The back is one of the most important parts of creating an impressive physique. Yet, not many people enjoy training the back and prefer the good old ab, chest, and arm workout to focus on the ‘vanity muscles’. If you look at any post-workout gym selfies you’ll notice that they’re all taken from the front or the side. Yes, this is normal because these are the muscles people like to see the most but also they can be a cover up for an undeveloped back.
What does a good back look like? Big, powerful, and wide lats, dense traps, a good v-shape from top to bottom, boulder-like shoulders, and a valley on the spine from the erector spinae. This shows someone who has worked extremely hard at building their posterior upper body and hasn’t spent all their time on the typical front muscles which are easier to build.
Now, some of these moves you may already be implementing into your training but there are certain techniques you can use to shake things up. Different ways of tackling exercises can make a big difference to the response from your body.
1 – The Deadlift
The deadlift utilizes basically every single muscle in your entire body from the moment you pick it up off the floor to the moment you put it back down again. This makes it a fantastic exercise for building a tough and powerful upper body; especially for the back.
One of the main areas that contributes to the deadlift is the lower back and nothing has the same effect on the spinal erectors like deadlifting. Whether you’re going for strength or reps, the lower back is forced to grow in order to cope with the strain of this big, compound movement.
However, the focus shifts as you go through the range of motion. As you’re more parallel to the ground, the lower back is being stimulated the most where as the more you lock out at the top position the more the focus shifts to your grip, lats, traps, and other upper back muscles. The lock-out places a lot of emphasis on your traps which work to ‘shrug’ the shoulders. As they’re being pulled down by the heavy weight on the bar, the traps work to hold the arms up and stop them ripping off your body.
There are two main types of deadlifting: sumo and conventional. With the sumo deadlift, your feet are placed very wide and close to the weight at either end. With the conventional deadlift, you put your feet just hip width apart. The conventional stance is much better for targeting the back as you go through a larger range of motion and the sumo deadlift places more emphasis on the glutes and posterior chain. This means that in the conventional deadlift your muscles are placed under greater tension for a larger amount of time. You may be able to lift more with a sumo but you’ll build more muscle using the conventional.
In terms of rep schemes for hypertrophy, you’ll want to do a mix of strength work and repetition work. The strength work will mean that you can lift more weight which contributes to a greater size whereas the repetition work will increase the volume and direct more fluid to the muscles. Both are important for making gains.
2 – Rows
Rows are probably the single best category of exercise for building the upper back. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or even just your own bodyweight in order to do them and they’re a real powerhouse movement.
Here are some examples of rows:
• Barbell Row
• Single Arm Dumbbell Row
• Australian Row
• Landmine Row
• Cambered Bar Row
• Supported Row
• Rowing Machine
• Trap Bar Row
• Smith Machine row
• Seated Cable Row
• Meadows Row
All of these have their advantages and disadvantages. Also, changing the grip up can mean that you can shift the focus on to different parts of the body. If you want to target the biceps then you can choose an underhand grip whereas an overhand grip will mean that the back has to work harder.
Back exercises need to have certain aspects in order to be considered useful. The degree of contraction you can achieve when working the muscles and the size of the range of motion are both huge factors. If both of these are poor then it’s safe to say that you could be using a better exercise for your time.
The best exercises from that list that implement the best of these factors will be the barbell row, single arm dumbbell row, and meadows row. If you’re looking to build an impressive upper back then do 4 sets of 6-10 reps of each exercise per back session. Use one of them as a strength development exercise and only aim for 4-8 reps.
3 – Straight-Arm Pull-Downs
Nothing will make your back look bigger than good lats and straight-arm pull-downs are one of the best exercises for developing this muscle. They’re more of an assistance exercise that should supplement your compound movements as they only utilize one joint. Though, after a few sets of these, your lats will be on fire.
If you’ve ever seen a perfectly v-shaped back then that will be because of the lats. The lats originate from the vertebrae of the spine as well as the iliac crest on the pelvis and then insert onto the inside of the humerus. They work to draw the arms down, back, towards the body as well as internally rotating them like the pectoral muscles.
One of the main benefits of the straight-arm pull-down is that it cuts out any aid from your biceps. When normally completing back exercises your biceps will aid a lot in the movement so using a single joint exercise such as the pull-down places full stimulation on to the back.
The best way to handle them is to go for a certain amount of times, not reps, as a finisher to your workout. Simply focus on contracting the muscles and going for good form. If you do three sets lasting one minute with a minute’s rest in between then your lats will be killing when you leave the gym. The main aim of this exercise is stimulation and control. Remember to be strict to get the most out of it.
4 – Pull Ups
Finally, pull ups are possibly the best exercise for building the upper back. A lot of people neglect them as they can be hard to get a hold of. Most people who start going to the gym can barely do 3 pull ups let alone just one so they swap them out for easier exercises such as the row or lat pull down. Yet, developing your pull up ability is key for getting a massive back fast.
Now, there are a lot of variations on the pull-up that you can use. The most common being the chin up. The chin up uses an underhand grip which means the biceps can help out more and makes the movement slightly easier. This is a good gateway to the pull up which does not require the biceps aid as much. If you can’t do a standard chin up then a neutral grip chin up is even easier. This uses the biceps help the most. Using an assistance band is a great way to get yourself to doing bodyweight pull-ups if you can’t do them already.
Once you can do 8-12 standard pull ups then it’s time to add weight. Weighted pull ups are the obvious progression because as long as you have a strong weight belt then you can continue making the exercise harder and keep improving your back aesthetics.
In order to get the most out of this exercise, it’s important to go through the full range of motion. This means starting the pull up with your arms full extended and finishing with your chin above the bar. Remember to pull through your back and not the arms for a stronger and more effective movement.If you start getting really good at pull ups then you can start working on plyometric pull-ups and eventually a muscle up. A muscle up is an extremely impressive display of back strength that rarely anybody can complete.
If you want to increase the intensity of the exercise without adding weight then you can do slow concentric and eccentrics. Try to increase your work volume so you can complete more pull ups in the same amount of time. For example, if you can do 8 pull ups in a minute right now then try to get that up to 10, 11, or 12 and so on. You can also just try to improve the total amount of pull-ups you can do in one set, also.
The pull-up really is the king of building up the lats.
Building an impressive back is not as easy as building up the chest, shoulders, legs, or other areas. For this reason, many people don’t tend to go as hard on a back day. However, if someone has a big back then their whole physique suddenly looks greater. The lats can be seen from the front if they’re big and the traps stick out between the shoulders and neck for a very muscular look.