This page is a complete guide to back training. Get ready to discover the best training tips and workout strategies for building a strong and muscular back.
Back training is critical to long term weight lifting success, in terms of aesthetics, performance and health/safety. Sadly, this concept is foreign to the many half-assed and short-sighted lifters around the world.
Why do so many people ignore the back?
Well, the funniest excuse I’ve heard is, “You can’t see it in the mirror so what’s the point?!” Sorry, but that “out of sight, out of mind” attitude doesn’t produce strength or muscle mass.
Back training should be at least as much of a priority as working your abs, chest or arm muscles. Point blank, period.
Read on to find out exactly how to train your back effectively, and the specific benefits of doing so.
The Best Back Exercises
Here’s my top 5 pick for the most effective back exercises:
- Pull Up
- Barbell Bent Over Row
- Inverted Row
Check out my guide on the best back exercises, where I explain proper form for the above exercises and why you should do them.
Benefits of Training Your Back
Back Training Benefits. Below, I’ve listed out the top reasons to implement and prioritize back exercises in your routine:
- Get Stronger, Everywhere. Your back muscles play a direct or indirect role in nearly all of the major compound lifts. And so, it is critical to develop the various back muscle groups to maximize your strength potential on all lifts – Not just the back exercises.
- Learn to Fly. Well, maybe not…. But once you do get to a certain level, you can enjoy having the appearance of “wings” when you flare (flex) your lats. So don’t try jumping off the roof because those wings are just for show.
- V-Taper. Related to having wide lats, a developed back is by far the most important aspect of getting the coveted “V-taper” (i.e., wide shoulder-to-waist ratio), which is a true indication of a serious lifter. A profound V-taper showcases your hard-earned muscle and strength even when you wear a baggy shirt or a suit!
- Improved Posture. Your back plays an important role in keeping your body balanced by encouraging good posture. Back training helps your posture by preventing muscular imbalances that arise from the modern lifestyle (i.e. sitting, slouching, or hunching over, at your computer, etc.). So say goodbye to the outdated Neanderthal look, and embrace your inner Homo Sapiens.
- Build Bigger Biceps! All upper back exercises work the biceps indirectly. In fact they get worked so much, you could hypothetically never work them directly, and still end up with some big ol’ biceps. That said, biceps training is still necessary for fully developed arms if you’ve been training for at least a few months. However, I recommend total beginners keep direct biceps work to a minimum.
Back Anatomy Guide
To best understand back training, it’s necessary to have at least a basic understanding of the back anatomy.
The back muscles constitute a significant portion of the human musculature. They allow us to stand upright, and are responsible for protecting the spinal column and the spinal cord.
With regard to functional anatomy, the back muscles facilitate pulling movements of the shoulder joint (extension, adduction, transverse abduction, transverse extension) and spine (extension, lateral flexion). They also play major roles in different scapular movements (retraction, depression, elevation, upward/downard rotation).
Weak or underdeveloped back muscles, as compared to your “front” muscles (i.e. chest, shoulders) typically leads to a hunched over, forward-head posture. This is because the front muscles are stronger and tighter than the back muscles, which causes them to pull your chest and shoulder muscles forward and downward.
So unless you’re looking to audition as Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer, in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, then it’s advisable to know how to avoid this alarmingly common problem for weight lifters…
…One helpful tip is to do at least as many reps and sets for your back muscles as you do for your front muscles.
I recommend taking a look through the links below to understand the functional anatomies of the individual back muscles.:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Lower Trapezius
- Middle Trapezius
- Upper Trapezius
- Erector Spinae Muscles
- Teres Major
Back Training Tips
Now I’ll give you a few back training tips that can beginning and experienced weight lifters alike:
Activate Your Back Muscles. The failure to fully stimulate the back muscles is observed most commonly in pull ups, chin ups, and any rowing exercises (i.e., it’s not usually a problem with deadlifts). What can easily happen is that a trainee may unknowingly complete a set of an exercise without using the proper muscles.
