If you want three workouts that are guaranteed to help you build a bigger, stronger back, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. The three rules for effective back training are: 1. Do exercises for all of the major back muscles. 2. Focus on lifting heavy weights. 3. Emphasize progressive overload.
  2. The best back exercises are those that allow you to safely move heavy loads and most increase your strength.
  3. If you’re an intermediate+ weightlifter and you want to get the most out of your back training, work in multiple rep ranges and with weights ranging from 70 to 90 percent of your one-rep max.

I used to be like most guys in the gym.

So many reps for my chest and arms, and so very few for my legs and back.

Here’s what seven years of that got me:

back workouts

To be fair, I think I looked okay, but that’s not exactly what I was expecting to see after 1,500+ hours of training.

Soon after this picture was taken, I got my act together, educated myself on the science of building muscle, losing fat, and staying lean, changed just about everything I was doing, and here’s me a few years later:

back workout routine

back workouts for men

It shouldn’t have taken 10+ years to get here but hey, better late than never, right?

Well, in this article, I’m going to share with you a few of the vital lessons I’ve learned for building an impressive back in particular, along with a workout routine that you can implement right away and see immediate results.

Here’s the first lesson:

It takes a lot more work than most of us realize to develop major muscle groups like the back, pecs, shoulders, and legs into something special.

And in the case of the back, it takes a lot more than the smattering of high-rep sets of lat pulldowns and dumbbell rows that I used to do every week.

So, if you want to know how I dramatically improved my back and how you can build a back you can be proud of too, then keep reading.

By the end of this article, you’re going to understand the most important aspects of back training and how to build effective back workouts, and you’re also going to get a ready-made back workout routine that you can put into immediate use in the gym.

So let’s get to it, starting with the three most important rules of back training.

The 3 Most Important Rules of Back Training

Most guys (and some gals) say they want a bigger and better back, but their workout routines say otherwise.

Few do more than a handful of sets of pulling per week, let alone dedicate entire workouts to it, and most of their efforts are focused on high-rep isolation exercises like machine and cable rows and shrugs and bodyweight “finishers” like pull-ups or chin-ups.

This can work well enough in the beginning, but once they exhaust their newbie gains, progress grinds to a halt. Eventually, they find themselves stuck in the rut of doing the same thing week after week—the same exercises, weights, and reps—with no progress to show for it.

This is exactly where I was at several years ago (and not just with my back but every major muscle group, really), and here are the three most important changes that made all the difference:

  1. I started focusing on exercises that train the entire back.
  2. I started focusing on lifting heavy weights.
  3. I started focusing on progressive overload.

Let’s look at each.

Back Training Lesson #1
Do Exercises That Train the Entire Back

Here’s your average back workout:

  1. Lat pulldowns.
  2. More lat pulldowns.
  3. We’re on a roll, let’s finish with some lat pulldowns.

Well, the lat pulldown is a fine exercise and can help you develop a V-taper, but if you make it the staple of your back training, you’re not going to get very far because it doesn’t adequately engage all the major muscle groups in the back, and especially in the middle and lower regions.

Here’s a visual to show you what I’m talking about:

back workouts

Womp womp womp.

The reality is an effective back workout should train the lats, of course, but shouldn’t emphasize them over everything else, including the trapezius, rhomboids, and erector spinae.

To understand why, let’s look at some anatomy. Here’s how the prime movers in your back look:

back muscles And here’s how the erector spinae fit in:

back muscle anatomy

There are also a few smaller muscles that factor into your overall back function and development, such as the teres major and minor, and the infraspinatus, which you can see here:

small back muscles

The goal in terms of overall back development, then, looks like this:

  • Large traps that establish and frame the upper back.
  • Wide lats that extend low down the torso, creating that pleasing V-taper.
  • Bulky rhomboids that create middle-of-the-back “valleys,” and especially when flexed.
  • Clear development and separation in the teres muscles and infraspinatus.
  • A thick, “Christmas tree” structure in the lower back.

