The back is a very important but often neglected part of building a well-rounded athletic physique. With most guys opting to focus on training the ‘mirror’ muscles (I’m looking at you chest and biceps) the back often gets left behind.
This not only leads to muscle imbalances but can cause postural problems and over time even lead to injury. On the upside, regularly training the back, particularly building well-developed lats, not only gives you unrivalled pulling power but improves posture and creates a muscular, athletic-looking v-shaped body shape.
In this post, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about building a strong and muscular back.
The back is made up of lots of muscles, however, when it comes to building a muscular back that compliments your physique there are 4 that you really want to focus on.
It’s these muscles that will build a defined, ‘thick’ back that creates a v-shaped taper making the upper body look bigger and the waist smaller and more defined.
The latissimus dorsi muscles, more commonly known as the “lats” are the largest muscles of the upper body and make up a large part of your back. It originates from the mid back, extends to the lower back and is partially covered by trapezius.
When trained effectively it is one the main contributors to achieving the sought-after v-shaped looked.
The trapezius muscles, more commonly known as the “traps” is a muscle of 3 parts;
Each part provides a different function from postural support, to retraction and rotation of the scapula. Most people make the mistake of only focusing on the upper traps which leads to under-developed traps on the whole.
For full back development attention must be given to each part.
The rhomboid is an upper back muscle located underneath the trapezius, it is made up of 2 parts; the minor and major that work together to stabilise the scapula.
The spinal erectors are a group of muscles and tendons that run the length of your back either side of your spine. They provide postural support and core stabilisation, when trained properly can help improve your back strength and boost whole body strength and stability.
With 4 muscles making up the majority of the back when it comes to building strength and muscle, it makes sense to look at the function of each muscle. Understanding their functions will help you understand which exercises you should use to train each part.
The function of the lats is to pull the arm down towards the pelvis. However, when your arm is fixed in place (like when doing a chin-up or pull up) they work in reverse to bring your body up towards the arm.
The best way to think of the function of the lats is to pull and reach. However, they also work to stabilise the body during other movements i.e. the bench press. The best exercises for training the lats are deadlifts, chin/pull-ups, and row variations.
As we looked at before, the traps can be split into 3 functional parts based on the direction the muscle fibres run and the function they provide.
All of the sections of the traps also work to stabilize and anchor the scapulae during upper body movements that involve the limbs. The best exercises for training the upper traps are deadlifts, cleans and shrugs. Whereas to hit the middle and lower traps you can use barbell rows, reverse flys and cable face pulls.
The rhomboids work to draw your shoulder blades back and together. Knowing this, the best exercises to target them are chin-ups/pull-ups, barbell rows, one-arm rows, t-bar rows or seated rows.
The erector spinae, sometimes referred to as the spinal erectors help to support and protect your spine. They also allow you to flex and extend your back in any direction.
Stronger spinal erectors can improve posture and core stability, improving not only how you look, but also how you feel and perform. You can target your spinal erectors by doing deadlifts, hyperextensions or good mornings. They are also recruited when doing barbell squats.
There are tonnes of exercises you could choose but only a core group of them are really worth your time and effort. The exercises listed below are the ones that will bring you the best returns on your investment. These are the only exercises you need to truly build an outstanding back.
Often touted as the king of back exercises the deadlift is a mainstay in most training programs. The deadlift is a compound exercisethat works almost the entire body, making it a great addition to your back workouts. With several variations on how you perform it, there is almost always a way to fit it into your training.
Performed using either an overhand or mixed grip the conventional deadlift is performed with the feet hip-width apart and the bar on the floor. Here’s how you do it:
This variation places more emphasis on the hamstrings, glutes and lower back because you use a shorter range of motion, only going from the top position to just beneath the knees.
For this reason, it’s often included in leg workouts and not back workouts, but it got a mention here as it is technically a deadlift and still works the back, albeit not as much. Here’s how you do it:
Sumo deadlifts work with a similar setup to the conventional deadlift, the main difference is the width of the feet and the position of your back at the starting point. As a result, of the difference in stance the sumo deadlift puts more emphasis on your quads. Here’s how you do it:
Like the conventional and sumo deadlift, the hex bar deadlift is performed with the feet hip width apart and the bar on the floor. However, the main difference is that the hex bar has you gripping the weight from beside you instead of in front of you.
This places more emphasis on the quads and a little less on the hamstring, glutes and lower back. Here’s how you do it:
Chin ups and pull ups, particularly when done with additional weight are fantastic for building a big, strong, muscular back. Whilst they both train the back and biceps; the chin up has you using a close grip with the palms facing towards you which puts a greater emphasis on the biceps.
Whereas, pull ups have you using a wider grip with the palms facing away, this reduces the emphasis on the biceps but increases the involvement of the lower traps. Here’s how you do it:
When performed properly the bent over row is a beast of a back builder, hitting everything from lats and traps down to the spinal erectors. It can be performed in a variety of ways, but here my top 3:
Like the bent over row but performed one arm at a time and with a dumbbell, the single arm row is a great way to train the back using a full range of motion and heavy load. Here’s how you do it:
The lat pull down is the perfect exercise if you can’t do or don’t have access to a pull up bar. It works the same range of motion but in reverse, so instead of pulling your body to the bar, you’re pulling the bar to your body.
