Are you looking to build strength and muscle in your upper body? Check out these 9 great back workouts to help you get started.
For those of you who still think chest day is what makes you look like a bodybuilder, we have news for you. If you’re looking to build that dream upper body, there’s nothing like that v-taper that back day gives you when it comes to looking alpha.
Some of us may feel our back days get a little stagnant, performing the same exercises week after week, and some of us may not even know where to begin with back day. Either way, let’s talk about some of the best back workouts to get you looking big all year round.
Back Muscles To Attack
Let’s talk about the muscles you’re trying to target in your back day because there is a lot to understand. Let’s examine each one and talk about their primary functions so you know how to target them in your workouts.
Remember, compound movements are always the best for building muscle. These are the movements that engage multiple muscles at once as opposed to isolating them individually. Compound movements put your body in the most anabolic (muscle-building) state possible, so don’t neglect them. Either way, here are the primary muscles in the back group.
These are commonly known as your lats. These are the primary muscle associated in most people’s minds when talking about back day. These are the muscles you see from the front when people open up their arms, giving men that v-taper they want. If they get big enough, they look like “wings”.
These are your pulling machines. Your pecs help you push on the bench press, but the antagonist of that movement is the lat. When you perform a rowing motion or any upper-body pulling motion, this is the primary driver.
Some would argue that this belongs in the shoulder category but those people wouldn’t know their anatomy. Your traps are the muscles on the side of your neck and they extend out to your shoulders and down to the bottom of your shoulder blades. They are almost entirely behind you.
The common isolation movement for this muscle is dumbell or barbell shrugs. However, they are engaged in a number of compound movements including both pulling and pushing movements.
These muscles are also between your shoulder blades and are responsible for the stability of the scapula and shoulder girdle. This is a difficult muscle to isolate but they can become well-developed and provide great upper back definition with enough compound movements over time.
Your spinal erectors are what keep your spine upright. They run along either side of the spine. These are worked in movements where the spine is forced to expand and contract.
These run all the way to your lower back and are often a source of pain for many people because mammals weren’t perfectly evolved to be standing erect all the time. In fact, 80% of people experience lower back pain in their lives, and having weak spinal erectors is one of the reasons.
Best Back Workouts: 1. The Pull-Up
We’re going to start off with our number one back exercise and we’ll go down the list from there. There is no exercise that provides even half of the benefit to your back that a pull-up does. This is the most natural and functional bodily movement on back day, so don’t neglect it.
There’s a reason a 60-pound chimp is stronger than an Olympic weightlifter. They’re doing one-armed pull-ups in trees throughout their entire day.
The best part is that the only equipment needed is a bar that can support your weight. If you’re a beginner, you have a long way to go before you can start adding weight, so start your pull-up journey as soon as possible.
Pull-ups sound easy enough but they actually require a lot of work to master. No, you don’t just pull.
Keep your body as straight as physically possible, squeeze your legs together, and tighten your core. This is the position that should be held at the bottom of the pull-up. Once you’re there, depress your scapula. Try to pull your shoulder blades to the floor without bending your arms.
From there, you’re at the right angle. Pull all the way up until your chin clears the top of the bar (at minimum) and go all the way down. We are sorry to break it to some of you, but a pull-up is only a pull-up with the full range of motion. Without that, it would not be at the top of the list.
One way to know if you’re doing a pull-up correctly, especially if you’re a beginner, is if your abs are sore the next day. They should be just as engaged as your back throughout the whole set, keeping your body nice and stable.
How To Get Your First Pull-up
If you’re brand new to pull-ups, you may be wondering how to work up to them. Don’t worry, you have plenty of options, and you’ll be getting a similar workout to real pull-ups on your journey.
The first thing you should try is negative pull-ups. Use a step stool or just jump to the top position of a pull-up and lower yourself as slowly as possible. Repeat this process for multiple reps and try to go slower and slower as you progress.
The other option is assisted pull-ups. This can be done with an assisted pull-up machine or a resistance band. If you’re not a member of a gym, the band will be the cheapest option. Get a couple with varying weights and try to work your way up toward getting your first pull-up.
Lastly, different variations of rows (which we will discuss), including bodyweight rows, will help you. Bodyweight rows, also known as Australian pull-ups, are a great way to build up to your first pull-up. Find a low bar at a playground, your gym, or anywhere you can find it. It should be about as high as your waist or your chest. Grab onto the bar and walk your feet under it until you’re almost laying on the floor, hanging onto the bar. Keep your body as stiff as a board and try to pull your chest up to the bar.