To get there, you’re going to have to get a lot of things right in your back training, not the least of which being exercise choice. Just about any back exercise will involve most or all of the major and minor back muscles, but some exercises emphasize certain muscles more than others.

For example, the straight-arm pulldown emphasizes the lats, the dumbbell row emphasizes the traps, and the chin-up emphasizes both.

We’ll get to specific exercises and workout programming soon, but effective back training boils down to this: Doing a lot of heavy horizontal and vertical pulling.

You need to do a lot of both because horizontal pulling tends to emphasize the muscles that contribute to the thickness of the back, like the erector spinae, traps, and rhomboids, while vertical pulling tends to emphasize the muscles that contribute to width, like the lats.

Back Training Rule #2
Focus on Lifting Heavier Weights

I used to think that heavy, lower-rep lifting was for building strength, not gaining size.

I was wrong.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the last decade of studying, training, and coaching others is this:

As a natural weightlifter, your number one long-term goal should be increasing your whole-body strength.

So long as you make that your primary focus in your training, you’ll have no trouble gaining the size you want.

The reason for this is while you can gain a fair amount of size in the beginning without gaining much strength, once you graduate to an intermediate lifter, strength and size become closely correlated.

In other words, once your “honeymoon phase” is over and your body is no longer hyper-responsive to resistance training, you’re going to have to get a lot stronger if you want to continue getting bigger.

How do you best do that?

Well, while exercise science is complex and there are many more questions than answers, the evidence is clear on this one: Heavy resistance training is the most effective way to get stronger.

And that’s why us natural weightlifters need to do a lot of heavy weightlifting if we want to gain significant amounts of muscle and strength.

This isn’t a special rule just for the back, either. It applies equally to every major muscle group in the body, including the smaller, more stubborn ones like the shoulders, calves, and arms.

Therefore, if you want to get a deep, wide, and thick back as quickly as possible, then you want to get a strong back as quickly as possible, and that means doing a lot of heavy pulling.

And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8 to 10 (75%) to 4 to 6 (85%) reps.

If you’re new to proper weightlifting (less than one year of training under your belt), you could focus exclusively on the 4-to-6 rep range and do fantastically.

Once you’re an intermediate weightlifter, though, you can benefit from adding some higher-rep work into your routines. (There are several reasons for this, but they go a bit beyond the scope of this article. If you want to dive into the physiology, though, check out this article to learn more.)

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his back workouts and has lats like barn doors . . . What gives?”

Unfortunately, steroid use is rampant in this space, and especially among competitors, models, and social media influencers, and these drugs change everything.

With the right anabolic cocktail, you can sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing set after set, exercise after exercise, and your muscles will just get bigger and bigger. (A bit of reductive, I know, but more accurate than inaccurate.)

It’s not so simple for us mortals, but don’t be discouraged.

You absolutely can build a great back drug-free with a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience.

Back Training Rule #3
Emphasize Progressive Overload

As you now know, if you stop getting stronger, you’ll eventually stop getting bigger.

That’s why you must make progressive overload the key focus of your training.

In simple terms, progressive overload is the progressive increasing of tension levels in the muscle fibers over time, and research shows it’s the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth.

Therefore, you can do all of the drop sets, supersets, eccentric sets, and other fancy training techniques you want, but if you don’t get progressive overload right, you’re always going to struggle to gain muscle effectively.

How do you get it right?

Simple: you gradually increase the amount of weight you’re lifting over time. In other words, you get stronger.

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The 7 Best Back Exercises

best back exercises for mass

You now know that our primary aims in our back training are to lift heavy weights and progressively overload our back muscles.

Some exercises are better suited to these goals than others because they heavily involve several major back muscles and allow you to safely move heavier and heavier loads. These exercises are, unsurprisingly, mostly compound movements, and should be the bread and butter of your back workouts.

Let’s take a look at each.

