by Mike Carlson, NSCA-CPT
The muscles of the back are underrated when it comes to both function and appearance. The back muscles are equal or even greater in potential power output compared to the chest, yet many of us train the chest far more. Meanwhile, the biceps are mostly a “show muscle” rather than a “go muscle,” yet they often receive more attention than back training.
And that’s a shame, as the back is such a key muscle group for functional and athletic movement, plus it’s a well developed back is not only attractive but can you help give you a healthy, balance physique. Check out the back anatomy below, plus how to train it with various back workouts.
Anatomy of the Back
The back is home to some of the largest and strongest muscles in the body. The three most significant muscles that will have the greatest impact on how you look and feel are the rhomboids, the erector spinae and the latissimus dorsi, better known as the “lats.” (Several other small but important muscles — such as the teres major, teres minor and the quadratus lumborum — get stimulated in the course of training the other three.)
The latissimus dorsi, which is literally translated to “broad back” from Latin, are dual large triangular-shaped muscles that originate in the lower back, run up through the arm pits, and insert into the upper arm. This characteristic solidifies the lats as being the only link between the pelvis and shoulder complex.
An athlete with well-developed lats, such as a pro boxer, will achieve a symmetrical cobra hood shape when they flex this muscle. The lats are responsible for several different motions of the arms, such as adduction (bringing the arms towards the midline of the body), extension (swinging the arm behind the body) and rotation (crossing the arms across the torso).
These massive muscles, along with the lumbar erectors and gluteus maximus, are crucial to athletes because they aid in deceleration as well as assist in stabilization with rotational patters through the trunk. Incidentally, exercises for the lats are the second best biceps workout you can do, since the pulling motion activates the biceps with every rep.
The rhomboids are a diamond-shaped muscle of the upper back that attach from the thoracic vertebrae to the scapula. They are primarily responsible for retracting the scapula and pulling it towards the spine. You’ll hear the phrase “retract the scapula” constantly in the context of back workouts, and for good reason. Weak and flaccid rhomboids can be a leading cause of poor posture and an overall unattractive look of the entire upper body.
The erector spinae (Illiocostalis, longisimus, spinalus group), also sometimes called “spinal erectors,” are made up of three muscles that run vertically on either side of almost the entire length of the spine. They are responsible for extending the spine, so they are vitally important for maintaining good posture as well as providing the necessary stability to pick a heavy object off the floor. Thus, lower back exercises are just as important in your back workouts as your lats and rhomboids.
Thick, well-developed erector spinae create a beautiful and powerful aesthetic. They are a favorite vanity muscle of hardcore athletes such as powerlifters, bodybuilder and wrestlers, who know that strong rope-like erectors are the product of years of hard work.
How Do You Exercise Your Back?
Growing the muscles in your back takes a diligent and disciplined effort. Back workouts should be performed regularly, once or twice a week, with a healthy dose of volume, moderate loads and strict form. The large muscles of the back can move a lot of iron, and exercises are stable and relatively safe, compared to training your chest or shoulders. There is often a temptation to add more weight than necessary, which can be counterproductive to getting the back muscles to grow.
“When you are talking about general fitness and bodybuilding, you need to focus on technique first,” says Scott Marshall, CSCS, MS, owner of Muscle Underground Strength & Conditioning Center in Chatsworth, Calif. and former coach at California Lutheran University and California State University at Northridge. “If your form is off and you’re jerking through a movement, deadlifting 315 pounds is not going to grow your back faster than deadlifting 250 pounds.”
“Focus on the muscle, not the movement,” is a common saying in training circles. Powerlifters, CrossFit’ers, Olympic lifters and other competitors are movement-based athletes. They want the heaviest load possible to travel from point A to point B.
That is not you. Instead, focus on the feeling of the muscle as it moves from a stretched position to a contracted one. As the reps build up in each set, pay attention to the blood rushing to swell the muscle bellies. Imagine you can feel the muscles recruiting every possible fiber for the task. Clean technique, a full range of motion and rep counts in the 10 to 12 range are the hallmarks of muscle growth. Don’t get caught up with the amount of weight you are moving.
