The Most Complete Back Exercise

| by Truth Seeker |

High-volume double overhand grip deadlifts (HVDOGDs) are the most complete back exercise.

Notice that I say the most complete, not the best or ultimate (that title is subjective).

Why this movement specifically?

Because it’s the exercise that stresses the highest number of muscles in the back. If you have to choose only one exercise for the back, HVDOGDs will produce the best results.

Why not pull-ups?

Pull-ups are a very incomplete back exercise. They work primarily the lats which may be the biggest back muscle, but they aren’t the only one.

The pull-up does zero for your spinal muscles and produces wide backs that lack thickness and depth.

The thickness and depth in a back come from the spinal muscles.

The pull-up doesn’t do much for the traps either.

Why not barbell rows?

Barbell rows are more complete than pull-ups and a better choice as a solo back builder, but they’re a bit weird and people tend to cheat too much. Also, barbell rows do not overload the back as much as a deadlift does.

Why double-overhand grip? Why not hook or mixed grip?

Both the hook grip and the mixed grip are nothing more than legalized cheating.

The hook grip lowers the grip requirements to very low levels and damages the nerves of the thumbs.

The mixed grip requires more grip strength but makes the lift asymmetrical and creates an opportunity to tear a bicep tendon or a back ligament.

Straps?

Straps are actually better than both the hook grip and the mixed grip because they save your thumb (no hook grip) and bicep tendon (no mixed grip) and do not create the illusion that you have a strong grip. You and everybody else know that you’re lifting the weight thanks to the straps.

Or in other words, you’re openly cheating whereas the hook grip and the mixed grip are covert cheating.


Standard, double-overhand grip is the BEST deadlift grip because:

  • It limits how much you can lift.

The only reason for the existence of the hook grip and the mixed grip is to lift more weight than your hands can hold so that you can impress some muscle fetishists who may or may not be injecting their glutes with male hormones.

That’s it.

Some powerlifting nerds who have a picture of Rippetoe as a background will say:

“But the mixed and hook grip allow you to lift more weight and overload your back and hip extensors.”

Who cares that your precious glutes aren’t getting the maximum overload that they can face?

Seriously?

Admit it, dude. You want to use that grip purely due to ego. (Don’t lie to me!)


But let’s put the politics aside.

Not being able to lift as much as your glutes and back can handle is a GOOD thing.

Your grip acts as a limiter which prevents you from lifting too much. As a result, you can do more volume while saving your spine, CNS and adrenal glands.

The same phenomenon is seen in the world of engineering.

Sometimes a part will be made of a softer material (e.g., aluminum) on PURPOSE so that it doesn’t translate stress to another element in case of failure. That way, the less important part breaks first and protects the more expensive one.

The same happens here.

When your fingers open/fail, they also limit the stress reaching your spine.

Remember: 

The heavier the weight, the more likely you’re to have a bad form.

The heavier the weight, the more likely you’re to get injured regardless of form.

Wanna break your back?

Be my guest.

  • You don’t feel like a cheater. 

I’ll be honest. I’ve used the hook grip many times. Occasionally, an unaware soul would say that I have impressive grip strength thinking that I was relying on a standard grip.

I loved the attention but felt stupid in the end.

In my opinion, all deadlift records set with straps, mixed grips and hook grips should be erased from RAW federations, or at the very least they should be classified as non-complete lifts which they are. Ultimately, those grips are the equivalent of a squat suit for the fingers/forearms.

How can you say that you’ve lifted a certain weight when you can’t even hold it for 5-15 seconds (the time it takes to do a 1RM)? Seriously?

If you didn’t hold it, you didn’t lift it.

I’m sorry that I am not sorry.

The forearms are part of the deadlift. You want to take them out? Make another powerlifting federation.

  • You can’t do too much volume.

Eventually, your grip will get tired, and you simply won’t be able to perform a dangerous amount of volume at moderate or high intensity. That fact saves you from an injury.

  • The weight is still heavy.

Most people will be able to lift at least 70% of the weight they do with cheat grips.

70% is still too heavy for your back to ignore it. Or in other words, the exercise will produce stress and subsequent adaptation.

Why high volume?

The back loves to get beaten hard and responds well to lots of volume. The reason why many strength programs contain a small number of deadlifts are:

  1. Too much squatting.
  2. The deadlift is done with cheater grips or straps and allows the lifter to move too much weight.

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18 comments

  1. Oldboy

    I never liked the deadlifts. I prefer doing pullups and hyperextensions. Aș for the traps i like hand stands on rings and hand stand ring pushups.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      I did weighted hyperextensions for a long time. I think at my best I did reps holding three 20kg plates.

