I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
Building a great back is freaking hard.
Not so long ago, I struggled to gain the size, thickness, and width I really wanted.
I tried many things, too.
High reps. Low reps. These exercises. Those exercises. One session per week. Three sessions per week.
But something was missing. It wasn’t enough and I didn’t know why.
Well, fast forward to today and here’s where I am:
I wouldn’t say I’ve earned bragging rights, but I did finally break through the plateau and build a back I can be proud of.
And in this article, I’m going to show how you can do the same.
No, it’s not easy, and no, it doesn’t happen overnight.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Follow the advice in this article, put in the work, and you will.
So…let’s start with a simple discussion of the major muscles involved so we can better understand what we’re trying to accomplish.
- The Anatomy of the Back Muscles
- The Simple Science of Effective Back Training
- The Best Back Exercises
- Remember–Progression is the Key to Muscle Growth
- The Ultimate Back Workout
- What About Supplements?
- The Bottom Line on the Best Back Exercises
- Want More Workouts?
Table of Contents
There are several muscles that make up the bulk of the back:
- Trapezius (traps)
- Teres major and minor
- Latissimus dorsi (lats)
- Erector spinae (iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles)
When people refer to the upper back or thoracic spine, they’re referring mainly to the trapezius, rhomboids, teres muscles, infraspinatus, and lats.
Here’s how they look:
When they refer to the lower back or lumbar spine, they’re referring mainly to the erector spinae.
Here’s how they look:
Now, if you’re like me, your ultimate goal for your back looks like this:
- Well-developed traps that serve as the centerpiece of the upper back.
- Rhomboids that create clear “valleys” when flexed.
- Wide, long lats that create the V-taper we all love.
- Highly developed and separated teres muscles and infraspinatus.
- Thick erector spinae that form the base of the “Christmas tree” structure in the lower back.
Well, I’ve been following the advice laid out in this article several years now and here’s what it has gotten me:
My lats are still a work in progress (hence the standing upright pushdowns in the video), but all in all I’m happy with my progress.
So, if that’s the goal, how do you get there?
Keep reading to find out.
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I used to make two major mistakes in my back workouts:
1. I focused too much on the wrong back exercises.
I spent far too much time on machines and isolation exercises and far too little time on compound exercises like the deadlift and barbell row.
2. I did too much high-rep “pump” training and too little heavy strength training.
You see, I used to do a lot of drop sets, supersets, giant sets, and so forth, and very little heavy strength training.
That worked fine for a bit but, after a year or so, I found that my progress in the gym and mirror had stagnated. I wasn’t gaining reps or adding weight to my exercises and I wasn’t seeing any improvements in my physique.
Well, now I know why.
After many years of making these mistakes, I radically changed my back workouts.
I started doing more compound movements than isolation and more heavy training, and I finally started seeing real changes in my back (and entire physique) for the first time in a long time.
Now, if those two points above have you scratching your head because they go against a lot of what you’ve heard and/or assumed about bodybuilding, I understand.
This touches on one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about weightlifting and building muscle naturally, though.
If you want to build muscle consistently and effectively, you want to focus on heavy (80 to 85% of your one-rep max) compound weightlifting.
In terms of back workouts, that means your bread and butter is heavy barbell and dumbbell pulling, and your dessert is supplementary work like pullups and certain machines.
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does fifteen different exercises and a billion reps and he has an amazing back… What gives?”
Well first, genetics and training history matter a lot, but then there’s the #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.
I know that sounds cynical, but it’s true. Steroids change everything.
With the right drugs, you can basically sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing set after set, exercise after exercise, and your muscles will just get bigger and bigger.
(A bit of an overstatement, I know, but it’s more accurate than inaccurate. And most definitely not a recommendation!)
Don’t be discouraged, though.
You can build a fantastic back drug-free with a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience.
Now, if you’ve been making the same mistakes that I once made, then you know the result:
A back that has a V-taper but nothing else. You know, basically just a set of lats without any thickness and separation in the upper or lower regions.
Here’s a good example:
Not terrible, of course, but we can do better. A lot better.
And here’s how…
Focus on lifting heavy weights in your back workouts.
And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily in the 4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep range.
Focus on the back exercises that safely allow for progressive overload.
Here’s a simple maxim of natural weightlifting:
If you stop getting stronger, you’ll stop getting bigger.
Regardless of all the variables that go into programming workouts, you can take that to the bank.
The number one rule of natural muscle building is progressive overload, which refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle over time.
The most effective way to do this is adding weight to the bar.
And you do that by working with a given weight until you can get a certain number of reps, at which point you increase the weight.
Certain exercises lend themselves better to this approach and reap better results than others.
Standing lat pushdowns, for example, are no deadlift. Behind-the-neck pulldowns are inferior to traditional front pulldowns.
Don’t over- or under-train your back muscles.
Another element of your back workouts that you have to get right is weekly volume (the total amount of reps you do each week).
If your weekly volume is too low, you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could.
If it’s too high, you’ll fall behind in recovery and struggle with issues related to overtraining, which, in time, means you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could.
