How To Use Back Muscles (NOT Biceps) During Back Exercises

Here’s a question. When you do back exercises like barbell, dumbbell or machine rows, or pull-ups, chin-ups and lat pull-downs, are you actually using your back muscles?

I mean, do you actually feel the muscles in your back doing the work on every rep of every set of every back exercise you do?

If so, good for you.

But if not, then you are one of the many people with a very common problem: You use too much biceps and too little back during back exercises.

How Does It Happen?

It may seem a little strange at first to think that an exercise for one muscle group is being done by another muscle group altogether, but when you understand the mechanics of most back exercises, you can see why it’s extremely possible (and common).

Back exercises are pulling exercises, meaning they involve a weight being pulled towards you in either a horizontal (think rows) or vertical (think lat pull-downs) movement plane.

And, the thing about pulling exercises is that the biceps will always be recruited secondarily to some degree. And what that means is, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to do any type of back “pulling” exercise like a row or a pull-up without using their biceps.

This is actually a good thing for your biceps, as a very large percentage of the muscle and strength they gain will come as a result of doing compound exercises like rows and pull-ups/pull-downs.

The big problem however is when your biceps take over so much so that they end up doing most, if not ALL of the work. Because when that happens, it means your back is going untrained to some degree, possibly even completely.

What Causes This?

There’s a few different reasons why your biceps are doing more work than your back muscles during back exercises.

However, in my experience, the reason usually falls into one of the following categories:

  • The weight you’re using is too heavy for you.
  • You just don’t know how to properly “pull” with your back instead of your arms.
  • A combination of both.

Now let’s take a look at the solutions to these causes.

The Weight Is Too Heavy For You

Walk into any typical gym in the world and you’ll ALWAYS see people doing various weight training exercises with a weight that is so obviously too heavy for them.

While I see it regularly from people of all genders, ages and body types, it’s usually more of a stupid guy thing. You know, lift more than you can handle to impress your friends, the girl on the bench or machine next to you, or just make your own ego feel good.

Whatever the reason, it’s beyond stupid for a ton of reasons. Here’s one: it’s preventing you from using the target muscle group(s).

Case in point… back exercises.

If you’re trying to do any sort of row or pull-up/lat pull-down with more weight than you can actually handle, then I can guarantee that you are using some weird jerky looking motion that is forcing your biceps (and God knows what else) to do most of the work.

And if you don’t think you’re using a weird jerky motion to get the weight where it needs to go, then I bet the weight just isn’t actually going where it needs to go.

Meaning, your range of motion sucks as a result of the weight being too damn heavy for you. You’re not going all the way up, all the way down, or a little of both.

In the case of most back exercises, you should be lowering the weight (or yourself in the case of pull-ups and chin-ups) until your elbows are fully extended. That means during an exercise like pull-ups, you should come to a dead hang in the bottom position. And during any sort of row, your arms should be fully extended straight out in front of you.

On the way up, you should be pulling the weight until its furthest position. In the case of rows, that’s until the weight is touching your chest or stomach and/or your elbows are behind your torso. In the case of pull-ups/pull-downs, your chin should be over the bar, and the bar should be touching (or coming within an inch or two of touching) the top of your chest.

I also want to add that the best test of all for ensuring that you’re using the right amount of weight is your ability to hold that end position for a second.

Meaning, when you reach the point at the end of each rep when you’ve pulled the weight (or yourself) to that top position, pause there for a second and squeeze your shoulder blades together.

If you can’t hold the end position for that 1 second squeeze, then you are most likely using a weight that is too heavy for you.

And as if it even needs to be said, if any of the above describes something you’re doing (or not doing) during back exercises, the simple solution is to just lower the amount of weight you’re using by however much you need to so that you can use perfect form and a full range of motion on every rep.

You Just Don’t Know How To Use Your Back Muscles

On the other hand, the weight you’re using might be perfectly fine for you. Instead, the problem might be that you just don’t know how to make your back muscles do the work instead of your biceps.

This is super common, and it mostly stems from the fact that your back is in “back” of you, and you can’t actually see it working or even picture it working like you can with say your chest or biceps.

And as most of us have realized at some point, it’s a little tricky to create a mind-muscle connection with a muscle you can’t actually see.

