Let’s agree on one thing:
Building a big and great back is freaking tough.
Over the years, I used to struggle to add size, width and thickness to my back.
I did almost everything. High weight, low reps. Low weight, high reps. A bunch of different exercises. One session per week. Three sessions per week. Five sessions per week.
You name it, I tried it.
And I wasn’t getting the results I wanted.
This is how I looked a couple of years ago:
Well. Things have changed.
My back is still far from being a god-like back, but I was able to bust through my stale gains and add some size.
Here’s how it looks now:
The good news is that you can apply all the lessons I learned, and shortcut your way to a bigger and stronger back.
It’s all about applying the best back exercises in the best manner.
But before we continue, I must tell you that, if you’re looking for a magic pill or a quick fix to grow your back, you’re at the wrong place.
Growing your back is not easy, and it’ll take time.
And it’s best done if you use the right approach, the right exercises, and the right nutrition.
Follow the advice in this article and you’ll be on your way to adding some thickness and size to your back.
First, let’s take a closer look at the muscles you want to grow by diving into some back anatomy.
Ready? Let’s do this….
Let’s Break Down Your Back (anatomically)
The back is composed of a bunch of different muscles. Here’s a list
- Latissimus dorsi (lats)
- Teres major and minor
- Trapezius (traps)
- Erector spinae
The upper back consists of a bunch of little muscles, mainly the traps, rhomboids, teres muscles, infraspinatus, and lats.
Here’s a visual:
And when you refer to the lower part of your back, those are the erector spinae.
Check them out:
You and I probably have similar back goals:
- Big traps that serve as the centerpiece of the upper back.
- Good-looking rhomboids that give your back a “valley” shape when you flex it.
- Wide and thick lats that give your upper body the beloved V-shape.
- Nice and thick erectors, to get that “Christmas tree” look in the lower back.
I’ve been doing exactly what’s laid out in this article and this is where it has taken me so far:
My lats still lack some size, but it’s a work in progress.
So if you have similar goals, you might be wondering:
“How do I get there?”
Keep reading, and you’ll find out.
The Biggest Mistakes People Make When Building A Big And Strong Back
I used to make two big mistakes that hindered my back gains:
1-I only focused on vertical pulling exercises.
I was obsessed with pull-ups and pull-downs, and I completely skipped horizontal pulling exercises, which are a major contributor to growing your back.
2- I did a bunch of high rep stuff all the time—you know, to get a good pump—and didn’t add enough strength training. Big mistake.
The easiest way to add size to your back—and every other muscle—is to make strength a priority.
If today you can deadlift 405 x 10, and last year your best 10 rep max was 350, then you have definitely gained muscle.
There are so many buzzwords in the fitness industry:
Drop sets, giant sets, supersets, myo sets. It gets confusing. All these different set combinations can work for a period of time, but you’ll quickly stall.
And that is exactly what happened to me. After a year of doing a bunch of these fancy-named rep schemes, I found that my progress was stalling I wasn’t able to add more reps, and the improvements in my physique were… disappointing.
But now, I know exactly why I was falling short of my goals: I wasn’t getting any stronger.
So I decided to get educated on the topic, and since then my back gains have been on point.
I started dividing up my weekly volume into horizontal and vertical pulling and focused on getting stronger in the compound moves, and I finally started seeing some pretty sick back gains.
You might have never heard of this, but one thing I’ve learned over the years in training is that the more you use your brain to design your training routines the better the outcomes.
Which brings me to one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned:
If you want to effectively build muscle, then the meat and potatoes of your training should be focused on heavyish compound lifting (70-85% of your one-rep max), with some lighter assistance work.
What does it mean for back workouts?
Well, most of the gains will come from doing barbell rows, pull-ups, pull-downs, dumbbell rows, and deadlifts.
I can almost hear you thinking:
“But I see the fitness models on Instagram doing a gazilion exercises and a billion reps, and they have the best back I’ve seen!”
First, those dudes have probably been training for decades, have amazing genetics, and probably inject illegal substances in their butts every week.
I’ll take a guess and say: That’s not your case. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.
