The 4 Best Back Exercises at the Gym for Mass and Definition

By Kyle Milligan / March 21, 2017

So you want the best back exercises for mass and definition? If you're not sure where to start, it's always a great idea to start at the basics. That's what I'm going to recommend to put more mass on your back. Some guys love to complicate things with all sorts of row variants and cable exercises,  but building a stronger, defined back requires focus on some of the most basic lifts. Now some of this back routine you're going to have to lift heavy weight. But you will get results.  Anyways, we are going to keep it crazy simple. I am going to give you the FOUR best back workouts for mass ever. And that's it. All you need is four.

The Best Back Exercises For a Wider Back, More Mass, and Definition

Strong back mass

Not I. I probably wouldn't tan that well even with the spray stuff.

Like I said, I like to keep fitness simple. You won't be burdened with a bunch of different back exercises and variants. I'm just going to give you the best back workout for mass and definition as I know it. We will only mention 4 back exercises. They are:

  1. Barbell Deadlift
  2. Bent Over Barbell Row
  3. Wide Grip Pull Ups
  4. Close Grip Pull Downs

I really don't enjoy spending more than an hour in the gym. Actually, I get a little anxious after about an hour in the gym. I feel like I have other stuff I need to pay attention to that is getting neglected. 

Just like in my chest routine, we are going to do just four basic back exercises so we can get in and get out. But this will not be a slack effort. We are going to lift them hard and heavy. I'm even going to put a special spin on the wide grip pull ups to help achieve the rep range.  

For this back workout to give you the most mass possible, you'll want to keep your rep count right around 6. That's because this is the ideal rep range for building strength and mass. By making your muscles larger and stronger, you can burn more calories, cut more fat, and become more defined. Just remember: You want your back workout to be failing at rep number 6. 

Back Exercise 1: Barbell Deadlift

When to perform: Barbell deadlifts are not just a back exercise, they are a total body builder. They are an "everything" exercise. Because they require so much effort from so many muscles, I like to perform them at the beginning of my back workout, while I'm still fresh. By putting barbell deadlift first, when you have the most energy, you will be able to significantly improve your overall back mass, definition, and strength week over week. The deadlift is one of those nearly limitless exercises. You can almost watch the weight climb up and up forever. 

Why Barbell Deadlift: In reality, barbell deadlifts are much more than a back exercise; they hit the entire posterior chain all the way down from your calves and all the way up to top of your traps. As a result, barbell deadlifts are fantastic for your back development.

How to Perform / Form: I really can't stress form enough for barbell deadlifts. When you start picking up very heavy weight, it becomes even more important to practice good form to protect your legs, knees, back, lower back, shoulders; just everything, really. If you are brand new to deadlifts, start at a weight you can easily handle while you learn the ropes of proper deadlift form. 

Barbell Deadlift Back Day
  • Step 1: Slide your feet under the barbell. The barbell should hover halfway up your feet. Your feet should be planted right at shoulder width apart, and slightly pointed out.
  • Step 2: Bend slightly at the knee and lean over so your back is straight and parallel to the ground.
  • ​Step 3: Reach down just outside of your shins and grab the bar. For heavier weight, you may want to alternate grip. I grip with my right hand (strong hand) facing away and my left facing toward me. For REALLY heavy weight, pick up some lifting chalk
  • Step 4: Keep your back straight and stand straight up. Drive with your heels.  ​
  • Step 5: Exhale as you straighten your body out. Stand tall and lock your shoulders back.
  • Step 6: Slowly return barbell to floor. The barbell should just hang in your hands. It might drag your thighs and knees a little bit. Maybe even your shins. You do not want the bar hanging way out in front of you. That means you are lurching your back or your shoulders forward and risking injury. Keep your shoulders locked back and your back straight.

Back Exercise 2: Bent Over Barbell Rows

When to perform: I do my barbell bent over rows directly after my barbell deadlifts. I strip the weight and use the very same bar.  I like to do these while I still have energy left because keeping good form with bent over rows requires some effort. You have to bend over at the waist, pick up a barbell, raise it to your chest, and then lower it back to the ground. All while keeping your back straight. 

Why Bent Over Barbell Rows :​ Bent over barbell rows are fantastic for hitting all the different areas of your back at the same time. This is great for defining your lats and upper back. The stability required to maintain form is great for strengthening your stabilizers in your legs and lower back while the actual lift itself focuses on your lats and upper back. 

How to Perform / Form:​ For barbell bent over rows you want a wider stance than barbell deadlifts. Your feet will be slightly wider than shoulder width apart; toes pointed out. Your hands will be just a little wider, outside of your knees. 