Difference Between Bodybuilding and Athletics
The differences between back workouts for athletes versus the guy in the gym who is looking to build muscle are significant, but there is some crossover. Both types will be doing similar exercises, but applying them in different ways. Here’s how Marshall describes it:
I have athletes doing deadlifts and rows, but the volume is lower because there’s a lot more to work on for an athlete. I wouldn’t have a ‘back only’ day for MMA fighter. Athletes shouldn’t do five different movements for five sets each. A track and field athlete doesn’t need 30 sets of back. For a bodybuilder, your main priorities are putting on size and putting it on proportionally. You want to train one body part every five days, blast it, and let it grow. For an athlete, everything has to come back to the sport. You don’t want to worry about their back being big and massive, you want it to be functionally strong.
Functional strength is an asset for everyone, not just athletes. The workouts below progress from being mostly bodybuilding-style isolation movements to incorporating more compound exercises that athletes might use. As you get more experience and create a stronger mind-muscle connection, you can start to use more complicated functional-strength exercises to help stimulate muscles that may have grown accustomed to the movements in the first workout.
Back Workouts, Including How to Design a Back Workout
When you walk into your gym on back day, where do you start?
“I usually choose five different exercises for back,” says Marshall. “I choose two pull-down movements, two rowing movements, and one lower back movement. I prefer to start with a pull-down exercise or a pull-up because they really warm up my shoulders and they stretch my lower back by decompressing it from a hanging position. I feel that is better than starting with rows or deadlifts.”
This is just a starting point, and individuals may vary. Some people may feel more stimulus from rows than from pull-downs, and vice-versa. Try to craft a well-rounded back workout but also pay attention to how your muscles feel. Focus on the exercises that allow you to squeeze the muscles at the point of peak contraction and move the scapula in and out. If that means you do slightly more pull-downs than rows, so be it.
Marshall does have on piece of advice that applies for everyone. He recommends leaving the lower back exercises for the very end of the session. Rows and deadlifts demand stability and support from the muscles of the lower back. If those muscles are already fatigued before your sets of bent-over rows or deadlifts, chances are your form will break down during those exercises. That’s not only counterproductive to building muscle, it can also be dangerous.
How do I strengthen my upper back?
When most people think about back workouts, they focus on the lats to give them that desirable width on top of a narrow waist, or on the lower back to build strength and stave off injury. However, the upper back is vitally important for back health and creating a beautiful body.
Weak muscles in the upper back, combined with tight chest muscles and lats from too much bench press and too little flexibility training, leads to a crab-like posture called kyphosis. This closed down stance not only looks bad, but creates more compressive loading on the vertebra and can eventually lead to debilitating injury. (1, 2) (Kyphosis gets even worse if you spend your workday hunched over a computer.)
“Upper back work is crucial for good posture and strength,” says Marshall. “Improper posture generally leads to improper movement patterns.”
One way to determine if your upper back needs more work, is to see if deadlifts and rows pull you forward. Strong posterior delts, rhomboids and lower trapezius help keep your chest elevated during those movements, easing strain on the lower back.
One of the best exercises for the upper back is the face pull. Popularized by powerlifters, whose sport necessitates that they do a lot of bench pressing, face pulls can be performed on both back and chest days to ensure balance between the front and back of your body.
How do you work out your back at home?
The list of exercises below contains several cable movements and plenty of barbell-based exercises. Does that mean a back workout has to be performed in the gym? Not at all. You can get a great back workout at home with a couple pairs of dumbbells, or a set of adjustable dumbbells.
