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March 26, 2021 10 min read
When it comes to our “mirror muscles,” the front of our bodies are the stars of the show. The pecs, abdominals, and biceps are usually what gets the most attention for the simple fact that they’re at the front.
You walk into the change room, look in the mirror, and those are the muscles you see first. Makes sense, right?
Well, the back is just as, if not more, important. And we’re not just talking about functional movement and creating a solid foundation for your other muscles. A well-chiseled and defined back is a very good thing to have. So, down below we’re going to look at some of the best exercises to ensure that your backside is well taken care of.
The back contains some of your body’s largest and most powerful muscles. When we talk about the back, the muscles that are included in that include the rhomboids, teres major and teres minor, trapezius (traps), infraspinatus, erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi (lats).
The back can be further divided into the upper back and the lower back.
The upper back usually refers to the rhomboids, traps, teres muscles, infraspinatus, and the lats. On the other hand, the lower back (or lumbar spine) is considered to be the erector spinae for the most part. The erector spinae include the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles.
In terms of aesthetics, all of these muscles play important roles in building your back—to different degrees.
The lats are the winged shaped muscles that reach from under your armpits to your lower back, and they give your body the v-taper look. Traps, located on the very upper back, help to act as a centerpiece muscle when flexed, and the rhomboids add even more definition when flexing.
While the teres and infraspinatus muscles are less defined, developing them enough will also make them pop. And lastly, the erector spinae provides a thick look to the lower back.
The “back” is a large umbrella term for an array of musculature. While we’ve broken it down into the lower and upper backs above, the back also in a way encompasses the shoulder muscles, part of the core, and part of the posterior chain.
As you can imagine, many of these muscles groups are absolutely integral to a well functioning body—whether that body is functioning at a high level in a gym, or just doing day to day tasks.
Outside of the aesthetic dimensions, making sure that you’ve got a strong back is a good way to protect against back pain. This is especially true for workers who spend a lot of time sitting at computers.
Building off of this, a strong back can also help you maintain good posture. Not only is this critical for how good you look, but it’ll also balance out the development of your chest and ensure that your risks of developing back pain are lower.
In terms of functional actions, pulling movements are the back’s bread-and-butter. This is why most back exercises will focus on some sort of pulling motion, which primarily engages your upper back. Lifting actions are also very dependant on a strong back—this includes things like deadlifts. And finally, carrying actions necessitate a strong back as well. When you’re carrying something, both your lower and upper back is engaged, along with your leg muscles.
Knowing how our back muscles work in sync with the rest of our body is what informs the best workout plan for developing this region of our musculature.
Along with the bench press and squat, the deadlift is one of the three big juggernaut lifts that engage pretty much every muscle in your body. If you’re looking for a bang for your buck exercise, the deadlift is just that. It’s no surprise that it’s called the king of lifts.
But along with engaging so many muscles, deadlifts in particular help to develop your back to an insane degree. Along with your back, your posterior chain will benefit as well—in fact, the deadlift is good for every part of your body that’s not necessarily a “mirror muscle.”
Being an extremely functional movement (I mean, you’re basically just picking up and putting down something really heavy), the deadlift is also great at building explosive power in the lower body muscles. This is great for sports, such as football or soccer, but can also help you when it comes to endurance sports such as swimming or running.
If you haven’t already, including the deadlift into your workout routine is an absolute must. It’s one of the best ways to build overall strength, and it will most likely crush any other plateaus you might be experiencing.
The deadlift is a more technical movement, however, which is why some people shy away from it. Following the form correctly is essential for getting the most out of this lift while also safely avoiding injury.
You’ll want to begin with a barbell set up on the ground, and your feet firmly planted and slightly angled outward at hip-width distance. Bend over while maintaining a straight back and grasp the bar at shoulder-width, with an overhand grip.
With knees bent, the bar should almost be touching your shins—but not quite. To initiate the movement, engage your abs and glutes, and press down through your feet into the ground to pick up the bar.
Continue “pressing” down with your legs and have the bar clear your knees. Then, push your hips forward until you’re standing straight up. Have your knees lockout at the top and pause for a count, while constantly maintaining tension in your abdominals and glutes. Then, reverse the movement, hinging at the hips and then your knees to bring the bar back down to the ground in the starting position.
That’s right—the deadlift is such a good lift that we couldn’t just put it on this list once.
The sumo deadlift’s twist comes in the form of its stance. The lifter is meant to have their feet somewhere between 1.5 times to 2 times as far apart as with a conventional deadlift. This puts you closer to the ground, which shortens the range of motion and makes the movement easier on your lower spine. The sumo deadlift will also end up putting a greater emphasis on the quads and will allow most lifters to lift more—meaning more gains.
A lot of this comes down to individual biomechanics, however. Some people will prefer the conventional and others will prefer the sumo deadlift. Unless you’re aiming for a specific goal that one form of the deadlift is definitely better at achieving, then choose whichever is best for you.
The form will be the same as with the conventional deadlift, but the setup will differ slightly.
Instead of placing your feet at hip-width distance underneath the bar, you’ll want them wide enough so as to allow your arms to extend straight down, between the knees to grab the bar.
When it comes to bodyweight exercises, the pull-up is one of the top dogs—and for good reason.
Lifting up your bodyweight over a series of reps isn’t something that’s easy to do, and most average people can’t do it. They’re one of the best ways to measure upper body strength—particularly when it comes to the back muscles.
