Building a big chest or bulging biceps is a walk in the park compared to forging an impressive back, this is the case because the majority of guys don't know how to train their back correctly for both width and thickness, so they end up with a slight V taper from lat pulldowns and pull-ups however the back development just isn't there.
Most guys neglect their back when training as they can’t see it so they don’t prioritise it like they do with chest and arms.
Understanding the Anatomy of your Back
Your back is comprised of 4 main muscles, these include:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Erector Spine
In order to have an impressive back all 4 muscles must be well developed, as I mentioned earlier you can't just focus on hitting the lats and neglect your traps and rhomboids (as your back will have no real thickness or definition, only width).
Over the years my back certainly has been one body part that has lagged behind, since I've focused on training it correctly however it is coming up to speed, here's how it's looking at the moment:
Principles of back training
Rowing movements are aimed towards developing the THICKNESS of your back.
Pulling movements are aimed towards developing the WIDTH of your lower back.
Close grip movements works in closer to spine.
Wide grip works the outer portion of your back.
The 3 best back exercises for mass
There's a plethora of back exercises out there and they certainly do not offer the same results in terms of back development.
The following 3 exercises I'm recommending you perform below form the foundation of my back workouts - my back has come a long way since I disregarded the pulldown machine and light cable rows - if you want a big back you have to train like it.
Pull-ups are a functional exercise and in my opinion are the best back exercise for upper back mass.
If you can't perform weighted pull-ups perform bodyweight pull-ups, if you can't perform body-weight pull-ups perform assisted pull-ups or simply jump up and grab the bar while focusing on the negative portion of each repetition.
The only way to get better at pull-ups is to do them! Don't skip pull-ups simply because you find them a struggle (I recall repping out sets of weighted dips with a 45lb plate before I could even perform 1 proper form wide grip pull-up, so don't get discouraged!).
If your entire workout regime was limited to 3 exercises I'd stress that the deadlift be one of them.
Now, when performing the deadlift it's paramount that you start off light and learn the correct form - jumping straight into an unmanageable weight to feed your ego is a sure-fire way to end up with an injured lower back.
Bent Over Barbell Row
The barbell row is a godsend, working every portion of the back (from your trapezius to your erector spine).
There's a few different 'styles' of bent over row with my personal favourite being the 'Pendlay Row', as I've had lower back issues in the past 'resetting' the bar by allowing it to touch the ground between each repetition allows me to lift as heavy as possible while mitigating the constant stress being placed on the lower back which is the case with the traditional bent over row form.
When performing the barbell row I keep my body as parallel to the floor as possible, this allows full engagement of the rhomboids, which isn't achieved when you're in a more upright position (you'll find most guys do these basically upright but with a very slight bend in their knees).
Rep ranges & sets
If you've read any of my other training articles or my most recent book, BEASTMODE you'll know that I'm a big advocate of low rep training.
From my own experience I can tell you that high repetition sets on the lat pulldown machine and drop sets of dumbbell rows are not going to give you the maximum bang for your buck when it comes to building that killer back that you're after.
The key is to perform the 3 exercises I listed above with HEAVY weight for LOW REPS.
You should be performing 4 - 5 sets of each of these exercises within the 4 - 7 rep range (this will be roughly 80 - 85% of the weight you use for your 1 rep maximum).
Keep your workouts intense, allow a couple of minutes rest between each set so you're able to continue to use the same weight (maximizing muscular recovery time) however don't slack off.
If your back is on par with the rest of your physique train it as normal once per week, if your back is lagging behind (like mine was) implement priority training and hit it twice per week (the second workout can be before/after training one of your other body parts such as chest or legs).
Common back training mistakes
Like I said, very few gym goers have a commendable back - this comes down to lack of effort and incorrect knowledge, the following are the most common back training mistakes I see being made:
Placing far to much emphasis isolation movements
One arm cable rows, rope pull-downs for the lats and similar exercises are unnecessary when you're hitting your big heavy compound lifts.
A heavy bent over barbell row will add a lot more thickness and overall mass to your upper back than a seated one arm cable row ever will - time is to be invested into the exercises that get results.
Lifting far too light for high repetitions
Performing in excess of 10 reps per set for your back exercises means you're simply not lifting heavy enough and the back is not being overloaded as it should be in order to force both muscle and strength gains.
Not contracting the back during each movement
When performing a row or a pull-up the key is to attempt to squeeze or pinch your shoulder blades together to contract the back muscles.
Lifting the weight and just focusing on pulling while not actually contracting the muscles is a common back training mistake - ensure you're getting that contraction on each and every rep you perform.
Performing excessive amounts of drop and super sets
This comes back down the aforementioned issue with lifting in a high rep range - you simply aren't lifting heavy enough.
Performing drop sets and super sets with exercises like the deadlift and bent over barbell row also place your in a much higher risk of lower back injury (due to apparent lower back fatigue, bad form as you attempt to smash out the last few reps etc.).
Rounding of the back and no regard for their lower back
Form is your #1 priority when it comes to any exercise, the weight you are lifting is secondary.
Do not compromise your form for weight whatsoever. Ensure your back is not rounded, maintain good posture and protect your lower back at all costs.