Back Exercises: How to Build as Much Muscle as Possible

Back Exercises: How to Build as Much Muscle as Possible

Everyone is interested in knowing Back Exercises that will help them build as much muscle as possible and strengthen this complex muscle group in the gym.

Who does not like a well-built back? A big and wide back with muscle density… But, what is the best back routine?

Before getting into the exercises, it is important to know that the back is an area that is made up by many muscles that perform several functions.

Back Muscles

Traditionally, back muscles have been classified as intrinsic and extrinsic depending on their function and anatomical structure.

In this case, we will be more interested in planning a back routine focused on the extrinsic muscles: trapezius, rhomboid major and minor, levator scapulae, serratus posterior superior and inferior and specially the latissimus dorsi.

This is the muscle whose growth is going to result in a wide and strong back!

Back Muscles posterior view

Figure I. Anatomical representation of the back muscles, posterior view (Netter, 2006).

Each back muscle has a specific function. Sometimes, several muscles share a same function and they help each other.

That is why it is impossible to isolate a muscle group, no matter how much your colleagues try to tell you otherwise.

A wide and strong back

We are going to focus on the 3 muscles that are mostly involved in the aspect of our back.

Also, I am not going to cover anatomical aspects in order to make the article more accessible, so, without further ado:

  • Latissimus Dorsi: It mainly extends the shoulder (++), retracts it (sticks the arms to the body) (++) and rotates it internally (+).
  • Trapezius: It tends to be divided in superior, medium and inferior, since it occupies a lot of space. The most interesting parts for us are the medium (which retracts the scapulae) and inferior part (which depresses the scapula).
  • Rhomboid major: Retracts (++) and raises the scapula (+)
  • Rhomboid minor: Retracts (+) and raises the scapula (++)
Why is all this important? Because we need to know their functions in order to know the back exercises we have to do at the gym.

How to exercise your Back

Before we begin, there are no back exercises for women, they have to do the same exercises as men.

The anatomy of the posterior part of the trunk is the same for both sexes.

We bring you the best exercises to build your back muscles from the top to the bottom!

Traditionally, back exercises have been divided into vertical pull exercises (lat pulldown, pull ups, pullovers…) and horizontal pull exercises (rowing). The first ones will improve the width of the back and the second ones will improve its density, right?

Wrong! I know many of you are going to be confused at first. But think that an arm extension consists of moving the arms back. Actually, this movement happens both in row and lat pulldowns, although visually these are two movements that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. These two exercises require the same function from the latissimus dorsi muscle.

Once this is clear… How should we do our back routine then?

The Best Back Exercises

Vertical pulls

As we said, we can do lat pulldowns, pull ups and pullovers, but what do we have to take into account?

We can activate the back slightly more with the palms downward (pronation) than with the palms upward (supination) or in neutral position. Nevertheless, it does not make a huge difference. This change of hand position alters the biceps activation.

The back muscles are activated in a similar way with a narrow, medium and wide prone grip. However, the activation is higher when we displace it in front of the frontal plane of the body (chest pulldown) than behind the frontal plane (behind the neck).

Lat Pulldowns

Figure II. Vertical lat pull down with wide (A), medium (B) and narrow (C) grip. (Andersen et al., 2014)

Small TIP!

This type of exercises tend to work better with a high volume of work. It will be harder if we do a low number of reps with a lot of weight. This is because our ability to produce strength with our shoulder completely flexed is lower than in the medium and final ranges of the movement.

Horizontal pulls

We can use all kinds of rows for this type of exercises.

Horizontal pulls…

  • Activate more the back muscles than vertical pulls, so they should be the base of your routine.
  • Those that retract the scapula at the end of the movement will activate the muscles slightly more than those that do not retract it.
  • Dumbbells are more effective than bars when it comes to building the back muscles. Above all, this is due to the fact that the range of movement is higher than with a bar.
Small TIP!

This type of exercises work better with more weight, since we can lift more without the help of other muscle groups (such as the legs).

Tips for Back Exercises

Do you want some more tips? Well, here you go!

Optimal execution of rowing

The rows should have a parabolic trajectory.

Therefore, we will be able to considerably flex the shoulder, taking the weight towards the hips. That would be a perfect shoulder extension than if you took it to your chest.

Shoulder shrugs

These are the exercises that are going to help us the most to build or upper back.

Put your hands in any position, better with dumbbells, and in the frontal plane of the body (to the sides).

Back Muscles

Figure III.  Anatomical representation of the extrinsic back muscles, posterior view (Mitchell et al, 2018).

Use straps to do the movement without limiting the grip.

Back Workout Routine

With this definitive routine, your back will look like a nacho with cheese!

Back Routine
  • Neutral grip dumbbell row on a bench without retraction: 3 sets x 12 reps.
  • Narrow grip lat pulldown in front of the body: 3 sets x 15 reps
  • Barbell seal row with retraction: 5 sets x 6 reps
  • Narrow grip pullover with flexed elbows: 2 sets x 12 reps
  • Shoulder shrugs with bar behind the body: 1 set x 6 reps
  • Shoulder shrugs with resistance bands: 100x

Bibliography

  1. Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1135–1142.
  2. Dickie, J. A., Faulkner, J. A., Barnes, M. J., & Lark, S. D. (2017). Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology: OfficialJournal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 32, 30–36.
  3. Lehman, G. J., Buchan, D. D., Lundy, A., Myers, N., & Nalborczyk, A. (2004). Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dynamic Medicine: DM, 3(1), 4.
  4. Mitchell B, Tripp JE (2018). Anatomy, Back, Extrinsic Muscles. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.
  5. Netter F.H (2006). Atlas of Human Anatomy. 4ª Ed. Saunders.

Related Entries

  • The Barbell Row is one of the best exercises for our back. If you want to know everything in detail, click here.
  • Pull ups Guideline.
  • Did you know that you can also exercise your neck?? Here you have the best exercises for your neck.
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About Alfredo Valdés
Alfredo Valdés
A specialist in Pathophysiology and biomolecular effects on nutrition and sportive activity who will show you the elaborate world of sports nutrition in his articles, employing a simple and critical writing.
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