The 16 Best Back Exercises for Strength and Muscle Gain

These are the best back exercises to improve strength, athleticism and muscle definition.

A big, strong back can take you far in your athletic endeavors. The back muscles help you to twist your torso, pull your arms in and down from overhead, and, most importantly, stabilize your spine. When you train these essential muscles, you’ll be more efficient at pulling and twisting motions in general. Also, a bigger and stronger back will help you deadlift and bench press more weight more efficiently.

We’re going to lay out 16 of the best back exercises you could choose from, and you’ll also learn a lot more about why back training is important and just how to implement these movements into your exercise regimen. 

Best Back Exercises

Deadlift

The deadlift is one of the best compound exercises you can do to add serious amounts of strength and muscle mass to the back (as well as the hips and hamstrings). It has the ability to stress the back using moderate to heavy loads and can often be trained in higher volumes and loads, ultimately offering a one-of-a-kind training stimulus.

[Related: 24 Deadlift Variations for Muscle Strength, Grip, Speed, & More]

Although the back muscles do not contribute directly to the range of motion of the deadlift, their involvement is paramount for keeping the spine safe, and for holding the loads necessary for growth.

Benefits of the Deadlift

  • It activates your back, but also your hamstrings, glutes, and the muscles in your hips.
  • You can load up the deadlift with a lot of weight (once you’re strong enough) to elicit major strength gains. 
  • It can be done with high loads or training volumes to help produce muscle and strength gains in the upper and lower body.

How to Do the Deadlift

Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart, hips back, and back flat. The knees should be bent slightly to allow you to grip the bar tightly slightly wider than shoulder-width. Keeping your back flat and chest up, tighten the back muscles, and straighten the arms as you load the pull. With everything locked, aggressively push your legs into the floor as you simultaneously pull your chest and shoulders upwards, lifting the bar to the hip.

Pull-Up

Don’t assume the pull-up is less effective than the other moves on this list because it’s a bodyweight exercise. Pulling your body weight creates a level of instability that recruits your core muscles for stability. Also, if you’re on the heavier side, then you’re still pulling on a lot of weight. Lastly, it’s always nice when you need little equipment to get a good workout in

Benefits of the Pull-Up

  • You only need a pull-up bar to do this move, which you can buy for your home gym or find at a park.
  • Stabilizing your own body weight will also recruit the muscles in your core. 
  • Your muscles will still respond to the relatively heavy load that is your own body.

How to Do the Pull-Up

Assume an overhead grip on the bar, slightly wider than shoulder-width. With the arms relaxed and shoulders elevated up to the ears, contract the core and upper back as you initiate the pull-up. Aim to pull your chin to or above the bar level, driving your shoulders away from the ears. 

Bent-Over Row

The bent-over row offers a lot of exercise variability. If you have access to kettlebells and dumbbells, you can row those or stick with the traditional barbell variation. By hinging at your hips to row the weight to your stomach, you can really engage your entire posterior chain, from the hamstrings to the traps. 

Benefits of the Bent-Over Row

  • You can effectively perform the bent-over row with various tools such as kettlebells, dumbbells, or even on a cable machine. 
  • You overload your muscles more efficiently as you’re able to move a lot of weight in the bent-over row position. 

How to Do the Bent-Over Row

Set up as you would for your deadlift by standing feet shoulder-width apart in front of a loaded barbell. Hinge at the hips until your torso is about parallel to the floor. Grab the barbell with a grip that’s a bit wider than your typical deadlift grip. Lean back, so your weight is on your heels, and row the barbell, leading the pull with your elbow until it touches around your belly button. 

Chest Supported Row

The chest support is, obviously, the key element of this row variation. It takes the momentum out of the equation and forces you to rely solely on your muscles to move the weight. This variation also takes the strain off of your lower back, since you don’t have to support yourself in a hinge position. 

Benefits of the Chest Supported Row

  • This move isolates your back muscles so you can activate them to the fullest extent. 
  • Not standing takes the onus off of your lower back to support your torso, relieving low back pressure. 