You may not be able to hit the variety of angles that machines in the gym allow, but dumbbell back exercises have their own advantages. A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that performing unilateral (one-armed) rows leads to greater activation in certain core muscles when compared to a two-armed machine row. (3)
Exercises such as the renegade row, suitcase deadlift, one-armed Romanian deadlift and one-armed row can help strengthen potentially weak links in your kinetic chain. (For instance, your lats might be strong enough to use a certain weight, but if your core is too weak to hold you in the position to row a heavy barbell, your muscles won’t receive the stimulation they need to grow.) This leads to a greater ability to push heavier loads, which in turn leads to more muscle development.
Adding some unilateral training to your back workout might be just what you need, and is exactly what you’ll get with a dumbbell-based back workout at home.
Back Workout 1
Chris Zaino is a Doctor of Chiropractic, IFBB professional bodybuilder, and former Mr. America. Here, Zaino demonstrates a highly effective and safe back workout routine that is perfect for the beginner and intermediate lifter.
Zaino insists that heavy weight is not the key to bigger back muscles. He recommends using a lighter load and focusing on a full range of movement, slow reps to increase time under tension, and an emphasis on peak contraction of the muscles. This advice applies to back exercises for men or women.
- Seated Row — 4 sets x 10 reps
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown —4 sets x 10 reps
- T-Bar Row —4 sets x 10 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover — 4 set x 12–15 reps
- Bent-Over Row — 4 sets x 10 reps, then superset with Deadlifts 4 to failure
Back Workout 2
This back workout routine builds on the first training session but includes slightly more advanced exercises, including unilateral movements, and a greater reliance on compound exercises rather than isolation exercises.
Exercise Sets Reps
Close-Grip Pulldown — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
Reverse-Grip Pulldown — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
Inverted Row — 3 sets of 10 reps
One-Arm Dumbbell Row — 4 sets of 10–12 reps
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift to Bent-Over row — 3 sets of 10 reps
Hyperextension — 3 sets of 15–20 reps
Back Workout III
Like the second workout, this back workout places slightly more demand on the entire body. These exercises engage not only the muscles of the back but those in the core, glutes, and hamstrings as well. This workout also helps build “starting strength.” Most exercises take advantage of the stretch reflex, the energy that get stored up in a contracted muscle and then expended to help you get out of the hole during a squat or press the bar off your chest in a bench press. These exercises all begin from a dead-stop, and help your body develop both strength and power.
- Face-Pull — 3 sets x 15 reps
- Pull-Up — 3 sets x 10 reps
- One-Arm Pulldown — 4 sets x 10–12 reps
- Renegade Row —4 sets x 10–12 reps
- Pendlay Row —4 sets x 9–10 reps
- Deadlift — 3 sets x 8–10 reps
Back Exercises Instructions:
Seated Row: Take a V-grip cable attachment and fasten it to a low cable pulley. Once you are seated, hold the handle at arms’ length in front of you with your palms facing each other. Set the stack to a slightly lighter weight than you think you can handle. Pull the handle towards your midline until it almost touches your stomach and bring your elbows behind you. Focus on bringing your scapula together and letting your back do the work rather than your arms. Hold the top of the rep for two seconds and squeeze the muscles. Slowly return the weight until your arms are fully stretched out and repeat.
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown: Attach a wide-grip bar to the high pulley of a lat pulldown machine. Sit in the chair and set the rollers so they press into your thighs. Grasp the bar with a relatively wide grip, wider than shoulder-width just outside the camber of the bar. Without jerking the bar, slowly bring it down to chest level. Squeeze the lats at peak contraction and allow the bar to return under control until the elbows have about a five-degree bend. Do not let the arms fully extend.
Advanced Option: When you become too exhausted to bring the bar all the way down to the chest, lowering the bar to face-level for a few reps and then to the top of the head for a few more.
T-Bar Row: Load one end of an Olympic barbell with 25-pound plates. (The smaller diameter of these plates will give you a better stretch than using the larger 45-pound weights.) Place the unloaded end in the corner of a room, in a landmine device, or under the post of a heavy dumbbell. Take a V-grip handle and slide it under the barrel of the weighted end of the barbell, where you would usually place a collar. (If your gym has a T-Bar bench, your chest will make contact with the pads of the station.) While keeping your back as straight as possible, bend yourself at your waist until your body is almost parallel to the ground. Take hold of the V-grip handles on the T-bar. Engage your lats, and, without recruiting your traps, pull the bar as close to your sternum as you can, bringing your elbows directly behind you. Squeeze and hold this position for a second before lowering the weight to the starting position.
