Truth be told, it’s almost criminal how overlooked the back is when it comes time to train.
We all love to hammer the “beach muscles” – our chest, our arms and shoulders, and our abs – when we step into the gym. But our back (much like our legs) often gets overlooked.
That’s a big problem.
For one thing, you’ll never be able to have a truly imposing physique without intentionally developing and building your back. Something will always look a little “off”.
You’ll have a tough time getting that V taper, too.
Secondly, though, ignoring your back significantly stunts your potential for progress. You won’t gain strength as quickly, you won’t gain size as quickly, and you’ll generally feel pretty unbalanced.
Luckily, though, these issues can be taken care of with little headache and hassle.
All you have to do is get serious about training your back the right way right from day one.
And that’s what we are here to help you with!
In the rest of this detailed guide we are going to cover:
… And then we are going to run through core exercises you’ll want to implement into your back training program ASAP.
Ready to hit the ground running?
Let’s do this!
One of the biggest mistakes a lot of people make is thinking of the back as a monolith muscle group.
Similarly to how people think of their chest, their arms, and their core as one big muscle group, lots of people think of their back as something that can be trained with two or three different exercises – and then they call it good.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
No, to train your back effectively you really need to break it down into its core muscle groups. Let’s run through a quick anatomy lesson to shine a light on the different major muscles you’ll want to target with your training from here on out.
The upper back area is made up of some of the largest back muscles, including the trapezius muscles, the rear deltoids, the rhomboids, and your lats.
Your traps are probably the biggest focal point of the upper back, though your lats are going to want to get plenty of attention as well if you’re going after a V taper (superhero) kind of look – with a shirt or without one.
Technically your rear deltoids are attached to your shoulder muscle group. But they still get activated with a lot of effective back exercises so that’s why we have lumped them into this category.
As far as your rhomboids are concerned, these muscles are more supporting muscles than anything else. They get a heck of a workout when you are rowing, though – and are some of the most important supporting muscles in the upper back area.
The middle of your back is also made up of your lap muscles, your teres major and minor muscles, as well as your erector spinae muscles. These muscles help to support your spine, connect and at flexibility to other major back muscle groups, and really sort of tie everything in your back together.
These muscles are usually hit hardest with rowing, squats, deadlifts, and other movements that activate the bulk of your muscle mass on the backside of your body.
The muscles in your lower back are generally smaller than the muscles in your upper and middle back area, but they are no less important to train.
In fact, these muscles are just as important as the rest of your core muscle groups. You need these for power, you need these for flexibility, and you definitely need these to feel strong and stable.
Some of the muscles in your lower back you’ll want to target include the multifidus, longissimus, spinalis, and quadratus lumborum.
These muscle groups are often recruited during movements like the deadlifts and rowing. Because they are smaller they often “tap out” sooner than larger muscle groups in the upper and middle back which is why you want to use lower weights and higher reps to really max them out.
Now that we’ve taken care of the anatomy lesson part of this guide, let’s move into highlighting some of the biggest benefits you’ll enjoy from building a bigger, stronger back.
The largest (and most noticeable) benefit to building a stronger back is that you get stronger almost everywhere else, too.
Your back muscles (even when they aren’t the main focus) are recruited during nearly every compound lift. The stronger the back muscles are, the stronger you are going to be – and the more weight you are going to be able to throw around.
By developing your back muscles effectively you are also going to improve your resistance to fatigue and injury.
It’s no secret that supporting muscle groups are often the first to “pop” when you start to lift heavier and heavier weights. Especially when those supporting muscle groups don’t get any real love during your normal training sessions.
If you actively work out those supporting muscle groups, though (particularly in your lower back, for example) you don’t have to worry about that being a problem any longer.
Instead you’re going to be able to lift more, lift more frequently, and lift with more intensity. All just by training your major back muscle groups!
That’s a benefit that is tough to beat.
Another major benefit of building your back is that you are going to look a lot bigger a lot faster.
For one thing, when you develop your back muscle groups and especially your lats you’ll be able to get that V taper look so many athletes are after.
This is the superhero look, the look that basically transforms your upper body into an upside down triangle – giving you that strong, athletic look even when you have baggy clothes on.
It doesn’t take a lot of training to develop this taper, either.
Because our backs are so frequently ignored, they are essentially “newbie muscles” that enjoy newbie gains. Some focused attention (and real intensity) can ramp things up faster than you would have thought possible.
You don’t have to pack on 15 or 20 pounds of lean muscle for your body to look huge when you develop your back, either. Five extra pounds in the right spots (with developed, strong lats) can totally transform the way you look.
Think of this as a bit of a “cheat code” to help you get the results you’re after without any delay.
It’s no secret that modern humans have absolutely horrific posture.
For one thing, we spend way too much of our lives parked on our caboose.
