We Got Your Back: The Complete Guide to Back Training
You can’t hide a well-developed back.
A thick mid-back is visible through any shirt. The owner of a wide, solid back garners attention upon entering a room. A tight upper back is necessary for a posture that conveys confidence.
But, because it can’t be seen in the mirror, the back is often neglected. To make matters worse, focusing too much on your chest and not enough on your back–as many a young bro does– is only going to get you cast as an extra in Planet of The Apes: The Musical.
With some many different back exercises, it’s confusing to know where to start.
Before we dig in, let’s discuss a little anatomy. Then we’ll have a better understanding of how the back muscles work, and how to target each of them best.
Back to Basics
When we look at the anatomical drawing above, we see that the back is comprised of a few different muscles:
- Trapezius – a postural muscle used to tilt and turn the head and neck, shrug, stabilize the shoulders, and twist the arms. The trapezius raises, lowers, rotates, and retracts (pulls back) the scapula (shoulder blade). ***
- Latissimus dorsi (wings) – its primary function is to adduct the arms (bring your arms closer to you during a pulling motion).
- Teres major – a medial rotator, helps control certain movements of the humerus (the bone that runs from your elbow to your shoulder). It helps the latissimus dorsi in moving the humerus back and down when extended (overhead swing motions, like pitching a baseball), and also stabilizes the part of the humerus that connects into the torso.
- Rhomboids – helps keep the scapula (shoulder blade) attached to the rib cage. It also rotates the scapula and retracts it towards the spinal column (think of the what your back and shoulders do when you assume proper posture. Thank your rhomboids, kids).
- Erector Spinae – consists of three columns of muscles which run along the spine, from the base of the skull down to the pelvis. They assist and stabilize in trunk flexion and extension (bending the spine and getting back to a straight position).
*** “Note that ‘violently jack your shoulders up towards your earlobes’ is nowhere to be seen on the list of what your traps do.”-Alex Mullan (Massthetics)
All of these muscles pull or or help in pulling. So, obviously, to build them we have to pull. And since the back is comprised of a bunch of different muscles all pulling from various angles, we need train our backs by pulling in various angles (duh).
We’re going to go over my favorite exercises to get your back thick, solid, and tight.
When you think about exercises for the traps, the first thing that usually comes to mind are shrugs. No doubt about it, shrugs are a great way to build traps… when done correctly.
If you really want to build your traps, you have to think about how they work. Remember that traps also retract the scapulae (shoulder blades). We want you to test this out now. Pull your shoulder blades as far back as they’ll go, expanding your chest , and then shrug. Way harder, right?
Now, grab some moderately heavy dumbbells, take your time raising and lowering the weight. Try two seconds up, one second squeeze at the top, two seconds down, and then one second at the stretched position, all while holding your shoulder blades back.
Proper shrug from will go a long way to building the traps. But if you want to try something new, give farmer’s walks a shot. All you need is two dumbbells (kettlebells or trap bar will also work) and a pair of traps to make grow.
Grab the weights, and start walking. That’s it. Increase the difficulty by walking longer distances or increasing the weights used. Bonus points for using straps to carry heavier weights.
Spinal erectors don’t get enough love. Alas, they are necessary to create an impressive, thick, 3-D back. When well-developed, the spinal erectors look like two boa constrictors, running down your spine.
If you’re trying to build your spinal erectors, you gotta deadlift. Instead of a conventional deadlift, however, we recommend the snatch grip deadlift to really hit them hard.
With this deadlift variation, the wider grip forces you to pull your shoulder blades together, creating tension from the start. Holding the lift at the top for a full second adds an isometric benefit. Even your grip . Keep the weight light and the movement controlled. This exercise is more about tension than moving heavy weight.
Here’s my bro, Ben Johnson, showing you how to do it.
Lats and Teres Major
The lats and the teres work together to bring your arms towards the body. In order to hit these muscles, we need to pull along the vertical and horizontal planes.
Pro-tip: before doing any exercise for your lats, flex them first, feel them working, and then begin the movement. A cue you can use is “break the fingers.” Imagine someone tucks their open hand right into your arm pit. Naturally, you’d want to break their fingers. Getting the lats involved before the movement begins will help keep the focus there instead of your biceps.