How to Do the Chest Supported Row

Set a workout bench to a 45-degree incline and lay face down on it so your chest and stomach are supported. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and then row them to your sides until your elbows pass your torso. Slowly lower the weight under control.

Single-Arm Row

The single-arm dumbbell row is a unilateral row variation that can increase upper back strength, hypertrophy, and correct muscular asymmetries. Additionally, it can help to increase arm and grip strength.

Benefits of the Single-Arm Row

  • By working one side of the body at a time, you can more easily address muscular imbalances. 
  • In addition to targeting your back muscles, you’ll also seriously increase your grip strength as you squeeze a heavy dumbbell as hard as possible. 

How to Do the Single-Arm Row

Stand next to a bench so that it’s parallel to you. Place the same-side hand and knee on it, and firmly plant your other foot onto the floor. Reach down with your free hand and grab a dumbbell. Keep your back flat and your head in a neutral position. Row the dumbbell to your side until your elbow passes your torso. Complete all of your reps on one side and then switch.

Inverted Row

The inverted row is a bodyweight movement that can build similar back, arm, and grip strength as the pull-up. However, the inverted row is generally easier to do since you’re not rowing your complete bodyweight. This is a great move for beginners to build up both their back strength and body control.

Benefits of the Inverted Row

  • You’ll engage your arms, back, and grip in a similar fashion to the pull-up for muscle activation.
  • This is a great novice variation that allows the user to progress to harder inverted row variations and eventually pull-ups.

How to Do the Inverted Row

Place a bar in a rack so that it is supported and stable. When you lay down underneath it, your hands should just reach the bar. Adjust the height as needed. Grasp the bar firmly and set the body in a rigid plank position. Pull your chest to the bar, making sure to keep the elbows from flaring out.

TRX Suspension Row

The TRX suspension row is another bodyweight movement that can build similar back, arm, and grip strength as the pull-up or inverted row. This is a great move for beginners to build up both their back strength and body control, while also allowing for a less restricted arm path.

Benefits of the TRX Suspension Row

  • You’ll engage your arms, back, and grip in a similar fashion to the pull-up and inverted row.
  • This is another great beginner variation that allows the user to progress to harder row variations and then pull-ups.
  • The suspension trainer allows for a less restrictive arm path, allowing you to better adapt the row to your individual structure.

How to Do the TRX Suspension Row

With your feet at shoulder width, grab the handles and lean back into position. Adjust body position as needed to set difficulty level — the more upright your torso, the easier the exercise will be. With the feet on the ground and the body set in the plank position, pull yourself toward the handles, making sure to keep the elbows from flaring out and the shoulders from collapsing forwards.

Lat Pulldown

The pulldown has you pull a bar, attached to a cable pulley, to your chest. The cable’s constant tension increases your time under tension for more stimulation and growth. Also, this is a great move for those who can’t yet do a pull-up. Other than the fact that you’re sitting down, a pulldown is essentially the same movement as a pull-up, except you don’t have to start with your entire body weight.

Benefits of the Lat Pulldown

  • The constant tension from the cables creates more muscular activation of the back muscles.
  • This move mimics a pull-up, and so it’s a great exercise to help you work up to your first pull-up.
  • The pronated grip allows you to target muscles of the upper back, biceps, and lats.

How to Do the Lat Pulldown

Set yourself up with your legs under the pad and hands grasping the bar attachment slightly wider than shoulder-width with a pronated (palms facing away) grip. With the core tight and the torso upright — or even a little arched — pull the bar down to your chin, thinking to drive your shoulder blades together at the end. Slowly resist the weight as you return to the starting position.

Neutral Grip Pulldown

This pulldown variation has you pull a neutral grip (palms facing each other) attachment to your chest. This is another cable-based exercise, allowing you to take advantage of constant resistance. The neutral grip allows you to better bias muscles like the lats, as well as the biceps.

Benefits of the Neutral Grip Pulldown

  • The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the back muscles.
  • This move mimics a chin-up, and so it’s a great exercise to help you work up to your first chin-up rep.
  • The neutral grip allows you to target muscles of the lats and biceps.

