The Complete Back Exercise Encyclopedia

Want a thick, wide, and strong back? Use this complete back exercise encyclopedia to learn how to get it.

 

Back Exercise Encyclopedia Summary

 

  • The back is the largest muscle group of the body

  • Back training is essential, just do it!

  • Deadlifts form the foundation

  • Pull ups build back width

  • Rows build back thickness

  • Back training = bigger biceps

 

Why Train Back?

 

Walk into any big box gym across the country (and probably the world) and you’re guaranteed to see every bench taken, every deadlift platform barren, and every squat rack empty (except for those dopes doing curls in the squat rack!). Sure, they’re might be a few people on the leg press or leg extension machine, but by and large everyone is likely to be working their “glamour muscles” (i.e. chest, shoulders, and biceps). Nobody, including the bodybuilding bros, is working their back side!

 

Why do people skip back training?

 

Because back training is a lot like leg training -- it’s hard work!

 

Back training isn’t sexy, it’s not glamorous, and it sure as hell ain’t pretty. It’s mentally and physically demanding and will command every ounce of testicular fortitude you have just to survive. But that’s what makes having a big back so completely and utterly satisfying.

 

With a big back, you know that you are a bigger, stronger man than any other bro at the gym. You put in the time, dedication, and soul-sucking effort it takes to diligently train your back, even though the thought of another deadlift is enough to make you curl up into a ball and sob like a 12 year old girl.

 

Back training gets ignored because you can’t see it getting a raging pump in the mirror like you can with curls or presses, but you sure as hell can feel the pump when doing lots and lots of chin ups, pull ups, and rows.

 

And that’s why we’re here today. It’s time to make back training great again!

 

Ahead, you’re going to learn the real way, the right way, the Primeval Labs way to train your back and get that monstrous cobra back you’ve always wanted!

 

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Importance of Back Exercises

 

“The trick to effective back training is to learn to isolate the various areas of the back, then make it harder on each individual area of the back instead of easier.” -- Arnold Schwarzenegger

 

All of your muscles are important to train regularly, but the muscles of your back are especially important in regards to basic human function. The back muscles facilitate pulling movements of the shoulder joint (extension, adduction, abduction) and spine (lateral flexion and extension). The back muscles also play a significant role if the various movements of the scapula (depression, elevation, retraction, rotation).

 

Having weak, poorly developed back muscles compared to your anterior or “front” muscles (i.e. chest, shoulders, biceps) results in you looking like a scrawny Quasimodo on his way to ring the bell tower -- and nobody wants that….

 

The reason this hunchback effect happens is due to a severe imbalance between the anterior (front) musculature and posterior (back) musculature of the upper body. Basically, this is what happens when you bench twice as much as you pull.

 

In other words, you need to train your back, even if you’re not interested in aesthetics. It’s important just to avoid looking really, really weak and awkward.

 

Now, let’s get to the real benefits of having a big back!

 

Benefits of a Big Back

 

Bigger & Stronger EVERYwhere

 

Your back muscles play a role (whether directly or indirectly) in all compound lifts. This makes it critical to develop all areas of your back, so you can withstand the massive weight on your back during squats, and properly engage the lats to support the bar during the bench press. Weakness in your back limits your potential to move maximum weight in every other compound exercise, and if you’re serious about getting bigger, faster, and stronger, back training plays an essential role in that pursuit.

 

Get that V-Taper

 

You want to look great in a t-shirt and have the classic v-taper physique of a wide shouldered, narrow waisted beach body?

 

Then back training is a must. The v-taper isn’t built just from a lot of shoulder presses (though it does play a role), it requires lots of back training. Having a wider back helps you fill out a shirt, shrinks the appearance of your waist, and puts everyone on notice that you’re serious about lifting.

 

Prepping for Take-Off

 

Having a monstrous back gives you the appearance of “wings” when you flare and flex your lats. In order to earn your “wings” and measure up against the truly great backs of bodybuilding, you’re going to have to train your back more seriously than just doing a few sets of high rep lat pulldowns once a week.

 

Fair warning, when you do get your “wings”, just don’t try to actually jump off a building and fly with them…Well, maybe not…. But once you do get to a certain level, you can enjoy having the appearance of “wings” when you flare (flex) your lats. So don’t try jumping off the roof because those wings are just for show.

