Why Care About a Strong Back?
The back is one of the most important parts of your body in regards to performing daily tasks. A strong back will allow you to pick up your kids, carry objects, help your friends move, do yard work and other chores, and enjoy a life of less pain. And if we’re being honest, having a muscular back also flat out looks good, on both men and women.
If you have huge arms, a bulging chest, but little back development, not only is it a recipe for pain and imbalances down the road, but it also just doesn’t look great. For both men and women, symmetry is at the top of the list of most attractive traits in the opposite sex, and no one wants to be that guy or gal who looks like they skip back day.
Another important consideration for having a strong back is how much it translates to strength in non back-focused movements like the bench press and the squat. The thicker and stronger your upper back is, the more potential bench press strength you can build. The greatest benchers of all time all have massive backs. For a barbell back squat, back strength is often the limiting factor. For maximum results on a squat, you want your legs to be the limiting factor. Failing because of a week back results in leaving leg gains on the table, or worse, a back injury.
Finally, a strong back will provide some insurance to your spinal health in the case of an accident or incident. Although anyone can injure their spine in a high speed collision, a fall from height, or other unforeseen accident, the injury severity for a person with a strong back will be less than that of someone with a weak back (assuming the same mechanism of injury).
For Beginners and Intermediates
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to start by addressing back training considerations for beginners and intermediates (people who have been training effectively for 5 years or less). Those who fall into this population truly need to focus solely on the following:
-Barbell Rows (vary grips from time to time)
-Pull-ups (vary grips from time to time)
I still suggest reading this article if you fall into this category, but just keep in mind that it’s really that simple when you’re just starting out. Of course, this will get boring at some point and you’re welcome to implement anything you see within this article into your back training, but overall, it’s likely unnecessary, and I don’t want to cause paralysis by analysis.
The Back; It’s More Than Just One Muscle
Before diving into the main considerations one must make for developing a strong, muscular back, a brief breakdown of back anatomy is necessary. I’ll be sure to keep it simple and include only pertinent information without turning this article into a full anatomy lesson.
The back, for simplicity’s sake, can be broken down into three sections; upper back, mid back, and lower back. Each of these sections include multiple different muscles, and therefore different exercise selection requirements and movement cues in order to fully maximize back development.
*Note: there are more muscles on the back than what is listed below. The back includes many intrinsic (or deep) musculature that are just as important, but not visible. These muscles will strengthen with proper back training. In total, the back has 40 muscles (20 pairs).
The upper back contains the most muscles of any part of the back. The main muscles pertinent to this article are the rear delts (technically shoulders, but play a vital role in back development), upper/mid traps, levator scapulae, infraspinatus, rhomboids and the teres (major/minor). The scapulae (aka shoulder blades or scaps) are the bones on each side of your upper back that connect the clavicles (collar bones) to the humerus (upper arm bones), and are also very important to keep in mind for upper back training. For simplicity, i’ll refer to them as scaps throughout the rest of this article.
The mid back consists of just the lats and the lower traps, each of which are visible.
The lower back consists of the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum (QL). The QL is not a show muscle, but a very important one not to neglect.
As you can see, the upper back has a ton of different muscles. Fortunately, there’s no need to target each one individually, so long as you’re considering angles and lines of pull (more on it below).
Here’s a graphic depiction of the back muscles (note: Levator Scapulae, Rhomboids, QL not visible)
Don’t Neglect The Back
The back often gets neglected, but not not necessarily because people skip back day (although it does seem to get skipped more than chest and arms). There are three main reasons people subconsciously neglect their back:
1- The back muscles aren’t mirror muscles. You can’t see your back in a standard mirror, and the average gym goer tends to train muscles they can see in the mirror more often and more thoroughly.
2- The back is not just one muscle. It’s a massive muscle group composed of many different muscles that, unless you’re a beginner or intermediate, require a lot of different considerations in order to adequately stimulate all of them. Don’t worry - keep reading to learn all about them.