- The Problems… Rows and pull ups share similar “technique traps” where the most common pitfalls include the following: using the hands/arms to pull instead of the back, incomplete range of motion, or using too much momentum. (Momentum can be okay if you’re not yet strong enough for full pull ups/chin ups).
- …The Solutions. The solution for both of these types of back exercises in almost all situations is to use less weight or to practice proper technique until it becomes second nature. My best specific tip is to realize that your hands are only there as “hooks,” to hold onto the weight. Imagine pulling with the elbows: pull them upwards and backwards for any type of bent over rows
Don’t Look to the Side. It is common to see many trainees look to their side in the mirror to check their form on back exercises. While it is a positive sign that they are conscious of their exercise technique, tilting your head to the side can interfere with proper form and may put you at risk for neck injury when you’re dealing with heavy weights.
Keep Your Neck Neutral. Another common back training mistake is straining your neck to look up, or rounding your neck to look down. It’s a best practice to keep your neck inline with the rest of your spine. However, some people prefer to look up/forward on certain exercises like deadlifts. This is generally okay as long as you’re not straining to do so.
Keep Your Back Straight. This is the golden rule for all back exercises (with the exceptions of hyperextensions, round-back deadlifts and round-back good mornings). Rounding the back is where most back training mistakes are made. Since you can’t really see your back when training it, it may be difficult to know if your back is staying straight enough. So ask someone to watch you or videotape yourself. Here are two things to keep in mind:
- Don’t round your lower back (see exceptions to this rule, above). This can happen due to flexibility issues, but is more common when a weight is too heavy. This puts undue pressure onto your lower back, making it highly vulnerable to injury. The lower back is one of the last places you want to injure; it’s a complicated body region so injuries tend to linger and interfere with simple everyday movements and tasks.
- Don’t excessively arch your lower back. You can observe this form flaw if a trainee is trying to accentuate the involvement of the back muscles, such as with hyperextensions or during the lockout of a deadlift. Ironically, it may also occur if a trainee overcompensates in an attempt to avoid rounding the back.
What’s the Best Back Training Strategy for You?
In order to experience optimal results, you need a training approach that is relevant to you…
…And although there are subtle considerations you could make, the ultimate deciding factor for your best training approach is your experience level. Below, I’ll outline the exercise choice for different levels of experience.
Back Training Strategy for Beginners
Your major goal as a beginner is to learn picture perfect form on a few basic exercises that target most of the back muscles at once.
Limit yourself to two or three big compound back movements, and perform them frequently. This allows you to quickly develop your “muscle memory” of these few techniques, so that you can gain strength and muscle as efficiently as possible.
Your exercise choice will vary based on which weight lifting routine you choose (key word being “choose” – don’t try to create your own “custom” routine). My general recommendations for the most effective back exercises for beginning trainees include:
- Pull ups or chin ups
- Bent over rows (Pendlay style) or inverted rows
Back Training Strategy for Intermediate and Advanced Lifters
Intermediate and advanced lifters who have already developed their technique and strength base can benefit from broadening their exercise selection.
If you add or change up your exercise mix, I strongly recommend that you keep/add deadlifts and pull ups, as they complement each other extremely well, and arguably the two most potent back exercises.
If you’re not already doing something similar, you may want to consider a single workout dedicated to back training. There are several different types of weight lifting routines that allow you to do this, including:
- Push/Pull/Legs Split Routine
- Upper Body/Lower Body Split Routine
- Body Part Split Routines (e.g. Max OT)
Or you may be satisfied with the basic structure of the routine you’re on now, but still want to improve your back strength or size. If that’s the case, then you should try the modifications below (but not all at once):
- Perform more total sets…
- …by keeping the same exercises and simply adding more sets. Or…
- …by adding another back exercise to increase the number of sets.
- Increase the weight…
- …and perform fewer reps. Or…
- …do the same number (or more) of reps by going closer to, or reaching failure.
- Increase the number of reps…
- …and decrease the weight. Or…
- …increase the weight by going closer to, or reaching failure.
- Keep everything the same, except…
- …go to failure on the final set(s) of an exercise.