Building a muscular, V-shaped back is an impressive feat.
Much more impressive than having big arms.
Humans are very visual creatures, so a lot of guys would rather focus on training their chest or arms instead of their back.
And in addition to looking good, doing a variety of pulling movements is important for shoulder health and not having that “hunched forward” look.
So how do you build a big back and what’s the best back workout to do so?
The muscles that make up your back
Your entire back is made up of 4 main sections:
To build an aesthetically pleasing back you need to train all 4 sections of your back.
But at the same time, you don’t want to pay too much attention to any single section, as that will screw up your back proportions and make you super fugly.
How to train your back
Guys with big backs are like unicorns, there aren’t that many of them.
Guys with big bloated chests are everywhere, but a well-developed back? Not so much.
What, you say unicorns aren’t real? Hey, there are children here, don’t be dream killer.
Anyways, I recommend training your back like you do with any other major muscle group.
The majority of your training should be done with heavier weights in the lower rep ranges (4-6 reps).
Research has shown the biggest gains for both size and strength are made in lower rep range.
A lot of guys make the big mistake of doing high rep pump training in hopes of getting bigger.
But as the research above has shown:
All three major fiber types (types I, IIA, and IIB) hypertrophied for the Low Rep and Int Rep groups, whereas no significant increases were demonstrated for either the High Rep or Con groups…
Note: Con group refers to the no-exercise control group in the study
But that being said, the best workout routines are those that incorporate a wide variety of rep ranges.
Most guys would just benefit the most from lifting in the lower end of the rep range spectrum if they want to maximize strength and muscle.
But whatever you do, avoid training exclusively in high rep ranges (12+ reps).
The 3 fundamental back exercises you should be doing
1) Vertical pull movement (pull-up, lat pulldown)
2) Rowing movement
Different variations: Bent over barbell row (over hand/under hand), pendlay row, 1-arm dumbbell row, cable row, 1-arm cable row, t-bar row, and probably a few more I’m missing
And now we have rows.
There are a TON of row variations, each one with it’s own pros and cons.
It basically boils down to what equipment you have access to and what you like doing.
Are some row variations better than others? Sure, but nothing is going to make or break your back development.
As long as you get really strong at one of these variations, you’ll be good to go.
Let’s go through each of these variations:
Bent over barbell row (over hand/under hand)
Arguably the most common and “well-known” row is the classic bent over barbell row.
If you do these, make sure you play around with over hand vs under hand grips to see which one works better for you.
I like to think of Pendlay rows as the bent over barbell row’s older brother that you don’t fuck around with.
Pendlay rows require a lot more lower back and core strength since your entire back needs to stay parallel to the ground. And unlike barbell rows, the bar touches the floor after each rep.
Here’s a video demonstrating the different types of barbell rows including Pendlay rows:
1-arm dumbbell row
Compared to barbells, dumbbells provide a much greater range of motion on almost every lift. You’re not restricted by the bar and you can move in virtually any direction.
One of my favorite dumbbell back exercises is the 1-arm dumbbell row.
2 big mistakes I see guys make is that they either pull too much with their biceps or pull too much with their rear delts.
Here’s a video demonstrating proper form on the 1-arm dumbbell row:
I injured my lower back early on in my early lifting days due to rounding my lower back while deadlifting.
Luckily it wasn’t serious.
But since then I’ve also made the stupid mistake a few years back of not deadlifting due to the fear of the deadlift screwing up my proportions and making me look to “bulky.”
If you don’t perform a lift like the deadlift, you risk having a very soft and pudgy lower back compared to the rest of your back.
Plus deadlifts work your traps like crazy, so if you get strong at deadlifts, you probably won’t need direct trap work (see below).
The deadlift is a very technical lift so DO NOT start loading up the weight until you can execute it with perfect form using only the bar.
Depending on your body and your unique leverage points, you may need to experiment between conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, trap bar deadlift, or even rack pulls (partial deadlifts).
If you really can’t deadlift for whatever reason, heavy dumbbell/kettle bell swings + weighted hyperextensions are your next best bet.
Direct trap work (optional)
I put this as optional because traps are heavily worked when doing deadlifts so a lot of guys don’t need direct trap work and also if you’re not doing deadlifts, then you definitely should be doing direct trap work.
A lot of people think of the traps as part of the shoulders but actually run in your back and gives you that sleek pyramid look near your neck.
And lately I’ve found that a lot of guys avoid direct trap training and only stick to training their shoulders because they’re afraid it’ll screw up their body proportions or some nonsense like that.
If you don’t deadlift and you find yourself with very tiny traps, then I highly suggest throwing in a few sets of dumbbell or barbell shrugs.
The 2 biggest back training mistakes
Knowing the right back exercises to do is one thing, but make any of the 2 mistakes below and none that matters.
Problem #1: Lifting with your arms, not your back
This problem stems primarily when you’re using more weight than you can handle.
For example, the moment a row gets too heavy, you start using your arms more to help move the weight and you end up jerking the weight into yourself instead of lifting in a controlled manner.
You’ll end up building up your biceps more than your back.
Problem#2: Not having a strong mind-muscle connection (i.e. not feeling it in your back)
mind muscle connection back
Semi-related to problem #1 above….a lot of guys just can’t “activate” their back muscles when lifting.
What I mean by this is guys have a very poor mind-muscle connection and when they’re doing a pull-up or a row, they don’t “feel” that exercise in their back.
Feel like your rear delts or biceps are burning more than your back? Then something is very wrong.
