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Vertical back exercises are a key component of any well-put-together workout routine.
Most of them have basic movement patterns that are ideal for muscle growth in your back while also building upper body strength.
This is great if you’re looking to achieve consistent progress over time (Progressive Overload), no matter your fitness level.
Plus, having a balance of both push and pull motions in your program will prevent imbalances, and allow antagonistic muscle pairs to keep joints properly stabilized.
So, without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into 11 of the best vertical pull exercises along with a detailed look at the benefits and all the muscles being targeted.
Table of Contents
11 Best Vertical Pulling Exercises for Your Back Muscles
1. Lat Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns are a classic vertical pull exercise that can be utilized to isolate and overload specific back muscles.
Believe it or not, progressing with this exercise can translate to improvements in pushing movements like your bench press and overhead press too.
This is because the lats, which are worked with pulldowns, are required to effectively push the weight up from the chest.
How To Perform
- Sit on your lat pulldown machine with the leg holders secured over your knees.
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Retract your shoulder blades and begin pulling the bar down until it reaches chest height.
- Release up to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure not to grip the bar too tight and keep your arms relaxed by focusing on pulling through your elbows.
- Improves power for pressing and pulling movements
- Increases shoulder mobility
- Adds the v-taper look to your physique
2. Straight Arm Cable Pulldowns
If you struggle with your biceps taking over during exercises that require elbow flexion, then give the straight-arm cable pulldown a try.
Although it doesn’t involve a steep vertical plane, it still meets the requirements due to its downward pulling angle.
This also helps keep your bicep muscles relaxed by instead engaging the chest and triceps.
However, there’s no denying that the rear delts and lats will be the most involved muscle groups.
How To Perform
- Set your cable machine to the top pulley and attach a straight bar.
- Grasp the handle shoulder width apart with your palms facing the floor.
- Step back a few feet and slightly bend forward so your body is at a 30-degree angle to the floor.
- With your arms straight, pull the bar down to your waist while simultaneously retracting your shoulder blades.
- Return to the starting position before repeating for moderate to high reps.
- Stretches out your lats
- Enhances the recruitment of your back muscles
3. Resistance Band Straight Arm Pulldowns
Okay, so you don’t have access to a cable machine, but still want to try the straight-arm pulldowns.
Well don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you.
As long as you have access to a resistance band and something to anchor it on, you’ll be set.
Plus, you’ll get an even greater advantage with this version, since it’ll provide constant tension with elastic force on your muscle fibers.
How To Perform
- Set up your resistance band on a secure overhead object.
- Hold it with a neutral grip and step back to add tension.
- Lean forward slightly by hinging your hips.
- With your arms extended, pull the band down to your pants pockets without bending your elbows.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades for 1-2 seconds, then release the tension back up.
- Less chance of shoulder impingement
- Minimal bicep activation increases mind-to-muscle connection in the lats
4. Reverse Shrug
With the reverse shrug, you can strengthen your upper and lower traps to improve scapular control.
They can be done using a lat pulldown machine or a resistance band attached overhead.
How To Perform
- Sit on the machine and adjust the knee pads to a comfortable position.
- Grab the bar with your palms facing forward wider than shoulder width.
- Externally rotate your shoulders.
- Pull your scapula and lats down without bending your elbows.
- Hold this position before returning to the start and repeating.
- Increases ability to protract and retract for properly performing other strength training exercises
It’s your lucky day because in this section I will provide a triple whammy exercise known as the pull-up.
I say this because no matter your fitness level, you can perform this daunting move to reap its benefits for overall back and shoulder health.
You may be wondering, “how can I do that when I can’t even lift my body weight?”
Well, that’s where assisted pull-ups come in.
Provided you have access to the right gym equipment, progressing to your first bodyweight pull-up is possible.
Taking advantage of either an assisted pull-up machine or simply using banded pull-ups will build the necessary strength to get there.
How To Perform
- Grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing forward, at about shoulder width.
- Starting from a dead hang, retract your shoulder blades, and pull yourself toward the bar.
- Go until your chin is directly above it then re-extended to the hanging position.
- Repeat for reps.
You’re probably also thinking, “What are the benefits of doing pull-ups, and why is this weirdo so passionate about having me do them?”