We lead overwhelmingly sedentary lives – sleeping, jumping in the car on the way to work, sitting at the office, sitting in the car on the way home, parked in front of the couch before we go to bed. That cripples our posture and can become a permanent problem if unaddressed.
By strengthening our back muscles, though, we prevent the muscular imbalances that come about from our modern lifestyle.
Our shoulders don’t roll as much. We don’t stoop any longer. And our lower back isn’t twisted into a pretzel without hips jutting out because we spend so much time sitting.
No, instead our back muscles are lengthened, strengthened, and resistant to that kind of damage. Strengthen your back now and you’ll feel years younger well into your twilight. Talk about a return on your investment!
Another often overlooked benefit from training your back the right way (and intentionally) is a stronger and more stable core.
Sure, doing all the ab workout in the world is going to help those beach muscles pop. That’s a great way to get a killer sixpack and turn some heads when you peel your shirt off.
But if you work the opposing muscle groups in your back you’re not only going to be able to develop a better looking core, but you’ll also be able to develop a balanced core as well.
That ends up producing a stronger, more stable body. You’ll be able to lift more, run faster and farther, and enjoy increased athletic performance across the board (in any sport that recruits your core muscle groups) almost on autopilot.
Pretty cool, right?
We mentioned a couple of times throughout this guide the importance of training intentionally.
A lot of people like to jump into the gym, throw iron around, knocking out a couple of exercises while listening to their favorite music, podcasts, or while watching TV. They never really think through what they’re doing and never really intentionally recruit the target muscles they are trying to train.
That’s a mistake.
You might get some results with that kind of casual working out approach. But you’ll definitely be on the slow road to success.
To fast track your results you have to be much more intentional and much more focused.
You want to use the strategies we outlined below to train your back smarter, helping you to build more lean muscle mass faster, increase your strength gains, and build the back of your dreams in record time.
Let’s get right into it.
For one thing, you need to activate your back muscles if you want them to grow and develop.
Professional bodybuilders, elite level athletes, and personal trainers around the world often mentioned a failure to activate the back as the number one reason people don’t build these muscles as quickly as they could.
A failure to actively activate back muscles most commonly occurs during exercises like pull-ups, chin-ups, and any of the rowing exercises you can get into. Deadlifts and squats usually don’t have this problem (just because there’s no choice but to activate the back), but you still need to be intentional with those movements all the same.
To train intentionally you have to make sure that your form is 100% strict. Even if this means moving less weight than you think you can handle right now.
Form is absolutely everything. As soon as you start to slip into “technique traps” that let you cheat by using other muscles to handle the heavy lifting you go from developing your back to something else completely.
Focus on form. Go through the full range of motion. Keep pace slow, steady, and even without losing intensity.
Zero in on these key aspects of activating your back muscles and you’ll be good to go!
Another key piece of the puzzle to training with strict form and intentionality is keeping your eyes front and center.
A lot of people like to let their eyes drift, even if they tell themselves they’re just checking out there form. As soon as their eyes wander they start to see their technique break down. Tilting your head side to side can interfere with your form right away and may even put you at risk for injury.
No, keep your eyes front and center and trust that the work you’ve done to master the form of these movements will carry you through. It’s better if you can have someone train with you to double check your form as you go through the motions than to peek in the mirror and potentially injure yourself.
You also want to neutralize your neck position.
It’s completely instinctual to push our neck up when we are lifting a lot of weight (or to round our neck and looked down), but you need to think that instinct as much as possible.
You need to keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine or you’re going to compromise your form. That compromise in form is going to slow down your progress but it’s also going to put you at greater injury risk, too.
Again, this seems like something really small and really subtle that could derail your training completely.
Don’t fall into that trap.
Focus on the details, square away things like this and keeping your eyes front and center, and you’ll find that your back training progress goes a lot faster!
The last training strategy that we really want to hammer home is the idea of ironing out potential arching of your back that might warm its way into your workouts.
The #1 Golden Rule of Back Training is this – Keep your back straight!
Every single back workout you do should have a straight, consistent back angle with absolutely zero arching and rounding whatsoever.
As soon as you start around your back you’re going to start to see your progress slow but you’re also going to see much higher instances of injury, too.
Keep special attention on your lower back.
This is where a lot of people round or arch without even knowing it, especially if they are working out on their own. It’s not a bad idea to record yourself working out for a couple of sessions to see if you are rounding or arching as well.
There are a couple of different training aids available on the market designed to help people prevent arching and rounding while working out their backs, too. Some of those are worth investing in and some of them are nothing more than modern-day snake oil.
You can get great results without using those products, but newbies can definitely benefit from the legitimate options on the market today. A little research and due diligence will do you well if you’re going to go down this direction.
We’ve gone through important bits and pieces of back muscle anatomy you need to know. We’ve gone over the big benefits of why it’s so important to train your back, too.