With all of these exercises, remember that consistency and increased difficulty are the only way to progress. Try to work on these about twice a week and you’ll be doing pull-ups in no time. Also, once you get your first one, don’t stop working on these until you’re able to get a few on your own for each set.
Once you become more advanced in your pull-ups, getting above 10 with strict form, you can start to add variety. Clapping pull-ups, weighted pull-ups, archer pull-ups, and one-arm pull-ups are excellent for advanced athletes.
However, if you’re still training to get there, focus on switching your grip more than anything else. Underhand grips (chin-ups), wide grips, narrow grips, neutral grips, and more. The more variety you throw into your training, the stronger you’ll get!
Now, let’s make this clear. There is an easy argument to make that the deadlift should be considered a leg exercise. However, bodybuilders have been performing deadlifts on back day since the beginning of the sport.
While this is a great exercise for your core, hamstrings, and glutes, it also targets the forgotten muscles on your back. If performed properly, you will feel it in your lower back and spinal erectors.
However, you will also get a secondary attack on your lats and your traps from their job stabilizing the heavy weight during the lift. Both will have to work to prevent your arms from being ripped off your torso.
The deadlift and the squat are both argued to be the “king lift”. They’re both also the king back-breakers if you don’t do them correctly. Deadlifts should always be done with proper form, both because they tend to be an athlete’s heaviest lift and the movement puts your spine in a compromised position.
If you’ve ever moved a heavy object and been told “lift with your legs, not with your back”, this is the lift that should tell you why. Your back should be as stiff as a board, angled slightly above parallel with the floor. Your legs should be bent slightly, and your hips should drive forward in a controlled manner while you keep the bar close to your legs the entire time.
Don’t think you’re ready to deadlift after that. Seriously, knowing the proper form is critical, but the lift is so beneficial that it’s more than worth it to do a little research. This is undoubtedly one of the best lifts for building strength.
3. Barbell Row
Like the deadlift, this may put your lower back in a compromising position, so proceed with caution. However, this movement really targets such a plethora of back muscles that it would be a shame not to incorporate it into your workout routine.
There are a few ways to do this. You can always change the grip to hit different muscles from different angles. However, the traditional movement is done with your knees slightly bent, your back stiffened and angled down like a deadlift, and keeping your body as stiff and steady as possible. From there, you can row the barbell up to your chest and down until your arms are straight.
Now, if you are concerned about your lower back, simply take a bench, put weight plates underneath it to increase the height, lay face down on it, and row the barbell underneath it.
4. Lat Pull-Down
If somebody tells you that the pull-down and the pull-up are the same movements, you’ll know not to trust another word out of their mouth. They are completely different movements.
Your body has one path that it follows on a pull-up but when you’re using a cable, you have more options on where it’s going. You can also alter the weight a lot easier and bring the bar to wherever you want.
The pull-down is an easy movement to get right, and any slight change you make can give you a different workout. If you lean back more, it will involve your rhomboid at a much greater level than if you’re pulling straight down. If you bring the bar to your chest, it will give you a much wider range of motion and involve your biceps even more.
There are several variations to incorporate into your routine. The only variation to avoid is behind-the-neck pull-downs, as these don’t target your lats in any greater sense than front pull-downs, but they do increase the risk of injury.
5. Cable Row
Low row, cable row, whatever you want to call it. This is an excellent movement to incorporate into your back routine.
It’s important to remember when you’re doing this that you’re not on a boat and nor are you trying to row the machine somewhere else. You should minimize the amount of leg movement or flailing of your torso during this movement and focus on hitting your lats. Put your ego aside and lower the weight if you need to.
Jerking your body with heavy weights during this movement is a recipe for disaster. Grab the handles, push yourself back with your legs steadily, get into position, and try your best to only move your arms. You should really feel this in your lats and biceps.
Single-arm cable rows, underhand grips, wide grips, narrow grips, neutral grips. There are just a few variations to try out as long as you start out small and work your way up. Remember, if you’re feeling it in your lower back, either check your form or lower the weight. This is an upper-back exercise primarily.
This can be performed with a cable or with a dumbell. If you want to use a dumbell for the extra need for stabilization, grab a decline bench and lay on it. Grab a dumbell and hold it down toward the floor with your arms near full extension. Remember to keep the weight light since you’re mainly using one joint. Focus on proper form.
Once you’re in this bottom position, pull the weight over without moving your arms. You want to bring it up until your arms are pointing vertically. Repeat for reps to finish up the set.
If performed with a cable, keep your back erect with a slight lean forward, bend your knees slightly, and have a light weight on the machine. Keep your arms near-straight and grip the bar at about shoulder-width apart with your hands at around shoulder height. From there, try to bring the cable down to your waist or thighs without bending your arms.
