The Essential Bigger Back Training Routine
How to attack your backside? Combine these bigger back training tips and moves to muscle up your upper and lowers lats, middle traps and rhomboids like never before.
Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
Ask any experienced bodybuilder and he’ll tell you that while he enjoys showing off his arms, chest and abs, the one bodypart that’s grown to be his favorite to train is his back. The feeling of multiple muscles working in tandem to crush a myriad of moves is as fulfilling at the end of a session as any other day of the week. But that didn’t happen overnight. No, in order for it to “click,” he had to be thorough, going step-by-step to make sure that even though he couldn’t see it in the target muscles in the mirror, his entire back was clearly in focus. Concentrate on these tips and exercises and it’ll start to click for you, too.
5 Keys to Bigger Back Training
1) Always use straps. If someone tells you you’ll weaken your grip by using straps, tell him he’s wrong. Flat out. For one, you’re training back, not grip — and that can come on another day. Never sacrifice back size for pride, grip strength or forearms (none of which are negatively affected by the use of straps.) Also, even if your goal rep range for a particular set is 10, research has shown that using straps at that weight allows for 1–2 more reps. More work, more mass.
2) Focus your training on multijoint (compound) moves. You want to attack your back with as much weight as possible, but if you have a choice, you want to do that you’re your muscles are freshest. They’re aren’t a lot of choices for single-joint back moves, but they don’t have much of a place in a mass-building workout anyway.
3) Maintain a strong position. With perhaps one exception (the stiff-legged deadlift) every back exercise calls for a chest up, back arched and butt out form. Putting your body in this position will make you stronger from your first rep to the last. If you collapse your torso, you not only invite injury but your muscles lose their mechanical advantage.
4) There are basically two types of back moves: rows and pull-ups/pulldowns. With rows, no matter the grip, you’re pulling the weight perpendicular into your torso; with pulldowns, you’re pulling from overhead.
5) Know your angles. There are lots of rumors out there with regards to back training, but remember this first and foremost: How and where your lats get hit depends on the position of your elbows relative to your torso. Wide-grip rowing moves requires that your elbows stay out wide from your body and therefore hit the upper lats, middle traps and rhomboids (wide-grip pulldowns work only the upper lats); reverse-grip and close-grip exercises in which your elbows are tight to your sides better target the lower lats. Choose your exercises accordingly.
Complete Back Workout
Bent-Over Barbell Row 3–4 Sets x 6–8 Reps
Close-Grip Seated Row 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Reverse-Grip Seated Row 3 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Pull-Up 3 Sets to failure
*Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
*Choose a weight so that you reach muscle failure at the target rep. Take weight off on successive sets on a given exercise so that you can reach the higher rep target. Rest up to three minutes before your heaviest sets.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
The bent-over row is as thorough an exercise as you can get for back training, and that’s why you hit it first. This move is responsible for major sections of the back; you’ll also engage your legs, glutes and core to accomplish each rep. Because it’s standing you can use heavier weights.
Target: Upper lats, rhomboids, middle traps
Do It Right: Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Keeping your knees unlocked, lean forward at your waist until your torso is just above parallel with the floor. The barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up into your midsection, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a count, and then slowly lower to full-arm extension.
Power Pointer: For the reverse-grip version, actually let the bar drag up your quads and into your lower abs. That’ll keep the emphasis on the lower lats as your elbows remain tight to your sides.