 

Better Posture

 

Remember how we just talked about Quasimodo up top? The way to avoid that is with proper back training. Your back is critical to your ability to remain upright and avoiding all the aches and pains that come with poor posture.

 

BIGGER BICEPS!!!!!

 

If for no other reason, the reason you should train your back is that it helps you grow your biceps...and who doesn’t want that?!

 

Any compound upper back exercise works your biceps in some way, shape, or form. In fact, many lifters even choose to avoid direct bicep training (yes, seriously they do) because of how heavily the biceps are worked when rigorously training back.

 

That being said, you still can (and should) do some direct bicep training, in order to build fully developed arms.

 

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Muscles of the Back

 

The musculature of the back is a complex group of several muscles that work in perfect harmony to keep you upright and stable. They’re also essential to getting stronger in other compound lifts including the squat and bench press, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the various muscles comprising your back side:

 

Latissimus Dorsi

 

Also known as the “lats”, the latissimus dorsi are the muscles that make you look huuuuuuuuge in a tight shirt. They’re the first muscles you probably think of when discussing the back.

 

The lats are responsible for extension, adduction, and medial rotation of the shoulder. They originate at the humerus (upper arm bone) and attach to the scapula (shoulder blade), thoracolumbar fascia, and lower thoracic spine (T-Spine).

 

The lats are the single largest muscle in the body, spanning a considerable portion of your back, which makes them priority #1 if you want to get your “wings”.



Trapezius

 

Your trapezius, or “traps” for short, are considerably larger than your realize. They’re not just the two massive lumps on either side of your neck. The traps actually extend all the way down your back, comprised of 3 separate muscles (upper, mid, and lower trap).

 

The traps aid shoulder stabilization, support the arms, and help move the scapula, which are critical in all back movements.

 

Rhomboids


While there’s no cute nickname or short moniker for the rhomboids, they’re still a key player in overall back development and contribute to the “thickness” of your back. The rhomboids are located beneath the traps and extend at an angle from your scapula towards your spine. Their main function is to retract the scapula, drawing it towards the spinal column.

 

Spinal Erectors

 

It doesn’t take a PhD in Anatomy and Physiology to figure out the location or purpose of the spinal erectors, the name says it all. The spinal erectors help maintain an upright posture and allow you to flex and extend your spine in any direction. They are also essential to core stabilization, which is a critical component of every exercise.

 

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Teres Major


A smaller muscle of the back that’s frequently not discussed is the teres major. It originates at from the scapula, and travels upward at an angle to its insertion on the medial proximal humerus (upper arm bone).

 

Teres major works with the lats during pulling exercises and has earned the nickname of “the little lat.” This muscle also coordinates with the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder to rotate the arms inward and pull them down.

 

Targeting these muscles specifically is a bit tricky, and while you can do exercises like pullovers and/or straight-arm pulldowns to work them, they receive ample stimulation from compound movements (i.e. pull ups) to make them grow. We’re pretty sure no bodybuilder lost a show for having poor teres development.

 

Now it’s time to check out our favorite exercises for building that cobra back!

 

Best Back Exercises

Deadlift

 

Deadlifting is the rock-solid foundation upon which record-breaking back strength is built. Deadlifts tax every major muscle group in the body, from top to bottom. And don’t make the mistake of thinking deadlifts are only for powerlifters and strength athletes, either.

 

“The King” and 8-time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman built one of the thickest, most powerful looking backs of all time, and he did that with deadlifts -- heavy ass deadlifts. In fact, Ronnie was capable of deadlifting over 800 pounds. If deads are good enough for Mr. Olympia, they’re good enough for you, too!

 

Programming the deadlift for bodybuilding is pretty simple -- just do them. Hit them hard and heavy one time per week, no pussy-footing here, folks. Then get on to the rest of your back training. There’s no need to get all fancy with drop sets, supersets, or any of that nonsense when training deadlifts. A few sets of 5-8 reps is more than enough when training deads, then move on to the rest.

 

Performing the deadlift:

 

  1. Approach the bar and position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart. The bar should be hovering right over the middle of your foot, almost touching your shins.

  2. Stand up tall with your chest out and take a deep breath; then brace your abs as if you were about to get punched in the gut by Rocky Balboa.

  3. Pushing your hips back (not squatting straight down), move your upper body towards the bar; arch your lower back and draw your shoulders down away from your ears.