Dumbbell Pullover: Lie perpendicularly across a flat bench with your lower back on the bench and feet flat on the floor with legs bent 90 degrees. Hold a dumbbell at arms’ length overhead. Keeping a slight bend in the elbows, lower the weight behind your head as far you can to stretch the lats. Think about leading with your elbows rather than your hands as you bring the weight back up overhead until it’s above your chest. Move slowly and concentrate on the movement. It takes a little time to get the feel of this exercise.
Bent-Over Row: Hold a barbell in front of you with an overhand grip and arms extended. Slightly bend your knees and then hinge at the waist so your torso comes forward until it is almost parallel to the floor. Powerfully contract your core and row the bar up to your bellybutton. while keeping the back flat and your gaze aimed forward. Slowly lower the weight until your arms are again fully extended. Since this exercise places a lot of stress on the lower back, feel free to use a weight belt.
Advanced Option: When you finish a set of bent-over rows, perform a superset of deadlifts to failure, which might only be 5–6 reps. Perform this superset near the end of the workout because it will quickly exhaust your lower back. Once the lower back loses its ability to maintain rigidity and stability, it can make other back exercises far more difficult and even dangerous.
Inverted Row: Set the bar of a Smith machine, or place a barbell in a power rack, at waist-height. Lie on the floor underneath the bar and grasp it with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Your body should form a straight line, with your weight only supported by your heels and hanging from the bar with extended arms. Raise your chest to the bar by pulling the bar and driving your elbows behind you. To increase the degree of difficulty, perform this move with your feet elevated on a bench or using a TRX or suspension trainer instead of a barbell.
Reverse-Grip Pulldown: Attach a wide-grip bar to the high pulley of a lat pulldown machine. Sit in the chair and set the rollers so they press into your thighs. Grasp the bar with a relatively narrow underhand grip, so the palms of your hands are facing you. Without jerking the bar, slowly bring it down to about chest level. Squeeze the lats at peak contraction and allow the bar to return under control until you feel a strong stretch in your lats and biceps.
Close-Grip Pulldown: Attach a V-handle to a high cable pulley and sit in front of it so when you hold the handle, your arms are extended overhead. Place your knees under the pad. Keeping your upper body erect and chest up, pull the handle down until it touches your chest. Hold this position for a second before returning to the starting position.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row: Grab a dumbbell with one hand and brace your other hand on a sturdy object like a bench or a dumbbell rack. Bend over so your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Let the dumbbell hang at arms’ length in front of you. Keeping your elbow close to your body, bring the dumbbell up and back toward your hip. Once you’ve pulled the weight in as far as you can, squeeze and hold it before lowering the weight to the starting position.
Hyperextension: The hyperextension is one of the best exercises for back pain. Position yourself at the hyperextension bench so your legs are locked in but your upper body is free. Hold a weight across your chest and bend at the waist while trying to keep your back as straight as possible. After you’ve bent over as far as you can, concentrate on activating the muscles in your lower back to return to the starting position.
Pull-up: An old-fashioned pull-up is the single best back exercise without weights. Grab the bar with a grip that is wider than shoulder-width but comfortable. Let your body hang at arm’s length. Engage your lats and pull yourself up until your chin is level with the bar. Try to hold that position for a second before slowly lowering yourself back down. If you can’t do pull-ups with your bodyweight, use a band to assist you or practice “negatives:” begin at in the top position and very slowly lower yourself down. If your bodyweight isn’t enough resistance, use a belt with additional weight hanging on it.