Barbell Bent Over Row Back exercise

  • ​Step 1: Place your feet beneath the barbell. The bar should hover about halfway up your feet. Bend at the waist. Back straight. Grip the bar just outside of your knees. 
  • Step 2: Keeping your back straight and your heels planted, raise the barbell up to your chest while keeping your back as still as possible.  Even I have trouble keeping my back completely parallel to the ground while performing this lift and that's okay. You just want to avoid jerking the weight up off the floor. 
  • Step 3: Touch the barbell to your chest and squeeze your shoulders back. 
  • Step 4: Return the barbell to the floor in a controlled manner. Do not drop the weight. Do not bounce the weight. Ideally, as you repeat this, you want to keep your back flat, parallel to the floor, perfectly straight, while only moving your arms. This can be very difficult. Do your best. If you find yourself lunging, jerking, or yanking on the weight at all, it's too heavy and you should lower the amount of weight you're lifting.

Back Exercise 3: Wide Grip Pull Up

When to perform: I love pull ups. Similar to how I arrange my dips on chest days, I structure my workout so body weight exercises are towards the end. Also, like my dips, I add weight to this exercise so that I don't perform a zillion reps. I like to keep my rep range at 4-6 reps. I have found it to be the best rep range for strength and muscle growth. 

Why Wide Grip Pull Up: You should always include some overhead pulling movement in your back workout. This is a great way to target your lats and get that awesome, coveted V-shaped torso. For putting emphasis on your upper lats, wide grip pull ups are the best bet. This means extra mass and definition for your upper back.

How to Perform / Form: Generally, there should be a pull up bar (or several) scattered around your gym. Sometimes they are built into cable machines. Sometimes they are atop squat racks. Whatever, find one that has a wide grip so that you can hold it with your hands facing away from you just outside of shoulder width apart.

Wide Grip pull ups for upper lats
  • Step 1: Grip the wide grip with your hands opening away from your body.
  • Step 2: Draw your chin up to your hands. Don't sway, jerk, lurch, or wiggle. The motion should be smooth and it should feel as though your elbows are doing all the work. 
  • ​Step 3: Once your eyes are above your hands, try to squeeze your elbows into your sides. It should feel like you are trying to bend the grips into the shape of a rainbow and squeezing your elbows into your ribs. 
  • Step 4: Slowly lower yourself to your starting position. The more extended your arms are before your next rep, the better. You don't want to lower yourself until your elbows reach 90 degrees and then pull yourself back up. That would stop you from getting the full range of motion and the most out of this back exercise. 

Back Exercise 4: Close Grip Pull Down

When to perform: I perform my close grip pull downs last. Sort of as a complement to wide grip pull ups. I like to do these seated and with a cable machine because otherwise you are almost doing the same exercise as wide grip pull ups and you don't get the most out of it.

Why Close Grip Pull Down: By utilizing a neutral, close grip, you actually are able to achieve a longer range of motion and increase the time of tension for your lats. This is great for widening and building your back muscle and increasing your strength. 

How to Perform Close Grip Pull Downs: To get the most out of any cable exercise, you want to squeeze each rep for all its worth. That means working out in an even slower, controlled pace than your other exercises. When you draw the cables down, do so methodically. When you reach your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades back together and feel it work your back muscles. When you are in your negative movement, let the weight drift away from you slowly and controlled.  

close grip pulldowns cable exercise for back
  • Step 1: Lock your knees into position. Reach and grab the grips.
  • Step 2: Draw your shoulders back. Pull your shoulder blades close together.
  • ​Step 3: With your shoulders still locked back, draw the cable in a steady manner to your chest. Keep your back straight and reclined slightly.
  • Step 4: Holding the grips at your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Step 5: Slowly and steadily let the grips return to starting position. Do not lean forward. Do not roll your shoulders forward. Keep your back straight and slightly reclined. Keep your shoulders locked back.


That's it! All there is to it! 4 simple and classic back exercises to build your lats and back even bigger. The key to seeing the very best results is to perform all these exercises with maximum control, and then progressively increase your weight once you are able to perform 6 or more controlled reps. 6 reps is the best rep range to maximize your exercises for strength and muscle growth. 

What are some of your favorite back exercises? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!​

The 4 Best Back Exercises at the Gym for Mass and Definition
Article Name
The 4 Best Back Exercises at the Gym for Mass and Definition
You want your back to be large, cut up, and produce that coveted V shaped torso. I offer you the 4 best back exercises for mass and definition.
About the author

Kyle Milligan

I'm Kyle Milligan. I really enjoy writing. I wrote a couple novels (The Hang-Ups and Hangovers series) and now I blog frequently on a bunch of different websites. I also enjoy lifting heavy things and and writing about it.

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