The Science Behind the Best Back Exercises

There are literally hundreds of different exercises to choose from when developing a Jefit strength training program. That number can easily increase to over a thousand when considering all the different exercise variations. The Jefit database, as an example, has more than 1,300 different exercises. Have you ever thought about what the best exercises are or what’s the perfect exercise to choose for a program? One way to choose the best exercise is from an EMG standpoint. In this particular case, we’re going to talk about the best back exercises. Some back exercises are much better than others in terms of muscle recruitment or activation.

Electromyography (EMG) Measurements

Electromyography (EMG) measures the electrical activity of muscles. Usually performed in a research or rehabilitation setting, EMG records the movement of muscle. EMG is based on the premise when a muscle contracts, a burst of electric activity is generated. The higher the load, the higher the firing rate. Muscle contraction strength is related to the number of motor units in the muscle. Finally, here is a definition of EMG from John Hopkins Medicine. EMG “measures muscle response or electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle.”

How do Muscles Move?

Movement actually begins in the brain, specifically with the motor cortex, where neural activity signals the spinal cord, and information about the movement is conveyed to the relevant muscle by way of motor neurons. We can fast forward a bit, a muscle then contracts and produces movement. As muscle fibers contract, they shorten, performing a concentric contraction. Conversely, when muscle fibers lengthen, an eccentric contraction is performed.

A question for you. Can you manage more weight doing a bicep curl when lifting the weight up (concentric contraction) or when lowering the weight (eccentric contraction)? The answer is, you’re stronger during the eccentric phase, where you can actually handle 1.75 times more weight! In addition, 3% more muscle hypertrophy is produced over time during the eccentric phase.

Best Back Exercises Based on this Criteria?

The largest muscle groups that make up the back include the trapezius and latissimus dorsi. There are other smaller muscle groups as well like the rhomboids. Exercise selection typically depends on what a persons goals are, experience level, and equipment availability. All things being equal, the following exercise list includes some of the best back exercises you can do based on EMG.

One study looked at the EMG activation of various muscle groups while doing Pull-ups and Chin-ups. EMG data showed the highest muscle involvement coming from the latissimus dorsi (117-130% range), and biceps brachii (78-96% range).

Other back exercises with a high EMG output were: Dumbbell Bent-Over Two-Arm Row (93%), One-Arm Dumbbell Row (91%), T-Bar Row (89%), Lat Pull-down (86%) and Seated Pulley Row (83%) rounded out the highest EMG activity. Other research on performing a lat pull-down to the sternum with a light lean back also worked well (101%).

There are other exercises, like the Squat and Deadlift that focus on hips and legs but also recruit many other muscle groups, like the back. Both are considered great total-body exercises but the back is used more as a stabilizer than a prime mover compared to a Bent-over Row or Pull-up.

You now have a few back exercises, ranked by science, that you can hopefully start to use more often in your Jefit workouts. Stay Strong!