Vertical pulling includes motions like lat pulldowns and pull-ups. If you’re interested in focusing more on using pull-ups or improving them, we already put together one of the most comprehensive articles on pull-ups found on the interwebs. Check that out right here.
As for lat pulldowns, here we have another exercise where people lift with their ego. Like shrugs, using a full ROM and using a slower tempo fixes most of these issues.
Grab the pulldown bar and sit in the pulldown station. In order to go through the full range of motion and fully engage the back, roll your shoulder blades and keep your chest tall. Now bring the bar so that it touches the top of your chest, with your arms fully extended at the top, almost like you’re hanging from the bar.
Now slowly let the bar travel to the top as far as it can go. If your arms and upper back aren’t fully stretched, lower your seat.
Once you feel that stretch, you’re ready to begin. Take 2 seconds to bring the bar down to the top of your chest, hold it there for one second, and then take another two seconds returning to the starting position under control, and feel the full stretch at the top for one second.
Another extremely effective, but underappreciated, lat exercise is the straight-arm pulldown. For this exercise, use the pulldown bar attachment on a high pulley. Grab the bar and bend your torso to 45 degrees. Keep your elbows slightly bent, and keep the same elbow position throughout to minimize tricep involvement. Now, pull the bar down towards your lap. As with the traditional pulldown, tempo is the name of the game here: two seconds down, one at the bottom, two up, and one in the stretched position.
When using a cables, a general rule of thumb is to use high volume, upwards of 15 reps, and a slow, controlled tempo with a full range of motion.
With horizontal rowing, like barbell rows, lifting heavy is half the fun but you don’t want to forgo form, either. To get the best of both worlds, try using dead stop movements like Pendlay Rows or dead-stop rows.
With either of these movements, the starting position is the floor–like a deadlift. While you will using heavy-ish weights with these movements, I also recommend a one second hold at that top so that you don’t get too carried away with the poundage.
Rhomboids, mid traps, rear delts
Rounding out the back (no pun intended), we have the rhomboids, mid traps, and, getting honorary back status, the rear delts.
These muscles are the unsung hero of the back. We’ve already discussed how important posture is, and these muscles are the ones that are responsible for it. While not as sexy as the traps or lats, making sure you aren’t a hunchback is also pretty important… I guess.
Due to our mostly sedentary lifestyles, many of us begin to develop postural dysfunction, like kyphosis and internally rotated shoulders. While there is crossover on these muscles with some of the exercises mentioned above, the next exercises target these muscles specifically.
To target the rhomboids, we like face pulls. Using a rope attachment, set the pulley to above your head. Then the rope up and back, towards your forehead. You know you have this right when you hit a double bicep pose at the end.
Finally, the rear delts complete the look of powerful back. For these muscles, we want to pull our arms back, across the horizontal plane, like a chest flye but in reverse. So, if you have it in your gym, use a flye machine but face the seat and pull the handles outwards.
If you don’t have a flye (or a specific machine for reverse flyes), never fear. You can target the rear delts with dumbbells. Set up in a low incline bench and lay on it face first, starting with your arms hanging out in front of you, and then using that same outward pulling motion, bring the weights up slowly. Remember to keep your elbows in the same position throughout.
Alternatively, you can also do it without a bench by bending your torso to about 90 degrees. You won’t need a ton of weight, but it’s important to feel the muscles working, as always.
Pulling vs. Pressing
Last but not last, I want to discuss volume (the amount of sets and reps in a given session) and frequency (the amount of times the back is trained during a given week).
Your back muscles have probably been neglected for a while, so they need more love. For a few weeks, try doing twice as many reps or sets for your back as you would for your chest. Or sneak in a dedicated back day into your routine.
Ideally, you’d want to keep in mind that, for great back development and a healthy posture, it would behoove you to pull twice as much as you push.
There and Back Again
The back, with all of its various muscles, doesn’t get enough love. It’s usually underdeveloped and underappreciated. But when have your back’s back, it’ll have yours. For sure, having a back that ripples through a shirt is impressive, but having a healthy back is often overlooked until it’s too late.
Replace your favorite back exercises with a few of variations for a few weeks, or work on working through a full range of motion and using a more controlled tempo if you’re already doing them, and see how you feel. Your shirts might hate you, but you’ll probably need some new ones anyway.
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