by Jason Ferruggia
Below are the 7 things you need to know about how to build a bigger back. I will also give you the top 10 best back exercises plus the ultimate back building workout. As always and with every other muscle group, building a bigger back simply comes down to choosing a few key exercises and then getting progressively stronger on them. I wish I could tell you it was more complicated and fancier than that. But it’s just not. The typical gym crowd is all about the chest and biceps, but a big back is what separates the men from the boys. A big back is synonymous with hard work and strength. It makes you stand out. It commands respect.
There are three major areas of the back that need to be trained- the upper back, lats and lower back. The traps (upper, middle, & lower), rhomboids, and rear delts are primarily slow twitch muscles and thus respond well to slightly higher rep sets. They can also tolerate quite a bit of work. Face pulls and rows with your elbows out to your sides will train these muscles. The traps can also be trained with a variety of shrugs, although, truth be told, many people don’t get a ton out of shrugs.
The lats are a pretty even blend of fast and slow twitch fibers, and thus, respond well to a medium rep range and workload. They are most effectively trained with chin ups. The lower back is primarily slow twitch and should be trained with sets of 12-20 reps, using exercises like bridges, back raises, swings and reverse hypers. With the quick anatomy lesson out of the way, lets cover the seven best ways to add some slabs of beef to this crucially important area.
1.) Get Strong
This is always the first rule of muscle building, regardless of what bodypart we are discussing. You have to have 3-5 chin up variations and 3-5 row variations that you track in your log book. And you have to get progressively stronger on them over time. That means you either add more weight or more reps or move on to harder variations of the exercise.
Progressive overload is the best way for natural, genetically average guys and girls to build more muscle. When you can 1 arm row half your bodyweight for 10 reps and do 10 perfect chin ups with a 45 pound plate around your waist your back will be pretty damn big.
2.) Use Perfect Technique
You have to focus on progressive overload above all else. But most people go way too heavy on their pulling exercises from the get go. They use awful form so they end up working their biceps and lower back far more than their lats or upper back. I constantly witness guys flopping up and down on the chin up bar with horrendous form. Their chests are caved in and their shoulders rounded forward in the top position. This takes all the stress of the muscles you are trying to train. And it’s one of the things that leads to crappy lat and upper back development.
Always keep your chest up during each and every rep. When you do this you won’t be able to get as high. Don’t worry about it, though. Your chest doesn’t have to hit the bar; just come close. As long as your chin clears it you’re fine. Some bigger guys or people with shoulder issues won’t even get that high. It doesn’t matter as long as your form is perfect. Trying to pull yourself too high takes the stress of the lats and causes your technique to break down. Lat growth goes out the window when this happens.
Squeezing out a few more reps with rounded shoulders and a concave chest is a waste of time and will only slow down your recovery ability. So just drop off the chin up bar when you can’t maintain proper form or use a band to assist you. On rows you need to drive the elbows behind you and fully squeeze your shoulder blades together on each rep. .
So for some of you, the first step in your quest for a thick, muscular back is to reduce the weights you are using by at least 20% or use an easier version of the bodyweight row or chin you are doing. Lighter weights will allow you to concentrate on actually feeling the muscle, versus just hoisting away. Going lighter will also help ensure that you are able to fully squeeze your shoulder blades together on every rep. That’s a very important element in proper back training.
When you can engage the muscle more effectively you increase the chances of it growing. A good way to know if the weight you are using is light enough is trying to hold it for a full two seconds in the fully contracted position. If you can’t do that it’s too heavy. Once you have the correct starting weight selected, that you can do with perfect form, you can no start hammering away on proper progressive overload. Get strong while keeping your reps clean and you’ll get big.
3.) Improve Your Mind-Muscle Connection
Many people can’t feel their backs, which is a major reason why they don’t grow. The first step is to lighten the weights you use.
The second step is to try this drill, that I learned from Pavel Tsatsouline, before doing chin ups: Bend your arm 90 degrees and extend it overhead. Now have a partner place his palm on your triceps muscle right by the elbow. As he resists you push down, using only the strength of your lats, for eight seconds. Slowly drive your elbow do to your side while your partner continues to provide resistance.
It will help increase the mind-muscle connection if he places his other hand on your lat. Do this for a few reps on each side a minute or so before doing a set of chins. Try to lock in that feeling of driving down with your elbows. Don’t think of pulling with your biceps when you do chin-ups but rather imagine that the weight is behind your elbows and you have to drive them down and back. The next thing you can do is have a partner stand behind you when you are doing chins and place his hands on your lats so that you can feel them throughout the set.