  4. Grasp the bar with either a double-overhand (pronated) grip or switch grip (one over, one under). Hands should be a little wider that your shin width, then contract your lats as hard as you can, drawing the shoulders down and back.

  5. While maintaining a neutral head and spine position, powerfully contract the muscle of your posterior chain and stand up, driving your body upward and pushing through the heel..

  6. As you rise and near the top, contract your glutes as hard as you can to push the hips forward, completing the movement.

  7. Descend by breaking at the hip and sitting back, just like you were going into a chair. The bar should slide down your thighs. DO NOT let it drip away from your body, that’s a one way ticket to an injury.

  8. Continue lowering, by hinging further back while maintaining an arch in your lower spine and keeping your shoulders down. The movement is complete when the bar is back on the ground.

 

Acceptable Deadlift Variations

 

Sometimes for whatever reason (history of injury, physical limitation, etc.) conventional barbell deadlifts aren’t an option. If you fall into this category, acceptable substitutes include the hex-bar (trap bar) deadlift, sumo deadlift, or rack pull.

 

Note, just because you find deadlifts difficult or very taxing isn’t a reason to avoid them.

 

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Pull Up

 

Often called the “upper body squat”, there’s no better back builder (or exercise) really than the pull up. It focuses on the back muscles, but it really is a full body exercise. Shoulder blades have to retract and twist downward. Core must be engaged, and your entire lower body needs to be locked tight. Any loose links in the chain cause a severe kinetic energy “leak” which directs power away from your lats, rhomboids, and teres -- the ones that need it the most!

 

Performing the Pull Up:

 

  1. Grasp the bar with an open, pronated (palms facing away) grip with your thumbs wrapped around the same side of the bar as your fingers. Hands should be just outside of shoulder-width apart.  Using an open grip decreases bicep recruitment and helps you avoid relying too much on your arms to complete the pull up.

  2. Initiate the movement by depressing your shoulders and scapula and tightening your core and entire lower body.

  3. Focus on squeezing the lats and driving your elbows into your back pocket while you pull yourself up vertical until the bar reaches chin level, it doesn’t count otherwise.

  4. At the top of the pull up, focus on contracting all the muscles of the back, then begin to slowly lower under control until your arms are fully extended.

 

Acceptable variations

 

Play with different hand placements (narrow, neutral, wide, super-wide) to focus even more on the outer lats or make the move more challenging if pull ups become too easy.

 

Chin Up

 

Chin ups are a regression of the pull up. They’re easier due to the difference in hand placement and grip, which recruits more of the bicep and helps on the pull. The benefit of chin ups is that they emphasize the lower and inner lats, while wide grip pull ups focus more on the outer lats and teres major. Both are staple exercises of any big back routine, and it’s important to use a variety of grips, widths, and hand placements to target each area of the back.

Performing the Chin Up:

 

  1. Grasp an overhead bar with an open, supinated (palms facing towards you) grip. Thumbs are still wrapped on the same side of the bar as your fingers.

  2. Perform the rest of the movement as you would a pull up.

 

Rows

 

Right after pull ups and deadlifts come rows. They are a TON of rowing variations, so many that we could probably write a separate encyclopedia just on rowing!

 

Rowing is essential to developing a thick, girthy back, and are best suited to high volume, high rep ranges with as heavy of a weight as you can use while maintaining complete control through the entire range of movement.

 

If you want to know how to do the row incorrectly, then watch the way the bros at the gym do them (using lots of swinging, twisting, convulsing, etc). Doing all of that nonsense decreases the effectiveness of the exercise and doesn’t do much for developing your back.

 

For explanation purposes here, we’ll breakdown the proper way to do the conventional barbell row, but the same principles can be carried over to the numerous variations we’ll list afterwards.

 

Performing the Barbell Row

 

  1. Approach the bar and place your feet hip-width apart, with the bar over your mid foot.

  2. Hinging at the hips, grasp the bar with pronated shoulder-width grip.

  3. Assume a deadlift position -- flat back, shoulders pulled down and back.

  4. While keeping your arms straight, deadlift the bar so the plates hover an inch off of the ground.

  5. Keeping your back flat and core tight, pull your elbows back to initiate the row.

  6. Continue pulling towards your body until the bar touches (or almost touches) your chest. Squeeze at the top of the movement for one second.