That is unless of course you know the tips and form cues that make activating your back muscles a lot easier. And they are…

  • Don’t try to pull the weight to you.
    When you grab any type of bar or handle to do any form of row or pull-up/pull-down, our natural instinct is to try to pull that bar/handle into our body (or, in the case of pull-ups, our body up to the bar). Unfortunately, this thought of trying to pull the weight towards you is the first step in activating the biceps and eliminating the back. We need get rid of that thought. How? Like this…
  • Don’t pull with your hands.
    I know, that sounds crazy. You’re grabbing some sort of bar or handle with your hands, and I’m telling you not to use your hands to do any pulling during the exercise. Trust me, it’s going to make sense in a second. See, because we literally see our hands in front of us holding the bar, we naturally want to use them to pull the weight. When we do that, we use biceps, not back. We need to take our hands out of the equation. How? Like this…
  • Think of your hands and forearms as hooks connecting your elbows to the weight.
    You need to imagine that your hands are doing nothing other than gripping the bar or handle. You want to avoid using them to pull the weight and instead only use them as “hooks” that connect your elbows to that weight. Why? Because…
  • You must pull with your elbows!
    And this right here is the key tip that everything else leads to making happen. Back exercises are all about the elbows. Instead of trying to pull the weight to you, and instead of using your hands to pull the weight, just grip the bar and then put all of your focus into moving your elbows back behind your body. Basically, imagine there is someone standing behind you that you want to hit with your elbows. Your goal is to try to hit them. And since your hands are “hooked” on to some type of weight, that weight will end up getting pulled towards you solely as a result of your elbows going back. It’s like a tow truck pulling a car. The weight is the car, your hands are the hooks, your forearms are the chains, and your elbows are the tow truck.And in the case of pull-ups and lat pull-downs, the only difference is that you’d be trying to move your elbows down to your sides rather than behind you like with rows. Either way, it’s all about gripping a weight with your hands, and then pulling through your elbows to drive that weight towards you. And when you reach that end point, squeeze your shoulder blades together for a second.
  • An overhand or neutral grip may be more ideal than an underhand grip.
    One final tip I want to mention is regarding the grip being used during back exercises. An underhand grip (where your palms are either facing the ceiling or you) puts your biceps in a stronger line of pull than either an overhand grip (palms facing the floor or away from you) or a neutral grip (palms facing each other). This means that an underhand grip potentially increases the amount of biceps involvement to some degree in comparison with the other grips. Don’t misunderstand me here… biceps will still definitely be recruited with an overhand and neutral grip as well. It’s just usually to a slightly higher degree with an underhand grip. So, when you’re working on perfecting the “pulling with your elbows” tip I mentioned before, you may be better off sticking with an overhand (or neutral) grip when performing back exercises.

For some additional related advice, check out My 2 Best Tips For Building A Bigger Back.

The End

So, if you have a problem using your back muscles during back exercises, I can sum up the solution in one simple sentence:

Use a weight that is light enough to allow you to use proper form and a full range of motion (although still heavy enough to be challenging), and then pull that weight with your elbows, not your hands.

If you can do that, your problem will be solved.

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32 Comments

  1. says

    Amazing website straight and to the point, I have been weightlifting for awhile and always find this happening to me! Thanks for your help!

  2. anon says

    is it mid and lower traps being worked during rows or should it only be lats?
    im still confused as i have seen so many versions. i am lacking mid trap development and keen to grow!

    • says

      Usually all of the above is getting hit to some degree, but it depends on the exact type of row being done, what kind of grip is being used, where you’re pulling to (chest or stomach), whether your elbows are tucked close to your sides or flared out, etc.

      • Tarique says

        Hi,

        I was wondering if you could elaborate on this answer.

        As to how we can vary row exercises to hit middle/lower traps or to hit lats.

        When researching exercises for middle/lower traps, i find a bunch of sites recommending rows. And then when i research exercise for lats, i find a bunch of sites recommending the same rows exercises.

        I would like to use the row exercises to target the middle/lower traps. If you could give a few tips, i’d really appreciate it.

        • says

          Rowing with a wider grip (usually overhand) and/or with your elbows flared out to the sides and/or with a higher line of pull (so maybe pulling to your lower chest) will hit the upper back more than your lats.

          Rowing with a narrower grip (usually neutral or underhand, although overhand can still be used) and/or with your elbows tucked in closer to your sides and/or with a lower line of pull (more towards your mid-stomach) will hit your lats more than your upper back.

  3. Claudio says

    Excellent post, as usual! In the context of pullups, I heard about “driving with your elbows”, or “pulling the bar to you” — but I never really understood what this meant, until today.

    On a related note — how does one engage the chest muscles during push-ups? I have a real problem pushing with my chest; no matter what I try, the arms seem to do most of the work instead of the more powerful chest muscles. As a result my arms are decent, but my chest looks pathetic.

