete. Some of the best are
The one arm pull up this is one of the toughest bodyweight exercises that there is and very few people can do more than the 6 needed for strength building. Most people will find it takes many months to do even 1 one arm pull up but the progressions used for building up to your first one arm pull up can be used to train in the 1-6 rep range until you have mastered it.
Note, the two best ways of progressing to a one arm pull up are
Performing negative reps which involve using two arms to pull up to the bar and then one arm to lower back down under control.
You can use a piece of rope hanging from the bar and grip this with one arm. This reduces the amount of pulling power provided by one arm and allows you to focus more on the one you are developing for the one arm pull up. The further down you grip the rope the more difficult this exercise becomes.
Front lever pull ups. The front lever is a very demanding position to hold on its own and when you perform pull ups in this position it seems to cause every fibre in your back to fire into action.
Note, Most people will not be able to hold a back lever let alone do pull ups in the position without months of training. You can overcome this problem and still build strength with this great exercise by training with the progressions of the back lever until your strength increases.
For muscle building
As mentioned before bodyweight back exercises are great for building the v shaped wide lats that everyone associates with fit strong athletes. The best back exercises for building muscle are
The pull up, this old favourite is still one of the best ways to get a great back and should be a fundamental part of any back training. This exercise should be done with a shoulder width grip for all over muscle building and the wide grip version should only be used to increase the size of the lower lats.
Isometric pull up holds this is a great exercise for building wide lats and huge forearms. Pull yourself up so that your chin is above the bar and hold the position for between 30 – 60 seconds. Have 1 minutes rest and then pull up so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees and hold this position. Have 1 minutes rest and then pull up only 2 inches from a dead hang and hold that position for the same amount of time. You will find this exercise very difficult and your whole upper body will shake uncontrollably but it does what you want it to do.
Note once you can do 4 sets of 10 reps of pull ups you need change to more difficult exercises such as front lever pull up progressions.
Once you can do the 3 isometric holds for 60 seconds each increase the exercise difficulty by either decreasing the rest time between sets or making the transition to negative one arm pull ups.
If you want to build a muscular wide back, develop strength or muscular endurance you can do so with bodyweight back exercises as long as you stick to the number of reps required for the goal you have. To keep to these rep ranges you need to choose the right back exercises for your level of fitness and strength at the time.
A wide back makes your waist look smaller and creates the illusion of you being slimmer than you really are.
Muscle uses up calories so the more muscle you have the more fat you will burn and the back muscles are the second biggest in the body.
Strong back muscles are essential for sport and dramatically increase your punching power.
The lower back muscles (Erector Spinae) are used in most feats of strength and need to be exercised regularly for real bodyweight strength.
To find out which is the worlds best bodyweight program for beginners see the bodyweight exercise program guide.
What are the four best bodyweight exercises? I give my opinion here
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One of the best back exercises the pull up
The clapping pull up
The grip pull up
See the chest building guide to compliment your back exercise
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