The back is a major portion of your upper body and it is often neglected. Some excuses you may hear for this range from “no one will see it, anyway,” to “I don’t have the time.” Frankly, these are not good excuses.
Being a major portion of the upper half of your body means that the musculature, and obviously the bones, in this area play a massive part in your overall health, structure, posture and strength.
Even if you think no one will see it, they will see you’re lagging posture if you only focus upon the front part of your body.
Training the back will :-
- Will give you better shoulder, neck and spine health.
- Better posture.
- A better foundation to build strength and muscle upon.
- Make you freaky strong, and –
- Make you look great.
A major reason for people suffering from bad shoulders is down to bad posture. You might think your posture is fine, but chances are – it’s not. The majority of people today spend their time slouched, whether that be due to working at a desk, or behind a wheel, checking their phones or just not sitting and standing correctly.
Another common cause for this, and some of you reading this maybe responsible of this, is training your chest and front shoulders more than your back and rear/side shoulders.
Training like this will lead to the chest muscles tightening up and drawing the shoulders forward, as well as the rear shoulders/upper back muscles becoming too stretched and weak in comparison. This would then mean that the muscles and tendons in the shoulder become strained from the imbalance.
The way to fix this? Train your back.
The Back Muscles Involved
Each section of your back is made up of interlocking and intermeshing musculature. It is made like this to further protect your spinal column from any nasty injuries or straight up penetrations. This is particularly true in the lower back. While this is great for protecting your spine, if you do have an injury in your back it can be very difficult to tell what muscle is causing it which then makes treatment very difficult to prescribe.
Here, we’ll go over the different major muscles, and how they work.
This is the big one. The one that, when fully developed, makes it look as though you have wings. Its official role is to “radially rotate and adduct the humerus,” while also “assists with the position of the arm in the shoulder joint.” (Foundations of Anatomy and Physiology, Ross and Wilson). So basically, all that above on shoulder health? This muscle can be the main culprit.
The ways to train this muscle is via pulling movements. Mainly things like, or that resemble, pullups and rows. In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding he stated that pulls will widen your back, whereas rows will add thickness to it. I’m not quite sure of the science behind this claim but it is definitely worth including both types into your training.
Types of pull –
- Lat Pulldowns
- Band Pushdowns
Types of row –
- Barbell/bent over row
- Dumbbell row
- Renegade row
- Pendlay row
- Incline bench/seal row
- Cable row
A workout sample will be provided at the end of this article and you’ll see that there will be a good mix of these exercise types included.
This is the one above your shoulders that can make you look a bit like a King Cobra. However, the muscle itself goes from about half way up your neck down to just below your shoulder blades. This is why if you sleep funny on your pillow it will hurt to turn your head and move your shoulders and arms. This is quite a deep lying muscle too so if you do hurt it, it can be a pain to massage or even diagnose as the issue.
Exercises that target this area would be anything that involves you shrugging your shoulders up. Also, this comes into play a lot as a stabilizer in things like deadlifts and overhead movements.
Exercise examples that target the ‘traps’ –
- Shrugs with a barbell or dumbbells.
- Upright rows.
These are found just beneath your trapezius muscles. They control the detraction of your scapula. So any movement where you draw your shoulder blades together.
A good exercise to target these more would a close grip row on a cable machine.
This is not one muscle, but rather a group of them. As the name implies (stop laughing) they keep your spine in an erect (stop) position. They are also involved in the rotation of the spine.
When it comes to exercises these are mainly used in the deadlifts and their variations.
Examples include –
- Romanian deadlift.
- Glute Ham Raise/Nordic Curls.
These are not nice ones to injure. They will keep you upright and allow you to actually move properly. Be very careful whhen it comes to training these.
Training the Muscles of the Back.
The muscles mentioned above are many, however, there are various others in there too. I have included the main ones and given you a few ideas of exercises you can use to target them, as well as the smaller ones I have missed off.
The muscles of the upper back are mainly used to pull things in towards your body, and to stabilise you while pushing or holding things away from yourself. As a result of this, the lats are engaged in any pulling or rowing movement, and the traps and rhomboids will become engaged in any overhead movement. The traps and rhomboids will get more direct work from shrugging and upright rowing ones also.
The lower back is what helps your glutes in keeping you upright, as well as getting you (and any weight you are holding) up to that position. This is why deadlifts and hyperextensions are a great lower back builder.