And when you bring drugs into the equation, everything changes. Building muscle just becomes a lot easier.
So if your goal is to stay natural, and build muscle naturally, then keep reading, my friend.
You can still build an amazing drug-free back.
I built this back completely drug-free, and I’ll say it looks pretty decent:
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Trying to grow my back. . . . #deadliftsandsex #losefatbuildmuscle #julianhierro #weightlossjourney #weightlossstruggle #weightlosssuccess #weightlossmeals #weightlossdiet #mealprep #mealprepsunday #sundaymealprep #dietmeals #fatloss #mealplanning #mealplans #mealplanner #healthyeating #healthydiet #diet #dieter #dieting #dietcoach #fitness #fit #fitspo
If I did it, you can do it too.
It’ll take intelligent workouts, it’ll take hard work, it’ll take patience.
But it can be done.
Get Strong And Big With Progressive Overload
There are many things that are gray areas in training and performance.
But one thing is certain:
If you are not getting stronger, you’re not getting bigger.
You can add all the variables, all the rep schemes, all the fancy names that you want to your training programs, but your main focus must be to get stronger.
Progressive overload means that your training sessions need to be getting harder and harder with time.
Today you should be able to bench, squat, and deadlift weights that you couldn’t a year ago.
And your workouts today should be workouts that you couldn’t do one year ago.
It’s similar to learning a skill. If you want to become a computer scientist, your capacity to solve harder problems should increase over time (that’s assuming you keep getting better and better with time).
There are three specific ways in which you can create overload:
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There are a couple of ways to progress in the gym:⠀ ⠀ 1) You can use more weight and match the reps that you did with an old weight. ⠀ ⠀ 2) You can use the same weight as before, but you do more reps. ⠀ ⠀ 3) You can use the same weight as before and the same reps, but you add more sets. ⠀ ⠀ 4) ALL OF THE ABOVE.⠀ ⠀ Usually, I like to go with #4 for compound exercise (bench, squat, deadlift), and I like to go with either #2 or #3 for isolation moves (biceps, triceps, shoulders, calves, etc).⠀ ⠀ Either way. Keep track of your workouts. ⠀ ⠀ And make sure you’re progressing over time!⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ #strengthandconditioning #strength #strengthtraining #strengthtrain#strongman #strongwoman#powerlifting #powerlift #powerlifter#powerliftingwomen #weightlifting#weights #chickswholift #ladieswholift #girlswholift #girlswhopowerlift #bodybuilder #bodybuilder #bodybuildingcom #muscles
1- Intensity: this means that you add weight to the bar and that you lifts get heavier and heavier with time.
2- Reps in reserve (RIR): this is a way to measure how close you push your sets to muscle failure. “RIR 4” means you had 4 reps in the tank before hitting failure. It’s a bit tricky to measure RIR, but you get better at it with experience.
3- Volume: refers to the amount of training you do. The easiest way to measure it is by the number of working sets per week.
You can apply progressive overload to all exercises by using one, two, or all of the overload principles mentioned above.
Luckily for you, the training program that I’ll give you later in this article takes care of all the principles.
Don’t Under Or Over Train Your Back Muscles
This relates to the last principle of progressive overload, and it’s a big one.
If your total weekly volume is too low, you won’t create a sufficient stimulus to stimulate muscle growth.
And if it’s too high, the stimulus will be larger than what you can recover from and you’ll overtrain, your performance will suffer, and you will not gain muscle.
It can be a bit tricky to find the right amount of volume. The heavier you go, the fewer reps and sets you can do every week. This is because heavier loads require more recovery.
The training program you’ll get later in this article starts with a small number of sets on the first week, and week by week it increases the volume. The reason for this is that you adapt to training, and as the weeks go by you’ll need more volume to get muscle growth.
The Best Back Exercises
By now you should understand the basics of back building, so in this section let’s look at the best back exercises.
Deadlifts are probably the best all-around exercise you can do, and they will be included in your training program. However, most of your back volume will be split into horizontal and vertical pulling.
