Picture this: You’re a freshly minted lifter stepping into their local commercial gym for the first time, and you’re bombarded with all sorts of training advice — “Work out every day,” “skip cardio if you want to build muscle,” and “You’ve got to row to grow.” Here’s the thing: You need to let your body recover and cardio, even in a growth phase, helps you stay conditioned and healthy.
Only that last hypothetical bro is onto something legit — indeed, you need to train your back to build a bigger and stronger physique. A strong back helps to keep your spine stable during heavy deadlifts and squats; it provides a larger base to bench press from, and it creates that coveted V-taper that most lifters want. But you can’t just plop down on a lat pulldown machine, pull aimlessly, and hope to look and lift like Dorian Yates — you need a plan of attack. And below, we outline five different back workouts broken down by goal.
Best Back Workouts
Back Workout for Strength
To get strong physically, you need to lift more weight. It’s fairly simple. It’s important to prioritize compound (multi-joint) movements since they recruit more muscles overall and to rest longer between sets so you can hit each set hard. Keep in mind that lifting heavier loads for fewer reps severely taxes the nervous system and may affect how often you can train. Account for this in your weekly workout split and allow for more rest time between back sessions.
Start off performing this workout just once per week. Once you notice yourself recovering more quickly after this session, you can up the frequency to twice per week (but we don’t suggest doing this workout more than that). Do not rush through this workout; stick to the prescribed rest times so you can express maximal force and optimize your performance on each set.
- A1. Barbell Deadlift: 3 x 5 / 2 x 3, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- B1. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 5 x 5, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- C1. Weighted Pull-Up: 4 x 6, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- D1. Trap Bar Shrug to Carry: 3 x 5-8 + 50-foot walk, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
Coach’s Tip: If your lower back becomes tender or sore, do two things: First, take the time to perfect your deadlift form. Second, swap the bent-over row for a chest-supported row to give your lower back a break.
Back Workout for Muscle
Muscle growth occurs by breaking down your muscle fibers to create micro-tears and then allowing them the time to recover, so they grow bigger over time. That’s the simple explanation, at least. To elicit growth, you need to increase your muscle’s time under tension. You’ll perform more overall volume (meaning more sets and more reps) than a strength-style workout and take each set to near failure. This workout also includes supersets — which is when you perform two exercises back to back — to cram even more volume into a modest training window. By the end of the workout, you’ll have accumulated 26 sets of back work.
Perform this workout two to three times per week. As you build your base, increase your frequency, volume, and potential for muscle growth. Perform the same exercises marked as “A” and “B” back to back. Rest 60 seconds between each of the same-letter exercises and 90 seconds between same-letter supersets. For the first week, perform each move with an RIR of four (meaning you could do roughly four more reps with whatever weight you’re using). The next week, lower that to an RIR of three, then an RIR of two the week after that, and then an RIR of one. You should take every single set should be taken to absolute failure by week five or six — aka RIR zero.
- A1. Snatch-Grip Deadlift: 4 x 10-12
- A2. Lat Stretcher Pulldown: 4 x 12-15
- B1. Chest-Supported Row: 3 x 10-12
- B2. Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 12-15
- C1. Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12
- C2. Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12
- C3. Cable Face Pull: 3 x 12
- D1. Roman Chair or Back Extension: 3 x 30 seconds
Coach’s Tip: With each repetition, contract the target muscle fully and squeeze with high intent, improving the mind-muscle connection and increasing the time under tension variable to maximize growth potential.
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found no significant differences between men and women. (1) Another study suggests that men fatigue more quickly during heavy resistance training than women. (2) It’s also thought that men possess more type II muscle fibers, which typically drive more explosivity and force than type I fibers. (3) All that considered, the workout below prioritizes heavier lifts and less overall volume to account for the aforementioned tendency to tire more quickly. The reduced volume encourages strength gains and a higher power output but may not suit physically growing a muscle.
Perform this workout once or twice per week, with at least a couple of days of rest between sessions. Rest three to five minutes between sets to ensure you’re able to produce as much force as possible — the theme is quality over quantity here. The pull-ups and inverted rows will each be performed until there you have two reps left in the tank, and you’ll do lighter rear delt flyes for a hard and burning set of 12-15 reps. Rest two minutes between sets and perform three sets until those wings stop flapping. For the farmer’s walk, be sure to use a moderate to heavy load.
- A1. Deadlift: 5 x 5
- B1. Pull-Up: 3 x 2 RIR
- B2. Inverted Row: 3 x 2 RIR
- B3. Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 12-15
- C1. Farmer’s Walk: 3 x 50 feet
- C2. Roman Chair or Back Extension: 3 x 30 seconds
Coach’s Tip: If you cannot perform at least six bodyweight pull-ups, opt for the lat pulldown machine to get the most out of this workout as you build up your strength and improve your body composition to get you closer to the pull-up.
Back Workout for Women
Compared to the workout for men (above), this session will include more volume but less intensity to account for research that implies women have more Type I muscle fibers, which facilitate endurance. Along those same lines, the workout is structured as a five-exercise circuit (indicated by the letter “A”) and then concludes with a superset of renegade rows to tax the back and core, and the suitcase carry to build core strength while in motion.
Do this workout two to three times a week. On one of those training days, use heavier weights that bring you closer to failure. As you get more comfortable and stronger, you can decrease the frequency and increase the intensity or load as you prepare for the next workout. Perform in circuit fashion with a minute of rest between exercises when performing the “A” exercises in succession. Finish off with a circuit that challenges your core.