Well, here are a couple of reasons:
- Improved range of motion in the shoulders and arms
- Increased forearm strength
- Stronger posterior chain
- Practicing pull-ups will improve performance in other vertical pulling exercises such as deadlifts
Say hello to chin-ups, the evil little brother to pull-ups.
The main difference is hand placement since the chin-up utilizes an underhand grip.
This slight change in position puts greater focus on the biceps, brachialis, and pecs, while still working the back muscles of course.
How To Perform
- Assume an underhand grip shoulder-width apart on a pull-up bar.
- With your arms extended overhead and shoulder blades retracted, lift yourself in a straight line.
- Stop once your chin is over the bar and go back down. Repeat.
- A good way to work up to doing pull-ups
- Builds complete upper body strength
7. Inverted Rows
Let’s admit it, bodyweight exercises are strenuous!
That’s where the inverted row comes in.
Just like with the pull-up, you’re pulling your chest up to the bar and then extending back down.
However, your feet stay on the ground the entire time to act as stabilizers, making it easier to isolate the desired muscles without fatiguing nearly as fast.
Plus, it is super easy to adjust the difficulty level by changing the angle of your body relative to the ground.
Standing more upright will make it less challenging while placing your feet further in front of you will make it harder.
Keep in mind, that if you stand too far upright, it will turn into a horizontal pulling exercise.
How To Perform
- Set up a barbell in a rack or smith machine at about waist hieght.
- Hold onto the bar with an overhand, wider-than-shoulder-width, grip
- Hang from the bar with your arms straight and back facing the floor.
- Extend your legs in front of you to form a straight line between your upper and lower body (It should look like a reverse push-up position).
- From here, pull yourself up until the bar touches your lower chest.
- Re-extend your arms into the eccentric phase and repeat.
- Adjustable for any fitness level
- Works all the major muscle groups in your back
- Stronger grip
8. Single Arm Row
The single-arm row is a go-to dumbbell exercise for back training.
It focuses on pulling with one side of the back at a time while the opposite arm is used as a balancing point, kind of like the kickstand of a bike.
This ensures that the work being done is evenly distributed to both sides of the body.
Because sometimes when using a barbell, one side could end up doing more work than the other.
But the difference could be so slight that you won’t notice right away.
Until months later, when you look in the mirror and realize half of your back is massive and the other half is still tiny (I may be exaggerating).
How To Perform
- Grab a dumbbell with your left hand.
- Place your right hand on a bench or other solid surface for support.
- Assume a staggered stance with your left leg back.
- Bend forward and drive the dumbbell up to your side using your elbow.
- Squeeze your back at the top and slowly return to the start.
- Repeat for reps before switching arms. Make sure to perform an equal amount of reps and sets on both sides.
- Promotes proper alignment
- Prevents back imbalances
9. Bent-Over Rows
Many people confuse the bent-over row as a horizontal pulling exercise.
But even though it requires you to lean forward, the motion is still performed through a vertical plane.
It also allows you to isolate your back muscles with heavier loads.
Specifically the lats, spinal erectors, scapula, and rhomboids.
What’s more, it requires your hamstrings and glutes to get involved for stabilization.
Making for a semi-effective workout on your entire body.
How To Perform
- Grab a barbell using a shoulder-width overhand grip.
- Lean forward so that your upper body is parallel with the floor while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Let your arms and shoulders relax downwards.
- Then, drive the bar up through elbow flexion, aiming it at your belly button.
- Making sure to retract your shoulder blades and brace your core as you lift.
- Once the bar reaches your torso, reverse to the starting position and repeat.
- Great strength-building exercise since you can load the bar with high amounts of weight
10. Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
Lat machines can be expensive, that’s why you may be better off doing the resistance band variation instead.
For this one, you’ll either need a door anchor or a pull-up bar to secure your band overhead.
How To Perform
- Attach your resistance band overhead.
- Grasp the handles with your palms facing down.
- Step back to release any looseness in the band.
- Kneel while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Pull your elbows down and back as far as you can and hold this contracted phase for 1-2 seconds.
- Once completed, move your elbows into the eccentric (starting) phase and replicate this motion for reps.
- Can be performed at home or while traveling with minimal equipment
- The resistance gets harder as you pull
11. Upright Barbell Rows
The barbell upright row is a brutal vertical pull movement designed to hit the upper back, core, and shoulder muscles.
All of these are vital for maintaining good posture through increasing neck and spinal stability.