It allows you more control over how much weight you’re using as you’re not relying on having to lift your own body weight (like chin/pull ups), instead you’re able to choose from the weight stack.
This can allow for a smoother rate of progression for some people. The primary muscle worked here is the lats, however the rhomboids, lower traps and rear shoulder also get trained. The lat pulldown can be performed with body a wide and close grip.
Here’s how you do it:
The seated cable row is a great choice if you’ve got access to the correct equipment, it hits the majority of the back and can be performed using a wide or close grip to place emphasis on different parts of the back.
Here’s how you do it:
Shrugs can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbells and work the trapezius muscle. Here’s how you do it:
Hyperextensions primarily work the spinal erectors of the lower back but also train the glutes, core, and hamstrings to a lesser extent.
It’s a great addition to any workout that doesn’t include deadlifts, as it helps to promote a strong and healthy lower back (something you might miss out on if you don’t deadlift). Here’s how you do it:
Research shows (1) that high-intensity resistance training (moderate reps, heavy load) is superior for building both muscle and strength than moderate-intensity resistance training (high reps, moderate load). Researchers identified two reasons for this:
Research (2) also shows that progressive overload and the increase in muscle tension is the main driver for quality muscle growth. Not only this but using moderate rep intensity (4 – 11 reps) and high load whilst specifically applying progressive overload is even better.
This means to get stronger and build muscle you need to continually challenge yourself, you must strive to do a little better each and every time you work out. The best way to do this is to apply progressive overload. Applying progressive overload simply means doing more. It could be doing one more rep, one more set, add weight to the bar or resting for less time.
My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range. For example, if you’re doing the standing barbell shoulder press and aiming for 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps and you hit 8 on each set then the next time you’ll increase the weight.
The increase in weight will probably bring you down to the 3 sets of 6 reps, but that’s ok, build your way back up to 3 sets of 8 with the new weight before increasing it again. Continue like this to make consistent strength and muscle gains over time.
5 Day Split – Back Day
Deadlift – 3 x 6
Bent Over Rows – 3 x 8
Seated Rows – 3 x 10
Shrugs – 3 x 10 – 12
Push, Pull, Legs – Pull Day
Chin Ups (weighted if possible) – 3 x 6-8
Single Arm Rows – 3 x 8-10
Lat Pulldowns – 3 x 8-10
Shrugs – 3 x 10-12
Bicep Curls – 4 x 12-15
A, B Split – Chest & Back
Deadlifts – 2 x 6
Incline Bench Press – 3 x 8
Bent Over Rows – 3 x 10
Flat Dumbbell Press – 3 x 10
Bicep Curls – 3 x 12-15
To build muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus and to build muscle with the minimal possible fat gain you need to balance eating too much and not eating enough.
I recommend a calorie surplus of 10 – 15% as a good starting point with the aim being to gain 0.5 – 1 lb of weight per week.
I know this may not sound like much but think 2 – 4 lbs of solid muscle a month adds up to 6 – 12 lbs every 3 months and this can make an outstanding difference to your physique.
Trying to gain muscle any faster than this and you will gain more fat in the process, which will ruin your look.
The key to successful weight gain is to put on as much muscle as possible whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum.
The quickest way to calculate this is to take your body weight in lbs and multiply it by 16.
This will give you a good starting point. You can then adjust as you go based on your rate of weight gain and how much exercise you are performing. As for macros my preferred set up is:
If you really want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your workouts then there are few common training mistakes you need to be aware of.
#1: Not Using A Full Range of Motion
Just doing these exercises with no thought for form or progress is pointless, you need to fully understand how to perform each move with proper technique to effectively apply progressive overload. Using good form has several benefits that you can’t afford to miss out on:
Always take the time to thoroughly learn the movement with an unweighted bar or a little weight before lifting heavy. This will not only allow you to learn the movement pattern faster, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.
#2: Using The Smith Machine
There are a number of reasons for this:
The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.
#3: Not Prioritising Rest & Recovery
Too many people underestimate the importance of rest and recovery, mistakenly thinking that more time in the gym = more progress. When the reality is that a lot of your progress happens when you rest and allow your body to complete several important processes;
Allowing your body to do this means it will begin to adapt to the stresses of exercise which in turn means you will get bigger and stronger. The best way to help your body complete these actions is to stay hydrated, get adequate sleep and eat appropriately for your goal.
Neglecting to give your body the time it needs to adapt and repair itself after training will result in a noticeable deterioration in your energy levels, performance and results.
Building a great back can be the difference between an ok physique and a great one. It’s the difference between a wide and powerful frame or a small, straight up and down one.
Having a strong back also gives you fantastic pulling power, builds your biceps and improves your posture. When training your back you need to focus on the even development of the following muscles; Lats, Traps, Rhomboids and the Erector spinae.
This can be done with a range of exercises, but the best ones are;
It’s important to remember that progressive overload is the main driver behind your progress in the gym and your ability to build muscle and strength. For this reason, you should focus on using great form on the big compound movements, and striving to get stronger over time.