With the large amount of muscles in the back, and their different uses, you will want to include a good balance of pulling, rowing and deadlifting exercises in your routine for a complete and well rounded development of strength, size and aesthetics.
An Aside on Strength Work
I know some of you might be reading this from a purely bodybuilding or aesthetic view point, and that is fine. If you are in this camp, theres a chance you might not see the point in a strength focused exercise, like a deadlift or heavy row.
However, the more strength you have the more volume you can accumulate in your workouts. Volume is simply the weight x the sets x the reps. Without adding more and more reps or sets you can add a bit of weight, 2.5kg or 5kg here and there, to really increase the overall volume in this equation. Volume is, potentially, the biggest factor in stimulating growth in both size and strength.
So a focus on a heavy deadlift or a heavy row will mean more volume in those exercises specifically, but this strength will also cross over into the weights you can shift in your assistance work also.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a massive fan of including heavy work in his routine. He would always have a heavy power movement included, such as the bench press, squat, deadlift, upright or bent over row. The extra strength work will also result in the muscle achieving a denser look.
Muscle Building Back Workout
Before we delve straight into this one, keep a couple of things in mind.
- The days shown would be used as a part of an overall programme, all that will be shown here is the back specific days.
- Back and shoulders cross over a lot, so their might be some overlap.
Day 1 –
Heavy Deadlift – 5×5
Bent Over Row – 3×8
Pullups – 5×5
Bent Over Lateral Raise – 2×12
Day 2 –
Chin ups – 3×8
Lat Pulldown – 4×8
Upright Rows – 4×6
Cable Seated Rows – 3×10
Cable/Band Pushdown – 3×10
As I said earlier on, to avoid bad posture make sure that you are including pressing/chest work in order to keep your shoulders and posture nice and healthy here.
You may notice that Day 1 is more strength based with movements that get bigger parts of your back (other than the bent over lateral raise) whereas Day 2 is more focused on smaller, assistance movements. This is so that you can comfortably recover with your over training days while also hitting a good balance of strength and hypertrophy work for all aspects of your back musculature.
This is just a sample and there are many more options in terms of exercises for pulling and rowing, or for different muscle groups. Refer to the lists earlier in order to pick and choose exercises. However, I would keep the strength and assistance work separate for a beginner-intermediate.
Nutrition for Muscle Building
With you wanting to gain muscle and/or strength you will need your eating habits to be on point, also. However, this article is mainly about building your back and a good article on nutrition would be over 2000 words in itself. It needs more than an aside for it be treated properly.
Saying this, what I will say is that in order for you to gain muscle you need to be eating above the calories you require for maintenance. You’d be safe (disregarding any underlying kidney issues) to focus upon 1g of protein per lb. Carbs and fat would make up the rest, with fat at roughyl 0.4-0.6g per lb of bodyweight.
From here you would then fill in the rest of calories with carbohydrates. It will take some experimentation, to see how many calories you need but then also, to see how to make up the ratio of fat:protein:carbs.
Some people work well on low carbs, others will be able to consume a much higher amount. It depends on you, your training, your weight, your history with nutrition and exercise etc. It is incredibly individualised.
Putting It All Together
When putting together a back routine for a client or for a general population a number of factors need to be considered. The first obvious thing is the main goal of the back workout. Is it for:
- All of the above?
Once this is established you would then have to consider what the secondary goals are. “This client wants a bigger back but also has some shocking posture in their shoulder area,” for example. This would mean that the assistance exercises and the volume and frequency on certain movements are adjusted or manipulated to best fit the person.
After primary and secondary goals are established you then need to consider general health:-
- Is the workout going to be too much to do straight away?
- Will the person need to build up to it?
- Do they need to consider shoulder health when looking at a back routine?
- Is their posture up to scratch?
You may have read this and wondered why I went into such detail on all of these factors. The fact is, in my experience of working in a gym and with clients, I have found that shoulder and back issues are nearly always due to an imbalance, in the muscle development or its strength. These imbalances can be caused by a lack of training, posture or just sheer laziness. So I wanted to reiterate the importance of the underlying issues.
Muscle Building Back Workout Conclusion
The back is a major portion of your body and should not be ignored due to its importance in overall health, looks and strength. A big, strong back looks and performs much better in every day life, and could help to prevent you struggling with shoulder, neck or lower back niggles in the future.
Give the exercises or the workout sample a try and see how they can help you develop a stronger, more muscled back as well as better posture and performance.