Either way, remember to go light on this exercise. This is mostly an isolation movement for your lats, so don’t go heavy. Even if you consider yourself a master of pull-ups, it’s an awkward exercise to get down. Start at 20 pounds or so and work your way up slowly to see what you can comfortably manage for a set of 6 to 12 reps.
7. Dumbell Row
Another great row variation. This is likely to be your strongest single-arm movement, so try to work your way up from a moderate weight and see what works for you.
Grab a dumbell off the rack and either work on the rack or bring it over to a bench. You’re going to leave the dumbell on the floor, put one leg in front of the other (opposite leg to the arm you’re using), and you’re going to extend your arm on the bench or rack for stabilization.
Keep your back nice and straight, pick up the dumbell, and row it toward your torso. Try to eliminate any other movement from the movement of your arm, and definitely don’t jerk the weight. Repeat on the other side for the same amount of reps.
Don’t start on the same side every time to avoid developing any imbalances. The same goes for most one-sided exercises. One side will become stronger over time, as you’re doing two full sets but counting it as one. Your energy stores will deplete by the time you’re done with the second side, so alternate which side you start on frequently.
8. T-Bar Row
These are similar to barbell rows with two exceptions. You’ll have the option to change to a wider variety of grips and the range of motion is slightly different. However, using the proper technique is just as necessary.
If your gym has a t-bar, you’ll want to stand with your legs on either side of it, bend your knees, stiffen your back, lean over as you would for a barbell row, and pull the bar up with whatever grips you attach.
If you want to train your forearms while you’re at it, you can switch to one-arm t-bar rows and grab it at the top, standing perpendicular to the bar. From there, you’ll grab the part of the bar where the weights go, training your grip strength a lot more.
9. Reverse Flies
Now, your rear delts are part of your shoulder. Nobody is questioning that. However, your rear delts and your rhomboids, which will be hit well if you perform the exercise at full range, play a huge role in the definition of your upper body when viewed from behind.
If I’m looking at your back and I see giant lats with no definition outside of them, I’m going to think you neglect these muscles. This is another exercise where you can use a machine or dumbells. Dumbells will provide a better workout, as usual, considering the need for increased stabilization.
Lay down on your stomach on a bench with some light dumbells on either side. Grab them, turn your wrists out slightly, keep your arms near-straight, and bring the dumbells as far behind you as you can without bending your arms. Try to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep.
If you use a fly machine, set it to the furthest position behind the seat and face toward it before you sit. The other positions are for regular flies. Face inward, grab the grips that allow your knuckles to rest on top, and bring them out behind you, keeping your arms near straight the entire way. Again, try to squeeze your shoulder blades together with every rep.
Follow Up Your Workouts
Remember, there’s no exercise as important to your physique that’s as important as the right diet, supplementation, sleep habits, and consistency. Be sure to read up on pre- and post-workout supplements to maximize your gains, eat plenty of whole foods, and sleep like a baby.
Every workout should be followed up by a supplement and a meal. Don’t forget to eat consistently throughout the day and keep fueling your muscles. Also, don’t forget that sleep is when your body does most of its repairs!
Don’t forget, results don’t just come overnight. Stay consistent in your training but also throw in plenty of new materials, exercises, rep ranges, and more into your routine to maximize your gains. Read more about your guide to bulking before winter starts and don’t give up!
Now that you know some great back workouts to throw your body off, start incorporating them as soon as possible. If your body gets used to doing the same stuff, it’s not going to feel like it needs to adapt. Don’t forget to follow up every workout with the proper healthy routines and reach out to us for any help you need achieving your goals!
Gary David is the founder and CEO of CrazyMass, one of the nation’s leading supplement companies. Before starting CrazyMass in 2006, Gary was a bodybuilder and personal trainer for several gyms throughout Northwest Michigan, helping clients meet their fitness goals. Gary happily worked in this profession for over 15 years. He saw that most weight gaining products to increase muscle were made with ingredients that were dangerous or of poor quality. He knew there was a safer and healthier way to do this, so he created a special blend of herbs, amino acids, and nutrients to help bodybuilders slim down and gain muscle.
Although Gary no longer participates in bodybuilding competitions, he continues to be involved in the community, helping others prep for shows and attending events where he can advertise CrazyMass products. When Gary isn’t working long hours, he likes to spend his time working out at the gym, boating on Lake Michigan, traveling the trails around Northern Michigan by four-wheeler, and spending time with his family. He also loves to take a yearly trip to Europe with his wife and children.