THE ULTIMATE BACK WORKOUT GUIDE
When it comes to training the back, a lot of people think a few sets of pull-ups and rows is enough for muscle growth.
But, if you want to build strength and muscle mass in the back, it’s definitely not.
The back isn’t one big major muscle, but instead is a large group of muscles that all work together to support all our activities of daily living, and literally everything we do in the gym. Plus the back muscles form an integral part of your physique.
You can’t neglect any of these muscles or their functions in your back training, so one or two exercises that hit the lats only isn’t going to cut it for your workout routine!
In this comprehensive guide to back workouts, I’ll give you an overview of the different target muscles of the posterior chain that make up the back, and show you the best back-specific exercises and strength training workouts to ensure you’re getting a complete workout routine.
Here are the topics I’ll cover in this back training guide:
Before we begin talking about back-focused exercises and workouts for muscle growth, let’s review back muscle anatomy so you’ll be oriented as we begin to talk about which region or muscle of the back we’re targeting with each move.
1) BACK MUSCLES ANATOMY
The back is the largest muscle in the upper body and is made up of 5 important muscle groups, all of which we need to hit in our training.
These are the lats, the upper and lower traps, the low back/erector spinae, the rotator cuff muscles and the teres major. I’ll use my handy Muscle Markers to illustrate where you can find each of these primary muscles on your body.
UPPER AND LOWER TRAPS
LOW BACK / ERECTOR SPINAE
2) WHY ARE BACK WORKOUTS IMPORTANT?
The back is not just one big torso muscle so we shouldn’t think that lat exercises like a few sets of pull-ups or bent-over row will adequately train the back.
Lat-focused training only works a fraction of the muscles that comprise the back and doesn’t begin to take advantage of the complete strength of the back.
As you saw above, we also need to find exercises that achieve muscle contraction in all the other muscles in the back including the traps, the low back, the rotator cuff muscles and the teres major.
In addition, most people pick exercises that train the back in the same plane (such as vertical pulling only) which means they’re not adequately training the range of motion of the back muscle fibers. It’s just as important to include horizontal in your back workouts if you want to increase muscle size and strength.
Since the back is so important to literally everything we do in and out of the gym, we need to respect it and give it our full attention in training.
Let’s look at what it takes to get a truly complete back workout program and I’ll give you some of the best options for exercises to hit the back.
3) WHAT IS THE BEST BACK WORKOUT?
The best back workouts hit all the back muscles, hit every function of the back, and work the back through its entire range of motion.
This means ensuring that you include heavy compound movements and heavier lifts, switch up grip in your pullups and incorporate explosivity as well. You also want to be sure you’ve got exercises that target the lats, upper traps and the other smaller muscles of the back.
Below are the elements of the ideal back workout program, and an example exercise for each.
Heavy compound movements like the Barbell Deadlift can be done with heavier weights to boost your overall back growth and development using progressive overload.
The Barbell Deadlift is a full-body movement that hits the traps, the lats and the lower back all in one single compound exercise using heavy loads.
HOW TO DO THE BARBELL DEADLIFT:
- For this compound exercise, load a barbell as heavy as you can without needing to sacrifice form. Starting position is holding onto the loaded barbell with a shoulder-width grip and an overhand grip, standing with feet flat on the ground and feet about shoulder width apart.
- Beginning in a hinged position, bend the knees and slide the barbell down close to your thighs and shins in a controlled movement until you are in a bent-over position.
- Let it rest briefly on the floor before reversing the movement to lift the barbell as you come back to standing with torso upright.
- Use your core strength for stability and keep spine stable for all repetitions. Be sure to use strict form the entire time to avoid risk of injury. Use smaller rep ranges for all of your heavy compound exercises.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This classic back exercise hits traps, lats and lower back with a heavy dose of overload for building upper body strength. It’s one of the best compound full-body exercises to incorporate into your training plan for strong upper-body muscles. You should shoot for 1-2 sets per week of the deadlift as the sweet spot to get the most out of this exercise.
It’s important to change grips in your hanging exercises and not get locked into doing standard pullups only.
If you don’t, you miss an opportunity to work other muscles in the back like the teres major which occupies a significant space above the lats.
The Wide Grip Pullup is one of the best pull-up variations to help us switch it up to a wider overhand grip.
WIDE GRIP PULLUP
HOW TO DO THE WIDE GRIP PULLUP:
- Perform the Wide Grip Pullup with your arms extended in a Y position on the chin-up bar. For this exercise you are looking for a much wider than shoulder-width overhand grip.
