Back Workouts: The Quickest Way to a Strong, Sculpted Back
By Mike Carlson, NSCA-CPT, CF-L1
August 30, 2018
Original article and page source found here.
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