It’s sad that the back is one of the most neglected areas of the body in most workouts although it serves as the foundation for all human movement. An under- developed back affects overall physical performance in both gym sessions and daily physical activities. Furthermore, it comes with an elevated risk of injury during workouts in addition to a range of problems such as chronic shoulder and back pain. This article will look at the benefits of focused back workouts, workout principles, and some of the key exercises you can use to build strength and size in the back muscles.
The Back: A quick look at key muscles and function
The back’s musculature is quite complex as it features dozens of muscles which are arranged in layers to perform specific functions. However, a basic understanding of the key muscles and how they work together to fulfill certain functions goes a long way in designing and executing strength training programs. A little anatomy and some basic biomechanics of the back muscles can be the difference between success and failure.
Based on general function, back muscles can be broadly categories into prime movers and stabilizers. Prime movers are those muscles which produce the key movements we can easily observe from the outside such as forward bending, rotating and extension.
Stabilizers are mainly involved in keeping the back stable as it’s moving in different directions. Prime movers tend to be large and long muscles that span over several joints whereas as stabilizers are smaller, often connecting adjacent segments as of the spine.
In fitness training circles, the term “back” generally refers to the prime movers mostly because of their contribution to the overall physique and dynamic force/power production. This article will focus on these muscles in terms of general structure and associated workout programs.
There are four main prime movers of the back you need to focus on if you are primarily interested in both power and physique.
- Trapezius (Traps)
- Erector Spinae
- Latissimus Dorsi (Latts)
The Trapezius muscle
This is a huge Triangle-shaped muscle connecting the Shoulder Blade to the base of the head and the upper Spine. Here is how it looks like:
When it’s well-developed, the upper part shows up as a huge muscle bulk between the shoulder and the neck.
These are two muscles connecting the upper part of the Thoracic/mid Spine to the inner bolder of the Shoulder Blade.
They tend to present as prominent ridges between the shoulder blades and the spine when well developed.
This is a group of long muscles which run along the spine, from the lumbar region (low back region) to the base of the head. It’s actually a collective term for 3 groups of muscles whose key function is to keep the spine Erect as well as bending backwards. With training, the Erector Spinae comes up as two ridges of muscles that run along each side of the spine, especially in the Thoracic region.
Latissimus Dorsi (Latt)
This is perhaps the most famous of the back muscles in gym circles. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of exercises named after it.
The Latissimus Dorsi is a huge muscle that originates from the mid and lower parts of the spine, some ribs, and lower angle of the Scapula (Shoulder Blade). Its fibers converge in an upward direction before attaching to a spot on the upper surface of the arm bone (Humerus).
Its main functions include pulling the arm backwards and depressing the Shoulder Blade. This why most workouts targeting this muscle involve backward pulling from different angles.
Other relevant muscles
The back of the Shoulder Blade accommodates some muscles which also contribute to overall back physique and movements of both the Scapula and Humerus. These include the Teres Major and Infraspinatus. These muscles usually present as another prominent set of ridges over the back of the Shoulder Blade when well developed.
2 strong reasons why you should work on your back
Great posture and physique
The back suffers from a serious lack of attention from most lifters, even the experienced. If you step into a typical modern gym, chances are that you’ll get bored with seeing lifters performing dozens of reps on the front muscles with little to no attention to the back. The chest, arms, and abs tend to be the obvious priority. Expectedly, the result is a generation of lifters with over-developed chests and arms relative to the back.
This does not only cause imbalanced physiques but also exposes most lifters to poor back and shoulder postures which come with a high risk of developing chronic muscular and joint problems. If the back muscles are not able to balance with the front, the shoulder blades tend to be drawn forward as the upper back becomes rounded.
In fact, medical research has long demonstrated a significant correlation between this posture and a number of musculoskeletal problems such as chronic back and shoulder pain syndromes like Spondylosis and Rotator cuff Tendinitis. As a Physical Therapist, it’s not uncommon to get visits from lifters with different forms of these conditions, which can easily be traced back to faulty workout routines.
More Power for heavier lifts and greater gains
A stable back provides a strong base for the muscles of the limbs to effect movements efficiently. Your arms need a firm and strong back to move in all the required directions, and your legs need a stable pelvis and back for efficient and safe movement patterns. The prime movers work together with stabilizers to keep things smooth and stable. A weak back will translate to low power output from the limb muscles, which means that you’ll most likely have trouble with handling heavier loads.
Apart from stability, the back muscles are also intrinsically involved in some dynamic movements of the limbs. For example, the Trapezius plays an important role in the movements of the Shoulder Blades which are essential for executing overhead lifting activities such as the Military Press.
Principles of effective back workouts
General principles of exercise also apply to back muscles. Remember, they are still muscles, but with a different function. They key is in applying these principles to get maximal results.
In simple terms, this principle states that muscles can only gain strength and size if they are forced to handle loads which are greater than those they are accustomed to. In other words, muscles become stronger and bigger as a way of adapting to heavier loads. Back muscles are no exception. No matter what your workout program looks like, this should be reflected.
The Concept of 1 Repetition maximum (1RM)
There is a recommended level of training you need to target in order to attain significant gains. Your workouts should target loads within a certain range, ideally 80-85% of the 1RM.
