Best Exercise for Upper Back Thickness

To finish up the back portion of the “Best Exercise for…” series, it is going to be one for the upper back thickness.  For back thickness is general, rowing motions are going to be the best.  So, with this in mind, the exercise that allows the most weight to be used is the Bent-Over Barbell Row.  A great compound movement, the barbell row allows you to target different portions of the back to build thickness.  More will be discussed on this in just a moment.

For the barbell row, the starting position is going to be bent-over, usually to a 90 degree angle or less, depending on your mobility.  Some may only be able to bend over 45 degrees, but that’s okay.  The barbell is held at about shoulder width apart for the regular variation, hanging down but not touching the ground.  (When using Olympic plates, Arnold Schwarzenegger used to stand on a flat bench while he did barbell rows so that the plates would not hit the ground.)  Usually, an overhand grip is used, but an underhand grip can be used to get a better contraction in the biceps and hit the back just a little differently.  Making sure to keep your back from rounding, pull the weight up using your back and arms.  The standard variation usually has the weight going toward the upper abdominals. At the top position, with the weight barely touching the abdominals, squeeze the lats, and lower the bar back to the starting position.

There are many different variations of the barbell row.  A wider grip, for instance, hits the upper back more, with the bar coming up toward the chest.  A narrower grip may also be used to hit the back differently.  As I mentioned, an underhand grip incorporates more of the biceps, although basically any rowing motion you do is going to hit the biceps.  One variation of the barbell row that allows you to lift a bit more and puts less pressure on the lower back is the Pendlay Row.  With this one, the starting position is with the bar on the ground.  The concentric contraction is the primary focus of the exercise, so just the portion where the bar is being lifted.  Slowly letting the bar down puts more pressure on the lower back, so with the Pendlay Row, the weight is lifted to the top position and generally lowered quickly back to the floor.

If you find that one side of your back is a little smaller than the other side, what you should do is use dumbbell rows rather than barbell rows in order to work each side individually.  This principal goes with any body part.  For biceps, focus on different dumbbell exercise variations.  For chest, use more dumbbell bench presses.

Next week will be moving on from back to shoulders and then legs.  If you have any requests, feel free to mention them in the comments.


Best Exercise for Back Width

Last week we discussed the best exercise for the lower back.  In continuing with the back, the next topic for best exercises will be back width, specifically the lats.  In this case, the best exercise is going to be pull ups.  Not only a great body weight strength exercise, pull ups also help to provide a great stretch and contraction of the lats to help develop back width.  Before I knew the difference between pull ups and chin ups, I always used to use the names interchangeably.  While they can be used interchangeably, there are some obvious differences worth mentioning.  For the sake of making sense, we will refer to the back exercise as pull ups, while the arm exercise will be chin ups.


This image gives a visual of the main muscles used during a pull up. The most common difference between pull ups and chin ups is going to be the grip. Chin ups have an underhand grip, rather than the overhand grip pictured above.  This puts more stress on the biceps as they contract more fully.  Another difference is that with pull ups, your scapula is (or at least should be) retracted, and you’re leaning back slightly as you pull yourself up.  Close grip pull ups can also be done, although these work more on the inner portion of the back where the lats and lower trapezius muscles meet.

For a visual representation of how to properly perform a pull up, please refer to the video below.  This video was filmed and edited by the Buff Dudes, and I take no credit at all for the video.

If you are just starting out, you may not be able to complete even one pull up with good form.  If that is the case, feel free to start with lat pulldowns or even assisted pull ups where you place a resistance band over the pull up bar and place the other end over your foot.  Both of these variations are great methods to begin building strength in order to complete your first unassisted bodyweight pull up.

Best Exercise for Lower Back

Because there are so many great exercises for different areas of the back and different ways to build the back (i.e. back width and back thickness), back is going to be split into multiple weekly posts.  For the lower back, the best exercise is going to be deadlifts.  Deadlifts are more of a full body exercise, but they allow you to go extremely heavy and build more strength in your lower back.