Barbell Deadlift

There’s a good reason the deadlift is at the core of any great weightlifting program.

It’s not only one of the best back exercises you can do, it’s one of the single best exercises you can do, period.

My back was weak and underdeveloped until I started really working on my deadlift. Now, several years later, I believe my back is one of the stronger aspects of my physique, and I attribute a lot of that to the deadlift.

Many people shy away from it, though, mostly because it’s hard, but also because they’ve heard it’s inherently bad for your lower back or even dangerous.

This fear makes sense at first glance. Lifting hundreds of pounds off the ground—putting all that pressure on your back, particularly your low-back and erector spinae muscles—should be a recipe for thoracic and lumbar disaster, right?

Well, research shows otherwise. When performed with good form, the deadlift is a fantastic way to build lower back strength and prevent injury.

What about deadlift style? Should you pull conventional style or sumo?

Here’s a video on what proper conventional deadlift form looks like:

And here’s the sumo version:

The style you choose should depend mostly on your preferences. Whichever feels most comfortable and allows you to pull the most weight is probably the best choice.

That said, if you’ve injured your back in the past or have a back-related disease or dysfunction, you may not want to deadlift at all. In this case, you should consult with a sports doctor to see if it will or won’t work for you.

Also, if you’re going to be doing a lot of deadlifting, you should also take a few minutes to learn about your grip options because as the weights get heavier, it becomes more and more important.

Check out this article to learn more:

How to Find the Best Deadlift Grip For You

Barbell Row

The barbell row is a staple in my back workouts because it trains everything in the back, from stem to stern.

Here’s how to do the conventional barbell row:

And I personally prefer a variant called a Pendlay row because it entails a larger range of motion than the more upright row. Here’s how it looks:

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is one of my favorite back exercises because, like the barbell row, it allows you to safely overload your upper back with a large range of motion.

It also helps prevent muscle imbalances by training each side of the back independently, preventing one side from overpowering the other, and involves the biceps more than other types of rows you can do.

Here’s how to do it:

T-Bar Row

The t-bar row is similar to the barbell row, but it places less strain on your spinal erectors and allows you to focus more on your upper back and arms.

This makes it particularly good for later in your back workouts, after your lower back is bushed from big movements like the deadlift and barbell row.

You can do it with a barbell and v-bar attachment, like this:

Or simply use a hammer strength t-bar machine, which looks like this:

t-bar row machine

Pull-Up and Chin-Up

The pull-up is a simple but effective exercise for developing your back, and especially the lats. The chin-up is a worthwhile variation that places more emphasis on the biceps.

Here’s how to do the pull-up:

And here’s how to do the chin-up:

As far as the grip goes, the narrower your grip, the more your biceps have to work, and the wider it is, the more your lats and traps are challenged. That’s why I like to do a bit of both (narrow and wide) in my vertical pulling.

I also like to add weight to make the exercises more difficult. You can squeeze a dumbbell between your thighs up to a point, but as the weights get heavier, you eventually need a dip belt.

Lat Pulldown (Wide- and Close-Grip)

The lat pulldown is a machine variant of the pull-up that allows you to work in lower rep ranges more easily (because you can easily increase the load beyond your body weight). It’s also good for building up to being able to do pull-ups and chin-ups.

Here’s how to do the wide-grip version:

And here’s how to do the close-grip version:

(You can also use the narrow grip attachment for these).

Seated Cable Row (Wide- and Close-Grip)

The seated row is yet another style of row that’s great for building your upper back.

Here’s how you do the close-grip version:

And here’s how to do the wide-grip version:

Standing Pushdown

The last exercise I want to share with you is the standing pushdown. It’s one of my favorite exercises for isolating the lats, which can be very stubborn.

Here’s how to do it:

The Hypertrophy-Power-Strength Back Workouts

In this back workout routine, you’re going to train your back once per week, and you’re going to rotate between three different kinds of workouts (in the following order):

1. Back Hypertrophy Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 8-to-10 rep range (~75% of 1RM) for all exercises, and have the option to include several rest-pause sets, as well.

