Back to Great Gains: Reinvigorate Your Back Training to Build Width & Thickness

While massive arms, pecs, shoulders and legs can often be seen on full display in many a gym, back development of equal impressiveness appears to be in short supply; indeed, flaring lat muscles, ultra-thick spinal erectors, and cavernous inner back detail is seldom seen among those who do not have ‘IFBB Pro’ alongside their name. Why such a discrepancy?

andre back

First, the back is not a ‘showy’ muscle to the same extent as say the biceps or pecs are, and as such, many are disinclined to give it the same training attention. Secondly, we can’t see the back when we train it, thus we don’t receive immediate visual feedback which informs us as to how well we are targeting it and how engorged with blood it has become; we have to go by feel.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the back is extremely difficult to train properly.

Comprised of a complex grouping of individual parts – lats, inner back, rhomboids, spinal erectors, teres major and minor and trapezius, to mention a few – the back must be targeted from a variety of angles, with multiple movements.

However, when fully developed no body part is more impressive than a wide, thick, detailed back. A major component of the coveted v-taper look (small waist, wide shoulders and ultra-wide lats) sought by those seeking perfect proportions and the illusion of greater size, the back conveys true power and striking symmetry.

In this article I will explain why a great back is much more than the perfect physique centerpiece and how best to train it for maximum size and shape.

Skip to Training Program

Big Back Advantages

ben pakulski back

Along with the aforementioned v-taper, a well-developed back provides structural support to aid the proper execution of all upper body movements; without strong spinal erectors and powerhouse trapezius muscles, for example, the shoulder press, bench and squat, with the tremendous force they apply to these areas, could potentially do more harm than good.

By building a complete back we may feel a lot safer engaging in daily activities and playing a range of sports. Indeed the three primary joints which influence how we train our back (the thoracic spine, consisting of 12 vertebrae, the gleno-humeral ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder, and the scapulae, or shoulder blades) all affect the degree to which we may rotate our arms backwards and forwards, apply downward pressure with them, press overhead, and perform adduction (pulling a structure towards the body) and abduction (moving said structure away from the body).

A weak back may compromise our ability to perform basic pushing and pulling actions so crucial to training efficiency.

For example, an emphasis on correct back training will enable proper scapular retraction when performing the bench press, which offsets the unnatural shoulder rotation which may occur should the muscles acting on the scapulae (teres major and minor and infraspinatus) not be sufficiently developed.

Back to the Future

A strong back can also promote postural stability by aiding the natural forward bend, or kyphosis, of the thoracic spine and stabilizing the lumbar muscles of the lower back. When developed in concert with the abdominal muscles, the lower back (the lumbar region consisting of five vertebrae) pulls our spine into its correct alignment to encourage good posture while helping to prevent age-related, degenerative, scoliosis (a side-to-side curvature of the spine caused by degeneration of the facet joints). Indeed, strengthening the bones of the spinal column through the progressive utilization of key back training movements (such as the deadlift and hyperextension) may not only enable us to lift increasingly heavier weights to develop more muscle but also enhance postural stability into our golden years.

Anatomy & Physiology of the Major Back Muscles

back muscles

Latissimus Dorsi

In discussing back anatomy a good place to start is with the lat muscles. The largest muscle we have in terms of square footage, the lats, when developed from top to bottom, flare outward to lend greater width to the torso (a Lee Haney lat spread provides but one great example of such width). Originating along the vertebrae of the lower spine, hips and three lowest ribs, and attaching at the humerus at the back of the armpit, the lats are responsible for pulling the arms, from a fully extended position, to the side of the body and down (replicating a lat pulldown motion). To a lesser degree, the lats, in conjunction with the pecs, work to pull the arms in front of the body (internal rotation of the humerus; as when performing a pullover motion). Assisting the lats in all they do is the teres major, a small strip of muscle originating on the scapula and attaching to the upper arm just above the upper lats.

