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.
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. 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 back raises 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.
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 concaved 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 (which is highly recommended if you can’t do at least five picture perfect reps with bodyweight).
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%.
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.
Okay, now you know how to build a bigger back. Below is a list of the top 10 best back exercises.
TOP 7 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) 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.
3) Chest Supported Rows
These 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. Even though I’m predominantly a free weight and bodyweight guy, this is one exercise you can do with a machine and get great results from.
Six-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates had the most massive back in history and lived on the Hammer Strength chest supported rowing machines.
4) Hang Cleans or High Pulls
Do these with a bar, sandbag or kettlebells 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.
5) Rope Climbs
This is an awesome functional exercise that packs slabs of muscle on the lats and biceps. As always, strive for progressive overload by being able to do more consecutive reps or getting up the rope in less time.
6) Inverted Rows
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you know I’m a huge fan of bodyweight training. So I definitely have to put a bodyweight row variation in the top 10 list. Again, you want to perform these on rings or a Jungle Gym XT. Great for strengthening and thickening up the mid back.
Since it’s hard to perform proper progressive overload with these I recommend you use them at the end of a back workout and use more of a volume approach.
After you have hit 2-3 hard sets of chins and weighted rows you can do inverted rows to get a good pump as a finisher.
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.
The Ultimate Back Workout
Here’s a sample back specialization workout that you can run for 6-8 weeks.
The upper body training days, Days 1 and 3, have a heavy bias towards back movements, with just a moderate amount of pressing. And the lower body day, Day 2, incorporates exercises that indirectly hit your back on top of training your core and lower body. Ones like front squats, deadlifts, ab rollouts, and Farmer’s Walks.
As always, strive for progressive overload and try to add weight or reps whenever possible. That means you need to keep a training journal at every session.
Be sure to check out the video demos for the hyperlinked exercises, and follow me on Instagram (@JasonFerruggia) for my best training, nutrition, and motivational tips.
1) DB, BB or Log Clean & Press- 3 x 8,6,10 x 120
2) Pull Up- 3 x 6-8* x 120
3) 30° Incline DB Row- 3 x 7-9 x 90
4a) Rope or Band Face Pull– 3 x 10-12 x 30
4b) Lateral Raise- 3 x 10-12 x 30
5) Pinwheel Curl- 4 x 8-10 x 60
*Use band assistance or do rack chins if you can’t get at least 8 reps on 1st set
1) Glute Ham Raise/Leg Curl- 3 x 8-10 x 90
2) Front Squat- 3 x 6-8 x 120
3) Deadlift- 3 x 6-8 x 90
4a) Farmers Walk– 3 x 60s x 45
4b) Swiss Ball Ab Rollout- 3 x 8-10 x 45
*Use band assistance or do neutral grip rack chins with rings or a Jungle Gym XT if you can’t get at least 8 reps on each set.
**Hold for 2 seconds at top of each rep.
You can do an optional Day 4 consisting of assistance exercises for the lower body or pump work for the arms, calves, abs and neck.
Be sure to do a thorough pre-workout warm up before each session and a few warm up sets of each exercise.
Exercises marked with the same number but a different letter are meant to be alternated. So you do a set of 2a, rest the prescribed time period, then do a set of 2b, rest, repeat.
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.
And if you want more of these types of workouts without the hassle of programming them yourself, get workouts and coaching from me in the Renegade Strength Club.
It’s a community full of badasses, and we’d love to have you join us.
Check it out HERE.