One-Arm Pull-Down: Attach a D-grip handle to the high pulley of a lat pulldown machine. Sit in the chair and set the rollers so they press into your thighs. Grasp the handing with a neutral grip, so the palm of your hand is facing to the inside. Activate your core and keep your shoulders squared. Without jerking the handle, slowly bring it down to about shoulder level. Do not allow your body to rotate side to side. Squeeze the lats at peak contraction and allow the handle to return under control until you feel a strong stretch in your lats and biceps.
Renegade Row: Get into a push-up position, with each hand supported by the post of a dumbbell that is about shoulder-width apart. (Hex dumbbells are the best to use for this exercise since they do not roll.) Spread your feet wide to create a solid base. Alternately row each dumbbell to your torso. Fight to keep your midline stable and centered by flexing your core. Keep your head aligned with your spine and your gaze on the floor a few feet in front of you. To increase the degree of difficulty, add a push-up between each row.
Pendlay Row: Start with the loaded bar on the floor. Grab the bar with a double overhand grip and sit back like you’re going to deadlift. Your back should be almost parallel to the floor. Flex your lats, tighten up your core, and get ready to pull. The pull needs to be powerful enough to get the bar off the floor but do not use your hips to drive it up. Stay tight and explosively rip the bar off the floor and bring it to your upper stomach. Let the bar come to a full stop on the floor and then set yourself back up for the next rep. Use a relatively heavy weight for five to 10 reps.
Deadlift: With a loaded barbell on the floor, grasp the bar with an overhand grip about shoulder wide. Begin with the bar as close to your shins as possible. With your hips down, head neutral, and chest up, push through the floor with your feet as you extend your knees and hips to lift the barbell.
Romanian Deadlift: Hold a barbell across your thighs with an overhand grip and arms extended. Bend slightly at the knees and hinge forward at the hips lowering the bar almost to the floor. Maintaining that same slight bend in your knees, keep the muscles in your lower back contracted and spine in a neutral position. Drive into the floor with your heels as you extend your hips forward and pull the bar back up to the starting position.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift to Bent Over Row: Hold two dumbbells in front of your body with your arms extended. Bend slightly at the knees and hinge forward at the hips lowering the dumbbells in front of you and almost to the floor. From there, flex your elbows and row the dumbbells up to your torso and then slowly back down. Maintaining that same slight bend in your knees, activate the muscles in your lower back as you extend your hips forward and pull the weight back up to the starting position.
Face Pull: Attach a rope to a pulley station set at about chest height. Grasp both ends of the rope with an overhand grip. Step back and assume a staggered (one foot forward) stance so you’re supporting the weight with outstretched arms. Bend the knees slightly for a stable base. Retract the scapulae and pull the center of the rope slightly up and towards your face. Think about pulling the ends of the rope apart, not back.
When it comes to back muscles, it’s almost impossible to warm them up too much. Every workout should begin with five to 10 minutes of general cardio and then some bodyweight exercises such as jumping jacks, bear crawls, push-ups, Supermans and lunges. After that, spend a few minutes using a foam roller on your lats and upper back. This extended warm-up will also burn off some calories. (Since there are no specific exercises for back fat, you must achieve a daily caloric deficit to bring out the definition out in your muscles.)
The next phase of the workout is what Marshall calls “movement preparation” in which you prepare the body for the specific type of motions it will perform in the workout. Since so many back exercises rely on retracting the scapula, he suggests an exercise that trains this specific motion. Sit on a seated row machine with a wide-grip handle. Pull the bar and bring your torso to 90 degrees so there is tension on the cable and your arms are fully extended. Now, practice retracting your scapula as much as possible but without bending your elbows. Slowly allow the weight to separate the scapula and then bring them together again. This is a very short movement, but an important one. Perform three sets of 15 reps. After some light sets of your first exercise, you will be ready to get into your main work sets.
Remember this mantra: “Focus on the muscle not the movement.” Instead of the ego-gratifying game of chasing numbers on the bar or weight stack, concentrate on how each exercise makes your muscles feel. This is the best guidepost in your quest for a better back. Now, use these back workouts to get after it!
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