How to Build a Bigger Back, Renegade Style

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Training

arnold cable rowIn this post we’re going to discuss the seven things you need to know about how to build a bigger back.

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 high 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.

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 and straight arm pulldown variations.

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) Use Lighter Weights

This goes against all the “rules” of strength training but it’s essential if you want to build a bigger back. Most people go way too heavy on their pulling exercises. By doing so they end up working their biceps and lower back far more than their lats or upper back.

The first step in your quest for a thick, muscular back is to reduce the weights you are using by at least 20%. That might even be a conservative guess. Some of you would be better served by cutting the weights by as much as 50%. Sounds crazy but it’s true.

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.

2) 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 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.

3) Use Picture Perfect Technique

Most people use horrible form when training their backs, and it shows. 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. Don’t explode any of your pulling exercises, but rather do them deliberately, and with the intent to engage the target muscle.

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. Chins and pulldowns 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

To maximize back development and maintain shoulder health you need to include small isolation movements for the middle and lower traps, the rhomboids and rear delts.

It’s essential 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.

What About Deadlifts?

Well, to address this question I have to start by saying that I don’t program regularly program barbell lifts at all anymore. On some rare occasions I do, but for the most part it’s all bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables and bands. And even when I was regularly programming barbell lifts I had stopped giving deadlifts to athletes nearly a decade ago. That was simply based on risk vs reward. The deadlift took too much and didn’t give enough back.

Now, what about if YOU still want to deadlift…

Contrary to what most “hardgainer” authors and I, personally used to believe, deadlifts are actually not the greatest muscle building exercise. I am not alone in this contention, and many smart coaches and trainers have said the same, long before I did.

A decade ago I used to steer hardgainers in the direction of deadlifts in an effort to simplify. And also get all the skinny guys off the isolation movements and doing some more manly exercises.

If a 130 pound guy is doing stiff arm pulldowns and the rear delt machine for his back work, then yes, he should trade them in for deadlifts. That would be a better option (assuming he can do them with perfect form).

But at this point I have been in the Iron Game for over 25 years and have smartened up on certain things. I’ve also stopped writing strictly for the twenty something hardgainer and now have a lot of beat up readers in their late 30’s and 40’s.

So I can’t make a blanket statement anymore that deadlifts are the single best exercise there is for building mass. Many of the greatest backs in history have been built without deadlifts, like the current Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath.

At the end of the day you have to figure out what works for you and what your body can tolerate when it comes to picking up heavy objects. Injury prone lifters often get more pain than growth out of the conventional deadlift.

Here are three other reasons the deadlift may not be the best choice for mass building:

  • The deadlift is a mainly concentric only movement, lacking the eccentric component required for hypertrophy.
  • No muscle is taken through a full range of motion during the execution of a rep.
  • Deadlifts take a long time to recover from, and you just can’t do much volume on them without getting completely fried. When that happens the rest of your training suffers.

That’s not to say that deadlifts suck by any means. They’re a great exercise for building overall strength.

Romanian deadlifts are one of the best hamstring exercises you can do, if your back can tolerate them. I recommend doing them with dubbells or kettlebells.

But for building a big back you don’t necessarily need conventional deadlifts from the floor. You may even get better results and feel a lot better without them. Just look at the back development of an Olympic gymnast for proof. Or go to Tompkins Square Park (or somewhere similar) in New York City and check out the backs on those dudes.

Shrugs and farmers carries can take care of your traps. Back raises and reverse hypers do a great job of building up the erector spinae muscles of the lower back without frying you. The rest is covered by the all the rowing and chin up variations we discussed above.

If you do decide to include deadlifts in your program I’d recommend doing them after you have already done several sets of chins and/or rows so you are thoroughly warmed up and well prepared for them. Then set the bar at a place where you can keep your spine neutral.  For most people this will be a few inches off the floor, in a rack or on rubber mats.

Going around your knees is what causes the most stress. So if you set the bar just above knee height and don’t go insanely heavy this can be a great way to include some deadlifts that don’t destroy you.

Another great option is a single leg kettlebell deadlift. Or, if you have heavy enough loads you can do single or double kettlebell sumo deadlifts. Doing this with a 203 or a pair of 120-150 pound kettlebells can prove quite challenging. And it’s often all you need.

Work up to a few moderately heavy sets of 5-8 reps and call it a day. No need to go ultra heavy or near failure if you’re trying to gain size and stay fresh.

Putting it All Together

The best plan of attack is to train the back at least twice per week. Hit the smaller muscles on one day with face pulls, rear delt fly’s, YTW’s, band pullaparts, and rows with your elbows out/up high. Do 2-3 of those movements for 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps.

Then, on a second day do chin ups, pulldowns and heavier row variations with your elbows at your sides. Do 2-3 of those movements for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

You now know how to build a bigger back. The only thing left to do is get to the gym and start growing.