Let’s start with the best horizontal back exercises:
Barbell rows are one of my favorite exercises. When done properly, they work your upper back, lower back, hips, arms, and even your rear delts.
They pretty much work your back like no other exercise.
Here’s a video that explains how to do them:
In fact, if you know a bodybuilder who has a great back, he’s probably done a ton of barbell rowing.
The barbell row is a staple exercise in almost all weightlifting and bodybuilding programs.
Some people are afraid of barbell rows because of back pain, but remember, when done properly, they shouldn’t affect your lower back.
To avoid back pain, always keep your lower back neutral. Never let it round. And never hold the bar in there between reps, because your back will tire out and the chances of getting rounded are higher. Let the bar rest on the floor between reps.
Barbell rows are very easy to cheat. In fact, most of the people I’ve seen doing barbell rows cheat by using their hips because it allows them to lift more weight. But using your hips will only set you back because the idea is to grow your back, not to lift more weight by using your hips.
Strict barbell rows are a must for back development.
Here’s how to do them properly:
- Stand with your midfoot under the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend over and grab the bar with a medium grip and with your palms facing down (use straps if needed).
- Keep your back parallel to the floor with your knees unlocked.
- Pull the bar towards your belly button while keeping your elbows close to your body.
The cable row is another one of my favorite pulling exercises. It is an excellent exercise to develop your mid-back and your lats.
Again, many people cheat by swinging back and forth and by using weird form.
If you want a big back, then you have to do all of your movements as strict as possible.
Here’s a video that shows you how not to do it, as well as how to do it properly:
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Are you doing cable rows like an asshole? Listen. I see this all the time… The gym dude sits down on the rowing machine, he pins ALL the plates, swings his arms back and forth to pump himself up… He grabs the handle and… Shitty form. He swings back and forth to be able to move the weight around. Or uses a limited range of motion. Or rounds his back. Or uses weird movements. Don’t be the gym dude… If you commit any of these faults you’re only making things worse for yourself. Kill the ego. Lower the weight. And use proper form. You’ll get stronger, you’ll grow more muscle, and your chances of injury will decrease DRAMATICALLY. No one cares about how much weight you lift with shitty form. Row like a decent human being. Stop rowing like an asshole. . . . #workout #workoutroutine#workoutmotivation #workouts #backworkout #lats #upperback #rows #cablerows
And here’s a checklist for the cable row:
- Grab your handle of preference.
- Pull it with your torso until your back is in a neutral flat position.
- Tighten your abs.
- Pull the weight towards your belly button.
- Touch your belly button and pause for one second.
- Then with a controlled movement extend your arms and repeat.
- Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together when you’re pulling the cable towards your belly button.
1-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is the barbell row’s brother. It’s a great option if you don’t have access to a barbell, or if you just don’t want to do barbell rows.
The cool thing about the dumbbell row is it allows for a longer range of motion than the barbell row.
Here’s a video that shows how to do it:
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Here’s a checklist:
- Use a flat bench and place your left leg on top of the bench.
- Bend over at the hips until your torso is parallel to the floor, and place your left hand on top of the bench for support.
- Pick up the dumbbell with the right hand and hold the weight with a neutral back.
- Pull the dumbbell towards your hip bone while keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Focus on squeezing the back muscles once the dumbbell touches your hip bone.
- Lower the dumbbell with a controlled movement to the starting position.
This shouldn’t be your first option, but it does have its place in your back workouts.
When you’re too tired to perform difficult movements like barbell rows, or dumbbell rows, then you can switch to machine rows to finish off your back workouts.
Here’s a video that explains the machine row:
For this exercise, there’s no checklist since form and technique may vary with machine design.
Most machines have a “how-to” guide stuck to them, so look for that when you’re doing your machine rows if you have doubts about form and technique.
Now let’s look at the best vertical back exercises:
Normal Grip Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is one of my favorite back exercises because it allows you to hit the latissimus dorsi, which is the muscle that starts under the armpit and spreads across and down the back. Well-developed lats will give you the V shape you’re after.
What’s more? Unlike the pull-up, this exercise can be performed by anyone because the resistance can be adjusted up or down.