- Keeping your torso rigid, pull your torso up until your chin clears the bar, pause at the top of the movement and slowly lower down to the starting position.
- Keep your core tight by pulling the belly button in toward your spine throughout the entire exercise, and observe proper form to avoid injuries.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Switching to a wider overhand grip in this demanding exercise variation helps you hit other muscles like the teres major.
The Barbell Dead Row shares similar biomechanics to the deadlift, but it allows you to train explosively with heavier loads. If you’re looking to build athleticism and strength, it’s always good to speed up what you slow down.
For this reason, it’s great to perform the Barbell Dead Row as a follow up to the deadlift. You’ll be surprised that even a heavier weight feels like a lighter weight.
BARBELL DEAD ROW
HOW TO DO THE BARBELL DEAD ROW:
- Start position for this barbell row is in a hinged position with feet shoulder width apart grabbing a loaded barbell on the floor with an overhand grip.
- Start with a deadlift movement and finish with a barbell rowing movement.
- Perform a controlled movement and use your core strength to maintain proper form and keep spine stable for all repetitions to avoid risk of injury.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This barbell row variation is an explosive exercise that builds off the same movement pattern as the deadlift, but incorporates athleticism by allowing you to train explosively with heavy weights. Shoot for 1-2 sets per week of this exercise.
It’s important to dedicate some focus to the lats to develop the mind-muscle connection that is crucial to maximizing muscle hypertrophy of the back.
The Alternating High Cable Row is an excellent cable machine exercise to target the lats. Focus on taking them through their entire range of motion in this cable pulley movement.
ALTERNATING HIGH CABLE ROW
HOW TO DO THE ALTERNATING HIGH CABLE ROW:
- Start by putting the attachment in a high position on the cable station and grab the cable pulley handle in the left hand.
- Pull your elbow in toward the torso twisting slightly and perform a single-arm row. Engage the lats as you twist.
- Return to the starting position and grab the cable pulley handle in the right hand. Repeat this motion on the opposite side.
- Use your core strength for stability and keep spine stable for all repetitions.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This cable machine exercise takes the lats through their entire range of motion. Unlike the limited range of motion of the seated cable row, this movement allows you to take your arm out in front of the body to get the lat out in full stretch. Because it’s a unilateral exercise you can also use it to overcome muscle imbalances.
Being sure to hit the smaller muscles will help improve posture and strengthen your entire back. As I always say, we are only as strong as our weakest link, and the smaller muscles definitely tend to be the most ignored.
You should be aiming to train the rotator cuff muscles at least 2-3 times per week. The Hyper Y W Combo will allow you to hit not only the muscles around the rotator cuff shoulder joint, but another frequently weak muscle, the lower traps.
HYPER Y W COMBO
HOW TO DO THE HYPER Y W COMBO:
- Use a glute-ham raise or a stability ball for this exercise and a light weight plate in each hand.
- Raise your torso and raise the arms outward slightly beyond a 90-degree angle into a W position to hit the rotator cuff muscles, and then lower back to the starting position.
- Then raise up again with arms in a Y position to activate the lower traps.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise hits some of the smaller muscles of the back which are often overlooked, like the rotator cuff and the lower traps.
The upper traps are another frequently neglected back muscle, and the Standard Barbell Shrug is an excellent exercise to target them.
The slightly wider grip allows you to hit the upper traps by bringing the angle of the arm more in alignment with the upper trap fibers.
STANDARD BARBELL SHRUG
HOW TO DO THE STANDARD BARBELL SHRUG:
- Grab a loaded barbell with a slightly wider than normal grip for shrugs
- Come up to standing position with feet flat on the ground, and an upright torso and perform an explosive shrug movement sliding shoulders up the neck toward the head.
- Use correct form the entire time for injury prevention.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is one of the best barbell back exercises to hit the often-neglected upper traps by applying a slightly wider than normal grip.
4) WHAT ARE THE BEST LOWER BACK EXERCISES?
Your lower back is one of the most important muscles in your body, especially if you train.
It supports you for all the heavier lifts you do, so it’s important that it stays healthy and strong, or you may find yourself with an injury that keeps you out of the gym completely!
The key to supporting and building strength in your low back is making the back work together with the glutes. If the low back is taking the brunt of the work, you will eventually end up with low back pain that could become chronic over time.
Let’s take a look at 2 of my favorite lower back exercises to help make sure these two important muscle groups are working together.
