A Top Trainer Demoed His Favorite Back Exercises That Don't Use Machines

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A Top Trainer Demoed His Favorite Back Exercises That Don't Use Machines

One challenge that people face when they skip out on the gym or take on bodyweight workouts is finding solid exercises to train their back muscles. Many of the best moves for building back mass require you to pull, and once you go beyond pullups or standard rows, you might start getting bored and missing the floor full of cable machines of your standard big box gym. But building a bigger back does not require a gym membership or the expensive machines they house, according to trainer Marcus Filly, a former CrossFit Games competitor and proponent of“functional bodybuilding.”

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“I think most people associate back exercises with things like the lat pulldown, the seated cable row, the Hammer Strength machine, and other expensive pieces of commercial gym equipment,” says Filly.

Rather than skimping on your back day, you should find alternatives. The benefits of incorporating back exercises go beyond bigger muscles. The first is that it will help improve structural balance.

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“When we’re training, we have to counteract all of the pushing and forward shoulder postures of our everyday lives,” says Filly. “It’s important to think about training joints evenly, from front to back and from side to side. If we don’t do this, we can develop overuse injuries, pain, dysfunction, c-strength plateaus and more.”

He notes that if one side of your body gets overly developed, you’ll start to see aesthetic asymmetries that are undesirable, like hunched forward shoulders from doing far too much pressing and not enough pulling. This type of training will also help you achieve an aesthetic of a wider back and taper down towards the waist.

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Here are 8 non-machine back workout moves Filly recommends for better training.

Exercise 1: Weighted Lean Away Pullup Negative

“Overloading muscle tissue is a powerful way to develop strength and aesthetic, and one way to accomplish this is by focusing on negative reps only, and adding more weight than you could possibly lift in the upward or concentric phase of an exercise,” says Filly.

Because of the angle you’re lowering yourself down at, the lean away pullup is a great way to target your upper back muscles. To start, use just your bodyweight before adding load. To execute, jump to the top of your pullup, hold yourself briefly, then start leaning back as far as you can and lowering slowly. You’re only working the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement, so take your time. Once you feel confident in your strength, you can begin to add weights via vests or belts.

Exercise 2: RNT Single Arm Dumbbell Row

“This variation of a single-arm dumbbell row is a terrific way to help bias the engagement of the lats when you row,” he says. You’ll need a resistance band and stable anchorpoint along with your dumbbell and bench.

The technique here is to pull the dumbbell back toward the hip, so you’re going to be pulling against the resistance of the band as well as the resistance of the dumbbell. Filly suggests thinking of trying to create an arcing motion with the dumbbell as you row from underneath the shoulder back towards your hip. This will create a greater emphasis on lat.

Exercise 3: Landmine Knee on Bench Elbowing Row

“I love the landmine as it really simulates a machine. It provides some stability, but at the same time it’s going to give you the same freedom of motion that you would see in a free weight,” says Filly. “This variation of the row is going to give the back of the shoulder and the rotator cuff more targeted work.”

When you perform the exercise, pull your elbow out to the side of your body, perpendicular to the torso, as you rep.

Exercise 4: Single Arm Rope Pullup

“When we use ropes for pullups, we get two benefits,” says Filly. “The first is the added grip challenge, which means that while we’re training our back, we’re also going to be training our forearms and biceps aggressively. The other benefit is that by having one hand on top of the other, and depending on how much distance in between them, we’re going to get this unilateral pullup training effect. And this is going to emphasize one side of the back more than the other.”

He notes that the further you place your hands, the harder the pullup is going to be. So if you’re new to this exercise, keep your hands close together. And if you’re more advanced, and want to challenge yourself on each side, spread the hands apart.

Exercise 5: Banded Kettlebell Pullover

“If you don’t have a cable machine to perform pullovers or straight arm lat pulldowns, this is a terrific way to rig up a similar exercise,” says Filly. Again, you’ll need a resistance band and stable anchor along with the weight and bench.

While he notes some people this move targets the chest, there’s no question there’s a considerable lat component as well.

“The band supplies tension in the horizontal direction, so that even at the top of the rep when the kettlebell is right over your chest, you are still under tension. For this exercise, I like to perform it on a slight incline bench if possible,” says Filly. “It allows me to support my whole back and get a better stretch in my lats.”

Exercise 6: Supinated Band Pull Aparts

“This movement can be done with hands in the supinated or pronated position, but in my experience the supinated grip is ideal for upper back and rotator cuff training,” says Filly. “The trick is finding the sweet spot of tension in this exercise. So you want to be able to get a full range of motion where you can get your arms all the way out to the side, while you’re under just enough tension that you can crank out somewhere between 15 to 25 reps. Play around with the width of your grip on the band to find that sweet spot.”

Exercise 7: Single-Arm Ring Body Row

The single-arm ring body row provides a great option for a closed chain back exercise,” Filly says. “It’s going to allow for a long range of motion as well. Unilateral training, biasing one side of the body through a long range of motion is a great recipe for hypertrophy and strength development.”

He notes that this variation involves pulling and rotation to cover that large group of muscles on the upper back and shoulder blade.

Exercise 8: Sled Drag Face Pull

“I love it because it takes a tool that’s otherwise thought of for lower body training only, and it turns it into an effective back exercise,” says Filly. “This is also unique as there is no eccentric or lowering portion of this lift. It’s all concentric. Without that eccentric load, you can perform more reps over a longer distance, and you get a very unique strength and hypertrophy benefit.”

He notes that this exercise can be performed seated or standing. Keeping your elbows high and wide for this drill is going to help you target your upper back and traps.

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