Rhomboid

While the lats give us our back its width, it is the rhomboids (major and minor), though much smaller than the lats, which provide thickness and inner back detail and mass, and which often separate the bodybuilding champion from the contender. Providing an important structural link between the scapula and vertebrae, the rhomboids are chiefly responsible for scapula retraction (whenever the scapula are squeezed  inward toward the vertebral column, as when performing a bent over barbell row or supporting the bench press) and holding the scapula against the back of the thoracic cavity. The larger rhomboid major originates at the spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae T2-T5 and the supraspinous ligament, and attaches on the medial border of the scapula.

Trapezius

Often trained as part of the shoulder complex, the trapezius lies across the rhomboids and has three subsections (upper, middle and lower), though most of us associate them with the mini-mountains positioned atop the shoulders of high level physique champs. The origins of this complex muscle group run from the base of the skull, and the cervical and thoracic vertebrae and attach at the posterior clavicle and spiny ridge of the scapula. The upper trap section (the most visible of all trap sections when fully developed) is primarily responsible for elevating the shoulders while the middle fibers assist with scapular retraction, and the lower traps tug the scapula downward (as when performing chins and pulldowns).

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae, or spinal erectors, are situated one on either side of the spinal column (with each erector consisting of three sets of muscles: the iliocostalis (outermost), longissimus (inner), and spinalis (innermost). Our longest muscle grouping, the erectors run the length of the back and are comprised of the individual lumborum (lower back), thoracis (thoracic) cervicus (cervical region) and capitis (at the base of the skull) muscles. The erectors (which originate at the spinous processes of the T9-T12 vertebrae and attach at the spinous processes of the T1-T2 and cervical vertebrae) enable hyperextension (or arching) of the back and help us to return to correct posture from a bent position. During heavy lifting our erectors help to stabilize the spine and enable the successful completion of key mass building movements such as the deadlift, squat, bent over row and good morning.

Row to Grow, Chin to Win, and Pull to Prevail

Andre cable row

To properly train the back we must attack it from multiple angles while limiting momentum and ensuring our elbows extend as far back as possible to recruit the many distinct fibers that comprise it. The two major movements, and variations thereof, that are routinely used to maximally target the back are the row (or horizontal pulling) and the chin-up or pulldown (or vertical pulling).

As mentioned earlier, scapular retraction is needed to successfully engage our inner back muscles (rhomboids and trapezius); by forcefully pulling our scapula together in a controlled fashion, these muscles come into play (with the lats receiving their fair share of stimulation also). Total back thickness is the inevitable result.

Row to Grow

To ensure complete back thickness via optimal scapula retraction, one must row. To row properly, we must be sure to solidly lock the upper and lower back in place (with a slight arch in the lumbar region) and allow the scapula to glide to the front on the negative phase and fully retract on the positive aspect, or upon contraction.

To prevent injury, and optimize target muscle stimulation, err on the side of lifting lighter and gradually increasing the resistance while maintaining perfect training form, and aim to eliminate momentum.

If a row cannot be held for 1-2 seconds at the midpoint, chances are you’re going too heavy. The best rowing variations are, in descending order of effectiveness: bent over barbell rows; one-arm dumbbell rows; seated cable rows; and T-bar rows.

Wide vs. Narrow Grip Chinups

Chinning and pulldowns target both the upper and lower lats like no other motion can. A common misconception concerns how best to target the individual lat areas, with wide grip chins receiving recognition as being an optimal means to fully tax the upper lats to increase back width. My experience and that of many other advanced trainers tends to show otherwise. In fact, because the extension and overall range of motion on close to medium-width chins and pulls is exaggerated to a greater extent by comparison to their wide grip counterparts, it is recommended that those seeking optimal lat width – from top to bottom – prioritize a narrower grip.

tiffany chinup

With chins, be sure to ‘pull’ all the way to chest level, otherwise only a fraction of the benefits of this unsurpassed lat exercise will be realized. By chinning to chest level, the scapula is pulled all the way down, thus allowing complete activation of all the lat muscles, along with a fair degree of secondary stimulation to be placed on the remaining back areas. Be sure to let the elbow and shoulder joints completely unwind (in a controlled manner) at the bottom of the movement – this will stretch the lats further while creating a stronger contraction on the positive. The best pulldown and chinning movements are: medium-width chin-ups; reverse narrow grip lat pulldowns; and overhand medium-width pulldowns.