We’ve even covered a handful of really important strategies to keep in mind while training these muscle groups so that you can jumpstart (and shortcut) your back building journey.
Now it’s time to get into the real meat and potatoes of this guide – the actual exercises you want to use to train these muscles effectively.
When it comes to building a bigger, wider, stronger and more powerful back nothing beats the deadlift.
The undisputed king of the mountain when it comes to back exercises, the deadlift is one of the most important exercises you need to fold into your back training program ASAP.
For one thing, this is one of only a handful of exercises that actively recruits and trains every bit of muscle fiber in your back during each repetition. The second you grab the bar from the moment you move it through the dead lift motion to dropping it back on the mat again your holdback is going to be in on the lift.
Best of all, you can deadlift for strength and size gains – all at the same time, too!
You can even go with lower weight and high repetition deadlifts to increase your overall athletic endurance, boost your speed and power, and cut fat from your body as well.
If there’s only one movement you ever do to train your back, make sure that it is the deadlift.
We do want to share one important piece of advice about this exercise, though:
While it looks really simple and straightforward to pull off (go down into a low squat position, grab a barbell with and overhand grip, and use your back and your core to push up and lift the weight) there’s a lot of technique you have to master here.
Watch a couple of YouTube videos to really dial things in. Then work with light weights (maybe even just the bar) until you get the form and technique down. Deadlifts aren’t anything you want to be fooling around with.
Dumbbell rows are fan favorites for those targeting the upper back.
A big part of that is that they have a more unique and “wide open” range of motion compared to traditional barbell rows. You’ll be able to better target your lats, your obliques, and your teres with dumbbell rows than you would have with barbell rows.
Even better news is that these rows are really simple and straightforward to pull off.
Start with putting your left hand and your knee bent over a flat bench. Your hand should be stretched out to anchor yourself onto the bench and your knee should be in a rock solid position, too.
Tighten up your core, flatten your back and keep it straight, and then use your right arm to row a dumbbell towards your chest. Knockout however many reps you are shooting for in that set, switch from your right side to your left side, and then run through the process all over again until you are good to go.
Barbell rows are another of the most popular back workouts because they recruit all of your major (and most of your minor) back muscles.
Bent over barbell rows are probably the most popular variation of this exercise and a great place to start. The technique is really easy to master, too.
Get down into the lower squat position with your arms slightly wider than your shoulder. Grab onto a barbell with and overhand grip, squeeze your core tight, and then pull back straight and into your torso (at about a 60° angle).
Lift the barbell up, bring it to the top of your core and that hold it there for a moment, and then return back to the starting position. Maintain pacing and control the whole time.
Pump these reps out regularly and your back will develop faster than you would have ever thought possible!
Cable rows are a little less effective at working out your entire back than dumbbell and barbell rows, but are still powerhouse exercises you want to work into the fold all the same.
These movements target your traps and your rhomboids, but they also hit your shoulders and your biceps as well. This isn’t a bad way to finish off your back workout session, really blasting these muscle groups and generating extra growth in these key areas.
Sit down at a cable station with your knees bent and your body slightly angled away from the equipment. Pull the cable system out as wide as you can go and then bring the equipment into your chest. Keep your back flat and straight, your biceps activated, and your core as tight as you can get it.
Start rowing with the cable in this position for as many reps as you are after. Return back to the starting spot, wait about 20 seconds, and then kick off another set of reps until you hit your limit on sets.
Pull ups and pull downs are game changing back exercises that you don’t want to overlook just because they don’t use a lot of fancy equipment.
If you really need to target your upper back then wide grip pull-ups get the job done better than almost anything else. You’ll be able to build strength, endurance, and add a lot of thickness to your upper back all at the same time with this movement.
The lats and the teres are most frequently activated during pull-ups (or any variation of pull-ups). If you mix chin-ups into the rotation every now and again you’ll be able to round out your biceps, your triceps, your shoulders, and your supporting back muscles, too.
Pull downs are basically a mechanical variation of the pull-up and target many of the same muscle groups. Just make sure that you keep your core tight, that you are squeezing your lats throughout the movement, and that you are pulling the handles all the way down until they reach the top of your chest.
Pause there for a second and then returned the cable back to the top under your full control. Don’t let things bounce and don’t let things run away on you. You need to control the weight through every stop along the rep for it to be effective.
At the end of the day, building a better and bigger back really isn’t rocket science.
Sure, you need to understand that there are multiple major muscle groups (and a bunch of minor ones, too) that you need to target to develop the back of your dreams.
You also need to place a real emphasis on form and intentional activation of all these muscles while you work them out. Get sloppy with form or let your mind wander when you are working out and your results are going to suffer.
Take care of all that, though, and you should be good to go.
Mix and match different exercises we highlighted above into a routine that works for you and you’ll be able to grow a better back in record time.
Get after it already!