While chin-ups recruit a good amount of your back as well, they differ in that they use an overhand grip which places less of an emphasis on the back muscles. Pull-ups, which use an underhand grip, put a greater emphasis on the back. And if you want to focus on the lats even more, doing wide grip pull-ups (just outside of shoulder-width) is an even better way to train.
When it comes to performing this exercise, all you really need is a horizontal bar that can hold your weight. Initiate the movement by gripping the bar about shoulder-width apart (but feel free to experiment with grip-width, as long as you don’t go too wide), and hang with your arms fully extended.
You’ll want to keep your shoulders back so you don’t impinge on anything and have your core braced throughout the entire exercise. Pull-up while focusing on engaging all of your upper body muscles. Complete the movement when your chin reaches just above the bar, and then slowly reverse motion. The key here is to go slow—you don’t want to end up cheating with momentum.
To begin our set of rows is the barbell row.
There’s a reason rows are the go-to back exercises, and the barbell row is one of the most classic way of performing this ubiquitous exercise. In terms of strengthening your back and posterior chain, it’s very difficult to find a lift that measures up to the bent-over row.
The barbell row is an anti flexion exercise, meaning that your lower back has to stay engaged in order to prevent your torso from bending over too far. As you can imagine, this can effectively build lower back strength and stability. The movement pattern of the barbell row is also kind of similar to the deadlift, so improving and training with one of these exercises is going to have carry-over effects on the other.
And like with the deadlift, a form is very important.
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and you should hinge at the waist with a slight bend in your knees. Keep your back straight, with your neck in line with the rest of your spine. Grasping the bar, bring it up so it touches your sternum, and then slowly lower back down.
Out of the three rows we’ll be looking at here, these differ the most significantly.
This is because you’ll only be pulling the weight with one side at a time, meaning that your torso has to work to stay stable throughout the movement. That means you’re effectively training your core and back to resist rotational forces, which is great when it comes to functional fitness.
Furthermore, having to only use one side will allow you to correct and mitigate any muscle imbalances that might occur.
For this lift, you can either use a bench for support or do it free-standing. Similar to the bent-over barbell row, maintain a flat back, slightly bent knees, and don’t let momentum take the reigns.
Seated cable rows are basically the sitting, cable version of the bent-over barbell row.
While they’re great for training the back as well, less of the focus is placed on the lower back. This is good for people who might have issues with the hip hinge or have some sort of lower back problems since you’re seated in an upright position.
An emphasis is also placed more on the scapula, rather than the lower back. This can be a good movement to use to train up to a barbell row.
As the name suggests, the lat pulldown places much of the focus on your lats—otherwise known as your wings.
As we mentioned above, the lat muscles are what give you that v-tapered look and they’re extremely important for a nice aesthetic, which makes the lat pulldown an extremely useful exercise to have in your repertoire.
Using a wide grip pulldown will place an even greater emphasis on the lats. Make sure you’ve grabbed the bar with an overhand grip, and bring it down to the level of your chin before pausing and reversing the movement.
Also known as back extension exercises, these help to strengthen the lower back muscles, such as the erector spinae. However, your hips, shoulders, and butt will also be engaged throughout.
And if you’ve already got issues in terms of lower back pain, hyperextensions can help alleviate this issue.
You will need a hyperextension bench to perform this exercise, and if you want to add some difficulty you can hold a weight plate to your chest. The key is to hinge at the hips and try to bring your torso as low to the ground as possible.
When it comes to muscle growth and hypertrophy, the advice usually tends to be to perform high amounts of reps with a lower to mid weight.
This is also partially true with training the back, but as you can see with the above workouts, large, compound movements reign supreme. The back contains some of your body’s largest muscles, and so it makes sense that a high level of exertion is needed to properly develop this area of your musculature.
However, you also don’t need to be going up to bodybuilding-levels of intensity with your weights. Maintaining a good, yet challenging, weight and rep scheme will allow for your back to develop consistently and with minimal plateaus.
Another key to avoiding plateaus is getting enough rest.
Especially after doing heavy, compound lifts, the back is going to need some time to heal and rest between workouts. Finding the sweet spot between challenging yourself enough while also not overworking your muscles is the key to ensuring consistent and impressive gains. However, this is going to be something you or a personal trainer have to figure out for your own experience and athletic level.
After the legs, the back muscles are the biggest and strongest muscles in the body, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re going to need a lot of energy.
And this energy need is going to be even further compounded if you’re trying to develop your back muscles to the next level.
A lot of good sources of protein are an absolute must. You’re not going to get wide lats and thick rhomboids eating like a pigeon. When you get to a high enough level, eating can feel like a chore in itself since you’ve always got to be keeping up a caloric surplus. Working out using heavy, compound movements to train big back muscles will make this aspect that much more important.
But that also doesn’t mean just being able to shovel whatever food you want into your stomach.
Healthy protein is the key—either lean meats or fatty fish are an amazing source. You want to also make sure that you’re getting enough healthy, complex carbs to keep your body fueled throughout the day and for your workouts. And lastly, healthy fats will make sure that your body is functioning in tip-top shape.
Sticking to clean, whole foods will also make sure that you’re getting enough micronutrients into your diet. This will provide overall wellbeing and allow your body to function the way it’s supposed to.
And once you’ve put all of the above pieces together and want to give yourself an extra edge, consider supplementing with a high-quality mass gainer. Special formulations of muscle-growth boosting ingredients will ensure that you’re never leaving any gains on the table during a workout. But of course, you need to build this all on a solid foundation—and a solid back.