- A1. Deadlift: 3 x 10-12
- A2. Chest-Supported Row: 3 x 10-12
- A3. Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 12-15
- A4. Back Extension: 3 x 10-12
- A5. Lat Pulldown: 3 x 10-12
- B1. Renegade Row: 3 x 10-12 ea.
- B2. Suitcase Carry: 3 x 50 feet each arm
Coach’s Tip: Pick one of the days to do two more reps until you cannot do two more. This will give you a more accurate understanding of how hard you are currently training and how much more weight you can actually handle. Again, we urge you to start slow, challenge yourself and work towards your threshold to see more favorable progress.
Back Workout With Dumbbells
Dumbbells are a great training tool. They offer degrees of freedom in movement compared to a barbell with the hands in a fixed position. A pair of dumbbells is more convenient — and makes a great addition to a home gym. One pair is all you need to target your muscles from a variety of angles. You don’t need a host of kettlebells, cable gyms, and other free weights to build a big back, and this workout proves it.
Perform this workout twice a week and aim to lift heavier dumbbells week to week. If you have only one set of dumbbells or a limited selection, you can instead increase the sets or the reps with the same weight. Also, there’s no direct lower back work, but your spinal erectors will be under constant tension as all of these movements hold a hinged position. You may also be irked by the lack of a deadlift. Yes, the deadlift can build great back muscles, but it also primarily focuses on your hamstrings, glutes, and core.
The movements below all specifically target your back musculature but in a hinge position. The first exercise will take care of the meat of the back as you rest one to two minutes between sets. The following three movements will chisel the back and add detailing, keeping the rest between exercises to a minimum and resting one to two minutes between sets.
Coach’s Tip: As we say above, if your weights only go so high, then aim to add a rep to each set for about four weeks. Once you’ve reached four weeks, drop the rep count back down to the original number and add a set. Repeat this process.
You can’t see it, but your back is the literal backbone of your being. Here are some benefits of back workouts (aka reasons to actually train the back muscles).
According to the National Institute of Health, one in four adults in the U.S. experienced at least one day of back pain (in 2017). Fast forward to 2021, and things aren’t looking much better. TechCrunch found that consumers spend 4.2 hours per day looking at an app on their mobile device — a habit that facilitates a head-down position. That slouched posture can lead to headaches, back and neck pain, and maybe even fatigue.
One study found that a targeted exercise program — in this instance, one that included isometric training and stretching focused on the back — relieved back and neck pain related to poor posture. (4) Anecdotally, your back muscles pull your shoulder blades together and support your neck — stronger back muscles can reinforce better posture.
You don’t need a study to tell you that your spine is pretty darn important and worth taking care of. Your back muscles surround your spine and keep it stable when you do exercises that flex and compress it (squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings). To keep your spine safe, you need to brace during these types of movements.
When most people hear “brace, they think of squeezing their abs, which isn’t wrong. That said, the core also comprises your lower back muscles (think of your core as a belt), and so strengthening them also allows you to brace more effectively. And remember, brace = safe.
A More Aesthetic Physique
A larger back widens your physique, which makes your waist look smaller and shoulders look broader. Because the back is an amalgam of many muscles, a bigger, denser back looks like a series of peaks and valleys that, simply put, looks pretty cool. A bigger back gives you more real estate to rest a heavy barbell on for back squats for strength purposes. The back is also involved in bench-pressing, with the lats acting as springs that explode the barbell off of your chest.
Many muscles make up the back and protect your spine. The back musculature is also of prime importance as the scapula, a joint that relies on the back musculature to position itself for optimal mechanics and leverages when performing shoulder exercise and movements of any sort. The back consists of:
The traps, as they’re commonly called, elevate the scapula, particularly the upper trapezius, as trap bar shrugs and carries are included to build popping traps.
The Latissimus Dorsi
The lats are built with vertical pulls such as pull-ups and pulldowns. Aesthetically, larger lats create more of a V-shape, making the waist appear smaller and the shoulders larger.
The Spinal Erectors
These smaller muscles border each side of your spine in the lower back. They resist flexion, helping to keep your spine stable during heavy compound movements and while in motion.
The Rear Delts, Teres Major, and Rhomboids
These smaller upper back muscles are less powerful than the muscles listed above, though prominent in appearance adding impressive detailing to the back. They work to horizontally abduct the arms at the shoulder joint and retract the scapula. The inclusion of the chest-supported machine row builds that width and detailing necessary to pack muscle on the upper back.
A warm-up increases the heart rate and prepares each muscle group for high force output and maximal effort. Warm muscles are more pliable muscles and less prone to injury. Before upper body training, it’s important to tax some rotator cuff muscles to ensure activation of deep internal stabilizers, which offer support and protect the joint. After all, the ball-and-socket shoulder joint is not as stable compared to the more stable hip joint as other joints, but in turn, presents greater mobility.
More Back Training Tips
There are a lot of ways to target you back for more strength and muscle. The workouts above are simply a starting point in a much longer workout journey. Here are some other training articles to help you to train your back.
- Roberts, Brandon M.1; Nuckols, Greg2; Krieger, James W.3 Sex Differences in Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2020 – Volume 34 – Issue 5 – p 1448-1460 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003521
- Häkkinen K. Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in male and female athletes during heavy resistance exercise. Int J Sports Med. 1993 Feb;14(2):53-9. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1021146. PMID: 8463025.
- Lundsgaard A-M and Kiens B (2014) Gender differences in skeletal muscle substrate metabolism – molecular mechanisms and insulin sensitivity. Front. Endocrinol. 5:195. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2014.00195
- Kim D, Cho M, Park Y, Yang Y. Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(6):1791-1794. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.1791
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