  7. Under control and resisting gravity, lower the bar until your arms are straight.

 

Acceptable Barbell Row Variations

 

The great thing about rows is that the variations are essentially endless and can be performed with barbells, landmines, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, and even resistance bands. The advantage to using dumbbells and cables over the standard conventional barbell row is that you can focus more directly on one side of your back at a time, really squeezing every fiber as hard as you can.

 

Our favorite versions of the row are:

 

  • One-arm dumbbell row

  • Chest supported two-arm dumbbell row

  • Seated cable row

  • T-Bar row

  • Landmine row

  • Low cable row

 

Make sure when you’re performing the rows, you’re focusing on driving your elbow towards your hip, and not straight back towards your chest/should, like may people do. This ensures you’re fully recruiting the back muscles involved in the row, and not relying on the biceps and rear delts to do the work.

 

Also, when doing seated cable rows, we really like to do them “Arnold” style where instead of maintaining a complete upright, chest out posture, you allow the weight to pull you forward a little bit on the negative, protracting the shoulders. While this might be considered “sloppy” by some, it provides a significantly greater stretch on the muscles of the back, helping you get better gains in your rowing workouts.

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Lat Pulldowns

 

Every bros typical back building exercise, the vaunted lat pulldown. While it is a compound movement, don’t make the mistake of thinking getting really strong in the lat pulldown will be the equivalent of strict pull ups. They’re nowhere even close!

 

That being said, lat pulldowns can be effective back builders, but they take a backseat to the other exercises we’ve discussed thus far in our back training encyclopedia.

 

Performing the Lat Pulldown

 

  1. Begin by sitting at a pulldown station with a wide bar attached to the top pulley.

  2. Adjust knee pad on the station to fit your height, which is important as these pads prevent you from using your body from being raised by the resistance attached to the bar.

  3. Grab the bar with an open, pronated grip, hands as wide as possible.

  4. With both arms straight, lean your torso back about 30 degrees while creating a curve in your low back and puffing your chest out.

  5. With a tight core, initiate the movement by pulling with the elbows down and back, drawing the shoulders and the upper arms along the same path. Remember to maintain a stationary upper torso when performing the pull down, only the arms should be moving.

  6. When lats are fully contracted, hold for one second, then slowly raise the bar back to the top, resisting the urge to let the machine do the work.

  7. The movement is complete when the arms are straight and the lats are fully stretched.

Acceptable Lat Pulldown Variations

 

Just like pull ups and chin ups, pulldowns can be performed with any number of grip positions, hand placements, or different attachments. Play with the various grips and hand placements to target different areas of your back.

 

But, do not be tempted to perform “old school” behind-the-neck pulldowns, as they put unnecessary strain on the rotator cuff and could lead to a serious shoulder injury.

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Hyperextension

Last, but certainly not least, we have hyperextensions. These are essential to building up the all-too-important muscles of the lower back. Hyperextensions develop the lower back/spinal erectors that serve a key role in your heavier compound lifts, including deadlifts and squats. Ultimately, by having strong lower back muscles, you’ll be able to safely support much heavier loads.

 

Performing the Hyperextension:

 

  1. Begin by positioning yourself facing forward on a Roman chair, legs should be straight, with pads placed so that you can bend forward at the hips. Your legs should be straight allowing you to bend your body forward at the hips.

  2. Cross your arms in front of your body, and slowly lower your upper body by hinging at the waist.

  3. Continue lowering your torso until you feel a mild stretch in your lower back.

  4. Reverse the movement by contracting the muscles of the lower back and drawing your torso back up until your body is in a straight line from head to toe. Do NOT hyperextend or over arch your back at the top.

 

Back Training Tips

 

By now, you’ve probably got a good idea of what’s required to execute an effective workout, but nobody’s perfect, and we could all stand to benefit for a few nuggets of wisdom that can help make even more gains in your workouts.

 

So….

 

Activate Your Back, NOT your Arms

 

This is most common with pull ups, chin ups and rows. Most trainees (including you, probably) are guilty of initiating any pulling movement with the muscles of the upper arm rather than the muscles of the back.

DO NOT DO THIS.

 

Pulling with your arms limits the amount of weight you’re truly capable of lifting and reduces the load on your back, meaning you’re not working it nearly as much as you could.

