When it comes to building muscle and strength, no other group of muscles assists more than your back. Between your traps, spinal erectors, lats, and lower back, a ton of power will be generated if your back is strong and stable!
When I think about proper back training I break it up into 3 parts:
- Upper back, traps, and rhomboids. Rows, rows, rows. If you aren’t doing some type of row at least twice a week you’re missing out on the massive gains you need to build a big and strong back.
- Lats. Lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the muscles that give you “wings” essentially. These muscles need to be strong and give you that 3d look most people want to achieve. Pullups and Pulldowns are muscle building staples.
- Lower Back and Spinal Erectors. If your low back and spinal erectors are weak and pathetic your body will be weak and pathetic. Most people think standard Deadlifts are the best for this but I have an exercise that builds muscle in these areas far better!
Now that we have our back sectioned off, let’s go over the best movements I’ve found in my decade of training for building muscle in the back. Most of this list will be standard but there will be some you’ve never heard of as well. Here we go!
The #1 back movement I’ve always recommended for building up the upper back, traps, and rhomboids are DB Rows. The amount of weight you can use on this basic exercise is surprising considering you’re only using one arm to move the weight!
The most important guidelines I can give you for this are to keep your chest up and your shoulders squared. If your chest starts caving in and you can’t maintain proper alignment in your spine the set is over.
A great goal to shoot for which I went over in yesterdays article is half of your bench press. If you can bench 400 lbs you should be strong enough to do 200 lb dumbbells for multiple sets of 10. If you can manage this I guarantee your back will be rock solid and your bench will be too for that matter!
Barbell Rows are one of the best staple back movements there is. The amount of weight you can do with this exercise is impressive. Using a barbell is always preferable to any other exercise you can do for a reason.
The only issue is, when training as a beginner, maintaining a neutral spine while doing this movement is very difficult. All the times I’ve tried teaching new athletes the Barbell Row their backs always lose tightness before they could ever start adding weight.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movement by any means! Just make sure if you’re doing it to keep your back rigid throughout the set. As long as you do that and add weight slowly, you’ll be good to go.
A great goal for this is your Bench Press weight. If you can do 250 lbs on the Bench Press, 250 lbs Barbell Rows should be your goal. I think most people can get great strength and muscle-building benefits from this type of row and it’s definitely important for overall back development. Just make sure to maintain good form, and add weight when your form dictates it.
Just like the Barbell Row, the T-Bar Row is done using a barbell. The only difference is you pull the weight in an arc instead of in a straight line. This is a great movement and one that Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen doing massive weight with! 225 lbs for sets of 8 was the norm for him and you can see how big and strong his back became from doing these!
The hardest part about the T-Bar Row is setting up properly; if you’re too far away, the bar will pull you off balance, too close and you’re basically standing up. You want to find a good balance where your back is in a 45-degree angle in relation to the ground.
The coolest way I’ve set these up is by doing them with your Deadlift weight. If you’re Deadlifting 500 lbs for the day, you just set up on one side of the Barbell and do T-Bar Rows with half of your work weight. Obviously, this can be difficult so if you can’t do it, just start with a low number like 50-100 lbs and build up to heavier weights.
A solid tip that I learned a long time ago is to set up your T-Bar Rows with 25 lb plates first. This allows you to extend the range of motion and assist in building more muscle and strength.
Inverted (Fat Man) Rows
When training new trainees, the first back movements I have them do are inverted rows, pulldowns, and back extensions. With Inverted Rows, I don’t have to worry about their back position like I would with a standard DB or Barbell Row. This makes them a great teaching tool so they can focus on building muscle and confidence.
The best part about Inverted Rows is you can change the grips to target different parts of the back, and you can adjust how difficult it is based on the angle you’re standing. I’ve had older trainees almost standing up and they can still build muscle/strength quickly.
As soon as you’re doing sets of 20 at a certain angle, increase the depth during your next session and work back up. Your goal with Inverted Rows is to be completely parallel with the ground with your feet up on a bench. As soon as you can do this for sets of 20, it’s time to move on. You can see how difficult this might be for somebody new to strength training and that’s why I love it for beginners.
Our final Row variation is one I reserve for Intermediate and Advanced athletes only. This is basically a high-rep, heavy DB Row. In general, it’s not possible to do heavy weight AND high reps. With the Kroc Row, you’re using momentum to help you move the weight.
Your goal with the Kroc Row is to do no less than 20 reps per set. 20-40 reps for one all-out set is all you need for this movement, I would not recommend doing more than that.
The other thing you can do is set records with and without straps. You want most of your training to be done without straps to build your grip strength up but for Kroc Rows, straps can be used sparingly as well.
I’ve gone over Pullups and Chinups in recent articles for multiple reasons; they’re amazing for building strength/muscle mass, and you need to be in great shape to do them. Most people can’t do pullups. If you can, it usually means you have a high amount of muscle mass and low levels of body fat. Which is what we want!
If you can’t do pullups start improving your back strength with rows and pulldowns. When you can do sets of 10-15 it’s time to start adding weight. Start with 5 lbs and keep adding load over time as long as you’re averaging over 6 reps a set. This allows you to build more muscle and strength through progressive overload.
You can even do one day where you do high reps for 10-20 reps and another day where you do 6-12 reps on weighted pullups. This will build your back, grip, arms and relative body strength like nothing else. If you can’t do pullups you need to do them.
I also recommend you do multiple grips and implements for your pullups. There are so many variations that it makes sense to do as many as you can to build your back from every angle possible.
The main ones I recommend are:
- Wide Grip Pullups
- Close Grip Pullups
- Neutral Grip Pullups
- Rope/Towel Pullups
Right after pullups, pulldowns are my second best lat builder without question! The main negative on pullups is managing your form. You can cheat by kipping, swinging, not lowering low enough and not pulling high enough.
