Back workouts are an essential component of a complete training program that develops strong, powerful and resilient athletes. The back includes some of the largest muscles in the body that assist with pulling motions, help stabilize the shoulder and play a critical role in your posture.
However, the back is one of the most neglected areas of the body. Lifters have a tendency to overload their workouts with the Bench Press and other pressing variations. In reality, you should be doing at least two back exercises for every pressing exercise.
Here’s everything you need to know to build a back workout that actually works.
Back Workout Benefits
Plain and simple, you cannot train the heck out of the front of your body and ignore the back of it. Logically, it just doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to deliberately create an imbalance between the front and backside of your body?
Here are some of the benefits you’re missing out on if you neglect your back.
Improved Overall Strength and Performance
A strong back will make you a stronger and better athlete. It’s the foundation of virtually every upper-body movement and skill. Do you use your shoulders in your sport? Then you need a strong back. Do you rip or pull defenders on the line? You need a strong back. There’s no way around it.
A strong back will literally benefit every single thing you do. It will help you Squat and Deadlift more weight. It will even improve your Bench Press because it plays a critical role in decelerating the bar as it lowers to your chest. So if you have any hope of impressing your friends with a big Bench Press—and not getting hurt while you’re doing it—you better start building your back.
“The back gives you the foundation to be able to remain healthy and build a resilient body that’s able to train hard and stay on the field,” adds Justin Ochoa, strength coach and co-owner of PACE Fitness Academy (Indianapolis).
Next time you’re questioning whether or not you should train your back, remember that a stronger backside will improve strength and performance on the frontside.
Improved Shoulder Health
As you will see below when we cover some anatomy of the back, a vast majority of your back muscles move your shoulder blades, which dictate shoulder movement. Strong back muscles will improve both shoulder strength and stability, which allows for stronger and more explosive shoulder movements with a reduced risk for injury. In fact, shoulder pain and injuries are often treated by simply strengthening the back.
Building a strong back has never been more important because of our tendency to sit hunched forward for far too many hours every day. Ochoa explains that building strong and active back muscles help to pull you back out of the forward hunched posture into a neutral position, which is essential for spine health, exercise technique and shoulder function among other things. Building a strong back isn’t the only solution to the posture problem, but it plays an important role.
First and foremost, you need to understand some basic anatomy of the back. There are other back muscles but knowing these major muscle groups will help you understand how the back functions and how you need to train it.
The lower back consists of the quadratus lumborum, spinal erectors and other muscles that are responsible for stabilizing the lumbar spine. This region of the spine can handle tremendous amounts of vertical force (think weight on your back during a Back Squat), but isn’t designed to move all that much.
That’s why proper lower-back training focuses on stability, not exercises like Supermans that have you arch your lower back over and over again. For most of you, Deadlift and Squat variations are sufficient for training your lower back.
The lats are one of the largest muscle groups in your body. They run from under your armpit along the sides of your back all the way down to your lower back. Arguably, the lats are the most important muscle group in your back. They help to move your arms, move the shoulder blade (and control the shoulder) and prevent your spine from moving during heavy lifts. A few common exercises that target the lats are Pull-Ups, Dumbbell Rows and Pull-Overs.
Your traps are divided into three sections: lower, middle and upper. The lower and middle traps work to retract (along with the rhomboids), depress and upwardly rotate your shoulder blades—movements that are essential for movements like throwing a ball or properly pressing a weight overhead. This section of the traps and rhomboids are best trained with Cable or TRX Ys, YTWs, Lower Trap Raises and any type of Pull-Up or Row.
The upper traps are the large muscles atop your shoulders that run into your neck. Upper traps are trained with Shrugs, but are also heavily involved in Deadlift and Olympic lift variations. Although they look impressive, don’t go crazy with upper trap exercises as these muscles are commonly overactive.
Technically a shoulder muscle, we will consider it a back muscle because it sits on the backside of your shoulder and is trained with pulling movements. The rears delts act as a stabilizer when your elbows come toward your body and are important every time you throw a ball, press a bar off your chest or anything other movement where your elbow comes toward your body. The rear delts are trained with Band Pull-Aparts, Rear Delt Raises and Face Pulls.
Back Workout Mistakes
Mistake 1: Pulling with incorrect form
The No. 1 mistake people make is turning back exercises into biceps exercises. Every pull, whether vertical or horizontal, should start from your back, not your elbow. Only once that range of motion is complete do you finish with your arms. Here are a couple of cues to help with this technique:
- Think about the muscles in your back that you’re trying to work as you perform your reps.
- For Rows, initiate the movement by pulling your shoulders back. For vertical pulls, pull your shoulders down.
- Drive your elbows back, but not too far. They shouldn’t go behind your torso or you run the risk of stressing your shoulders.
Mistake 2: Failing to move through a full range of motion
This mistake applies to virtually every exercise but it’s especially common when working the back. Think about how many people perform Pull-Ups. They fail to straighten their elbows completely to make each rep easier. The same can be said for Dumbbell Rows and other exercises.
“You want to hit both stability and mobility of the back,” says Ochoa. “You not only want to build muscle in the upper back, but you also want to make sure they’re moving in the correct ranges of motion.”
To fix this issue, use a weight that you can control through a full range of motion. If you’re doing Pull-Ups, fewer reps with a full range of motion is better than partial reps. Just make sure you initiate each movement with your back.
Mistake 3: Performing too many pull-up variations
Pull-Ups are one of the best exercises for building a strong back. They develop your lats and are a great measure of strength.
But they are not the king of all back exercises. That title belongs to the Horizontal Pull.
According to Dr. John Rusin, a strength coach, physical therapist and creator of the Functional Hypertrophy Training program, athletes should do two to three horizontal pulling exercises per every vertical pulling to keep their shoulders healthy. Load up on heavy weights or high reps with the horizontal exercises, and shift your Pull-Ups to later in the workout, when your joints are prepared for the vertical movement.
Creating an Effective Back Workout
There are three different types of back exercises that we’ll use to create a complete back workout:
Deadlift Variations – The Deadlift and its variations are among the best total-back builders because they challenge your back to maintain position against heavy loads.
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Snatch-Grip Deadlifts
Horizontal Pull – Horizontal pulls include rowing type exercises where the resistance is perpendicular to your body.
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Rows
- Inverted Rows
- Face Pulls
- Rear Delt Raises
Vertical Pull – A vertical pull includes an exercise where you pull downward toward your body.
- Lat Pulldown
- Rope climbing
For athletes, we recommend performing back-centric workouts that also include some pressing work or lower-body pulling exercises. Here are a two templates that you can follow developed with the help of Ochoa.
Back Workout – Option 1
1) Trap Bar Deadlift – 5×3
2A) Dumbbell Rows – 4×8
2B) Cable Ys – 4×15
3A) Dumbbell Bench Press – 4×8
3B) Band Pullaparts – 4×20
4A) Pull-Ups – 3×10
4B) Face Pulls – 3×15
5) Farmer’s Walks – 5×25 yards
Back Workout – Option 2
1) RDL – 5×3
2A) Landmine Meadows Rows – 4×5
2B) IYTW – 4×15
3A) Physioball Hamstring Curl – 12×12
3B) Rear Delt Raises – 4×15
4A) Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups – 3×10
4B) Face Pulls – 3×15
5) Prowler High Pull – 5×25 yards