How to Do the Neutral Grip Pulldown

Set yourself up in the cable pulldown, with your legs under the pad and the hands grasping the attachment with a neutral grip. With the core tight and the torso upright, pull the attachment down to your chin. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Seated Cable Row (for Lats)

This rowing variation has you pull a shoulder-width neutral grip cable attachment to your torso. While the cable allows you to take advantage of constant resistance, the hand position and arm path allow for your lats to create large amounts of tension.

Benefits of the Seated Cable Row (for Lats)

  • The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the back muscles.
  • This seated variation is great for building up overall muscle and strength in the back, which translates across your overall training.
  • The neutral grip allows you to target the lats and biceps effectively.

How to Do the Seated Cable Row (for Lats)

Set yourself up in the cable row, with your feet on the foot platform and the hands grasping the attachment with a neutral grip. With the core tight and the torso slightly leaned forward at the hip (do not round the back), pull the attachment toward the top of the abdomen. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Seated Cable Row (for Upper Back)

This rowing variation has you pull an attachment toward your chest. The position of your grip will play a significant role in the muscles being biased during back exercises. Your arm path in this variation will be higher than the seated row focusing on lats, which will align the rowing motion with the muscles of the rear delts and upper back (traps, rhomboids, and teres major).

Benefits of the Seated Cable Row (for Upper Back)

  • The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the back muscles.
  • This seated variation is great for building up overall muscle and strength in the upper and mid-back, which translates across back training and into everyday life.
  • The higher arm path and semi-pronated grip allows you to target muscles of the rear delts and upper back.

How to Do the Seated Cable Row (for Upper Back)

Set yourself up in the cable rowing area, with your feet on the foot platform and the hands grasping the attachment with an overhand grip. With the core tight and the torso upright — or slightly leaned back at the hip — pull the attachment toward the top of the chest, extending the arms back behind you. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Cable Trap Shrug

This cable-based shrug variation is completed by grasping the handles, attached to the cable tower or functional trainer, and shrugging your shoulders upward and inward toward your ears. While shrugs are typically performed with a dumbbell or barbell, they can be optimized with the cable pulley because the resistance from the cables matches the fiber alignment of the upper traps.

Benefits of the Cable Trap Shrug

  • The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the upper traps.
  • This variation lines up the resistance with the muscle fibers being trained — maximizing the tension produced and minimizes stress around the shoulder.
  • Allows for the lifter to match the cables with their individual structure, limiting joint stress and increasing effectiveness.

How to Do the Cable Trap Shrug

Set yourself up in the middle of two cables, with your feet flat on the ground and the hands grasping the handles. With the core tight and the torso upright, shrug the weight up — driving your shoulders up and in toward your ears. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Cable Rope Pullover

This standing variation has you pulling a rope or strap attachment, attached to a cable pulley, from above your head down toward your hips. This exercise is great for placing tension on the lats, and is a great alternative — or replacement — for the dumbbell pullover. A longer rope or strap attachment will allow for a more individualized arm path and will create less strain on the shoulders.

Benefits of the Cable Rope Pullover

  • The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the lats as they contract through the full range of motion.
  • This variation can be done anywhere you have access to a cable and rope attachment.
  • It provides a better resistance compared to the dumbbell pullover, especially for the lats.

How to Do the Cable Rope Pullover

Set yourself up in front of a cable pulley, with your feet flat on the ground and the hands grasping the rope or strap attachment. With a slight lean forward, core tight, and torso rigid, drive the upper arm down as you pull the attachment down and back toward your hips. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Landmine Row

This free-weight variation is performed by grabbing a handle attached to, or around, a barbell. This exercise is great for placing tension on the entire back, and is a great alternative for the chest supported row. It challenges core stability, lower back strength, and can be performed in different rep ranges depending on your goals.

Benefits of the Landmine Row

  • This variation can be done anywhere you have access to a barbell, whether locked in a landmine attachment or wedged into a corner. 
  • It challenges core stability and strength, while also being a great full body exercise and placing large amounts of tension on the back muscles.
  • Can add a variety of resistance patterns with different attachments.