Here’s a video that demonstrates a normal grip lat pulldown:
And here’s a checklist:
- Grasp the bar with a normal grip, just like it’s shown in the video above. Where the bar starts to bend is a good place to grip it.
- Arch your back and tighten your abs.
- Pull the bar down until it touches the top of your chest and make sure not to lose the arch on your back throughout the movement.
- Slowly extend your arms fully and repeat.
Wide Grip Pulldown:
Similar to the normal grip pulldown, but with a wider grip.
Here’s a video that demonstrates it:
Just like the normal grip pulldown but with a different attachment.
Here’s a video that explains it:
This variation of the lat pulldown targets the biceps a bit more and it’s one of my favorites:
The pull-up is an upper-body compound move. It works the back, the arms, and the abs, and it’s one of the greatest back builders.
The tricky part about pull-ups is that they require a great deal of strength to perform them with proper form.
If you can’t perform at least 7 strict pull-ups with perfect form, then it’s better to wait a couple of months until you’ve built some muscle and then include them in your program.
Here’s a video that shows how to do it:
Here’s a checklist for pullups:
- Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing down.
- Begin from a dead hang, chest up, shoulders back and tight.
- Pull yourself up while keeping an arched back.
- Go all the way up until your chin passes the bar.
- Lower yourself until your arms are straight.
The main difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is that when you grip the bar your hands will be facing towards you.
The chin-up is one of my favorite pull-up variations because it targets the biceps a bit more than the regular pull-up, so if you’re trying to grow big arms, then it’s a good idea to include chin-ups in your training program.
Here’s how to do it:
And finally, let’s look at the king of all exercises:
The deadlift is the best all-around back and full-body exercise you can do.
It’s one of the most basic human movements out there. Think about picking up bags of groceries or picking up a child: it’s a deadlift.
It pretty much is a full-body exercise, but it specifically targets the glutes, the lower back, the upper back, lats, and the hammies.
The moment I started focusing on deadlifts and getting stronger in them is the moment my back started growing more and more.
The deadlift is feared by many because they think it’s an unsafe exercise for the lower back.
And that’s understandable. Pulling hundreds of pounds off the ground with your spine on the line sounds like a recipe for injury, right?
Well, not so fast.
The deadlift is one of the top exercises to build a strong lower back and to prevent injuries. When it’s done with proper form… obviously.
However, if you’re unsure about form, or if you have previous injuries, then you should definitely consult a sports doctor or your personal trainer before including deadlifts in your program. I don’t want you to do something that might get you hurt.
Let’s look at a video that explains how to deadlift properly:
Deadlift form checklist:
- Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and your midfoot should be under the barbell.
- Point toes straight forward.
- Keeping your lower back arched, you’ll bend at the hips and the knees, and then you’ll grab the bar.
- At this point, your chins should be almost touching the barbell.
- Chest up, butt down, and eyes forward.
- Take a big breath, hold it and lift the barbell using your legs.
- Extend your body completely, and then come all the way back down to a dead stop for the next rep.
Check out the beast Larry Wheel deadlift 900 lbs:
And now, let’s look at its cousin…
The sumo deadlift
The sumo deadlift goal is the same as the conventional deadlift: pull weight off the ground.
The difference? It uses a wider stance. Around 1.5 – 2 times the width of your shoulders.
This does two things: it shortens the range of motion, and it allows you to keep your torso more upright, which takes pressure off your spine.
And they’re also harder on the quads.
But that doesn’t mean they’re easier or better than conventional deadlifts.
Which one should you do?
It depends. You should definitely train both for a couple of months and stick to the one that feels stronger and more comfortable.
Here’s how to do it:
And here’s your checklist:
- Load the bar and approach it. Place your feet wide near the collars (pick a stance that’s comfortable for you).
- Your feet should be at a 45-degree angle (or something similar), this position will allow you to keep your shins perpendicular to the ground when you grip the bar.
- Bend at the hips and grip the bar, you can use a pronated, mixed, or hook grip.
