A Top Trainer Ranked Back-Building Exercises From Best to Worst

Following on from his videos in which he shared his personal lists of the very best and worst chest, shoulder and ab exercises, strength coach and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere CSCS has just done the same for back-builders, ranking lat exercises from the Absolute worst to the best when it comes to the potential for progressive overload and subsequent muscle hypertrophy.

Cavaliere starts the grouping of worst lat moves with the one-armed dumbbell row. He doesn’t necessarily object to the unilateral nature of the exercise, but points out that lifting one knee onto the bench introduces asymmetrical strain and risk of injury. Next up is the behind-the-neck variation of the lat pulldown, which forces the shoulder into internal rotation, which combined with that elevation can lead to impingement issues.

He then moves onto exercises which are slightly better, but have limitations, including the renegade row. “If your core is weak, you’re not going to be able to lift a lot with this exercise,” says Cavaliere. Somewhat surprisingly, he also includes the deadlift in this category: while this staple compound lift requires engagement of the lats to be completed, it doesn’t offer sufficient opportunity for hypertrophy in those muscles. The Pendlay row is better-equipped to target the lats, but Cavaliere warns against trying this one if you have any kind of lower-body instability or mobility issues.

Cavaliere starts off the “better still” group with one-armed dumbbell tripod row, which solves some of the problems of the one-armed row. “All we have to do is take that knee off the bench and just put ourselves in this position with one hand stabilizing the upper body,” he says. Also in this category is the straight arm pushdown, which is aptly named: any flexion of the elbow at all will end up recruiting the triceps into the movement, so be mindful. Rounding out this category is the seated cable row, which Cavaliere recommends performing with a V handle.

Moving onto “almost best,” Cavaliere suggests the Meadows row, named for John Meadows, as a way of moving the elbow through space without placing any stress on the shoulder. He also lists the one-armed high cable row here, although he acknowledges that this uses a piece of machinery which won’t be accessible to everyone. “The wrap-round capability of the lats is built into this exercise,” he says.

While the BTN lat pulldown was ranked worst, Cavaliere rates the traditional version of this exercise very highly, crediting it with a “mechanical advantage” that lets you pull more weight, more safely. The final “almost best” exercise is the dead row, which presents a greater eccentric contraction. “It’s a great athletic exercise,” says Cavaliere. “It’s an explosive movement, and dare I say, a fun one.”

The “best of the best” ranking consists of just two exercise: the barbell row, and the weighted pullup. “The barbell row gives you the option to maximally overload the lats while having an eye towards safety,” says Cavaliere. “The weighted pullup gives you a chance to add weight, if able, so you can overload the exercise… the accessibility of the exercise is a lot higher than having to have access to a lat pulldown machine.”

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