With pulldowns there are no grey areas! You pull from a fully extended position down to your upper chest, hold for one second, and return to the top position. The whole movement is controlled and you can really work directly on the lats with a huge range of motion.
When doing pulldowns I like multiple grips just like with pullups. The 3 main ones I use are; wide grip, chin grip, and neutral grip. Between these 3 you’ll be hitting the majority of the muscle groups in your back.
This is the 2nd of 3 main back movements I use with new trainees. They more often than not cannot do pull-ups. Most people can’t unless they train for them of course.
A typical workout for pulldowns for my clients is 1 set with wide grip, 1 set with chin grip, and 1 set with neutral grip. Our goal is to hit between 10-20 reps per set on these. As long as we do that we go up in weight by 5 lbs.
A great goal for these would be equal to your press strength. If you can overhead press 150 lbs I would expect 150 lbs on pulldowns for sets of 10-20 to be possible. If not, start working on it and your lats will get bigger and stronger quickly.
The last thing I want to say on these is not to cheat. A lot of guys at the gym use the entire stack and try to use their whole body to swing the bar toward them. This accomplishes nothing except looking like a gorilla in the gym. (Which might attract some mates in their minds).
Low Back/Spinal Erectors
I went over Romanian Deadlifts in my last article on my top 10 strength exercises. The main reason I believe this movement is better for building muscle than the deadlift is due to two major factors. The deadlift has no eccentric portion in general, and the range of motion is much great than a standard deadlift.
When do we build the most muscle? It’s not during the concentric of an exercise right? It’s during the eccentric or lowering phase of a movement.
When performing the Deadlift, you pick the bar off from the ground, pause for a second and then lower it back down. Most people don’t lower it under control, they semi drop it or even throw it down. It’s basically just a static hold for your spinal Erectors and low back which does build muscle, but not as much as an eccentric contraction.
When doing Romanian Deadlifts, however; you lower under control, feel a huge stretch in your low back and hamstrings, positions your spinal erectors under a huge load, and then push your glutes through to finish the movement.
It puts you in such a disadvantageous position compared to the conventional deadlift. This paired with the huge eccentric loading builds your posterior chain exceptionally. Plus, since you’re doing them for higher reps than a normal deadlift, the time under tension is much greater!
These benefits I’ve outlined tell you everything you need to know about why this movement is so great.
The best goal I could give you for this is to keep up with your bench press. If you’re benching 275, you should be capable of handling around that for Romanian deadlifts for sets of 8-12.
Over time, you want to build this up much higher like a regular deadlift. If you can hit 500 for a couple of sets of 8 I guarantee your low back, spinal erectors, hamstrings, and even upper back will be bigger and stronger. Treat this as a main movement and never stop doing it. It’s an amazing exercise and needs to be done for total muscular development.
The 3rd main back movement I use with newer trainees are back extensions. With back extensions, you can focus on the low back and hamstrings without worrying about your form.
All you do is lay on a 45-degree back extension, or glute ham raise bench and extend. You don’t want to hyperextend your back, however. Just extend until you’re parallel with you body, hold for 1 second at the top, and repeat.
Our first goal when doing back extensions is to hit that goal of 50 total reps in 3-5 sets. From here we can start adding weight in increments of 5. I would continue doing this until you hit a 45 lb plate for 3 sets of 15-20 reps.
From here, all we can really do is move onto harder movements, OR you can grab a barbell and do heavier back extensions. The best part is, unlike a regular deadlift, it’s much more difficult to get injured doing back extensions.
One of my clients had bad back pain for years before he started training with me.
Within 1 year his back pain was completely gone unless he didn’t move around during the day.
Within 2 years his back only ever bothered him if he took a week off of working out and sat around.
Now, 3 years later, his back is 100% better. He had to take a month off for vacation and his back didn’t bother him once. Just got tight on occasion. He just started deadlifting heavy and is already hitting sets of 10 at over 200 lbs on trap bar deadlifts.
This was all accomplished from doing back extensions and staying consistent. That’s what I call a great low back builder for anybody. Which is why it made this list. Definitely try them out if you haven’t because they can and will humble you I promise.
The second video shown here is how we handle back extensions. Good control, pause at the top, and completely curl the spine down.
Farmer walks are kind of in a category of their own. They work many of the same muscle groups as rows, but also help build posterior strength and mass as well. When doing Farmer Walks I prefer to use the Trap Bar.
Most people use dumbbells while doing this movement which is okay but not optimal.
By using the Trap Bar, it allows you to stand upright with your hands in a neutral position away from the body. This prevents the weight from getting in the way as you’re walking which is great.
The best thing about Farmer Walks is it allows you to work your grip, your entire body, build muscle and strength, and it’s a great implement to use for hard conditioning as well. The more weight you use the less time you’re able to hold onto it. I always use the same standard distance to make it easy to compare your performance.
40 Yards is perfect and just enough time to elicit muscular gains and strength. Your goal should be 10 trips within 15 minutes with at least 50% of your Deadlift Max. If you Deadlift 600, you should easily be able to accomplish 300 in this time frame. The amount of muscle and strength it will add to your whole body, especially your traps, forearms, and core is astounding!
That’s my list on the top 10 back exercises I think you should be doing to build a big, strong, muscular back from traps to low back.
If you’re a beginner; stick with inverted rows, back extensions and pulldowns to start out. As you progress in strength and your form gets better; move onto Romanian Deadlifts, DB or Barbell Rows, and Pullups. Over time you can throw in other movements to help improve your back size and strength over time.
What are some of your favorite back exercises to do in the gym? Do you disagree with my list? And if so, what would your top 10 list be instead? Definitely let me know in the comments below!
I hope you all enjoyed and have a wonderful day!
Until next time,