Training your back is important to counteract all of the sitting, slouching, texting, and forward reaching movements throughout each day. Not to mention, strength training your back creates better posture and decreases instances of back pain. There are two overarching types of pulling exercises that strengthen the back—horizontal pulling and vertical pulling. Training both types ensures a more balanced system. Below are three different pulling exercises with written explanations and video demonstrations for each.
A lat pulldown machine basically mimics a pullup. Pullups and lat pulldowns are vertical pulling exercises. The lat pulldown is a good choice for building back strength because it is easier to ensure a proper body position than a pullup. You can also easily adjust the difficulty of the exercise by changing the weight selection on the weight stack. I would recommend building some early strength with the lat pulldown before working on pullup variations, unless you have a coach or trainer to guide you with pullups.
-Select the proper weight. You should be able to complete a full set without losing your form, though the last 1-3 reps should be challenging to complete. (Read “How to Workout…” for further information on selecting sets/reps).
-Grab the handle with palms facing forward and arms outstretched above your head
-Set your shoulder blades down and back. It might help to think of “tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets”.
-Pull down by first squeezing your lats (the muscle around the back of your ribcage).
*If you have to shrug up your shoulders and aren’t able to keep a proud chest, the
weight is too heavy.
-Keeping your shoulders down and the squeeze in your lat, control the handle back to the
Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
Chest supported dumbbell rows are a horizontal pulling movement. They are a good choice for beginners because you can’t cheat by using the momentum of moving your torso.
-Set two dumbbells on the floor to the sides of an incline bench. Set the bench to be at about 45 degrees or slightly lower.
-Lie chest down on the bench with either bent or straight legs, whichever is more comfortable.
-Grab the dumbbells one by one and get into position. Start with shoulders down and arms straight.
-Pull the dumbbells toward your hips by squeezing your lats. You should pull until you can’t get your elbows back any further, then control the dumbbells back to the start position.
*It can be helpful to think of pulling at an angle/pulling toward your hip bones/pointing your elbows to the wall behind you.
*At the top of the movement, try to also squeeze your shoulder blades together to get those elbows back as far as possible
-Immediately after your arms fully straighten, quickly change direction by squeezing your lats again.
Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
Unilateral, or single-sided training, allows a chance to balance out unequal strength from side to side. The single arm dumbbell row is another horizontal pulling exercise that is performed similarly to the chest supported row, with a different setup.
-Set your body up like a “tripod” with your legs and one arm. You can do this by putting one knee and hand on a bench and the other leg to the side of the bench. Another setup could be to stagger your legs, keep them slightly bent, and position your arm on a bench in front of you. Either way, leave room for the working arm to be able to reach totally straight without hitting anything.
-Start with a straight arm and pull the dumbbell toward you by squeezing your lat.
-Think of rowing the dumbbell toward your hip and/or pointing your elbow toward the wall behind you as you row.
-Hold the muscle squeeze at the top of the movement for a second before lowering with control.
-Once you get a full stretch at the bottom, reverse direction with a big squeeze of your lat, not using momentum of heaving your upper body.
With all back exercises a common theme is to keep your shoulders down. (If this doesn’t make sense, stand up and shrug your shoulders up, then relax. Now try to do the opposite and pull your shoulders down. Another way to think of getting into a shoulders down position is to roll your shoulders back and down or even to think of having a proud chest). It is very common to allow the traps to takeover back exercises, which feels like your shoulders are shrugged up during the movement. Training this improper movement pattern will worsen posture, can result in pain in the shoulders and neck, and does not allow your back to get as strong as possible! Remember to perform all exercises with a controlled pace and a big squeeze of the muscles. It is important to slow down enough to connect to the movement and not just rush through your reps.
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