How to Do the Landmine Row

Set your barbell up by sliding it in the landmine attachment sleeve, or by wedging it into a corner of the wall. Stand overtop of the barbell with one foot on each side. Fix the attachment to the barbell and grasp the handles. With a slight lean forward, core tight, and the torso rigid, pull the weight up toward your chest. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position.

Farmer’s Carry

The farmer’s carry is a loaded carry variation that can benefit muscles across the upper body and lower body all at once. It helps build grip strength, core strength and stability, and improves postural strength and control.

Benefits of the Farmer’s Carry

  • Can be done anywhere you have access to weight and some free space. 
  • It challenges grip strength, core strength and postural control.

How to Do the Farmer’s Carry

Find a section of open space and hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells, or even a trap bar, in your hands. Take slow, controlled steps in a straight line, focusing on stability and distance covered. 

When walking with the weights in hand, the challenge is maintaining a steady, upright position and not allowing the weight to move laterally or favor one side over the other. The goal is to maintain a walking path that is straight, narrow, with the load kept close to the body. 

Towel Chin-Up

The variation involves wrapping either a longer bath towel or two smaller hand towels around a power rack or chin-up bar. Adding a towel to the conventional chin-up can increase the overall grip demands of the exercise and provide a unique challenge if you’re bored of doing standard pull-ups.

Benefits of the Towel Chin-Up

  • You only need a towel and a chin-up bar to do this movement, which makes it convenient to include in any program.
  • Stabilizing your own body weight will also recruit the muscles in your core. 
  • The addition of the towel will increase the demand on your grip, leading to an improvement in grip strength.

How to Do the Towel Chin-Up

Start by wrapping either a longer bath towel or two smaller hand towels around a power rack or chin-up bar. Assume a neutral grip (palms facing each other), grasping the towels evenly on both sides. With the core and upper back engaged, aim to pull your chin to or above the bar level using the forearms, biceps, and lats.

About the Back Muscles

The back is a group of muscles that work together to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. As such, different muscles will be biased more or less depending on the action being performed. The primary muscles of the back include the latissimus dorsi (lats), teres major, trapezius (traps), rhomboids, rear delts, and erector spinae (lower back).

Credit: FXQuadro / Shutterstock

When performing any movement using the muscles of the back, you will be using both muscles positioned more superficial (like the lats and traps), as well as deep (like the rhomboids or erector spinae) within the back and torso. The back, while composed of many different muscles with unique functions, is designed to work as a unit.

Latisumus Dorsi

The Latissimus Dorsi — commonly referred to as the lats — are most commonly known for their role in moving the arm toward and around the back of the body. During back movements, the lats play many roles — most notably stabilizing the pelvis and interacting with the abdominal muscles in everything from respiration, maintaining shoulder positioning, to protecting the spine. (1)

Teres Major

The teres major — sometimes referred to as the “little lat” — attaches right next to the lat on the upper arm and stretches across to the lower part of the scapula. This muscle — although not officially a part of the rotator cuff — shares many roles with the muscles of the rotator cuff (alongside its little brother, the teres minor) when it comes to glenohumeral (shoulder) stabilization.

[Related: How to Work Around a Rotator Cuff Injury]

It also assists the lat in adducting (bringing closer to the body) the arm back toward the midline of the body — like in a pulldown motion. (2)

Trapezius

The trapezius, or traps, is a large trapezoid-shaped muscle that spans across the better part of your upper and mid-back. This muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing the scapula and its middle fibers have the primary function of bringing the shoulder blades together. Each of the divisions of the traps is hard at work during pulling movements to help maintain tension and stability in the back. (3)

Rhomboids

The rhomboids — both major and minor — are positioned directly below the traps in the middle of the back (between the shoulder blades). These muscles retract, elevate, and rotate the scapula. Weakness or loss of function of the rhomboids can be a major contributing factor to a winged scapula, which makes it even more important to keep them strong. (4)

Rear Delts

The rear delts — also known as the posterior deltoid — are not usually categorized as back muscles. That said, the rear delt’s primary function is to bring the arm back around the body (shoulder extension), assisting the lats and teres major. A flared arm position makes the rear delts a major mover, making this muscle a big part of your back strength and development. (5)

