6 Routines for the best back you can build!

If you don’t want to have a great back, you should. Though you can’t see it looking in a mirror, trust me that it a wide, thick back sets you apart from the crowd like little else. You should want to be just as muscular and impressive from the back as you are the front. Because there are many different aspects to the muscle complex collectively known as ‘the back,’ I have come up with 6 different routines to emphasize particular qualities. Honestly evaluate your own back either with a double mirror setup or photos, then select the workout that suits your needs best. May the back gains be with you!

Goal 1: Overall Back Mass

If you have not been providing your back with the same amount of time and effort in the gym as your other muscle groups, odds are that it’s lagging miles behind them. To help it catch up, you need to focus on building pure, raw mass.

Principles of training for mass

Building mass boils down to working hard and heavy with mostly free weights. You will be doing straight sets and working in the 8-10 rep range and taking enough time between sets to recover your breathing rate and strength. That works out to around 90-120 seconds in most cases. Heavy deadlifts may require an additional minute.

Notes on the workout

No warm-up sets are listed for this or any of the other five workouts. Do as many as you need to in order to get your blood flowing, acclimatize to the movement, and mentally prepare for the heavier weights to come. I recommend no less than two warm-up sets for the heavier movements. Also, you will be using some substantial weights in this workout. Be sure your form stays tight, and that you never allow your lower back to round at any time. Use a weight belt for deadlifts and the rows, and wrist straps to reinforce your grip.

Overall back mass workout

Wide-grip chins*                           5 x 8-10

Barbell rows                                 5 x 8-10

T-bar rows                                   5 x 8-10

Deadlifts                                      5 x 8-10

*If you can’t do these many reps, use an assisted chin/dip machine. If 8-10 reps is very easy for you, add weight with a chinning belt.

Goal 2: Greater back thickness

Aside from a general lack of development, the most common issue is having a ‘two-dimensional’ back. You have some decent width to it, but it’s flat like a midwestern prairie. What you need is to beef it up and make it thicker so that eventually it’s 3-D.

Principles of training for thickness

Rows and deadlifts are what make for a thick, beastly back. You’ll be doing plenty of them!

Notes on the workout

There is no way you will do justice to your lats in this workout without making use of wrist straps. Otherwise your grip will give out at some point roughly halfway through the workout, and your back will suffer from the shortcomings of that weak link.

Greater back thickness workout

Barbell rows, overhand grip                              3 x 8-10

Barbell rows, underhand grip                             3 x 8-10

1-arm dumbbell rows                                        4 x 8-10 each arm

T-bar rows                                                        4 x 8-10

Deadlifts                                                           5 x 8-10

Goal 3: Greater back width

Full disclosure: much of what we perceive as back width is merely a factor of your bone structure. If you have wide clavicles, and especially if you also happen to have a narrow waist and hips, you will create the illusion of a wide back even without much actual muscle tissue back there. Still, anyone can make his back wider if he works hard on the right exercises. 

Principles of training for width

We will be using a shoulder width or greater grip on all these movements. Because a wide back is all about having the most pronounced V-taper possible, you will be focusing on the upper back here, that being the top of the V. Various chins and pulldowns will serve our purpose.

Notes on the workout

When a ‘wide grip’ is indicated, that width should be just a couple inches on each side beyond your shoulders. If you decide to try using the widest possible grip, such as the very ends of a lat pulldown bar, you will find that you are unable to achieve a full range of motion, and thus can’t get a full contraction of your lats. So don’t do that! Also, a pronated, or palms-away grip is what you want in every exercise indicated except for the neutral grip lat pulldowns, which means your palms both face each other, toward the midline of your body.

Greater back width workout

Wide-grip chins                                                4 x 8-10

Wide-grip lat pulldowns                                     4 x 8 + 8

(8 reps with torso vertical, lean back at a 45-degree angle to the floor and pull 8 more reps to the upper chest)

Supported T-bar row, wide grip                         4 x 10

Seated cable row, wide grip                              4 x 10

(use lat pulldown bar attachment)

Lat pulldown, shoulder-width neutral grip          4 x 10 + 6

(Choose a weight that causes you to fail at 10 reps, pull an additional 6 reps just to the level of the top of your head)

Goal 4: Greater back detail

Here is another reality check that needs to be put out there. The more bodyfat you are carrying, the less detail and definition you will show in all your muscle groups. So first and foremost, being lean will allow you to display greater back detail. Still, enough men over the decades have figured out that certain techniques in training will bring about enhanced muscle detail separate from your bodyfat levels.

