When I first started lifting weights, I had absolutely no idea how to workout my back muscles.
Don't get me wrong...
I did what I thought were effective back workouts week after week, month after month, but the results just didn't come.
At first I blamed genetics.
"Maybe some people just can't build bigger lats" I told myself.
But that was just a cop out.
The reason my back workouts weren't doing anything was simply because I didn't understand a few simple facts about proper back training that make all the difference in the long-run.
I didn't have any concept of back muscle anatomy, which back exercises targeted which back muscles, let alone how many reps, sets, and different back exercises I should be incorporating into my routine.
Well it took me a while (like several years, actually) to figure it out, but I have finally mastered the art of the back workout.
And that's exactly what I'm going to teach you in this article.
Once you understand:
- the basic anatomy of your back muscles
- how to effectively train them
- which back exercises are the best
Then it's simply a matter of putting in the work!
I can't put in the work for you, but I can teach you everything you need to know.
With that said, let's start with a little bit of anatomy.
Anatomy Of The Back Muscles
The back is the largest muscle group in the body.
It's made up of several distinct muscles which you should probably know and be able to locate.
- Trapezius muscles (traps)
- Teres major and minor
- Latissimus dorsi (lats)
- Erector spinae (lower back)
Here's what the major back muscles look like and where they're located:
You don't necessarily need to know all your back muscles by name, though.
You just need to know what's where and be aware of one simple fact...
One of the most critical elements of any well crafted back workout is that it targets all of the major back muscles.
Now that we've established what's what and what's where, let's talk about a few more critical elements of a well-designed back workout.
The Guiding Principles Of Effective Back Workouts
There's no magic trick or short-cut when it comes to building the back of your dreams, but there are definitely a few things you should keep in mind throughout your training.
Lift Heavy (Focus on getting stronger)!
If you want to gain muscle, you need to lift heavy. That means lifting at about 85% of your 1RM for 4-6 reps per exercise.
You may feel like your getting a nice pump doing those high-rep, light weight exercises, but trust me...That's all you're getting.
The back is a truly resilient group of muscles, capable of taking quite a beating. You need REALLY push yourself on back day if you want to make any progress.
Of course, any good back workout should feature a bit of isolation work--especially when shaping the lats--but you should focus on compound exercises to build a strong foundation.
You also need to keep in mind, one of the most fundamental principles of strength training:
If you're not familiar, don't worry. It's quite simple.
Progressive overload just means adding weight to the bar (or machine) overtime. Without doing this, you can't get stronger. Without getting stronger, you won't build any muscle.
It's really as simple as that.
Make Sure You're Hitting All The Muscles Of The Back
An all too common mistake that people (including me, when I first started lifting) often make with their back workouts is focusing on one component of the back (like lats) without hitting the rest of the muscles.
If you want a V-taper back, it can be tempting to just focus on the lats. In long run, though, that's not a good idea.
Focusing on only certain parts of the back will eventually lead to inconsistencies in strength as well as aesthetics.
If you really want an awesome back, you need make sure your back workouts are complete, hitting each of the major muscles in the back:
- Lower Back
Some exercises--particularly, compound exercises--hit all of them. Some place the emphasis on one or two of them.
Don't worry though. You don't have to sit there figuring out what works what and crafting some complex workout plan...
I already did that for you.
The back workouts you'll walk away from this article with are well-balanced, complete routines that will definitely help you build a back of steel.
Use Some Variation But Not An Excessive Amount
You don't need to do a ton of variation in order to get stronger and build muscle over time.
As long as you're continuously adding weight to the bar and challenging yourself (progressive overload), you'll get there.
However, since the back is such a large muscle group, consisting of dozens of smaller muscles, some of which are sometimes neglected, it's not a bad idea to toss in some variation.
What do I mean by variation?
Well, you can vary the exercises you do by switching up your workouts every once in a while. Or, you could perform the same basic exercises but from slightly different angles or positions.
You don't need to memorize a ton of different exercises to accomplish this.
In the next section, we'll talk about 8 different exercises which make for effective components of a truly complete back workout.
The Absolute Best Back Exercises
While I stand by the notion that some variation is good, for the sake of making progress, it's better to stick with 3 to 5 exercises per workout.
I usually use the same pool of 7 or 8 exercises to construct my back workouts.
I perform the majority of these exercises at 80-85% of my 1 Rep Max (1RM), staying within the 4-6 rep range.
The deadlift is hands down the most important exercise for building not only back strength and size, but building strength throughout your entire posterior chain (the muscles that make up the back of your body, including your glutes and hamstrings).
Unlike most of the other exercises we'll discuss, deadlifting with proper form requires some practice.
For most people, it doesn't immediately click.
You may have to work on your hip, knee, and ankle mobility before you can even attempt to deadlift heavy with proper form, but it's definitely worth it in the end.
Here's what it looks like:
One of the fundamental misconceptions about deadlifts is that they are "a lower back exercise". In reality, they are a whole-body exercise.
The king of all compound exercises!
If you're deadlifting with proper form, the tension should be mostly in your hamstrings, not in your lower back. If you feel it mainly in your lower back, you're not doing it right.