 

The way to fix this is to keep in mind some important queues during your lift. Rather than crushing the hell out of the dumbbell, bar, or cable attachments, loosen up your grip and use an open (false) grip where your thumb is lined up with the rest of your fingers.

 

Second, rather than focusing on starting the lift with your arms, focus on initiating movement with your elbows. Concentrate on driving them back and putting them in your back pocket. This also helps eliminate and shoulder shrugging and also improves scapular retraction and depression.

 

Essentially, your hands and arms are just hooks that are holding onto the weights, but they’re not doing any of the work.
 

Look Forward

 

Far too many times when exercising, people are looking left to right to try and see what someone else is doing or checking themselves out in the mirror while training. While this might help with muscle recruitment, moving your head about from side to side while under load puts you at a serious risk for injury.

 

Make sure to always look straight ahead when performing any exercise.

 

Maintain a Neutral Neck

 

In line with the previous point, it’s also fairly common to see trainees arch their neck to look up while performing any type of pulling exercise. Again, overarching your neck forward or backward while trying to lift or lower a weight is a one-way ticket to injury town, meaning you’re going to spend the next few weeks on the sidelines, and not growing your back!

 

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No Round Backs

 

This is the golden rule for ALL exercises, not just back exercises. The reason we do so heavily emphasize maintaining a straight back, is that back exercises lend themselves the most to rounding of the back.

 

The reason many people struggle with not rounding their backs can be due to a lack of flexibility, but more often than not it’s a result of using too heavy of a weight during an exercise. Doing so puts unnecessary pressure on your low back, making it especially vulnerable to a serious injury.

 

If it comes down to using a really heavy weight and rounding your back, or checking your ego and going with a bit lighter weight, but one that you can control, go with the lighter weight. You’ll avoid injury and most likely have a more effective back workout.

 

Some Low Back Arch, Not Too Much

 

You’ve seen us mention the need for a slight arch in your lower back when performing back exercises, but don’t create an excessive arch in your lower back. Sometimes this can happen during the lock-out portion of a deadlift or hyperextension with the intention of “completing” the movement. Excessively arching your lower back also puts unnecessary stress on your back and could lead to an injury, just as it would if you let it round.

 

To see if you’re arching too much, have a partner record your lifts at the gym and see if you’re rounding or arching your lower back, and then you can start figuring out how “straight” your back needs to be.

 

Best Big Back Specialization Workout

 

Just like the legs, your back muscles can handle a lot of volume, which is a great thing (depending on how you look at it) when wanting take it from a weakness to a strength. Some core concepts of this back specialization workout include:

 

  • High frequency

    At least two, possibly three workouts per week

  • High volume

    Across the week, you’ll perform around 50 total working sets, using a variety of rep ranges

  • Moderately-high intensity

    Since we’re using a variety of rep ranges, that means a sliding scale on how much weight, but in general, you’ll be using anywhere from 70-90% of your one rep max.

  • Lots of Variety

    The back is a complex network of muscles running in different directions. To effectively target them, you’ll need to use a mix of exercises.

 

Ahead, we’ve got 3 intense back workouts that will help your earn your “wings”. Choose any 2 and run for the next 4 weeks, then after that swap workouts and continue for another 4 weeks.

 

Always remember to use good form and follow the principles of progressive overload to avoid plateaus and ensure maximum growth!

 

Now, let’s get to it!



Back Workout A

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Barbell Deadlift

5

3

90-120 sec

Chin-ups

3

8-10

60 sec

“Arnold Style” Cable Rows

3

10-12

60 sec

Trap Bar Shrugs

5

8-10

30 sec

Incline Dumbbell Curls

5

10

30 sec

Cable Reverse Fly

5

10

15 sec

 

.

Back Workout B

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Rack Pulls

5

5

90-120 sec

Barbell Rows

3

8-10

60 sec

Pull Ups

3

10-12

60 sec

1-arm Dumbbell Rows

5

8-10

45 sec

Cable Curls

5

10

30 sec

Face Pulls

5

10

15 sec



 

Back Workout C

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest

Trap Bar Deadlift

5

3

90-120 sec

Neutral Grip Pull Ups

3

8-10

60 sec

1-arm Low Cable Rows

3

10-12

60 sec

Lat Pull Downs

5

8-10

30 sec

EZ Bar Curls

5

10

30 sec

Reverse Pec Dec

5

10

15 sec



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