We’ll proclaim it right here and now: When it comes to the perfect foundational exercise, nothing beats the pull-up.
It’s got everything you want in an exercise: It’s simplicity personified, just you and your bodyweight versus a plain old pull-up bar. It’s comprehensive, calling on multiple muscle groups at once, from your midback to your lats to your biceps. And it’s wildly effective, thanks to the ultra-challenging nature of the movement.
That’s why, when it comes time to reset your back routine, the pull-up should be front and center as your first choice, says Oxygen Ambassador Josefine Holmberg , celebrity trainer, online coach and NPC bikini competitor based in Los Angeles.
“If you did nothing other than a pull-up in your back workout, you could make incredible gains over the long term,” Holmberg admits. “It’s that good. To me, bodyweight movements represent power — being able to do a traditional pull-up is something that makes me feel really strong!”
That said, to really fast-forward your progress, there are a few other go-to exercises incorporated here, as well, including three solid row variations and a finishing superset that will shape and define your back from top to bottom.
Note: Before your working sets, start off with three sets of 10 reps of scapula pull-ups and push-ups. This will warm up your lats and all the various muscles around your shoulder blades.
Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip, thumbs wrapped around it, and hang freely, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your lats to raise your body upward, concentrating on keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to your flank to raise yourself. Hold momentarily as your chin crosses the level of the bar, and then lower yourself down to the dead-hang, elbows-extended position.
Josefine’s Advice: “Before you pull yourself up, make sure to keep your shoulders away from your ears by elevating your chest and engaging your lats, the large muscle that fans out from your spine out to the edges of your back — think of this like you’re doing a scapular pull-up before you pull your torso up.”
Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, grasp a barbell with a wide overhand grip. Lean forward at your hips until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor — the barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising or rocking your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a brief count, then slowly lower along the same path.
Josefine’s Advice: “The bent-over row is efficiency in action — it’s just you and the barbell, with the movement engaging all the key muscles of the back. To protect your lower spine and lumbar area in the bent-over position, think about your glutes and hamstrings engaged throughout the lift.”
Place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench and your other foot planted alongside. In your free hand, hold a dumbbell in the air with your arm hanging straight down toward the floor. Now, pull the dumbbell up toward your flank — your elbow should bend and extend above the plane of your back as you shift your shoulder blade inward for a complete contraction. Then lower the dumbbell along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Josefine’s Advice: “I like this one because of the isolation it provides — a stronger side of your back can’t compensate for a weaker side, so you can ‘even out’ your muscle development by using it regularly. A good mental cue I use for this one is thinking about ‘pulling your elbow back’ toward your hip at the same time as you are pulling the dumbbell upward.”
Attach a wide-grip handle (the one with the neutral grip, palms facing one another) to the seated-row cable machine and sit upright on the bench, facing the weight stack. Place your feet against the foot platform with your legs slightly bent, then reach forward to grasp the handles, leaning back until your torso is erect and your arms are fully extended.
Pull the handle toward your midsection by bending your arms and shifting your shoulders backward, squeezing your shoulder blades together as the center of the handle reaches your bellybutton. Hold for a one-count before slowly returning to the start position, not letting the weight stack touch down between reps.
Josefine’s Advice: “I like to add this to my workouts because it offers me another movement within the horizontal plane. You’ll want to keep your chest elevated and shoulders down as you rep, and keep the movement in the shoulder blades and arms, not the lower back.”
Place two dumbbells on the floor in front of you and get down into a four-point position, your lower body balanced on your toes behind you, legs splayed and one hand holding each handle. From this position, alternately row one dumbbell up to your flank and lower it to the floor. One lift with each arm equals one rep. You also can do this exercise with kettlebells.
Josefine’s Advice: “I really like the renegade because it targets your core at the same time as you are working your back muscles. Don’t set your feet too close together when you do them; they should be set at least shoulder-width apart or a width that makes you as stable as possible so you don’t rock your hips from side to side. You want your hips to remain as stable and still as possible as you row the dumbbell.”
Lie facedown on the floor in a superman position — legs straight and together, arms straight overhead with your upper arms running alongside each ear. Simultaneously lift your legs and arms up off the floor a few inches (as high as you can) for a two-count, then lower and repeat for reps.
Josefine’s Advice: “This is a really good burner at the end of a workout that can help sculpt your lower back. Don’t make the common mistake of raising your head as you lift your upper body — your neck should stay still and in a neutral position, not hyperextended.”