3- The back muscles are difficult to connect to mentally (mind-muscle connection). This is partly due to the lifter’s inability to see them in the mirror (sounds like broscience, but muscles you can see are easier to connect to). It’s also difficult to connect to individual muscles like the lats and rear delts, as well as learn how to retract, protract, and lock in your scapulae (shoulder blades). These nuances don’t need to be a main focus for beginners but become important for more advanced lifters wanting to develop their back as much as possible.
Back Training Requires More Thinking
Because the back contains many different muscles that serve many different functions, more thought must go into back training than most other muscle groups. Fortunately, there are only 3 different movement patterns required to adequately stimulate the back muscles; vertical pulling, horizontal pulling, and hinging.
It’s a Game of Angles
There are also many angles of pull between vertical and horizontal that can and should be considered. The angles at which the pulls are made, along with the angles of your elbows compared to your torso are the most important considerations for setting up an effective back workout. Generally speaking, a vertical pull will target the lats more, a horizontal pull will target the upper back more, and a hinge will target the lower back more. But there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, as the target muscle can be easily manipulated with a slight shift in elbow and/or hand position.
An elbow close to the body with a neutral or underhand grip will result in more lat activation. This applies to both vertical and horizontal pulling.
An elbow at ~45 degrees from the body and an overhand grip will result in more rear delt activation, and also involve the upper back. This mostly applies to horizontal pulling but certainly can be applied to a vertical pull.
An elbow at ~60-70 degrees from the torso (higher is ok too, but only if you have great mobility) will target the upper back muscles, and secondarily the rear delts.
The hand positions are not dogma, there are exceptions. Rotating handles, rings or dumbbells also tend to be more joint (wrist, elbow, shoulder) friendly.
To keep it really simple, for lat work, the scaps shouldn’t move much. They should be in a relatively locked position. A cue I like to use for this is to do a reverse shrug, where instead of bringing your traps to your ears, you pack them down and back which locks your scaps into place.
For upper back work, free movement of the scaps is ideal. In the lengthened position (start of the movement) they roll forward (protract), and in the shortened position (end of the movement/squeeze) they roll back (retract).
How to Build an Elite Back
Now that you’re familiar with each individual area of the back and considerations for angles and cues, let’s get into the good stuff: Exercises for the back. A strong, well developed back involves both thickness (front to back) and width (side to side). Obviously, to have visible back muscles, you also need to be lean.
For back thickness, think spinal erectors all the way up to the traps. These muscles are closer to the midline of the back and will not only make your back look impressive, but also protect your spine and even make your other, non back focused lifts (like a barbell squat and bench press) stronger. While it’s quite obvious that big deadlifters also have thick, well developed backs, there’s also not a single powerlifter on earth with impressive bench press or squat numbers that also has a weak back.
Back Width will derive mostly from lat, and to a lesser extent, teres development. It’s important to note that genetics play a significant role in how your lats will look. A narrow waist and wide shoulders (both of which are highly genetic) will create an illusion of a wider back (assuming the lats are also well developed). Many people jokingly refer to big, sweeping lats as wings. They originate and insert in the same places on everyone, but due to anatomical variances, everyone’s lats will look a bit different. Although you can’t change their origin and insertion on your body (despite what some trainers will sadly say), you still should focus on training the upper (thoracic), mid (lumbar) and lower (iliac) lats. The best way to do this is by pulling from many different angles (horizontal, vertical, and in between) while focusing on the elbow cues listed above.
The “Best Back Movements”
Just kidding. While there is no universal “best exercise” for each part of the back (or any body part), there are some that tend to produce better results than others. The most effective movements will be slightly different from person to person. Always remember, the best exercise for your gym bro’s back may not be the best for yours (again, this goes for every single muscle group). Here are my favorite exercises to develop muscle and strength in the back.