It’s important to use light weights and ensure that your elbows ALWAYS stay above your hands throughout the exercise.
Furthermore, if you have any pre-existing rotator cuff injuries, it may be best to avoid this one altogether.
How To Perform
- Assume an overhand grip on the barbell.
- Stand straight up with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core and pull the bar up directly under chin height while squeezing your shoulder blades.
- Slowly lower the bar back down to your waist until your arms are straight and repeat. Remember to pull with your elbows above your hands.
- Bigger traps and shoulders
- Improves your ability to stand upright while carrying heavy objects
Target Muscles Involved in Vertical Pulling Exercises
The MAIN target muscles involved during the vertical pulling exercises I talked about above include the:
- Latissimus dorsi
Below is a breakdown of the role each one plays within the body.
Upper and Lower Traps
The upper and lower traps are upper back muscles that work in unison to move the scapula.
The deltoids are made of three heads that surround the shoulder joint to keep it stable and mobile.
They are commonly referred to as the rear, side, and front delts.
The rhomboids are located in a similar region to the traps and are responsible for keeping the shoulder blades properly aligned.
You’ve probably heard of the latissimus dorsi, but what does it do?
Well, I’m glad you asked because this back muscle is vital for pretty much all types of pushing and pulling exercises.
This is because they play a role in arm mobility and the protection of the spine.
If you’re wearing a short sleeve shirt, look at your bicep and rotate your wrist inward and outward, then bend your elbow.
Notice how your bicep tends to slightly lengthen and tighten depending on which arm motion you perform.
This is because the biceps brachii function as a stabilizer for many of the muscles and joints throughout the entire arm.
Vertical vs Horizontal Pulling Exercises
For comparing vertical vs horizontal pulling exercises, it’s best if I use a specific example.
So, let’s use the lat pulldown and face pull since they use a pretty similar motion.
To clarify, lat pulldowns follow vertical movement patterns (up and down) and face pulls are horizontal (forward and backward).
Essentially, they work the same muscles differently, meaning the lats, rear delts, and traps are stimulated with both exercises.
However, a vertical path is more optimal for stretching and contracting the lats.
While a horizontal path allows the upper back muscles to achieve a deeper contraction and better stretch during the eccentric phase.
On top of that, the scapula will mostly be retracted down during pulldowns and retracted back during face pulls.
Vertical Pull Upper Body Workout
The vertical pulling exercises within this sample workout are meant to isolate specific areas of the back.
My suggestion would be to use this as part of a push/pull/legs workout routine.
Before starting the training session be sure to properly warm up by doing 5-10 minutes of low-intensity cardio and dynamic stretching.
- Lat Pulldown (with cables or resistance bands): 5 sets x 10-12 reps
- Dumbbell Single Arm Row: 4 x 6-12
- Reverse Shrugs: 3 x 5-10
- Upright Barbell Rows: 2-3 x 10-15
- Straight Arm Cable Pulldown: 3 x 12-15
FAQ for Vertical Pulling Exercises
What Are Vertical Pull Exercises?
Vertical pull exercises are movements that require the pulling of resistance up from the ground or down from above in the form of free weights, resistance bands, or body weight.
The motions will typically be in a relatively straight line, or at a slight angle.
Some of these exercises include:
– Bent-Over Barbell Rows
– Lat Pulldowns
What Is the Difference Between Vertical and Horizontal Back Exercises?
The difference between vertical and horizontal back exercises is that vertical pulls target the latissimus dorsi more, while horizontal pull exercises mainly target the traps, rear delts, and rhomboids.
What Are the Benefits of Vertical Pulling Exercise?
In general, the benefits of vertical pulling exercises include:
– Isolating the lats, biceps, shoulders, and traps
– Better posture
– Stronger core and grip strength
– Lower risk of muscle imbalance
Are Vertical Pulls Necessary?
Yes, vertical pulls are necessary if your goal is to build functional strength and well-balanced antagonistic muscle pairs.
Wrapping Up Vertical Pull Exercises for Your Back
The back is a complex group of muscles and without proper training, it can seem nearly impossible to achieve serious growth.
That’s where these vertical pulling exercises come into play.
By using 3-5 of them 2-3 days per week you can isolate specific areas of your back to achieve that broad, superhero-like physique.
So stop reading, and start working, cuz it’s time to grow!