Back Workout: Exercises to Build a Broad, Strong Back
To build a big strong back, you need to consider how your back is structured, how all the different muscles work to produce movement and what exercises you can do to ‘challenge’ these muscles to make them bigger and stronger.
If you think about your back’s anatomy, there are several important muscle groups you need to ‘attack’. Each of these have a specific function in creating movement and often overlap with the other muscles. These complex muscle structures cover the entirety of your back, so using a number of different exercises that work your back at different angles is important for overall muscle development and strength.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN MUSCLES AND HOW DO YOU TARGET THEM?
To target the different muscles in your back – or any muscle group really – you need to think about how the load is ‘applied’ to your body. This may seem like an abstract concept, but it’s pretty simple. Generally speaking, the muscle in direct opposition to the load you’re lifting is the one doing (most of) the work.
For example, if you think about the bench press, the bar is (or should be) over and directly loading your chest muscles, which means your pectorals are doing the work. If you then do an overhead shoulder press, the load is sitting above and ‘facing’ the deltoid muscles of your shoulder. So it should come as no surprise ‘pulling and rowing movements’ are going to be key players when targeting your back, as well as those that extend your back at the waist.
Due to the complexity of these muscles, using a variety of pulling movements and angles is paramount to build a wide, strong back.
So, with all that being said, here are the main ‘players’ you should focus on developing and how to go about targeting them…
The latissimus dorsi are a muscle group that covers most of your back and gives your back its wings. It’s attached to your lower back, ribs and spans your shoulder joint. With this being said, it shouldn’t be surprising different regions of your lats are responsible for producing slightly different movements. To target these different regions, you need to load your back from a number of different angles.
The lats are involved in:
Vertical pulling movements like pull-ups and the lat pull-down
Horizontal pulling movements like bent over rows, t-bar row, seated row, low cable row and dumbbell rows
Shoulder extension like cable or dumbbell pull-overs
Hip extension like deadlift variations, rack pulls
These are the ‘trapezius’ muscles that ‘sit’ at the top of your back and shoulders. The traps span your neck, shoulder blades and are attached to your mid-back too. These muscles give your upper back a thick, rounded look.
Vertical rowing movements like upright rows, cleans, high-pulls
Shoulder elevation movements like barbell or dumbbell shrugs
Horizontal pulling movements (different angles hit different regions) like horizontal face pulls, seated rows
The rhomboids are, unsurprisingly, rhomboid shaped muscles and sit in the middle of your upper back, inline with the middle portion of the traps. The rhomboids are involved primarily in retraction (pinching) of the shoulder blades.
This means it’s also hit with rowing and vertical pulling movements. This is targeted more specifically with narrow vertical pulling movements with an increased focus on ‘squeezing’ the shoulder blades together.
THE SPINAL ERECTORS (ERECTOR SPINAE):
These are a bunch of muscles that run on either side of the spine and are involved in extending and straightening the back. These muscles travel from the pelvis right the way up the back to the base of the skull, acting as a synergist and/or stabiliser to many of the exercises that target the rest of your back.
The exercises that would place greatest demand on the erectors are those that involve back extension (e.g. the deadlift, good morning and back extension) and stabilising the spine during other rowing or pulling movements (e.g. the bent over row).
HOW HEAVY SHOULD YOU TRAIN?
If you want a BIG and STRONG back then you need to train across a number of repetition ranges in order to develop size and strength – taking a more ‘hybrid’ approach to the rep ranges you use. The problem many people have with developing their back is actually ‘feeling’ the movement correctly or going too heavy to be able to move the muscles through their correct full range of motion. This is where rep ‘tempo’ and focus on execution becomes very important.
For heavier, compound movements like deadlifts and heavy rows, the temptation can be to sacrifice form and execution for going heavy. Although you need to be more ‘explosive’ with these movements, they need to be done with correct technique. It’s always worthwhile asking a trainer for help with execution if you are a beginner or you’re struggling to feel a movement in the right muscles.
For heavier strength work in the 5-8 rep range, focus on an explosive ‘lifting’ phase and a controlled 1-2 second lowering (negative) phase. As you go lighter and use more ’isolated’ movements, training in the 8-15+ rep range gives an opportunity to slow tempo down, aiming for a 1-2 second lifting phase and 2-3 second lowering (negative) phase. This is where you need to make sure technique is super tight and the muscle is worked fully and ‘active’ through its full range of motion.
ONLY once you are hitting target rep ranges with perfect and consistent technique should you increase the load you are lifting.
SO, WHAT SHOULD A BACK-TRAINING PROGRAM LOOK LIKE?
If you want to grow your back quickly it’s probably worthwhile training your back a bit more frequently. This allows you to put more ‘training volume’ into your back muscles than in a single session… as long as you remember to leave enough time for recovery between sessions.
There are many ways you could structure a back session and here we have described a popular twice a week split, one day focusing on heavy, compound movements and the other on lighter more isolated work.
SESSION 1 (HEAVY/MONDAY)
- Deadlift – 5 reps, 5 sets, 180s rest
- Bent Over Row – 8-10 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
- T-Bar Row – 8-10 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
- Seated Row – 8-10 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
- (Assisted) Pull-Up – 8-10 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
SESSION 2 (LIGHT/THURSDAY)
- Lat Pull Down – 12-15 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
- Seated Row – 12-15 reps, 3 sets, 120s rest
- 1-Arm Dumbbell Row – 15-20 reps, 2 sets, 120s rest
- Upright Row – 15-20 reps, 2 sets, 120s rest
- Pull-Over – 15-20 reps, 2 sets, 120s rest