I used to be like most guys in the gym.
I learned from my mistakes, though, and worked hard to fix my proportions (which required quite a bit of work on my back):
My lats in particular need a bit more work but I think you’ll agree they–and my back overall–are no longer a glaring weakness.
So, in this article, I want to to talk all about what it takes to build a back that makes people say “wow.”
Like most major muscle groups, it takes a lot of work to really make your back stand out. A lot more than the pullups and high-rep dumbbell rows that I used to do–that’s for damn sure.
Fortunately, though, it’s not complicated once you know what you’re doing. And I’m going to break it all down here for you–the best back exercises, how I like to program workouts, how supplementation fits into the picture, and more.
The bottom line is if you follow my advice and eat properly, your back will get bigger and stronger.
The four muscles that make up the bulk of the back, and that we want to focus on developing, are the…
Here’s how they look:
(The erector spinae aren’t shown on the above chart, but they are the lower back muscles that occupy the gray area at the bottom.)
There are a few smaller bundles of muscle that matter as well, such as the teres major and minor, and the infraspinatus. You can see them here:
Now, here’s the goal in terms of overall back development:
So, let’s start with some basic principles of back training, and then we’ll get to the best back exercises and a sample back workout.
The two biggest mistakes most people make in their back workouts are:
1. Focusing on the wrong back exercises.
Many people focus too much on machines and isolation exercises, which are of secondary importance in building a deep, thick, powerful looking back.
2. Focusing on high-rep training.
This mistake will stunt the growth of every major muscle group in the body and is particularly detrimental in a major and multifaceted muscle group like the back.
If those two points go against a lot of what you’ve heard and/or assumed about back training, or weightlifting in general, I understand.
I used to do every back machine in the gym and used to think that it responded better to lower weights and higher reps.
Well, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about lifting and building muscle naturally is the more you emphasize compound movements and heavy lifting (80 to 85% of 1RM and higher), the better your results.
And in terms of training the back, that means a lot of heavy deadlifts and rows with “supplementary work” like pullups and chinups.
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his shoulder workouts and has cannonball shoulders… What gives?”
If only you had his #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.
I know, that might sound cynical, but it’s true.
When the right steroids enter the picture, achieving muscle growth is mind-numbingly simple: sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing rep after rep after rep, exercise after exercise, and muscles get bigger and bigger.
In fact, when steroids are involved, focusing on high-rep training is generally recommended.
Steroids cause muscles to grow rapidly but don’t help tendons and ligaments keep up, so weights that feel manageable can simply be too much for connective tissues.
This is a common way that steroid users screw up their joints.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand.
The result of these back training mistakes is usually a back that has a V-taper but nothing else–that’s basically just a set of lats without any thickness and separation in the middle or lower portions.
Here’s a good example:
Not very impressive.
So, a good back workout trains the lats but doesn’t just isolate them and neglect the rest. In fact, it emphasizes the bigger “prime movers.”
The strategy is simple enough:
1. Focus on lifting heavy weights in your back workouts.
If you want your back to get big and strong, you’ll want to focus on the 4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep range.
2. Focus on the back exercises that safely allow for progressive overload.
As a natural weightlifter, you can take this to the bank: if you don’t continue to get stronger, you won’t continue to get bigger.
The number one rule of natural muscle building is progressive overload, which means adding weight to the bar over time.
Well, certain exercises don’t lend themselves well to both heavy lifting and progressive overload. Standing lat pushdowns, for example, are no deadlift. Behind-the-neck pulldowns are inferior to traditional front pulldowns.
Another aspect of your back training that you have to get right is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the general rule is this:
The heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
Heavier weights necessitate more recovery, which means you can’t do as much you can with lighter weights without risking overtraining.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the back but to every other major muscle group as well.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best back exercises for building muscle and strength.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of back exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.
These are the exercises I’ve used to dramatically improve my back. They will help you do the same.
My back sucked in both strength and size until I started really working on my deadlift and I’ve never looked back.
Many people are afraid of this lift because they think it’s inherently bad for your lower back or dangerous.
At first glance, this fear would seem to make sense: lifting hundreds of pounds off the ground—putting all that pressure on your back, particularly your low-back and erector spinae muscles—would be a recipe for thoracic and lumbar disaster, right?
Well, research shows otherwise.
In fact, when performed with good form, the deadlift is actually a fantastic way to build lower back strength and prevent injury.
That said, if you have sustained a lower back injury in the past or have a disease or dysfunction affecting the area, you may not want to deadlift. Unfortunately, I have to recommend that you consult with a sports doctor to see if it will or won’t work for you.
Alright then, with that out of the way, let’s talk about what proper form looks like.
1. Position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
2. Place the bar somewhere between against your shins and at the middle of your foot.
The key here is that your shoulders are in line with the bar, or even slightly behind it, which allows for maximum leverage as you pull the bar up and back. For taller or skinnier lifters, this will probably place the bar against their shins. For shorter or thicker lifters, this will place it somewhere around the middle of the feet.
If the bar is too close to your body and your shoulders are too far in front of it, you’ll have to move the bar forward on the way up to get it over your knees. If it’s too far from your body, you’ll feel like you’re going to fall forward and won’t be able to drive upward through your heels.
3. Stand up tall with your chest out and take a deep breath of air into your diaphragm (not your lungs), bracing your abs as if you were about to get punched in the stomach.
4. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back, not by squatting straight down. Arch your lower back and keep your shoulders down.
Don’t make the newbie mistake of bringing your hips too low with the intention of “squatting” the weight up. The lower your hips are below optimal, the more they will have to rise before you’re able to lift the weight off the floor when you pull, which is just wasted movement.
Instead, you should feel tightness in your hamstrings and hips as you wedge yourself into what’s essentially a “half-Squat” position, and as soon as your hips rise, you want your shoulders to follow and the weight to start coming off the floor.
5. Place your hands on the bar, with either a double-overhand or and over-underhand grip, just outside your shins and squeeze it as hard as you can. Keep your shoulders back and down and engage your lats.
6. Don’t look up at the ceiling or down at the ground–keep your head in a neutral position.
Here’s a good video that shows the above points:
7. Drive your body upward and slightly back as quickly as you can by pushing through your heels, and keep your elbows locked in place and your lower back slightly arched (no rounding!).
Ensure that your hips and shoulders move up simultaneously–don’t shoot your hips up without also raising your shoulders.
8. As you approach the top (the lock-out), squeeze your glutes to push the hips through the final phase of the movement.
Maintain core tightness at the top. Don’t release the tension in your abs.
9. Many people break the lockout with their knees, and this is incorrect. Instead, you want to break with the hips, sitting back just as you did when you were setting up. The bar should slide down your thighs.
10. Maintain a stiff arch in the lower back and keep the shoulders down and back.
It’s also worth noting that you should make sure each rep is separate. Don’t try to bounce the bar off the ground to propel you into progressively sloppier and sloppier reps.
It’s called the deadlift for a reason–you’re supposed to be picking up dead weight, not using the momentum of a bounce.
So, once the bar is back on the ground, adjust your setup position if necessary (suck in air, tense your abs, ensure your spinal position is good, puff your chest out, “pack” your shoulder in a down position, and so forth), and hit the next rep hard.
Here’s a video that shows all the above points in action:
The sumo deadlift uses a wide stance (1.5-2 times the width of your shoulders) to shorten the range of motion and shearing force on the lower back.
It also can feel more comfortable in the hips than a conventional deadlift, depending on your biomechanics (if you walk with your toes pointed out, the sumo may be better for you).
Here’s a good explanation of how to do the Sumo Deadlift:
The downside of the sumo deadlift is the reduced range of motion, which results in less work done.
That said, it does allow for heavier loading, so it’s hard to say which type of approach is ultimately better for overall muscle development.
Personally, I stick with the conventional deadlift and recommend the same to others unless it feels very uncomfortable or is placing too much stress on the lower back, in which case the sumo deadlift might be a better choice.
Like the sumo deadlift, the hex bar deadlift also allows you to lift more weight than the conventional deadlift, which may make it a more effective exercise for developing overall lower body power.
Here’s how to do it:
The barbell row is a staple in my back workouts because it works everything from the erector spinae up to the traps.
Here’s how to do the convention barbell row:
I personally prefer a variant of the row called a Pendlay Row, which looks like this:
I prefer this type of row because it allows you to work your back through a fuller range of motion than the more upright position.
And in case you’re worried about your lower back, the reality is if you’re keeping your form in, and deadlifting every week, you’ll never be rowing enough weight to cause an issue.
That said, if you find the Pendlay row uncomfortable, stick to the traditional row.
The dumbbell row allows you to safely overload your upper back with a full range of motion.
Here’s how you do it:
The t-bar row is another worthwhile type of row that I like to do.
Here’s how to do it:
As you can see, I’m generally not a fan of machines, but I do like the hammer strength t-bar machine, which looks like this:
The wide-grip pullup is one of the best exercises you can do to build the middle of your back and your lats (especially as you get stronger and can add weight with a dip belt).
Here’s how to do it:
While many people swear by chin-ups alone, I think they should be done in conjunction with wide-grip pullups because they emphasize the biceps more.
Here’s how to do them:
The lat pulldown is a machine variant of the pullup that allows you to work in given rep ranges more easily (because you can accurately control the amount of weight you have to pull).
Here’s a video that shows proper form on both the close- and wide-grip variations:
As you can see, the close-grip variation is performed with the V-bar attachment.
Last but not least is the seated row, which is yet another row that’s great for building your upper back.
Here’s how you do it:
That’s it on the exercises.
The key, however, isn’t just doing the above exercises. It’s progressing on them. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can handle over time.
A good back workout trains all the major muscles of the back, including the lower back, and focuses on heavy lifting.
Just like any other muscle group, back can benefit from higher rep work, but you have to emphasize heavy weightlifting if you want the best possible results.
So, here’s what I want you to do for the next 8 weeks, once every 5 to 7 days:
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 t0 6 reps (about 85% of 1RM)
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Wide-Grip Pullups (Chin-Ups if you can’t)
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (add weight if possible)
One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
If you’re an advanced lifter, or you feel you have more in you at the end of the workout, you can do the final 3 sets. 9 heavy sets is plenty, though.
For instance, if get 6 reps on your first set of deadlifts, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can pull it for 6 reps, and so forth.
Getting adequate rest in between sets is important because it allows your muscles to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Most people know that high protein intake is necessary to maximize muscle growth but don’t know that calorie intake also plays a major role.
Learn more here.
If you give this workout a go and like it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your back (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.