There are a few ways to fix this:
Make sure you’re warming up properly. Before your first working set, make sure you perform a minimum of 3 warm-up sets. Your first warm-up set should be 50% of your 1RM with each subsequent set increasing by 15% and lowering the reps by 1-2.
Perform a few warm-up sets with super light weight and hold the top portion of your lift for 2 seconds. This really lets you get a feel for how your back should feel when training. If you can’t activate your back when lifting a super light weight, do not move on to a heavier weight.
Substantially lower the amount of weight you’re lifting. This might crush your ego, but trust me, no one gives a shit (the hot girl on the treadmill you think is looking at you…I promise…she is not looking at you). But if you’re lifting with your arms like mentioned in problem #1 above, then you’re doing your back any favors. So drop the weight and really “feel” each and every rep. If done correctly, your back should burn like crazy.
Progressive overload (aka getting stronger): Your #1 goal for building a big back
Nothing, and I mean nothing matters when it comes to building muscle matters more than progressive overload.
If you aren’t progressively getting stronger over time, then it’s scientifically impossible for your back to grow.
The exact back exercises you do don’t matter nearly as much as adding more weight to the bar each week.
So don’t get so caught up in what the “best” back exercise or workout routine is as much as trying to get stronger on a consistent basis.
Putting it all together: 4 easy back workout routines you can do
How you structure your back training HEAVILY depends on your current split, training experience, and goals, and about 500 other factors.
So simply giving you one routine and calling it a day won’t do you much good if it doesn’t align with your current goals and situation.
But to help you out, here are a few of the most popular ways to structure your back workout to build a badass superhero back.
Note: All exercises in sample routines below are structured as “[Name of exercise]: # of reps/# of total sets”
Workout setup #1: Train your back as part of a full body split
You can train your back as part of a full body split.
This typically means you will train your entire body 2-3x per week with various back exercises thrown into the mix.
A setup like this is more ideal for beginners or people short on time to workout.
Make sure to reset one day between each workout.
Dumbbell lunges: 6-8/3
Military press: 4-6/3
Pull ups: As many as you can with bodyweight
Bench press: 4-6/3
Weighted bar dips: 6-8/3
Side lateral raises: 10-12/3
Chin ups: 2/As many as you can with bodyweight
Squat/Leg press: 6-8/3
Cable row: 4-6/3
Incline DB press: 6-8/2
Barbell curls: 8-10/3
Workout setup #2: 3-day Push/pull/legs
This workout setup is based on splitting your muscles into push/pull/leg categories.
Your push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps), pull muscles (back, biceps), and legs (self-explanatory – basically your entire lower body) all get their own dedicated day.
Again, make sure to rest one day between each workout.
Incline bench press: 4-6/3
Flat dumbbell bench press: 4-6/3
Seated dumbbell shoulder press: 5-7/3
Side lateral raises: 8-10/2
Close grip bench press: 6-8/3
Cable row: 6-8/3
Barbell curls: 8-10/3
Leg press: 6-8/3
Romainian dumbbell deadlifts: 6-8/2
Leg curl: 8-10/3
Calf raise: 3/as many as you can
This allows you to train each muscle with more volume each day but you’ll be using less frequency compared to a full body or upper/lower split as seen below.
I find 3-day push/pull/leg splits to work well for beginners, but once you past that newbie stage, it’s best to do something like a upper/lower split.
Workout setup #3: Train your back as part of an upper/lower split
Now we dive into the next level of workout splits, upper/lower splits.
If you’re a beginner you can also do this split if you like to isolate the upper and lower portions of your body. Just know that while deadlifts do hit your back, they are primarily a lower body movement so it’s best to stick those on your lower body days.
Upper/lower splits can also be split into 3 day or 4 day variations.
With a 3 day upper/lower split it will look something like:
Day 1 – Upper
Day 2 – Lower
Day 3 – Upper
And you would typically reverse the order the following week so it’s Lower, Upper, Lower and so on.
A 4 day upper/lower split will look something like:
Day 1 – Upper
Day 2 – Lower
Day 3 – Upper
Day 4 – Lower
Each day can also be given it’s own “focus.”
For example, you could do an Upper day focused on primarily your back while the other Upper day will be a push focused day. Or you could change each day so it’s focused on a specific rep range (i.e. lower reps for strength on one day vs. high reps for hypertrophy on another day).
Workout setup #4: One body part per day split
While 5 day per week splits get a bad rep (no pun intended) since most people think they’re only for hardcore bodybuilders, but they can actually be very effective for beginners or anyone who wants to train 5x per week.
The secret is to to not blast each body part with 30+ sets of 15 rep sets.
If you want to make a 5 day per week split work for you, you need to lift hard and heavy (in the 4-6 rep range).
A 5 day split could look something this:
Day 1 – Chest
Bench press: 4-6/3-4
Incline bench press: 4-6/3
Cable crossover: 10-12/3
Day 2 – Back
Pull up: 4-6/3-4
1-arm DB row: 8-10/3 per arm
Day 3 – Shoulders
Military press: 4-6/3-4
Arnold press: 6-8/3
Side delt raise: 10-12/3
Face pulls: 8-10/3
Day 4 – Legs
Leg press: 4-6/3
Lunges: 5-7/3 per leg
Day 5 – Arms/Abs
Close grip bench press: 4-6/3
Hammer curls: 6-8/3
Barbell curls: 8-10/2
Cable crunches: failure/3
Hanging leg raises: failure/2-3