To be honest, when I first started working out, I would not do deadlifts.  It was partly due to form issues, because I didn’t know the proper form for deadlifts.  It was also partly due to the fact that I was working out at home and my bar could only hold 80 pounds, which even when I first began consistently working out, was light enough to easily do 12 reps (I found this out later after I learned more about the form.)  But today, I never do a back day without deadlifts.

There are many different variations of deadlifts, many of which focus more on specific muscles like the lower back or the hamstrings.  Straight-leg deadlifts, for example, take the pushing motion out of the deadlift and focus more on the pulling.  This relieves pressure on the quads and puts more on the lower back and hamstrings.  Romanian Deadlifts are similar, though with these, you bend your knees, but it focuses on the upper range of motion without touching the floor.  Rack Pulls are also a kind of variation of a deadlift where you have a power rack or a sturdy object on each end of the bar that you can set it on, and you lift it from the “rack” to the top position and back down, resting it on the “rack” for a second between each rep.

The form of the deadlift is a little more complex than most exercises.  Many people just say a deadlift is “lifting weight and putting it down,” but there are plenty of form no-nos if you’re trying to avoid injury.  Because there is so much to cover with it, I will have three videos posted below to provide the basic form of a basic deadlift and tips on how to get the most out of your deadlifts.  These videos belong to the Buff Dudes and I take no credit for them.

These videos should help you to get started on deadlifts, or help you improve your deadlifts if you have already been doing them but maybe have been making some mistakes.  One thing I should note is that if you’re just beginning, go light and feel it out.  The last thing you want to do is go to 135 pounds on your first time doing deadlifts and not be able to move the bar.  Work your way up, even if it is just adding 5 pounds to each set each week, which is what I have been doing.  It has greatly helped with my strength and size and I plan to continue until I reach the point I can’t raise the weight 5 more pounds each week.

Best Exercise for Chest

Last week I talked about the best exercise for triceps, so it makes sense for chest to be next.  Chest is one of the more sought after muscles to put size on, as a small chest on a guy is like a small burger at a restaurant known for helping people when they’re bulking.  Quite a few bodybuilders have very notable chest development, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s having been one of the greatest, in my opinion.

But back to the topic, the best exercise for chest development is the barbell bench press.  This compound exercise allows you to hit the pectorals with heavier weight than other chest exercises, which is one thing that makes it so great.  This is why in just about any workout program, you will find barbell bench press or some variation.

The setup for a barbell bench press is with your hands a little outside shoulder width apart, to the point where when the bar is almost touching your chest, your forearms are completely vertical, not bent inward or outward by much if at all.  (Wider and closer grips will be discussed in just a minute.)  Retract your scapula and push your shoulders into the bench.  This may cause a slight curve in the lower back, but make sure it is not too high of an arc, maybe an inch off the bench.  Keep your bum on the bench the whole time, and keep your feet flat on the floor for a strong foundation.  Lower the bar toward the lower portion of the chest, almost touching it, but not quite.  Unlike with the close-grip bench for triceps, you’re going to want to keep your elbows flared out more, but they do not have to be directly in line with the bar.  Push the bar back up, focusing all of your energy on pushing through the chest and squeezing it at the top.  Finish just short of lockout to keep the chest under tension rather than the elbows.

There are many different variations of the bench press.  Close-grip variations can include having your elbows flared out to work a little more of the inner chest, but it also incorporates more of the triceps.  Wide-grip variations may target more of the outer pecs and the front deltoids.  Other variations can be made with the angle, including incline bench press for the clavicular portion of the chest, or decline bench, for the lowest portion of the chest.  Dumbbells can also be used, although these are more used to working out muscle imbalances as they work each pec separately.