Having him slap or chop them would be an even better idea. It might look a little bizarre to other members of your gym but these are the sacrifices you gotta make. If he gives a Ric Flair “Wooooo” while chopping them it won’t seem as strange. I think.
4.) Flex Your Lats
In between sets of chin ups or pulldowns flex your lats by doing a bodybuilder style front lat pose. Really squeeze hard, almost to the point where your lats cramp up. This will further enhance the mind-muscle connection that is essential in building a bigger back.
5.) Stretch Your Lats
The lats can and do get very tight. When they do you’ll end up with poor posture and shoulder pain. You should take preventative measures against this by stretching them fully at the end of your workouts when they are pumped. The easiest way to do this is to hang from a chin up bar for as long as you can. Record your time and try to improve slowly, each week.
6.) Do More Horizontal Pulling Than Vertical Pulling
That means you need to load up on the rows. Chin ups are great for building the lats, but to keep your shoulders healthy you need more rows. A lot of people think that they are balancing out their pulling and pushing by doing a boatload of chin-ups each week. This is, unfortunately, not the case. In fact, you’re probably just making the problem worse. That’s because the lats are internal rotators. Training them does nothing to balance out the pressing. It’s just more internal rotation.
If your shoulders bother you it might even be a good idea to cut chin ups out completely for a month or two and focus on row variations until the pain subsides and you strengthen the upper back.
7.) Sweat the Small Stuff
Even though compound movements are what build the most muscle and should be the bread and butter of your training program, there’s still room for some isolation movements. Including them helps maintain shoulder health. I’m talking about exercises for the middle and lower traps, the rhomboids and rear delts. It’s a good idea to train these small muscles with exercises like YTW’s, face pulls, scarecrows, reverse flys and band pull aparts. Compound movements will often leave these muscles under-stimulated and underdeveloped.
By including these key exercises in your weekly program you will ensure that doesn’t happen and you’ll help prevent any possible shoulder injuries. These exercises can be done twice per week for a few sets of 12-20 reps. They can be included in your warm up or at the very end of your workouts.
8.) Get Awesome Training Partners
Great training partners add at least 25% to your results. It’s ingrained in males to push harder when a group of like minded guys is there holding you accountable. If you’re reading that, bummed you don’t have an awesome group to work out with, you can get an entire crew of training partners from the Renegade Strength Club. While we won’t be with you in the gym, we all post our workouts, encourage each other, and help one another continue to get better.
Whether its helping you perform exercises better, tweak your diet, work around an injury, or get motivated to reach your goals, I, the coaches of Team Renegade, and the other members will be there to help you out every step of the way. I’ll see you in the inside. But first, here are some of my favorite back exercises.
TOP 10 BEST BACK EXERCISES
1.) Chin Ups
Nothing builds up the lats more effectively. These are best performed on rings or a Jungle Gym XT. Doing so alleviates the wrist, elbow and shoulder stress that comes from doing them on a straight bar. If you don’t have access to those implements I recommend doing them on neutral grip handles.
Don’t have the strength to do chin ups? Use a band to assist you until you can do them on your own. Another great option is rack chins (popularized by trainer, Dante Trudel). These are performed by setting handles or a bar in a rack at around chest height, then putting your feet up on a box while doing chins.
2.) Inverted/Bodyweight Rows
Since I’m a huge fan of bodyweight training these have to be near the top of the list. Again, you want to perform these on rings or a Jungle Gym XT. Great for strengthening and thickening up the mid back.
To progress you can continually move on to harder variations (I have close to 30 different inverted rows that I use) and manipulate your body position. When that no longer challenges you a weighted vest or chains can come in handy. With that you’re set for life and would really never have to touch a weight.
3.) Rope Climbs
This is an awesome functional exercise that packs slabs of muscle on the lats and biceps. In fact, those who can’t get their arms to grow are usually pleasantly surprised at what happens when they add rope climbs to their routine. The shirt sleeves finally start stretching. As always, strive for progressive overload by being able to do more consecutive reps or getting up the rope in less time.
4.) Front Lever Iso Hold
This is a very challenging gymnastics exercise that will dramatically improve the strength of the lats and entire core. It will also greatly improve shoulder stability. If you can’t feel your lats this is the one exercise you definitely need, as it will change that in a hurry. They can be performed at the beginning or end of your workouts. Start very slowly and don’t progress too fast on these or you’ll end up tweaking something.