FROG GLUTE BRIDGE
HOW TO DO A FROG GLUTE BRIDGE:
- Starting position is lying on your back on the floor with bend in knees out toward the sides and feet touching each other sole to sole.
- Bridge up as high as possible, squeezing the glutes and low back to achieve muscle contraction.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The turning out of the feet in this exercise helps you to activate the lower back along with the gluteus medius, which is a hip external rotator with muscle fibers that feed into the pelvis.
ANGEL OF DEATH
HOW TO DO THE ANGEL OF DEATH:
- Lie flat on your stomach on the floor with the spine in a neutral position.
- Lift the toes and thighs off the ground along with the upper body as high as you can to get extension through the hips and glutes. Knees should stay slightly bent to keep them off the ground.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades and pull your chest muscles off the floor, keeping your core tight.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is one of my favorite advanced exercises for the lower back because it works the low back and glutes together in such an effective way.
5) HOW TO FIX LOW BACK PAIN?
What if you are already suffering from low back pain and it’s getting in the way of your workouts?
If you have a job where you are sitting during most of the day you are basically weakening your gluteus medius muscle fibers all day long. Standing all day with unequal weight distribution can also create a weak and imbalanced gluteus medius.
To find out if this is the cause of your low back pain, there is an easy test you can do.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the left leg.
- Notice how it feels to lift the leg up.
- Do the same thing on the other side.
If you had to shift your weight much more on one side than the other to lift your leg, then you have an imbalance or weakness in the glute medius that is likely causing your lower back pain. It’s important that we fix this right away so that it doesn’t become a much worse issue over time.
Let’s take a look at two great exercises to help strengthen the gluteus medius so we can relieve and prevent that low back pain.
HOW TO DO WALL DRIVERS:
- Stand sideways next to a wall so that your right hip is next to the wall, hips square.
- Put your right arm on the wall for support and lift your right leg.
- You’ll notice that your left hip will drop out to the side, but use your glute medius to drive your right leg toward the wall and make sure that your left hip doesn’t drop.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: If you’re experiencing a lot of low back pain, do this exercise daily to get some relief.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
HOW TO DO THE THREADING THE NEEDLE:
- Lie on one side on the floor using the bottom arm for support.
- Bring the top leg back behind your body and then lift it up with the toes pointing down.
- Bring the knee forward to touch the ground and repeat.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Strengthens the glute medius to help relieve lower back pain.
For more gentle exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius and a great technique to help release this area quickly, check out my article on How To Fix Low Back Pain Instantly.
6) WHAT IS THE BEST DUMBBELL BACK WORKOUT?
If you’ve got access to a pair of dumbbells but not a complete gym, can you still get a good back workout?
The answer is ABSOLUTELY! There is a wide range of exercises available to train the back with dumbbells.
You can train your back for any goal using dumbbell back exercises, including strength, explosive power, hypertrophy (muscle growth), metabolic or total body.
Let’s look at some back exercises with dumbbells for each of these goals.
WEIGHTED PULLUP – STRENGTH
HOW TO DO THE WEIGHTED PULLUP:
- Use a dip belt at the gym or a dog leash at home to add extra weight to your waist.
- Grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you, hands shoulder width apart.
- First hang straight on the pull-up bar in vertical position and then pull your torso up in a straight line until your chin clears the bar, keeping your core tight and spine stable for all repetitions.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The pullup is one of the best back exercises there is, so when you add weight to it, you can build some serious strength. It’s also great for challenging your grip strength.
DUMBBELL DEAD ROW – POWER
HOW TO DO THE DUMBBELL DEAD ROW:
- Starting position for this explosive movement is in a hinge position with feet hip width apart (in a slightly wider stance), bending forward with knees bent, heavy dumbbells on the floor in front of you.
- Grab the dumbbells and perform explosive rows generating force through your feet into the ground.
- This is basically a deadlift up to knee level and then the elbows pull back into a row. Maintain core stability throughout the exercise.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a great dumbbell exercise that also allows you to incorporate speed and explosiveness to develop strength and muscular power in the upper back.
DUMBBELL PULLOVER – HYPERTROPHY
HOW TO DO THE DUMBBELL PULLOVER:
- Starting position is lying across a flat bench perpendicularly with your feet flat on the ground, holding a dumbbell overhead with both hands.
- With a slight bend in the elbow, begin lowering the dumbbell over and behind the head with the arm muscles in extended position.
- Then reverse the movement bringing the dumbbell back up and over the head.