      But it didn’t really translate all that well to deadlift strength. I prefer deadlifts as they work the lats too and the setup is simple.

  2. Steven Crook

    The no weird grips/straps recommendation is good advice.

    It was forced on me because of a back injury I picked up after an awkward landing jumping a puddle… But I came to recognise I got the benefit of strengthening my grip *and* it was a natural limiter preventing me from over lifting and risking further back injury.

    1. GreyWolf

      I agree, the overhand grip is a good way of preventing injury from over lifting. Do you drop the barbell or lower it to the floor? When using a switch grip I am able to lift more weight but I have to drop it before the bar even gets to my knees.

      1. Steven Crook

        Place it, let my arms go slack then lift again. So each lift is like my first.

        IMO *having* to drop the bar is a bad sign, but that last 30cm is surprisingly hard on the lower back.

        I used to use a switch grip and didn’t like the way it felt, I even tried switching front and back hands between sets, but it never felt comfortable. With straps I was regularly lifting 140kg (off 70kg bodyweight/183cm) and with an overhand grip, about 105kg. Straps made a huge difference.

  3. Eagle

    Chin-Ups and Conventional Deadlift together make a wicked combination in posterior chain development as well as showing someone’s strength…

    You can take anyone and have a fair idea of how strong they are through those two exercises. Those two build grip strength as well as posture, two overlooked bonuses that can come in very handy (Even a firm handshake that can land you that good first impression).

  4. Leandro

    Are rows and good mornings enough as back workout? I only have a powerbag (66 lbs) and a kettlebell (22 lbs) at home. Deadlifts aren’t good to perform with this.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Yes. They will build your back.

  5. Steve

    I do stiff-legged deadlifts on leg day which is a great exercise and helps continually improve my squatting. If I do deadlifts on back day, I do them at the end when the back is tired which in turn stresses the supporting back muscles more – it seems to work.

    Form-wise I use wrist straps but only on the heavy work-sets, I stop the bar 1 inch above the floor between reps to keep the tension and I avoid using a staggered grip these days because I caused an imbalance doing it in the past which has been a bitch to correct.

  6. Philip

    They do not work the lats. The lats stay in the same state the whole movement. Would be like saying standing still with a weight on your shoulder builds your legs.

    1. Louis

      Lats are involved near-statically on conventional deadlifts, that are done properly—working to keep the bar closer to the midline, and probably better accomplished with a pronated grip. And when working hard, with sufficient volume, at full ranges of motion. They will grow some with deadlifts alone.

      I have a friend who was a former Mr. America winner, who also trained bodybuilders. I once asked him what he thought was the best exercise for lats and he said, “Deadlifts”. I disagree, sort of, but it was his immediate response and well reasoned. Still, pullup variations likely should be added.

    2. Ryu

      I can vouch for double overhand grip NORMAL stance deadlifts from the floor. They will work all muscles in the back, including the lats.

      If you really want to feel your lats, use a wider grips – rings or beyond, do a slow negative, and keep the bar very close to your shins.

      My challenge to you would be to work up to 10 sets of 3 with a “heavy” weight, and report back how sore your lats are afterwards.

    3. Truth Seeker Post author

      They do. The lats keep the bar closer to you and also help with back extension since once of their end is at the spine. You can literally tear a lat during a heavy deadlift.

  7. Louis

    This article contains solid advice on preserving longer-term lifting health while enabling adaptations.

    Maximizing loads can and do matter for competition objectives. But for strength or hypertrophy adaptations, they are at best no better than lighter loads, performed for greater volume.

    Glutes, erectors, and hip extensors are stimulated to make adaptations just fine with lighter than maximal deadlift loads (done pronated).

    Deadlifts, done intelligently are great. Plus, properly done squats—in appropriate rep ranges—address the same structures. Then, pullups, chinups, rows—within a weekly routine—finish-off the “back”, while further improving grip.

    The complication arises when authorities insist that the heavier loads are what folks must do, even though they are enabled or leveraged by belts, mummy wraps, and postural alterations. Folks have been sold a bill of goods, regarding the need for maximizing loads. And the cost can be high.

    Good article.

  8. marktopus

    What counts as high-volume deadlifts in your opinion? Is it one set of five, or is it more than that? (E.g. 3 sets of 8-12)
    Thanks

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      20-40 total reps with an appropriate weight

      Sets could be 4×5, 8×3…etc. I wouldn’t do over 5 reps because forms tends to get worse as the set progress.

      The goal is high total volume not set endurance.

  9. Ralf

    The power clean is a complete back exercise if it is well executed ?

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