Shrugs

To target the traps, shrugs are king. To fully stimulate this large grouping, a weight that will allow a one second squeeze at the top of the movement is needed, not one that restricts smooth, controlled reps (to fully activate the traps, the shoulders must be elevated as high as possible on the concentric phase; aim to touch the ears). For all shrugging motions, aim to avoid the commonly practiced rolling motion (backwards or forwards), which only serves to remove tension from the working muscles while potentially aggravating the shoulder joints. The best trap building exercises are: dumbbell shrugs (from the side); barbell shrugs (from behind); and deadlifts (discussed next).

Deadlifts

No back program would be complete without the king of all upper-body mass builders: the deadlift. As the best movement for building impressive spinal erectors and an excellent one for developing crazy traps, the deadlift, much like the squat, systemically works multiple muscle groups, forcing total-body growth. To perform, be sure to keep your back straight and head up, maintain continuous tension on all the back muscles, and pull the elbows back to promote scapular retraction (and enable a full contraction) at the top of the movement.

A Prioritization Program For a Wide, Thick Back

The following is a prioritization program designed to bring back development into alignment with the rest of one’s body; or it can be used to build a pro caliber back while further building and refining all other major body parts. Thus, back will be trained twice per week (alternating backwards and forwards between four separate back workouts) over a 12 week period. Following this 12 week period, pick one workout from each of the two week periods outlined below and use these in alternating fashion (to hit back, hard, once a week, while maintaining the same one-body-part-per-week schedule as undertaken at the beginning of the 12 week period).  All movements are to be executed using technique as described above. Adopt cardio schedule of your choosing.

s/w = superset with

Week 1

Monday – Back & Biceps

Preferably to be trained in the early morning, after one solid meal or targeted protein and carbohydrate-based supplementation. Incorporate biceps routine of your choosing.

Medium-width Chin Ups: 4 x 8-12

Reverse Narrow-grip Lat Pulldowns: 3 triple-drop sets x 8-12

One Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 rest-pause sets x 8-12 (upon reaching failure, pause for 5 seconds before completing an additional rep and so on for a further 3 reps).

Deadlifts s/w Dumbbell Shrugs: 3 x 10-15

Tuesday – Chest & Triceps

Incorporate routine of your choosing.

Wednesday – Legs

Incorporate routine of your choosing.

Thursday – Back

Preferably to be train in the evening, after 4:00 pm.

Bent Over Barbell Rows: 4 x 8-12

Seated Cable Rows: 3 triple-drop sets x 8-12

Reverse Grip Chinups: 4 sets x 8-12

Behind the back Barbell Shrugs s/w Medium-width grip Lat Pulldowns: 3 x 8-12

Friday

Off

Saturday – Shoulders & Abs

Incorporate routine of your choosing.

Sunday

Off

Week 2

Monday – Back & Biceps

Preferably to be trained in the early morning, after one solid meal or targeted protein and carbohydrate-based supplementation. Incorporate biceps routine of your choosing.

Deadlifts: 4 x 8-12

Chin-ups: 4 x 8-12

Reverse narrow-grip Lat Pulldowns: 3 rest pause sets x 10-15

One Arm Dumbbell Rows: 3 triple drop sets x 8-12

Dumbbell Shrugs: 3 x 12-15

Tuesday – Chest & Triceps

Incorporate routine of your choosing.

Wednesday – Legs

Incorporate routine of your choosing.

Thursday – Back

Preferably to be train in the evening, after 4:00 pm.

Behind the back Barbell Shrugs: 4 x 15-20

Chin-ups s/w Reverse Close-grip Lat Pulldowns: 3 sets x 8-12

Reverse Grip Bent Over Barbell Row: 4 x 8-12

Seated Cable Rows: 3 triple drop sets x 8-12

Friday

Off

Saturday – Shoulders and abs

Incorporate routine of your choosing. 

Sunday

Off

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

Copyright © 2016 ALLMAX NUTRITION INC. All Rights Reserved.

PRIVACY POLICY | TERMS OF USE | RETURN POLICY

ALLMAX on Facebook  ALLMAX on Twitter  ALLMAX on Instagram  ALLMAX on YouTube  ALLMAX on Pinterest  Google Plus  RSS Feed