2. Back Power Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 2-to-3 rep range (~90% of 1RM) for your first exercise, and the 4-to-6 range (85% of 1RM) for the rest.

3. Back Strength Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 4-to-6 rep range for all exercises.

Don’t let the names of these workouts throw you off, by the way. All three will stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth), power, and strength, but will emphasize different elements.

Here are the workouts:

Back Hypertrophy Workout

Optional: Turn your last set of each exercise into a rest-pause set.

Barbell Row

Warm up and 3 sets of . . .

8 to 10 reps (~75% of 1RM)

Dumbbell Row

3 sets of . . .

8 to 10 reps

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up

3 sets of . . .

8 to 10 reps

(Do as many as you can if you can’t get at least 8 reps, and add weight if you can do more than 10.)

Standing Lat Pushdown

3 sets of . . .

8 to 10 reps

Back Power Workout

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets of . . .  

2 to 3 reps (~90% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)

Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps

Dumbbell Row

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps

Back Strength Workout

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps

Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps

Close-Grip Cable Row

3 sets of . . .  

4 to 6 reps

And a few odds and ends on how to do these workouts:

You shouldn’t go to absolute muscle failure every set.

Muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set.

The subject of how often you should train to failure is controversial, and I break it all down in this article, but here’s the gist:

We should take most of our sets to a point close to failure (one or two reps shy), and we should rarely take sets to the point of absolute failure.

If you’re new to weightlifting it can be hard to find this “sweet spot,” but you’ll get a better feel for it as you gain experience on the exercises you’re doing regularly.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than two to three sets per workout, and never on the squat, deadlift, bench press, or military press, as it can be dangerous.

Instead, I reserve my failure sets for isolation exercises like pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and t-bar rows, and it’s usually a natural consequence of pushing for progressive overload as opposed to deliberate programming.

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.

This is how you ensure that you’re progressively overloading your muscles.

For instance, if you’re doing the Strength workout and get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your deadlift, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can pull it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight on the bar.

Rest 4 minutes in between your 2-to-3-rep sets, 3 minutes in between your 4-to-6-rep sets, and 2 minutes in between your 8-to-10-rep sets.

Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.

This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

Make sure you’re eating enough food.

You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total calorie intake plays a major role as well.

Read this article to learn more.

The Hypertrophy-Power-Strength Back Workout Routine

This back workout routine is simple but effective.

For 12 weeks, I want you to rotate between these three workouts—hypertrophy, power, strength—doing one per week. Thus, you’ll do each workout a total of 4 times over the course of 3 months.

I also want you to deload as needed (read this article to learn more).

Here’s how this will look:

back workout routine

Once you’ve completed this 12-week training block (mesocycle), you have two options:

  1. You can keep following the routine if you’re seeing good gains.
  2. You can change it up for the next 12 weeks, doing the Hypertrophy workout once per week for 4 weeks, followed by the Power workout once per week for 4 weeks, followed by the Strength workout once per week for 4 weeks.

The first option is straightforward—you just keep plugging along.

If you want to go through the second option, though, here’s what that would look like:

best back workout routine

And in terms of fitting these workouts into your overall workout routine, here are a few pointers:

  • Don’t do a back workout the day before or after a heavy squat workout. If you do it before, the lower back fatigue is going to interfere with your squatting. If you do it after, the lower back and hamstring fatigue are going to interfere with your deadlifting and rowing. Put at least one day in between these workouts (two is optimal).
  • If you want to maximize back development, make your back workout the first of the week, when you’re freshest.
  • If you miss one of the workouts for whatever reason, don’t skip it. Do it on your next training day (or the following week, if you can’t squeeze it in elsewhere in the week), and carry on.

What About Supplements?

I saved this part for last because it’s the least important.

The truth is most supplements for building muscle and losing fat are worthless.

Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.

That said, if you know how to drive muscle growth with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process.

Here are the ones I use and recommend:

ATLAS Mass Gainer

In an ideal world, we’d get all of our daily calories from carefully prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, and we’d have the time to sit down, slow down, and savor each and every bite.

In the real world, though, we’re usually rushing from one obligation to another and often forget to eat anything, let alone the optimal foods for building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy.

That’s why meal replacement and “weight gainer” supplements and protein bars and snacks are more popular than ever.

Unfortunately, most contain low-quality protein powders and large amounts of simple sugars and unnecessary junk.

That’s why I created ATLAS.

It’s a delicious “weight gainer” (meal replacement) supplement that provides you with 38 grams of high-quality protein per serving, along with 51 grams of nutritious, food-based carbohydrates, and just 6 grams of natural fats, as well as 26 micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that help you feel and perform your best.

ATLAS is also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored as well, and contains no chemical dyes, cheap fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet, then you want to try ATLAS today.

RECHARGE Post-Workout Supplement

recharge creatine supplement

RECHARGE is a 100% natural post-workout supplement that helps you gain muscle and strength faster, and recover better from your workouts.

Once it’s had time to accumulate in your muscles (about a week of use), the first thing you’re going to notice is increased strength and anaerobic endurance, less muscle soreness, and faster post workout muscle recovery.

And the harder you can train in your workouts and the faster you can recover from them, the more muscle and strength you’re going to build over time.

Furthermore, RECHARGE doesn’t need to be cycled, which means it’s safe for long-term use, and its effects don’t diminish over time.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to be able to push harder in the gym, train more frequently, and get more out of your workouts, then you want to try RECHARGE today.

WHEY+ Protein Powder

Whey protein powder is a staple in most athletes’ diets for good reason.

It’s digested quickly, it’s absorbed well, it has a fantastic amino acid profile, and it’s easy on the taste buds.

Not all whey proteins are created equal, though.

Whey concentrate protein powder, for example, can be as low as 30% protein by weight, and can also contain a considerable amount of fat and carbs.

And the more fat and carbs you’re drinking, the less you can actually enjoy in your food.

Whey isolate protein powder, on the other hand, is the purest whey protein you can buy. It’s 90%+ protein by weight and has almost no fat or carbs.

Another benefit of whey isolate is it contains no lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.

Well, WHEY+ is a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.

It contains no GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk, and it tastes delicious and mixes great.

So, if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.

whey protein supplement

PULSE Pre-Workout

Is your pre-workout simply not working anymore?

Are you sick and tired of pre-workout drinks that make you sick and tired?

Have you had enough of upset stomachs, jitters, nausea, and the dreaded post-workout crash?

Do you wish your pre-workout supplement gave you sustained energy and more focus and motivation to train? Do you wish it gave you noticeably better workouts and helped you hit PRs?

If you’re nodding your head, then you’re going to love PULSE.

It increases energy, improves mood, sharpens mental focus, increases strength and endurance, and reduces fatigue…without unwanted side effects or the dreaded post-workout crash.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

Lastly, it contains no proprietary blends and each serving delivers nearly 20 grams of active ingredients scientifically proven to improve performance.

So, if you want to feel focused, tireless, and powerful in your workouts…and if you want to say goodbye to the pre-workout jitters, upset stomachs, and crashes for good…then you want to try PULSE today.

pulse pre-workout

The Bottom Line on the Best Back Workouts

Building a bigger and better back doesn’t require overly complex workout plans, endless hours in the gym, or drugs.

So long as you do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting and horizontal and vertical pulling, and so long as you achieve adequate progressive overload, you’ll do fantastically. And that’s exactly what this back workout routine will do for you.

You’ll also want to make sure you eat enough food and get enough sleep, and if you want an extra boost, take the right supplements, too.

Do all of that, and I promise you’ll be happy with the results.

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What’s your take on back workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!