Finding the “sweet spot” can be tricky because when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
The reason for this is obvious–heavier weights necessitate more recovery–and it’s particularly true with the deadlift, which is the single toughest and most demanding exercise that you can do.
When you’re primarily training with heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of your 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This applies to every major muscle group in the body, by the way, not just the back.
You now understand the broad strokes of back building.
Let’s now review the best exercises for the job.
Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of back exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.
These are the exercises I’ve used to dramatically improve my back. They will help you do the same.
No surprise here.
The deadlift is, hands down, the best all-around back exercise you can do.
In fact, it’s one of the best all-around exercises for your entire body because it involves hundreds of muscles and allows for tremendous overload.
The bottom line is my back sucked in both size and strength until I started taking my deadlift seriously, and I’ve never looked back.
Many people avoid it, though, because they think it’s dangerous and/or bad for your lower back.
At first glance, these fears seem warranted.
Lifting hundreds of pounds off the ground and placing all that strain on your spine has to be a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, research shows otherwise.
Ironically, the deadlift is a fantastic exercise for building lower back strength and preventing injury…when it’s done properly.
That said, if you’ve injured your lower back in the past or are dealing with lower back issues, you may not want to deadlift (or may need to do a variation like the sumo or hex bar deadlift, which we’ll talk about).
If you’re not sure, I highly recommend you consult with a sports doctor to see if any of those options will or won’t work for you. I don’t want to recommend something that might get you hurt.
Alright then, with that out of the way, let’s talk about what proper form looks like.
How to Deadlift
One of the reasons you see so much cringe-worthy deadlifting in gyms and on the Internet is it’s a fairly technical movement.
I wouldn’t say it’s complicated, but it definitely requires skill to perform well.
Let’s break it down step by step.
1. Position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
Your feet can be pointing forward or be slightly turned out. Go with what is most comfortable.
2. Place the bar somewhere between against your shins and over the middle of your feet.
The key here is that your shoulders are in line with the bar, or even slightly behind it. This allows for maximum leverage as you pull the bar up and back.
If you make the common mistake of placing the bar too close to your body (with your shoulders in front of it), you’ll have to move the bar forward on the way up to get it over your knees.
This can make you feel like you’re going to fall forward and will rob you of stability and strength.
So, taller or skinnier lifters generally find their sweet spot places the bar very close to or up against their shins.
Shorter or thicker lifters usually wind up with the bar over the middle of their feet.
3. Stand up tall with your chest out and take a deep breath of air into your diaphragm (not your lungs).
Brace your abs as if you were about to get punched in the stomach.
This is a very important step because it stabilizes your lower back and prepares it for the pull.
4. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back, not by squatting straight down.
You want to slightly arch your lower back and keep your shoulders down and “packed,” as they say.
Don’t make the newbie mistake of bringing your hips too low with the intention of “squatting” the weight up.
If your hips are too low at the bottom, they will have to rise before you’re able to lift the weight off the floor when you pull, which is just wasted movement.
Instead, you want to feel like you’re wedging yourself into what’s really a “half-squat” position. Your hamstrings should feel tight and your glutes should be engaged.
5. Place your hands on the bar just outside your shins.
You can use a double-overhand or and over-underhand grip and you want to squeeze the bar as hard as you can.
Engage your lats and remember to keep your shoulders down.
6. Keep your head in a neutral position.
Don’t look up at the ceiling or down at the ground.
That’s a lot to digest so here’s a good video that shows it all in action:
7. Drive your body upward and slightly back as quickly as you can by pushing through your heels.
Think of the ascension not as merely “standing up” but as getting your hips to the bar.
Keep your elbows locked in place and your lower back slightly arched (no rounding!), and ensure that your hips and shoulders rise at the same pace.
Don’t make the common mistake of shooting your hips up without also raising your shoulders.
8. As you approach the top (the lock-out), squeeze your glutes to push your hips into the bar.
Maintain core tightness at the top. Don’t release the tension in your abs.
9. Don’t break the lockout with your knees.
You’re now ready to descend.
Initiate the descent by breaking the lockout with your hips, sitting back just as you did when you were setting up.
The bar should slide down your thighs.
10. As you descend, maintain a tight core and stiff lower back and keep your shoulders down.
When the bar is on the ground, the rep is complete.
11. Reset for your next rep.
Don’t try to bounce the bar off the ground to propel you into sloppier and sloppier reps.
It’s called the deadlift for a reason–you’re supposed to be picking up dead weight, not using the momentum of a floor bounce.
So, once the bar is back on the ground, exhale and reset the setup, and hit the next rep.
Putting It All Together
Pictures are worth a thousand words and all that, so here’s a good demonstration of the entire lift:
The sumo deadlift is similar to the traditional deadlift but uses a wide stance (1.5 to 2 times the width of your shoulders).
This shortens the range of motion and keeps the torso more upright, which reduces the amount of shearing force placed on the spine.
That isn’t to say that sumo deadlifts are inherently easier or better than traditional deadlifts, though.