Erector Spinae

These deep muscles are responsible for controlling the axial skeleton — which includes the skull, vertebral column, and ribs — and have a primary function of flexion/extension, side bending, and rotation of the spine. The lower back is critical for stabilizing the pelvis and spine during movements such as the deadlift, good morning, or many of the rowing movements we’ve discussed. (6)

Benefits of Training Your Back

People often refer to your legs as your foundation. That comparison makes sense, but your back is what holds the structure together. Your spine is held in place by the muscles in your back. Without your lats, rhomboids, traps, and spinal erectors, you’d struggle to even stand up straight. 

Improved Sport Performance

For athletes, a strong back is paramount. Your back muscles allow you to pull your arms in, and — in conjunction with your core and hips — rotate your torso. If you practice Jiu-Jitsu, a stronger back means you can drag and pull opponents with more force. Rock climbers will be able to hold a strenuous position for longer and ascend more efficiently. And CrossFit athletes will benefit from the back strength they need to perform pull-ups, snatches, and various carries and climbs.

Carryover to Other Lifts

A strong back can really improve all aspects of your lifting routine, too. Even if you’re not actively working your back, it still plays a role in your weight training. If you’re bench-pressing, a bigger back provides more of a base for you to stabilize on.

The strength of your lats will help give your chest the stability needed to maintain a high amount of tension. When you deadlift, strong back muscles grant you the ability to maintain neutrality in the spine, helping prevent spinal rounding, which could possibly lead to injury. 

Better Posture

Back training does more for you than just helping you perform other exercises better. Since much of the musculature of the back is directly responsible for influencing the spine, a well-developed posterior chain directly impacts your posture.

[Related: 3 Exercises to Help Strengthen and Improve Posture]

Big lats, a healthy lower back, and well-developed rear delts and traps will all help you stand up straighter, sit upright for longer periods without slouching, and, as a tangential perk, make you look like a tank in a t-shirt

How to Train Your Back

The back muscles cover a large portion of your upper body. As such. you’ll either want to train your back on its own, paired with an antagonistic muscle like your chest, or on the day that you deadlift. Here are three benchmarks for back training — it’s up to you to decide how to integrate them into your routine. 

Sets and Reps

Anywhere from 12 to 18 sets per week is likely a great starting point for anyone looking to grow their back. More advanced trainees could potentially exceed 18 sets per week if their goal is to grow a specific part of the back over another.

Choose three to four exercises from this list and divvy up your training sets equally among them. Try to have a one-to-one ratio of vertical pulls to horizontal pulls for equalized development and stimulus. 

[Related: Which Rep Range is Best For Strength & Hypertrophy?]

Remember, there is a limit to how much you can do per workout while still being productive. If you notice your performance dropping off, it may help to split up some of the training volume to a day later in the week. A training frequency of two to three sessions a week has been recommended to help maximize muscle growth. (2)

Exercise Selection

The position of your grip will play a significant role in the muscles being biased during any exercise. Muscles of the back work in synchronicity to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. Therefore, different muscles will be biased more depending on the actions being performed.

When choosing exercises to perform, you want to pick exercises that:

  • Give sufficient load to the muscle without excessive stress on the surrounding joints.
  • Line up the resistance with the muscle(s) you want to train. 
  • Work around pre-existing injuries or limitations.
  • Can be performed with the equipment in your gym space.

When it comes to training the back, there are a lot of great options for exercises and tools to get the job done — including cables, machines, free weights, and bodyweight.

Exercise Order

It’s not only about what you do and how you do it, it matters when. Placing compound exercises first in your workout is most preferred, especially for beginners. This is because the more fatigued you get, the worse your technique will become, potentially increasing the risk of injury later in the workout.

Placing exercises like deadlifts and other barbell variations — that demand more from your body — toward the start of your workout will increase the effectiveness of your training. 