    Probably that happens to most guys during bench pressing, too.

    I tried finding the answer but to no avail. Any help will be greatly appreciated!

  4. C.F. says

    Dude.. you’re the best… I’m reading the whole site, and believe me, I have done a lot of research and this is the best thing I have come across. Before I had to read like, seven websites and conclude something useful. Here I just find what I would conclude by myself after a lot of useless research.
    By the way, I’m also reading http://www.acaloriecounter.com and the guy there writes a lot like you, and their website is also great, is that you too?
    That site helped me design my diet, this one is helping me design and improve my overal workout techniques and routine.
    It’s funny that now I know more than those morons that have been working out for years and do it all wrong.

  5. Jay-C says

    I have always been told that not locking my elbows to keep some tension on my muscles will produce better results. I’ll give your method a try…

    By the way, do you recommend ”squeezing” the muscles of my back on each rep or just as a test to see if the weight is not too heavy?

  6. George says

    Here is a exercise I made up which is intended to take away most of the load on the biceps in a pull up.

    Get two of those strap attachment which are V-shaped with a loop on each end. Drape them over a pull up bar at about shoulder width or a little wider, so that one of each loop is on opposite sides of the bar. Then stick each of your elbows through one of the pairs of loops, and now you should be able to drive down through your lats and really target the lats. I did this because I wanted to pull with a slight bicep strain. I do it with my hands facing the bar, so I’m pushing with my triceps while Im driving down with my lats. There is still some bicep involvement, but really not that much at all. Try this out. I think Im going to keep using it even when my bicep recovers.

  7. Naomi says

    This will definitely improve my workouts now. It took a long time for me to have good form in pull ups, but I saw the most muscle growth decreasing the weight and with proper form.

  8. Alex says

    Jesus, dude… you’re freaking awesome!!! This site is fantastic, there’s literally EVERYTHING one needs to know in here, keep up the good work.
    Thank you!!!

  9. Phil says

    Holy crap I never realized how much I’ve been doing it wrong and why I was struggling to activate my lats this entire time until I read about the “pulling down with elbows” trick

  10. chiku says

    Great post. I am not able to perform pull-ups and this has been very frustrating for me. I have problem recruiting my back muscles during machine pull-overs and will use these techniques to help recruit them. Thanks.

  11. Andrew says

    What great advise!!!

    I have chronic back pain from poor posture. 2 cycles of physical therapy have failed it I realized that it was because I was not doing the exercises correctly, using my biceps instead of my back.

    This information is life changing.

    Thank You!

  12. mikeyb says

    THANK YOU!!!! for this article, i just started working out again, i am 3 months in and everytime on back and bi days, i hardly ever feel it in my back and my forearms and biceps are burnt!. Tonight is another back day, so i will try this and see if it helps

  13. wolverine says

    WOW!!! i have been researching how to engage my back more, have seen lots of write ups!
    but as usual!!! JAY pure GOLD

  14. Micky says

    This is a great article, but I do disagree with you on straightening your arms all the way at the bottom of a pullup move. This puts your shoulders in a very unstable position. Some may get away with it, but if you do it often it puts you at risk of injuring your shoulders. I used to do pullups this way, would straighten my arms, kind of like my ears touching my shoulders. This is unnecessary. If you are looking to stretch your lats, you can do that between sets. During the set, your goal is to increase strength.

    The best technique for pullups:

    At top of movement, eyes should be at level of bar. Any higher than this you are not engaging lats, just your biceps.

    At bottom of movement, your shoulder position should not change. i.e. your shoulders should never be anywhere near your ears at the bottom. There should be around a 2 inch distance between your shoulders and ears — do this right now so you have an idea where your shoulder should be. Keeping your shoulder “down” keeps it in a stable position and lowers risk of injury.

    Lats are most engaged during the midportion of a pullup….this is where the focus should be.

    Not to be nit-picky….Great article, just disagree about this one point. Like I said you may get away with it, but it’s probably not the wisest thing to do to straighten out all the way.

    • says

      Coming to a dead hang was my default advice for years mostly to counter what I typically see people do on pull-ups, which is do tiny half reps that come nowhere near lockout.

      Over the last few years though I’ve been leaning more towards stopping a bit short of that, mostly for elbow health (the dead hang position puts the most stress on the flexor tendons). Although, I do agree that for shoulder health keeping the shoulders down/back is the best way to do it, and it helps reduce biceps recruitment.

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