Instead of giving up on deadlifts and the awesome back-building benefits they have to offer, drop the weight and go as light as you need to in order to develop proper form. Then move up from there.
Here's a little step-by-step checklist to ensure proper deadlift form:
- Feet a little narrower than shoulder-width
- Bar against your shins and above the mid-foot area.
- Push your hips out to lower your body
- Hands just outside your shins
- Tension should be in your hamstrings
- Back straight. Not super-arched or bent over.
- Push through your heels
- Pull the bar straight up and slightly back.
- Squeeze your glutes and thrust your hips foward to lock out.
- Don't drop the bar. Control it and guide it down the same weight you lifted it up.
If you're doing all those things, just like the video above, you've got your form down and you're ready to start pulling some serious weight.
Of course, some people prefer to do deadlifts on leg day. Depending on when you lift legs in relation to back, it may or may not be a good idea to incorporate it into your back workouts.
I personally do deadlifts as part of my leg workouts, but I've come to see them as absolutely critical for building a powerful, muscular back.
Barbell rows have been referred to as "the bench press of the back", and for good reason.
This is one exercise that's absolutely essential if you're trying to get that V-Shaped, cobra back.
Here's what it looks like:
As you can probably imagine, a strong deadlift is quite helpful when doing barbell rows.
The hamstrings play a supporting role, but the entire back is responsible for lifting the weight.
This is one of those exercises I was talking about earlier where you can adjust your angles to place the tension on different muscles in the back.
- lifting the bar higher up towards the chest places works the upper back
- lifting the bar lower down towards the stomach works the lower lats more.
Ideally, you should do a little bit of both.
Pull-ups are hands down the most underrated back exercises there is. Most people don't even think to do them as part of a back workout.
Make no mistake, though...
Pull-Ups are a great way to add width and dimension to your back while working a lot of little muscles you would normally never think about.
If you're already capable of doing a bunch of pull-ups in a row with your body weight, add some additional weight by:
- Using a belt to hang plates
- Holding a dumbbell between your feet
- Using a weight vest
There comes a point where doing pull-up after pull-up with your own body weight won't build much additional muscle. If you want to continuously make progress, you should add enough weight to get 6-8 solid reps.
Once you can do that, add 5 or 10 more pounds and go from there.
You can think of lat-pulldowns as pull-ups where you're pulling the bar towards you instead of pulling yourself towards the bar.
Done correctly, it looks like this.
While pull-ups certainly work more of the little muscles throughout the entire back, lat pull-downs are especially useful for placing maximum emphasis on the lats.
You'll be able to pull more weight on the lat-pulldown than the pull-up and you can experiment with a seemingly endless amount of different variation if you so choose.
The T-Bar row is one of the few exercises where the plate-loaded machine is actually better than using a barbell.
You can use the barbell if you want, but a machine such as the one in the image above will allow you to go wider and hit a wider-array of back muscles.
One Arm Dumbbell Row
You won't be able to lift as much weight with dumbbell rows as you can with a partially guided machine, but they're better for achieving total muscle activation throughout the lats.
Some things to keep in mind when doing dumbbell rows are:
- keep your back straight
- lift the weight with your lats, not your arms
- go as heavy as possible without sacrificing form
If you do all those things, one-arm dumbbell rows will help you build some super lats!
The reverse flye is one exercise that I just don't see many people doing, but it's actually one of my all-time favorite upper-back exercises.
Here's the basic idea:
You can perform reverse flyes with dumbbells as well by lying belly-down on an incline bench.
This is also one of those exercises that lends itself to easy variation. You can simply adjust the angle of the cables (or bench, if you're using dumbbells) to target different parts of the upper back muscles.
Experiment a little until you find what feels right for you and make sure you keep your rep range within 6-8 per set.
Standing Lat Pushdown
It may not seem like you're doing much, but standing lat-pushdowns are easily one of the best isolation movements for targeting the lats.
Here's how you do them:
The key here is to place all of the emphasis on your lats. You're not using your arms to push the weight, just your lats.
Creating The Ultimate Back Workout
Now that we've established which exercises you should be doing to target each and every major muscle in the back, it's time to put it all together and develop a back routine that's simple, yet all-encompassing.
You may feel like it's a good idea to just go ahead and do all the exercises in each back workout you do, but think about that for a second...
If you do 3 sets for exercise, that's 24 sets, with HEAVY weight.
That's unnecessary to say the least and potentially quite harmful if you're not used to lifting like that.
Ideally, you'll want to stick with around 12 sets per workout. 4 exercises, 3 sets per exercise.
It may seem like a little, but trust me...
If you're lifting at 85% of your 1RM (4-6 reps per set), you'll feel it tomorrow.
Try either of these workouts:
The Bottom Line On Back Workouts
When it comes to back workouts, there are a ton of different exercises and variations of exercises you can potentially do, but you don't need to do all of them every time.
As long as you:
- Lift Heavy, Focus on Progressive Overload
- Hit Every Major Muscle In Your Back
- Vary Your Exercises From Time To Time
You'll continue to make those gains. Feel free to try one or two of the back workouts I laid out in the previous section or use some of the exercises we discussed to develop your own!
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Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.