- Keep your abdominal muscles tight and spine stable throughout allow repetitions and don’t allow your back to arch up away from the flat bench.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is an excellent dumbbell exercise for laser targeting the lats.
CHEST SUPPORTED TOUCH ROW – METABOLIC
HOW TO DO THE CHEST SUPPORTED TOUCH ROW:
- For this chest-supported row variation, starting position is lying on an adjustable bench in incline position face down with one pair of dumbbells in your hands and another set of lighter dumbbells on the floor below the bench.
- Perform the first set by touching the moderate-weight dumbbells in your hands to the light dumbbells on the floor to allow you to get more of a lat stretch.
- When you fatigue with the dumbbells in your hands, just grab the lighter pair from the floor and keep repping out to push to and through that burn.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Gives the sustained burn in the lats that we’re looking for without compromising the safety of the low back which any standing row variations would do. The prone position on the incline bench supports the back during this chest-supported dumbbell row variation.
MANMAKER – TOTAL BODY
HOW TO DO THE MANMAKER:
- This exercise is a combo between a push-up and a single-arm dumbbell row. Start in high plank position with hands holding onto a pair of light dumbbells on the ground, keeping your core tight.
- Beginning in push-up position, perform a pushup and then progress from a pushup into a renegade row on each side (one-arm dumbbell row).
- Then jump the feet back in, clean the pair of dumbbells up to shoulder height, stand and press, come back down into pushup position and repeat.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is quite simply the best total body exercise that hits the lats hard as well. You won’t be compromising the back in this exercise because you need to use light weight for the renegade rows. Add this one to all of your full-body workouts!
7) HOW CAN YOU DO A BACK WORKOUT AT HOME?
The pullup is the king of bodyweight exercises for the back, but what if you need to do a back workout at home and you don’t have a pullup bar?
You might think it’s impossible to get a good back workout at home with no equipment at all, but that’s not true!
I’ll show you how to hit your upper, middle and lower back with three bodyweight-only exercises.
BACK WIDOW – UPPER BACK
HOW TO DO THE BACK WIDOW:
- Starting position is lying face up on the floor.
- Bend your elbows up with your fists in the air.
- Pushing hard through the upper back muscles and pulling your shoulder blade in, engage the rhomboids, traps and posterior deltoids to push your upper body and spine off the ground.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This body weight only move hits all the upper back muscles including traps, rhomboids, and rear deltoids and is excellent for body control.
SLIDING LAT PULLDOWN – MID BACK
HOW TO DO THE SLIDING LAT PULLDOWN:
- Start position is lying face down on the floor with arms stretched out above your head and legs straight out behind you.
- Engage your core muscles and perform a total body prone pull down.
- Pull yourself forward and push your arms up into plank position.
- Then lower yourself back down to the starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a creative and effective way to hit the lats with no equipment at all.
REVERSE SUPERMAN – LOW BACK
HOW TO DO THE REVERSE SUPERMAN:
- Starting position is lying face down on the floor with arms beside you, hands facing up toward the ceiling.
- Squeeze your glutes as you lift your arms and legs simultaneously.
- Rotate your shoulder blade in as hands turn toward the ground. Use a 2-3 second contraction for each rep.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This bodyweight exercise works the lower back with the glutes and lats… muscles it prefers to work with. Because this exercise is done with the arms behind the body, it incorporates the shoulder blades as well.
I’m sure you can see by now that training all the muscles and functions of the back is crucial, not only to your physique but to the rest of your training goals as well. As you’ve also learned, it’s possible to get a great back workout for mass and build that v-shaped torso even if you have only a pair of dumbbells or bodyweight exercise options.
Choose the exercises in this guide that best match your fitness goals and equipment available and apply them to your back training routine. You’ll be surprised to see fast muscle gain in your back when you’re training the whole back and all its functions, not just the lats.
If you’re looking for a complete training program to build lean muscle and strength in every muscle group in the body and improve your physique, see which of our ATHLEAN-X programs best suits your goals and equipment possibilities.
BACK WORKOUTS FAQ
The best exercise for back muscle development is the classic Barbell Deadlift. It hits the traps, lats and lower back all in one exercise, and it can be overloaded to boost back development.
It’s not recommended to do back muscle workouts every day because these large muscles require rest days to allow muscle tissue to regenerate and grow. It's best to do back workouts 1-2 times per week.
The Hyper Y W Combo is a great exercise to help improve posture, hit the smaller back muscles and strengthen the entire back. This exercise hits the lower traps as well as the muscles around the rotator cuff shoulder joint.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.