Overall Back Movements
The deadlift: While some newer, less experienced, “by the book” trainers and coaches may disagree, the deadlift will contribute significantly to back thickness and overall muscularity. Although the prime movers in a proper deadlift are the glutes and hamstrings, and the back contraction is mostly isometric, the ability to load a deadlift heavier than any other back exercise you’ll come across is likely the reason it produces the results it does. Although potentially not causation, rather correlation, if you can show me a 600+ lbs deadlifter with poor back development, this may convince me the deadlift isn’t excellent for the back (don’t worry, you’ll never find one). Powerlifters with big deadlifts always have beefy backs, despite doing far fewer other back exercises (sure, they certainly do back accessories) than a bodybuilder, for example.
The barbell row: The barbell row is a classic, overall back developer. It’s not a mid back movement, it’s not an upper back movement, and it’s not a lower back movement. It’s simply just a back movement. Hand position and torso angle will certainly bias certain areas of the back more than others, but to build a strong, thick back, a barbell row is elite. My recommendation is to find a grip (pronated, supinated, neutral grip w/ a hex bar) that doesn’t bother your elbows and spend a lot of time early on in your training career progressively overloading the movement. Even as an advanced trainee, these have a place in your program. To really prioritize joint health, you can also use a rotating grip like Angles-90s on the bar (just note you may need to create a deficit by standing on a bumper plate or platform to get to the fully lengthened position). Dumbbells are also an option, but provide a slightly different feel. Some body English is acceptable for this movement, but try not to cheat it too much.
Carries: Farmer’s, yoke, sandbag, dball, sandbag, and odd object carries are generally more of a full body stimulus. But they all have value when it comes to strengthening the back and reducing your chance of injury. You won't build slabs of muscle from these exercises, but they can certainly help build work capacity, overall strength, and the ability to brace. They also translate to real-life strength quite significantly.
Chest supported horizontal rows: At least 1 of your back movements per workout should include a chest supported horizontal row. The best options include a machine, cable(s), dumbbells, or a hex bar (preferably a 1 sided one). The chest support will allow you to overload the upper back and not have to rely on other stabilizers (like the low back/core on a barbell row) to fatigue the target muscles. Depending on whether you’re looking to target the traps and rhomboids or the rear delts (all will be involved to a degree), apply the elbow and shoulder blade cues above, and go to work.
Upper Traps: For a lot of people with slightly above average genetics, and certainly those with elite genetics, horizontal rows (especially pulling low to high) and deadlifts will adequately grow the upper traps. But for the less genetically fortunate, direct upper trap work is likely necessary for optimal development. Shrug variations (standing, chest supported on a bench with a slight forward lean) with dumbbells are really all you need. Any shrug variation performed properly will suffice. Just ensure you’re focusing on technique and not going for ego, as shrugs done poorly will lead to shoulder/neck issues.
Vertical pulls for upper back? Yes. You can turn a vertical pull into an upper back movement by applying proper cues and, you guessed it, angles. Doing a “lat” pulldown with individual handles where you focus on bringing your shoulder blades together and your elbows behind you will indeed hit the upper back (teres, mid/low traps, rear delts). The lats will most certainly be involved as well, but a lof of people do upper back lat pulldowns without even knowing it. Chin ups (palms facing you) also work well for the upper back.
Rear delts: Many people have difficulty connecting to the rear felts, and therefore lack development. Any rear delt fly is fine (cable, machine, dumbbell) if you feel yours are lacking. Proper use of elbow position cues will also allow you to target rear delts with row variations.
For lats, the cues above are most important. Generally speaking, vertical (or somewhere near vertical) pulls will hit the lower lats, horizontal pulls will hit the upper lats, and somewhere in between (lots of options) hit the mid lats. Focusing on which part of the lat you’re hitting isn’t something most people need to consider. So long as you’re doing a combination of different lat exercises from different angles AND you develop the ability to connect to them and apply the lat cues, you’ll end up with great lats. Some of the best lat movements where elbow/shoulder cues are less important are:
Pull-ups (standard, rotating and neutral grip)
Rack chins/pull ups
Lat pulldowns (elbows in front of torso - neutral or rotating grip is great if able)
Movements where cues are more important:
Single arm cable pulldowns or rows (elbow/scap cues)
Seated cable or machine rows
Pulldown/row hybrid (think of an incline bench, but for the back)
*note: If you have difficulty connecting to the lats, or if you’re using most lat machines, single arm pulldowns or rows are often great ways to connect and ensure you have the right line of pull for your anatomy.
