Nobody is building back muscle power and it leaves a huge hole in the performance of all kinds of athletes.
Today we’re discussing the 6 most important explosive back exercises you can train to build a big, strong back that is ready for athletic excellence in any field. We’re going to cover the most important exercises to add to your strength and conditioning program.
Let’s start with how the upper back works and why explosiveness in these muscles is so important to performance, health, and your long-term success!
Essentials: (UPPER) Back Explosiveness
Explosiveness in the upper back isn’t something most people talk about – but it’s key to athletic development. Your body needs to be able to pull as well as push, with explosive power.
The upper back is a well-developed area with large muscles that can both produce a ton of force and sustain a lot of training. Don’t underestimate them: large, powerful muscles like the traps and lats are able to work hard, often, and improve rapidly (1).
The power exercises we’re looking at today build these muscles, but specifically focus on power. They’ll contribute to building a great silhouette, but the main focus is building the power of these muscles, as well as their work capacity for high-speed movement.
Our exercises are going to focus on the main pulling muscles:
- The latissimus dorsi
- The lower trapezius
- The rear deltoid
- The rhomboid major
- The scapular retractors (e.g. infraspinatus)
Let’s start with the big, powerful, movements that give you the best bang for your buck in time, effort, and recovery…
1. Pendlay Row
The Pendlay row is a popular choice for all kinds of training, but it’s perfect for explosive back training. It offers you the chance to build muscle and power simultaneously, as you’re focusing on an aggressive pull with a slow, controlled lowering portion.
Unlike the constant tension focus most people train, you’re going to perform the Pendlay row with exaggerated movements. Focus on going as fast as possible on the way up (while keeping good technique) before lowering slowly.
This ensures you’re getting the best of both worlds, building an explosive pull while also keeping your joints safe and preparing them for huge force.
Like this – but slower on the way down!
Performance Pro Tip: focus on your elbow path, maximizing your elbow travel, especially at the ‘end’ of the rep.
You should be reaching forwards with your shoulder blades at the start, then puff the chest, turn the pinkies into the bar, and row it as far back and down (toward your hips) as possible.
Recommended: If you’re interested, we’ve also covered some great explosive chest exercises on this website.
2. Inverted Row (Speed Variations)
The inverted row is an easier alternative to the pull-up, which means it’s perfect for building explosive strength and power in the back. With less of a challenge in making the lift, you’re able to put more effort into how you move.
Because of this, high-speed inverted rows with a slow eccentric portion are perfect for building athleticism. They’re easy enough to move fast with, but they’ll still challenge you when you’re focusing on high-quality movement control.
These should be performed for elbow travel, but also speed. You can try the false grip from gymnastic strength training if you’re finding it too easy – this adds a completely different dimension and helps strengthen your forearms, wrist, and elbows.
3. Standing Speed Pull-ups (e.g. calf raise into pull up)
If you’re comfortable with normal pull ups, it’s time to make them more athletic. Start from a standing position or similar, and focus on pulling up as fast as possible, as far as possible.
This kind of simple pull up may not build as much muscle as the traditional variation, but it lets you build power in vertical pulling. This is a rare trait which most people will neglect.
You can perform this kind of speed pull up from a standing position, off a box, or by calf raising into your normal pull up. These require a little bit of equipment setup, but they let you perform high-speed pull ups for many reps and sets.
These are perfect in higher rep sets to build up more high-power, high-rep volume than you would normally be able to perform. For example, you may only be able to perform sets of 5 pull ups but you could probably perform 8-10 single reps of this style of pull up in a row for “one set”.
This is a great way to build power in the upper body while also strengthening your normal pull up.
4. Side Bend Row (Chinese Style)
This is an exercise we picked up from the Chinese Olympic Weightlifting team, combining core work with rowing. It’s great for working the whole back, but specifically the muscles and movements you are missing out on.
Training the quadratus lumborum, obliques, and upper back together is an efficient option. The explosive strength also gets you used to bigger weights, using momentum and aggressive pulling to get the weight up, then controlling “supramaximal” weights on the way back down.
The result? Explosive core and back muscles, as well as a great pump. Focus on starting with the core and using the full body movement to start the row, then really aggressively pulling on the kettlebell or dumbbell, lowering it slowly.
Practice with a dumbbell near the top of your normal rowing weight, and build up to supramaximal weight over time. This helps strengthen your normal row while building pulling power.
5. Yates’ Row (With Legs!)
Yates’ row is usually just a supinated grip on a barbell, which brings in more bicep. However, adding a small amount of leg drive to build momentum can be a great way to build explosive power in the back muscles.
This isn’t just a good way of lifting more weight, but also focuses on high speed force development. This is the key to power – then you’re also lowering this supramaximal weight, and/or focusing on the pause at the top of the lift.
These contribute to building muscle in the back while focusing on power. Don’t over-do it with the legs, though. You need to focus on adding just enough momentum to complete the rep nicely, or you’ll be training the wrong muscle group.
Performance Pro Tip: you want to get the elbows behind the body as soon as possible, and as far as possible, in a row. This reduces bicep overload, puts the weight into the right muscles, and gives you a longer range of motion to improve your strength and power for athletic purposes.