One of the downfalls to the bench press is the range of motion.  With the chest function being pushing and reaching across your body (like in cable crossovers,) the bench press only provides for one of these functions, unless you have a special bar with handles that slide, which most of us probably do not.  In order to get the fullest contraction with a bench press, even if it means lower weight, you can use dumbbells, which allow you to bring the dumbbells together at the top and provide a fuller contraction.  But all in all, bench press is definitely the best exercise for developing a manly chest.  (It’s also great for women, of course.)

Best Exercise for Triceps

Last week I talked about the best exercise for biceps.  Today, we’re switching to the other side of the upper arm, the triceps.  The triceps cover about 2/3 of the upper arm, and in order for proper proportions and symmetry, should not be overpowered by your biceps, or overpower your biceps too much.  The best way to work overall mass for muscles is compound movements, which is why deadlifts, squats, bent-over rows, and bench press are always recommended as foundational exercises for those starting out.

On that note, the best exercise for triceps is the close-grip bench press.  This exercise allows you to go heavier than other triceps exercises like cable push-downs or triceps dips.  This ability to go heavier allows for more muscle fiber tearing, and thus more muscle growth.

The setup for the close-grip bench is just about the same as with regular barbell bench press.  With the close-grip bench press, you want your hands to be just about shoulder width apart or just slightly closer.  You do not want to go too close or it could hurt or injure your wrists.  Retract your scapula and push your shoulders into the push so that you limit the shoulder activation during the movement.  Inhale as you lower the bar, and keep your elbows in toward your sides, not flaring out as with a chest bench press.  I find that focusing on lowering the bar slowly with just the triceps and then exploding up to a lockout position where I squeeze the triceps leads to the best pump.

The close-grip bench press, while killing those triceps, will also incorporate the chest and shoulders as secondary pushing muscles, which is why having a proper mind-muscle connection is such an important concept for building muscle.  Focus on feeling it in the triceps, and on really contracting the triceps.  I find that this helps me to get the most out of the exercise and increase the size of my triceps.  Of course, there are many other great triceps exercises, but this one may just be the best for building overall triceps mass.

What is the Best Exercise for Biceps?

Biceps make up one-third of the upper arm, and really help to give them that heightened look with the peak.  The biceps, a two-headed muscle, is made up of a long head, and a short head.  The long head is the outer head that really gives the biceps that peak, while the short head is on the inner portion and contributes more to overall bicep width.  So, what is the best exercise for biceps mass?

In case it was not obvious, the barbell curl is the best exercise for building biceps mass.  The barbell curl is an isolation exercise, meaning it only uses one joint, and it allows you to go heavier than you might be able to on other curl variations.  The method to hit each head of the biceps independently relies on your grip.  A grip slightly wider than shoulder width focuses much more on the short head of the biceps for the width.  A grip at shoulder width focuses on both heads of the biceps and provides overall mass.  A grip slightly inside shoulder width focuses on the long head of the biceps and helps to build that peak.

There are many other variations you can do aside from changing the grip.  With barbell curls, you can do as many good form reps with a certain weight, then have a training partner or partners take off plates and you can do more reps for a dropset.  Also, you can do cheat reps, which allow you to lift heavier weights, despite incorporating the front deltoids more so.  You can do forced reps where a training partner helps you curl the weight up and you let the bar down slowly in order to tear the most muscle fiber.  You can also do 21s, which is a method Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed using to shock the muscles.  21s is a method where you do 7 reps on the bottom half of the range of motion, stopping at the midpoint, then 7 more reps from the midpoint to the top half of the range of motion, and finally 7 full reps.

As you can see, there are many different variations for barbell curls that can be used to build those guns.  But in terms of building overall biceps growth, there is little debate that barbell curls are the most effective.  And, if you find that your shoulders are involved a little bit too much, you could always grab an arm blaster, push your elbows against that, and rep it out.  Barbell curls in different variations and with different intensity techniques can be used to build both the long and short heads of the biceps.