Building a wide, thick back means working the entire back through a variety of exercises and hitting it hard with some major mass movements.
For any back movement, I aim to work through a full range of motion controlling both the positive and negative portion of each rep. I will use a weight that allows me to be able to pull my shoulder blades back and contract the targeted muscles.
As with any exercise, proper form and position is key to maximizing results and back exercises are no different. We have all seen someone using a lat pull-down machine with no real form and just moving the bar up and down in any manner. The effectiveness of that exercise is completely wasted by poor form.
Most back exercises require the shoulders to move backward allowing the muscles of the upper and middle back as well as the lats to contract and tighten with each rep. Often times the lower back maintains a slight arch and does not round over. With that said, here are a few of my main back exercises that form the staple of any back program I use.
My 5 Favorite Back Building Exercises
Bent-Over Barbell Row
The barbell row is by far my favorite mass building back movement. I have relied on this exercise for years to build thick, strong lats as well as hit the muscles of the upper back.
I use a few variations of the barbell row. The most common row is done with the torso bent over almost parallel to the ground with a slight bend in the knee. Head and chest stay up and keep a small arch in the lower back.
However, I prefer a slight variation of this form, made popular by Dorian Yates, where rather than bend the torso the full 90 degrees, the torso is bent forward a bit more than 45 degrees. The head and chest stay up and there is a slight arch in the lower back, but for me this makes a tremendous difference in the feel of the movement. I can really squeeze the lats and feel them throughout the entire range of this movement.
One other variation I like to use is a reverse grip on the bar. Having an underhand grip is a small change, but adds yet another unique feel to the movement.
Pull ups are by far the best body resistance exercise. They are great for targeting the muscles of the upper back and lats.
Pull ups are an exercise the lifting community ignored for a long time, but recently has regained a more frequent spot in back workouts. There is a great feeling of accomplishment after you fight against your own bodyweight, and little by little grow stronger and able to do more pull ups reps.
You may find different pull up equipment variations in your gym. This will offer multiple possibilities for hand positions. I find that experimenting with those is a good way to keep the exercise fresh and target different areas of the back.
Close Grip Lat Pull Downs
For a complete back workout I will add some type of lat pull-down in to the mix. I usually will not do these in the same workout program as pull ups though. After blasting my lats with rows - either barbell, dumbbell or pulley rows - lat pull downs are a great compliment, and round out a complete back training session.
Targeting the muscles of the upper back, I get a great feel and squeeze through several different variations of this exercise. Close grip lat pull downs, using the handle grip from the pulley row machine, is one of my favorite pull down variations. With the closer grip, I can really squeeze my shoulders back, keep my chest up and feel the muscles of my upper back and lats contracting.
We also will do several other types of pull downs to continually work the back through a variety of angles and positions. The most common pull down movement is the wide grip pull down, where I keep my hands just wider than shoulder width apart on the bar.
A reverse grip lat pull down adds a completely different feel while using the same bar as wide grip pull-downs. For this exercise, I bring my hands in to the middle of the bar and grab it with an underhand grip.
One other variation of the lat pull down we use is a palms facing grip pull down. This exercise uses a bar which has handles facing one another, set about shoulder width apart.
Seated Low Pulley Rows
To continually change things up, I like to use seated pulley rows in place of barbell rows from time to time. For me, it is a great mass movement and I can certainly concentrate on pulling and squeezing with my lats.
For this exercise, I prefer to keep the handles low and pull more into my waist than towards my upper abs. I am better able to feel this exercise when doing them this way.
To add size and thickness to the traps, which are clearly visible in any back pose or shot, barbell or dumbbell shrugs are the way to go. I add these in to my back routine after doing some of the exercises I have mentioned above.
I love finishing off a back workout with some heavy shrugs. There is something about using a heavy weight and simply trying to shrug your shoulders up to your ears that is rewarding yet so incredibly challenging at the same time. After a good set of shrugs I can feel my traps not only from my neck out to my shoulders, but also right down the middle of my upper back.
Deadlifts – Back Exercise or Leg Movement?
This seems to be an often debated topic. At times I have used deadlifts at the end of my back workouts. It is one of my favorite all around exercises. It does however use a great deal of leg strength, especially during the first half of the movement.
The second half of the movement after the legs have lifted the weight off the floor relies on back strength as you use your lower back muscles to rotate the hips and move to a vertical position. This is undoubtedly a full body movement, which takes great power and strength throughout to complete.
Recently I have broken down this movement to focus primarily on the muscles of the lower back. After completing the first rep off the floor, I will then only lower the weight to just past my knees, maybe as low as mid-shin. At that point, I raise the bar back up focusing on my lower back doing all the work.
This modification takes most of the leg strength out of this variation of the deadlift and I am able to concentrate on using this primarily as a back movement. I am not sure how often I will work with this version at the moment, but it certainly does allow me to put more emphasis on my back when doing it this way.
Within each workout program, I will choose several of these exercises depending upon the goals and focus of each program. Variety is key and so even within each program the goal is to hit all parts of the back from a variety of angles.
I welcome your thoughts, questions, and experiences with deadlifts or any of your favorite back exercises.