  1. Deadlifts
  2. Seated Cable Row
  3. Farmer’s Carry
  4. Cable Trap Shrug

This is an example of a meat-and-potatoes back training session. The heavier, more challenging compound lifts are performed first while you’re nice and fresh, tapering down to targeted isolation work towards the end. 

How to Warm Up Before Training Back

A well-designed warmup helps reduce the risk of injury and improves readiness heading into your training session, without generating excessive fatigue. Increased body temperature, an activated (excited) nervous system, and a prepared mental state can help increase readiness for the upcoming day of training.

gym hamstring stretch
Credit: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock

One of the most effective warm-ups for any muscle group is going to be the exercises you are performing in that day’s training session. For example, if you’re performing pulldowns, you can warm up by performing light reps and increase intensity as you proceed towards your working sets. This ensures that the appropriate muscles and joints are being primed, reducing the risk of injury and improving your overall training performance

Back Training Rules

The muscles of the back support many different functions in the human body, both functionally and structurally. When training your back to grow or get stronger, there are a handful of rules that can help you improve your performance while limiting risk of injury.

Rule 1 — Stabilize 

Establishing tension in the upper back (between the shoulder blades) during the setup of an exercise can help add stability to your upper body during back exercises. Increased stability can help you produce more force during an exercise, leading to increased performance and more quality training volume.

Rule 2 — Your Grip Matters

The position of your grip will play a significant role in the muscles being biased during any exercise. A wider and more pronated grip results in more upper-back focus but less lat activation overall.

Having your hands closer together and in a more neutral or supinated grip will involve more lats and biceps relative to the upper back. Conversely, taking a grip which allows you to flare your arms out to the sides more will lead to preferential stimulus of the rhomboids, rear delts, and traps. These postural adjustments are what make back training so robust and customizable. 

Rule 3 — Train the Full Range

To reap the full benefits of training the back (or any muscle group), you need to ensure you fully contract the muscle by lifting through a complete range of motion. Not only is it a bad technique habit to only perform half of your capable range, you’re also leaving gains on the table.

Free weights and cable machines are best suited for going through long, sweeping pulls often found in back movements. Machine work has its place, but the fixed plane of motion leaves it somewhat restricted.

For back training specifically, be sure to allow your shoulders to move freely during exercises like rows and pulldowns — the lats are a prime mover in retraction of the scapula, so you shouldn’t inhibit their role by locking the shoulder down the whole time. 

Rule 4 — Use Momentum (Sometimes) 

If your goal is building muscle and strength, creating and maintaining significant amounts of tension in the target muscle is imperative for stimulating positive muscular and neural adaptations. When you generate momentum, you can sometimes bypass the part of the rep that places the most significant amount of tension on the muscle — working against the ultimate goal.

So, is it ever appropriate to create momentum within an exercise? It absolutely is. At the tail end of a hard set, momentum can be used to squeeze out another rep or two — think of this as contained “cheat reps.” Momentum can also be used to help drive neuromuscular adaptations that help with building strength and power.

For tempo specifically, if your goal is growing the size of your back, then start the exercise slowly and then accelerate through the rest of the rep — squeezing through to the top and contracting hard. 

More Back Training Tips

While these 16 entries cover the back from top to bottom, this list is just a starting point. Check out some of our other articles to learn even more about blasting your back:

References

1. Jeno SH, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi. [Updated 2020 Aug 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021. 
2. Barra-López, M. E., López-de-Celis, C., Pérez-Bellmunt, A., Puyalto-de-Pablo, P., Sánchez-Fernández, J. J., & Lucha-López, M. O. (2020). The supporting role of the teres major muscle, an additional component in glenohumeral stability? An anatomical and radiological study. Medical hypotheses, 141, 109728. 
3. Ourieff J, Scheckel B, Agarwal A. Anatomy, Back, Trapezius. [Updated 2020 Aug 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021. 
4. Farrell C, Kiel J. Anatomy, Back, Rhomboid Muscles. [Updated 2020 Jul 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021. 
5. Elzanie A, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Deltoid Muscle. [Updated 2020 Aug 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021. 
6. Modes RJ, Lafci Fahrioglu S. Anatomy, Back. [Updated 2021 Mar 27]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021.

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