Cutting range on your rows might be fine for bodybuilders, but it won’t build the power you’re looking for!
6. Gorilla Row
Gorilla rows are great for a ton of reasons; they’re like one-handed Pendlay rows from the floor, but you can perform more reps, and they challenge the rest of your body in stability.
Using gorilla rows for power is a great way to build your upper back strength to transfer over to competitive sports, grappling, and more. The gorilla row is perfect for supersets and finishers, where you can perform tons of high rep sets while still focusing on power.
The rest each arm takes is a big deal, you’re getting co-contraction while you’re stabilizing your body, and you can focus on speed on the way up for each rep. This is a hybrid between strength and power, but it delivers amazing results in relatively little time – especially in EMOMs and supersets.
Experiment with different shoulder angles to find the most natural and effective position for you. Alternatively, focus on the specific strength needs of your sport – e.g. a grappler may want to use a towel and dumbbell for building grip strength.
How to Train for Explosive Strength: The difference between strength/size and power
Remember that these exercises are not going to be performed the same way you would train for size. They’re not going to give you the same pump, you won’t be moving the same way, and your priorities are different.
You’re going to look odd to bodybuilders and normal gym-goers: your movement is about speed and power, not the same slow and controlled lift they’re used to.
Size comes from mechanical tension, which benefits from slow movement. Power comes from violence against the ground, moving weight as quickly as you can without ruining your technique.
Don’t spend too much time on super-high rep sets, holding the weight, tiring yourself out chasing a pump. You’re going to be keeping reps lower, speed higher, and using weights that either challenge you to move them (85% of your best or more) or challenge you to move them quickly (usually 30-70% of your best).
Whenever you’re training for power, your goal is to move as fast as possible. It’s about using your muscles as explosively as possible, preparing them to produce force rapidly in future.
The goal for all these exercises is actually simple, but it’s not familiar to most gym rats because it’s not all about muscle mass:
- Full speed concentric: contract your muscles as quickly as possible in the ‘lifting’ phase as you overcome gravity. This trains the muscles to produce force rapidly. Every rep should be performed with intent, maximizing speed and power.
- Strong pauses: if you want to add more time under tension and strengthen your back, add a pause at the ‘end range’ where you finish the exercise. Think about holding that pull up or row, aggressively squeezing your elbows back and shoulder blades together.
- Slow eccentric phase: lower slowly, focusing on holding the weight and feeling the lengthening of the muscle. This is particularly important in exercises where you’re adding momentum to lift heavier weights (like the Yates row) – go as slowly as possible.
If you want an explosive back, you need to bring this approach to every rep of every set of every exercise. It’s the best way to build muscle mass and power at the same time, so you don’t have to compromise on any of your goals.
If you want to build power quickly, use contrast training. That means combining a heavy, strength-based exercise with a fast, power-focused one. For example, you might perform super heavy squats (90%+ of your best single rep) from pins, then go into a box jump.
For the back, this might look like a few heavy weighted pull ups, straight into speed inverted rows.
This kind of training adapts your neuromuscular system to produce big force rapidly. It helps both the squat and the jump, which is key, making you better at pretty much everything.
Again, you won’t be building as much muscle as a normal superset. However, you’ll build power in the lats, rear delts, and lower traps. You’ll strengthen the rhomboids while you improve your power, which then carries over to other key back exercises – or sports performance.
Eccentric loading is one of the most effective ways to improve power output. It lets you handle heavier loads than you can lift normally, because you’re simply lowering them as slowly as possible (2).
You can’t lift it, but fighting the weight (or bodyweight) while you lower it strengthens your muscles beyond what they’re used to. It’s also one of the most powerful ways to build strength in the joints – building resilient tendons and ligaments.
Why isn’t everyone doing eccentrics? There are a few reasons they’re not more popular:
- They’re hard: you’re going to feel completely zapped after superheavy eccentric loading
- They’re heavy: you’re going to need a lot of rest afterwards top make the most of eccentrics
- They don’t pump: you’ll have less pump compared to normal versions of your eccentric movements
- They can be fiddly: setting up eccentric loading (such as a 2-up, 1-down inverted row) can be really difficult to figure out
However, if you can get around these, they’re some of the most popular types of training for elite athletes. They often make the difference between elite performers and the rest of us, and you should try out something like the eccentric overload Pendlay row or eccentric weighted pull-up.
These are powerful, and you’ll see the difference if you’re patient enough to reap the big rewards over weeks and months.
Training your legs, hips, and shoulders to be explosive is great, but you need to balance it out with explosive back exercises. These are some of the best training options around, letting you build incredible strength and power for any sport or goals.
We’ve outlined 6 of the very best explosive back exercises. Try these in your workout program and you’ll find your back growing while your performance spikes.
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Rohan Arora is a Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist and has been actively involved in sports and fitness for over 8 years. He now leads the team of fitness specialists and personal trainers who help people around the world with personalized workout and nutrition plans, along with providing the right information on sports supplements.