To hit the mid traps: most of your upper back and full back movements will suffice. But two great mid trap movements are a cable Y raise and a straight arm plate raise (all the way overhead). Different pulldown pullup and row variations will also hit the mid traps, especially those with a narrow, neutral grip.
Although deadlifts, back squats, and barbell rows will go a long way to beefing up the erectors, there are some other heavy hinges to incorporate for maximum development. I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as a lower back that’s too strong. A strong lower back will keep you less prone to injury and will improve your strength in many other movements. If you’re regularly doing deadlifts, squats and barbell rows, your lower back is probably already strong. To add to it, heavy RDLs (I’m aware these are primarily glute/ham builders) will also help build your erectors. Back extensions, good mornings, stiff leg deadlifts, Jefferson curls, and reverse hypers are also excellent for low back.
Don’t forget the QL: The QL isn’t even visible. No bodybuilder is judged by their QL development. But it’s so important for overall strength and more importantly, back health, that I'd be remiss not to mention it. Fortunately, heavy compound lifts like squat variations and deadlifts will strengthen the QL if you’ve learned how to properly brace. But I believe most people could use even a little more QL love. The prescription is simple: suitcase carries (or single arm farmer’s carries), done 2-3x a week are great for the QL. Pick a load that is challenging to carry, but allows your torso to stay upright. If you’ve never felt your QL firing before, suitcase carries will 100% change that (you’ll feel the opposite side QL to the hand you’re holding the weight with). Do a mix of heavier, shorter carries, longer, lighter carries, and even static isometric holds. You can use a kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag, torpedo, or anything else with a handle and proper load.
As a final note that applies not only to back training, but every other muscle group as well, i want to remind you to avoid redundancy. Redundancy as it applies to exercise means that during a given workout or even throughout an entire program, you want to ensure you’re not doing very similar exercises that train very similar muscles.
Example of intra workout redundancy:
Doing pull ups and lat pulldowns with the same grip in the same session, or doing 3 different chest supported upper back movements with the same line of pull and elbow position. These are essentially the same movement, stimulating the same muscles in the same way from the same angle.
Example of program redundancy:
Assuming you’re doing ~15 sets for back per week. 11 of these movements are vertical pulls, and only 4 are horizontal. Unless it’s for a specific reason, aiming for a more balanced distribution of vertical, horizontal, and in between pulls will generally be a better approach. In fact, most people could benefit from doing more (sometimes substantially more) horizontal than vertical pulls. A caveat to this is an advanced athlete with specific weaknesses, or if the plan is to switch to primarily horizontal pulls in the next training block.
Sample Back Day (not redundant)
1a) Facepulls 3x12-15 (horizontal, low fatigue, upper back)
1b) Straight arm cable pullovers 3x12-15 (vertical, low fatigue, lats)
2) Deadlift 3x5 (overall back, high fatigue)
3) Chest Supported Machine Row 3x10 (horizontal, upper/mid back, moderate fatigue)
4) Lat pulldown 3x10 (Vertical, mid back, moderate fatigue)
5) Rear Delt Cale Flys 3x12-15 (rear delt isolation, low fatigue)
To Wrap it Up
There you have it, the back in a nutshell. I realize it may seem like a lot to think about, and If you’re less advanced, just refer to paragraph 2. You can develop a great back with just progressing these three movements. But eventually, back training requires some more thought and understanding. I hope this article has convinced you to take back training seriously, and provided you with some knowledge of the practical application of how to approach a back workout or program your back training.
Thank you for reading! Hopefully this article highlighted something you can apply to your next back day. What’s your favorite back exercise? Let me know in the comments below!