- Take a breath, puff your stomach and your chest and lower your hips until your chest is in line with the bar.
- Drive through the floor and lift the weight up.
- When the bar goes past your knees, drive your hips towards the bar until your body forms a straight line and you lock the weight.
- Return the weight to the ground and repeat if needed.
Check out one of the top Powerlifters of all time, Eddy Coan, pulling 901 lbs with a sumo deadlift:
A Word About Technique When Working Out
This needs to be said.
If you follow the principles above and your technique sucks, you will not make progress and your chances of injury will be higher.
The bottom line? You need to master the technique of all the exercises you perform. That means you’ll be making a conscious effort to do every exercise well.
No bouncing around, no use of momentum to lift the weight, no weird movements. Good technique means slow and controlled movements with perfect form.
Your ego and your weight might take a hit when you slow down, but you’ll end up performing better and getting bigger over time.
Take the time to study the videos in the exercise section, and make sure that you use perfect technique ALL the time with NO exceptions.
Cool? Now, before you continue reading, I need to tell you something:
Training is only a part of the equation of getting big a big back and a jacked body. There’s another aspect that’s equally as, or even more, important.
And that is: Nutrition.
Check out this article, it dives deep into the nutritional aspect of building your body:
Progress Slowly to Build Your Superhero Body
That’s it as far as the best back exercises. Those are all you need to build a V-shaped, wide, defined and thick back.
And you not only focus on doing the exercises above, but your main focus should be to progress and get stronger over time in the exercises above.
Remember that the most productive way to build muscle is with progressive overload.
Your primary goal as a lifter is to get stronger with perfect technique.
Oh, and of course, your nutrition is incredibly important if you care about improving your body composition.
Make sure you’re eating the correct amount of food.
The Best Back Exercises: The Ultimate Workout
A well-designed back workout is designed to train your back at different angles and to hit both the upper and lower back muscles.
This is accomplished by splitting your volume into horizontal and vertical back pulling exercises while also including at least one deadlift session per week.
Below you’ll find a complete 4-day per week training program that focuses on the back muscles while also working the rest of your body.
I don’t want you just focusing on your back and forgetting about your chest and your legs (I’m not gonna let that happen).
DISCLAIMER: perform this program at your own risk, and it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor before starting any training regimen.
Now before I explain how the program works, I need you to promise something…
You have to promise that you’ll do the program as is. No adding stuff, no changing things around. If you change things you’ll be doing a different program.
Alright, let’s break down your training program:
Weekly Volume Divided Into Vertical And Horizontal Pulling Exercises
Your weekly volume is divided between vertical and horizontal pulling exercises.
With this, we’ll make sure you’re properly stimulating every fiber of your back to maximize growth.
What’s more, you can repeat this program up to three times in a row if you just switch-up the exercises to create a new stimulus in your body.
Insert your 1RM
You’ll have to input your 1RM for each.
That means that maximum weight with which you can do 1 rep with perfect form.
If you have no idea what your 1RM is, then take your best and underestimate it. Please, don’t do any type of testing to calculate your 1RM, just use your bet guess.
It’s better to start light with perfect form (remember the weight and set will increase on a weekly basis), than starting out too heavy without any room for progress.
You should be getting between 10-15 reps per set. If you can’t hit at least 12 reps on the first week, then you started too heavy, and you should drop the weight.
After you’ve selected all of the exercises and inputted all the 1RM you don’t need to modify anything else; the spreadsheet will tell you the working weights for the 4-week program.
Finally, you’ll keep track of your reps every week. The idea is to maintain or improve performance week after week, so use the rep results as a reference for all of your workouts.
The Bottom Line About the Best Back Exercises
Back training resembles leg training a bit.
It’s a huge muscle group, and it takes a tremendous amount of work and patience to develop it.
There are no secrets or magic tricks to building a big back. You won’t build your dream back in a few weeks or months; it’ll take years.
So use this program as a way to kickstart your fitness journey, to get some decent gains, and to propel you forward.
Show up consistently and you’ll get the back you want.
And if you want to go faster and you want my help, you can apply to work with me here.