Principles of training for detail

The assumption here is that you already have decent back mass, so now we want to hone and refine it. For that, we will employ higher reps, supersets, and we’ll be sure to address all the various areas of the large and complex group of muscles we usually simply refer to as ‘the back.’

Notes on the workout

Do your best to focus more on squeezing the muscles and really feeling them contract and stretch. If that means slowing down your reps and taking as much as a full second to nail that contraction and feel it deep down into every last muscle fiber, so be it.

Greater back detail workout

Narrow-grip lat pulldowns                                            3 x 12-15

                                                                                  3 x 10 + 10

(These are three drop sets. Choose a weight that causes you to fail at 10 reps, then move the pin to a resistance that allows 10 more reps.)

Seated machine row                                                   4 x 10 + 10

(Do 10 reps slowly and with a pause to squeeze your lats, then pump out 10 fast reps with no pause at the start or finish of the reps, just continuous motion)

Cable pullover                                                            4 x 12

Super set with

Kneeling 45-degree pulldown                                      4 x 12

(Use the same bar set on a high cable pully. Do 12 reps of the pullover, then immediately kneel down and pull the bar to your sternum for 12 more reps. If those 12 reps aren’t challenging, sink the pin on those so you’re using more resistance)

Behind-neck pulldown                                                  4 x 15

Seated 1-arm cable row                                              4 x 15 each arm

Dumbbell shrugs                                                         4 x 20

Hyperextensions                                                          4 x 12-15

Goal 5: Lower back friendly

If you have never had a lower back injury and don’t deal with at least occasional lower back pain, count yourself very lucky. Few things are as painful to deal with as lower back issues. For those of us who strive to improve our physiques, few things can have such a negative and limiting effect on our training. This rings especially true when it comes to leg or back training. You simply can’t do everything you would like to do, exercises you see everyone else doing around you. This does not mean you can’t continue to improve your back development. It only means you need to have a plan and be mindful of what to avoid.

Principles of training with lower back safety in mind

Generally speaking, all types of chins and pulldowns get the green light as they will not put the lumbar spine in a compromised position under load. All manner of bent rows and deadlifts will put your lower back at risk of injury or re-injury. The solution is to do all rowing movements with chest support, which will make it far more difficult to either arch or round the lower back excessively.

Notes on the workout

The key to keeping this workout safe and productive is to stay on the pad on all rowing movements. If you allow your torso to come off the supporting pad as you pull back, you defeat the purpose of said support.

Lower back friendly workout

Lat pulldowns, wide grip                         4 x 10

Supported T-bar row                              4 x 10

Lat pulldowns, narrow neutral grip          4 x 10

Seated machine row, close grip              4 x 12

Hammer Strength Iso-lateral high row     4 x 12

Back extension machine                         4 x 15

Goal 6: Laying a foundation

Finally, we need a basic routine for those just starting out. It should be simple yet feature time-proven exercises that have helped generations of lifters lay a solid foundation for a great back.

Principles for beginners

Beginners are best served by hard work on just a handful of productive exercises. Avoid the temptation to go heavier and sacrifice form in a misguided attempt to accelerate progress. The results of jumping the gun and upping the weights too soon are failing to recruit the target muscles properly, and more often than not, injury as well. Master your form and strive to cultivate a mind-muscle connection. The back is the most difficult area to achieve this connection in, so take your time and really concentrate on each and every rep.

Notes on the workout

Do the workout as it’s listed. Avoid the temptation to add more exercises or sets, or employ advanced intensity techniques such as drop sets, supersets, or forced reps. There will be ample time for that later. For now, master the basics and work on feeling your lats contract and stretch with every rep.

Beginner’s back workout

Chins, wide grip                                                3 x 10-12

Chins, narrow underhand grip                           3 x 10-12

Barbell row                                                       4 x 10-12

Seated cable row                                             4 x 12

Dumbbell shrug                                                4 x 12

Hyperextension                                                 4 x 10-12                               

Randy Reith
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