The difference in range of motion is slight and sumo deadlifts may be slightly easier on the lower back, but they’re harder on the quads.
In terms of choosing whether to pull sumo or conventional, you should go with what feels strongest and most comfortable.
This boils down to biomechanics, but some people do best with sumo pulling while others take to conventional.
Here’s how to do the exercise:
Hex Bar Deadlift
The hex bar deadlift is what it sounds like: a deadlift using a special “hex bar” (also known as a “trap bar”).
The hex bar deadlift also allows you to lift more weight than the conventional deadlift, which may make it a more effective exercise for developing overall lower body power.
Here’s how to do it:
2. Barbell Row
Show me a bodybuilder whose back you love and I’ll show you someone that has done a lot of barbell rowing.
Like the deadlift, the barbell row is a staple in many weightlifting programs because it works everything in the back from top to bottom.
Here’s how to do it:
Pendlay Barbell Row
My favorite style of barbell row is known as a Pendlay row (named after the prominent strength coach Glenn Pendlay).
I prefer it because it allows you to work through a larger range of motion, which means your upper back has to work even harder.
Here’s how it works:
And in case you’re worried about your lower back, if you’re keeping your form in and deadlifting every week, you’ll never be rowing enough weight to cause an issue.
That said, if you find the Pendlay row uncomfortable, stick to the traditional row.
3. Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row is another fantastic compound exercise for the back, and particularly for the lats.
Here’s how you do it:
4. T-Bar Row
The t-bar row is another type of row that is a solid back builder.
Here’s how to do it:
I generally stay away from machines, but actually prefer the hammer strength t-bar machine over the barbell setup.
Here’s how this machine looks:
5. Chinup & Pullup
The chinup and pullup belong in every back routine.
They train every major muscle in your back and involve the biceps to a significant degree as well.
There are many pullup variations you can do, of course, but you should build a foundation of strength with these two before progressing to more advanced types.
First, there’s the chinup:
If you can’t do a chinup yet, here’s a simple way to build the necessary strength:
Here’s the progression from the chinup–the more difficult pullup:
6. Lat Pulldown (Wide- and Close-Grip)
The lat pulldown is a machine variant of the pullup that allows you to adjust the weight you’re pulling.
Here’s a video that shows proper form on both the close- and wide-grip variations:
As you can see, the close-grip pulldown is performed with the V-bar attachment.
7. Seated Cable Row (Wide- and Close-Grip)
The seated row is yet another type of row that’s great for building your upper back.
Here’s how you do it:
8. Standing Pushdown
Last but not least is the standing pushdown, which is a fantastic exercise for isolating the lats.
(This is the exercise I was doing in the video in the beginning of this article.
Here’s how to do it:
That’s it for the best exercises. Those are all you need to build a thick, wide, and defined back.
Remember that your goal isn’t to just do these exercises, though–it’s to progress on them.
This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to gain reps and strength.
So…get stronger on the exercises above, eat enough food, and you will make gains.
A well-designed back workout uses mainly compound exercises to train all the major muscles of the upper and lower back.
Isolation exercises can be included as well but they always follow the initial heavy compound work.
Below you’ll find a simple but effective back workout that I’ve created for you.
Do it once every 5 to 7 days for the next 8 weeks and see how your body responds. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 t0 6 reps (about 85% of 1RM)
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Wide-Grip Pullups (Chin-Ups if you can’t)
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (add weight if possible)
One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
Optional sets are up to you.
If you’re an advanced lifter, or you feel you have more in you at the end of the workout, you can do the final 3 sets.
9 heavy sets per workout is plenty, though.
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, add weight to the exercise.
This is how you ensure you progress over time. It’s vitally important.
So, let’s say you get 6 reps with 275 pounds on your first set of deadlifts. You would then add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 285 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can pull it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (280 pounds) and see how the next set goes.
If you still get 3 or fewer reps, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.
Rest 3 minutes in between each set.
Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.
This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Make sure you’re eating enough food.
Most people know that high protein intake is necessary to maximize muscle growth but don’t know that calorie intake also plays a major role.
Learn more here.
If you give this workout a go and like it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your back (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
If many ways, back training is like leg training.
You’re dealing with the largest muscle groups in the body and they take a tremendous amount of hard work to fully develop.
Well, you now know what it takes.
There are no shortcuts or “secrets.” You’re not going to have the dream back in a few weeks or a few months.
But, keep showing up and keep progressing on your pulling and you will get there.
What’s your take on the best back exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Swinton PA, Stewart A, Agouris I, Keogh JWL, Lloyd R. A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(7):2000-2009. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e73f87
- Escamilla RF, Lowry TM, Osbahr DC, Speer KP. Biomechanical analysis of the deadlift during the 1999 Special Olympics World Games. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33(8):1345-1353. doi:10.1097/00005768-200108000-00016
- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sport Med. 2007;37(3):225-264. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004
- Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: A review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. In: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol 19. ; 2005:950-958. doi:10.1519/R-16874.1
- Sperandei S, Barros MAP, Silveira-JÚnior PCS, Oliveira CG. Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(7):2033-2038. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b8d30a