5.) 1 Arm Dumbbell Rows
This is my favorite weighted rowing variation. It can also be done with kettlebells. Keep the movement fairly strict and minimize cheating too much or using too much momentum. Be sure to pull with the lats and drive the elbows behind you powerfully on each rep.
A great variation of this is the landmine row (popularized by John Meadows). This can be done by sticking one end of a barbell in a corner or landmine unit. Load the other end of the bar with 25 pound plates then grab the collar and do rows that way.
6.) Hang Cleans or High Pulls
Do these with dumbbells, kettlebells or a sandbag 1-2 times per week for 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps and watch your upper back blow up. Yes, the rule on Olympic lifts is that you shouldn’t go over 6 reps. But that’s only true when you are an athlete training for speed. If you are just trying to build a bigger back, then you can definitely bump up the reps on these. You’ll be rewarded with more muscle. High rep Olympic lifting definitely packs on some serious size.
7.) Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Deadlifts are the king of all exercises. They work every muscle from head to toe. And when it comes to building all around brute strength they can’t be beat. My preferred variation is the single leg Romanian deadlift performed with either one or two kettlebells. This will help strengthen the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, while going a long way to prevent future injuries.
8.) Kettlebell Swings
Many bad backs have been rehabbed with the kettlebell swing. They work the hamstrings, glutes and lower back incredibly well. And they’re incredible for improving your conditioning.
There are a wide variety of bridging exercises that can be scaled from beginner to advanced levels. Be warned that your back has to be healthy before you embark on a path of steady bridge work. But if you can handle them, bridges will work your lower back incredibly well and will improve the health and suppleness of your spine.
10.) Farmers Walks
These put the finishing touches on your entire back. The traps get a massive workout as does every muscle running along your spinal column. You also get the added benefit of increased ankle, knee and hip stability, along with improved core and grip strength. This exercise is a staple.
Bonus Exercise: Chest Supported Rows
My top 10 had to be exercises that you can do almost anywhere with minimal equipment. But if you train in a gym or have an adjustable bench at home these are a great choice for your back workout. Chest supported rows can be done laying face down on an incline bench while holding dumbbells. Set the bench anywhere from 30-60 degrees and vary your hand and elbow position. The higher you raise up the bench the more trap involvement you’ll get. Tucking your elbows will hit your lats more, while flaring them will hit your rhomboids more. The great thing about this exercise is that it can be safely performed by those with lower back injuries.
The Ultimate Back Workout
No, I’m not going to give you some crazy bodybuilder back workout where you do 78 sets of back once per week. The upper back can tolerate a lot of work and frequency. Believe it or not, you can actually train the back four times per week and continue to make great progress without overtraining. Elite level powerlifters like Dan Green and the guys at the famous Westside Barbell Club are big fans of that approach. But twice works great and three times works quite well also. I’d suggest three times per week to those just starting out.
Do rows twice and chins once or twice. Do more volume on rows than chins. The reason being that rows are a lot easier on your shoulders and elbows than chin ups are. Just do one exercise on each training day. Three or four sets of 8-12 reps is a good place to start. For the lower back pick a swing, bridge or single leg RDL variation and hit that 1-2 times per week for 3-5 sets of 6-20 reps. If you do enough volume on rows your traps will grow. But you can amplify this effect by adding some kettlebell or sandbag cleans, and, of course, by finishing workouts with farmers walks.
So really there’s no fancy “back blitz” workout like you’d see in the magazines. Its really quite simple…
-Do 3-4 sets of rows or chins for 8-12 reps 3-4 times per week.
-Practice front lever iso holds 2-4 times per week for 4-6 sets of 10 seconds.
-Do 3-5 sets of swings, bridges or RDL’s 1-2 times per week.
-Do 3-5 sets of farmers walks 1-2 times per week.
If you were super advanced you might do all of those on one “pull day,” then have another “push day” and a “leg day.” But for everyone else a full body or upper/lower workout will be fine. Include 1-2 HIIT sessions per week of 15-30 minutes. My favorite option is hill sprints but you can also push a sled or use a stationary bike. These are best done as post workout finishers or over the weekend, the day after Day 3.
The reason I mention this is because it doesn’t make sense to work so hard building an impressive back that no one will ever see because it’s covered in a layer of fat. Keep your diet in check and get your conditioning in so everyone can see the fruits of your labor. I hope you found this post useful and will use it to build an impressive back. Be sure to follow me on Instagram (@JasonFerruggia) so you can be sure you’re doing all of your back exercises correctly with the right technique.