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Smarter Back Exercises

Wait a minute, am I contradicting myself?! The last couple of post have all been about NOT training muscles and focusing upon movement. I don’t blame you if you think I am about to bail on that message, because it is a hard one to help people see the value of, even those who are professionals in the industry. 

I thought what I would do for those that these concepts are overwhelming for (which is like 95% of the people out there), is to take a step back and see how easy thinking about movement can be and how beneficial to your training it can be. Of course focusing on something like “back training” makes an easy example for me. 

Instead of just back training, let’s think of pulling. After all, when we think of most back training what we are really doing is either pulling a weight to our body or our body to a stationary object. While most people believe that pulling exercises and back exercises aren’t any different, you can imagine I’m going to show you how the DVRT philosophy says, not so fast!

back exercises

One of the biggest differences you will see is that our version of pulling emphasizes whole body versus trying to isolate back muscles. Why? Because in life, we never pull JUST with our back muscles and what most people call back training ONLY makes you strong in the gym, not out of it. 

That is due to the fact that we are only as strong as our weakest link. So, when we pull in real life situations we HAVE to use our lower body and core as a foundation for our upper body to perform from. If the foundation is weak, so will our ability to demonstrate our strength in actual pulling efforts. Every time you see someone lie on a bench or take out the lower body and core they aren’t building real world strength.

As you can see it is literally impossible to isolate the body and more importantly, it isn’t how your body wants to work in the first place!

Sure, you can still build a muscular back, but your body won’t be able to access the full potential of that strength you are creating because we didn’t connect the body during the motion. As I often tell people, our bodies are NOT machines because machines don’t have nervous systems. The only way to build our body to function in life and sport from what we do in the gym is to connect as much of our body into every exercise we perform. 

Will this still give you a muscular back? Of course it will! However, you will get the added bonus of having a stronger core, glutes, and be able to take that strength with you wherever you go! Sounds like a good deal right? So, let’s look at some aspects of pulling that will help you get the most out of your training. 

Step 1: Direction of Pulling

We can pull both horizontally and vertically. When we think of pulling horizontally we are typically looking at rowing movements as when we think of vertical pulling it is pull-ups and similar movements. Why does this matter? 

core training

Dr. Stuart McGill’s work showed changing body position can change how the muscles are used. Imagine combining both horizontal and vertical forms of training to this concept! 

There should be balance in our movements in our training. I am often asked how do you program movements? The first part is to make sure that we see one of these represented in each workout. If we perform horizontal pulling one day, we would ideally want to see vertical the next workout and so on. Simple, but highly effective. 

Step 2: Be Aware of the Low Back

The trap that many fall into when they first try to incorporate the concept of movement is they have accidental redundancy in their workouts. The best example is what happens to our low back during many of these workout programs. Let’s look at a couple of examples. 

When people do a workout or complex of the following……




These are all hip hinge movements that can wear out your low back as the entire core is taxed in the same manner at a high level through all three. Sometimes this isn’t as obvious. When we look at a circuit that may contain the following…..


-Bent Row


We see that deadlifts and cleans are taxing the body in the same way, but so is the bent row. There are again 3 exercises that tax the low back and same movement pattern in the hip hinge. Yes, the bent row is predominately a pulling movement, but there is a hip hinge element (which is also what makes it an efficient exercise). 

Instead, if we are planning to have a heavy or explosive hip hinge we might be better served by either using an exercise like a suspended body row, or use a vertical pulling drill. Now, not to confuse you, but there is an exception. 

If we see an exercise that has a much higher stability component (like a single leg deadlift), we could potentially still have a bent row variation because the stress upon the low back is not as intense as the other movements. Being more thoughtful about these ideas will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of many programs. 

Step 3: Direction

Something that almost NO other program does is realize that we can pull from a wide variety of positions and directions. Why is this important, isn’t it all the same? It was Dr. Stuart McGill who partly inspired me to think about this concept. During his research he showed that just by just changing the position of our body we would have a muscles work differently. The same can be said when we pull from different positions that we place our body in. 

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows how we move progressively in these patterns with these 3 DVRT drills. 

Step 4: Grip

Just by using different gripping options we can stress not only different muscles of our upper body, but also challenge the entire body in new ways. When you see any rowing movement altered by grip the rest of the body must adjust as well. You can keep the same exercise and simply change the grip and have a whole new exercise!

sandbag training

The same grip we use for our off-set presses is ACTUALLY how we perform single arm rows too!

Step 5: Full Body Pull-ups

Probably one of the most challenging exercises to help people build are pull-ups. Nowadays people employ bands to help in pull-ups and that isn’t a “bad” thing, however, it may not be the most efficient way. When you watch people struggle with pull-ups where is the most common people fail? It tends to be finishing the pull-up, however, bands don’t give you help in this range of the movement. 

Every exercise has a strength curve. That is a curve where the body is stronger and weaker depending upon the joint angles. Bands tend to go opposite the strength curve of the pull-up. Now, if they have helped you that is awesome, they can be a tool and do add assistance to the pull-up, but I’m always looking for the BEST way!

That is why I found chair pull-ups to be a great option. One reason is that we have way more options in our progressions, we can create enough assistance to work through those sticking points, and we can more easily teach full body tension. While I am using a suspension trainer in these examples you could use a squat rack or a smith machine as well (suspension trainer gives me just more gripping options). 

back exercises

Hopefully what you are seeing that we still want to build muscle, lose body fat, but we also want to get you moving and performing your best. What you find through using such exercises is that functional training gets us faster results, not novel exercises. 

Learn more about how real functional fitness can change EVERYTHING we think we know about training. Save 30% all throughout our DVRT site including incredible training tools and programs that give you both the knowledge and the resources to make your fitness goals come to life. Use coupon code “summersale” HERE