The term “1RM” refers to the weight or load you cannot lift more than once without breaking form. For instance, if the Deadlift is one of your exercises, the amount of weight you can’t handle for more than one repetition is your 1RM for the Deadlift. According to general recommendations, your target will be 80-85% of that weight.
However, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for beginners. You can start at a much lower load, like 40% of the 1RM, before moving up the ladder to the recommended zone. Start low, master the form, and make sure you increase the load towards the recommended training zone/intensity. That’s how you can go about applying this principle.
The principle of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands
Muscles change/adapt according to the stresses under which they are subjected to. If you want more size and strength, train for strength and not endurance.
There are two main aspects to muscle performance. Strength refers to the muscle’s ability to generate force per contraction/pull. Endurance refers to it’s ability to generate repeated contractions over longer period of time. Lifting heavy loads builds strength whereas lifting lower loads at a high number of reps builds endurance.
The fact is that you will hardly gain much strength, let alone more muscle size, if all you are doing is lifting light loads without any plan on progressing with the load. Focus on progressively loading the muscle in a fewer number of reps. 3 sets of the 4-6 reps at 75%-85% are usually enough per exercise.
Get your form right
Though there is a lot of emphasis on training loads here, there is one thing you need to get right before you even think of bending the bar with mega weights, exercise form! Take your time, start with a light load, and make sure you master the form. This is not only an effective approach but also a sure way of evading unnecessary injuries. Remember, there won’t be any gains to attain if you are confined to your couch due to avoidable muscle or tendon injuries. Keep things safe and you’ll eventually get there.
Build both the upper and lower back
The Latts (Latissimus Dorsi) tend to enjoy a lot of attention compared to the upper back muscles. When it comes to back work, it’s common to see the whole workout filled with Latts and some upper Trap work. This inevitably leads to strength and control imbalances as well as an asymmetrical physique. A sound back day should target all key muscle groups of the back.
6 Best Exercises for a Bigger and Stronger Back
The Deadlift is to the back as the Chest press is to the Pecs/Chest muscles. Besides being an excellent workout for both the lower and upper back, it also proves a great exercise for the shoulder, pelvis and legs. In essence, it’s a workout that primarily challenges the extensors of the spine as they have to keep the back in a neutral position against the heavy load.
Some critics have labeled it unsafe for the lower back due to the immense forces it has to deal with during the lift. The bottom line is that it’s only dangerous when done with poor form and loading strategy.
With proper form and patience, the Deadlift can help with decreasing the risk of injury to the back or even eliminate the likelihood of chronic low back pain. From a professional’s perspective, a stronger back has lower risk of developing abnormalities which eventually lead to low back pain. This makes the Deadlift a valid staple of any serious back training program.
How to do the Deadlift
- With a Barbell placed on the floor in just in front, squat and grab the bar at around shoulder width. Make sure your back is straight. The chest should be slightly out with shoulders slightly drawn backwards. Keep your eyes forward as you maintain a firm grip on the bar.
- Lift the bar to mid-thigh level, being careful to keep the back in the initial position. Keep the bar as close as possible to avoid slouching forward.
- Take the load down with control as you approach the starting position.
- Make sure the movement is taking place at the hip. The back muscles’ function is to keep the spine stable and erect, which is a crucial element of the pull.
The Pull up provides an incredible exercise for a good number of muscles including the Latts, Biceps, Traps, Rhomboids and stabilizers. The Latts are the ones which get most of the burn, thus the exercise’s inclusion on the list. Essentially, it’s a compound exercise which places more emphasis on the Latts and the Biceps muscle. In general terms, the movement involves pulling the body upwards towards and above an overhanging bar before descending to the initial position.
The ascending portion of the movement involves shoulder extension, while the descending portion involves flexion. Both movements involve the Latts in the sense that it pulls on the Humerus to push the body upward when ascending, and maintains tension to keep the movement smooth when descending. Furthermore, the mid and lower Traps are also heavily involved as the Shoulder Blade moves back and forth relative to the spine.
How to do the Pull up
- Get to the pull-up station.
- Grab the bar with both hands at shoulder width. Make sure your palms are facing backwards (under hand grip).
- Cross your shins at the back for more balance.
- Maintain a strong grip and lift your body up. Make sure that your elbows are in line with the hips. Try to get your chin over the bar before a smooth reversal to the starting position.
- You can keep the exercise progressive by using a weighted vest, cuff weights or securing a weight plate between your thighs.
Barbell Bend-over Row
This variant of rowing exercises is commonly used to emphasize the upper back (mid and lower Traps, Rhomboids). Rear Deltoids and shoulder stabilizers are also recruited due to heavy shoulder involvement.
How to do the Barbell Bend-over Roll
- As the name suggests, this exercise is done in a bent-over position which allows for the required upward pulling action while keeping things safer for the back.
- The legs should be shoulder width apart.
- The hands should be a little wider than shoulder width apart but at the same level (the left shouldn’t be wider than the right).
- Keep the back straight. The bend should occur at the hip joint, not the back. Involving the spine puts you at a greater risk of back injury. Make sure you bend until the back is roughly parallel to the floor.
- Lift the load upwards to the base of your chest before returning to the starting position in a controlled manner.
Like the Dumbbell Row, this is another great exercise after the more compound movements. It may also be a good starting point for starters, who often find compound movements too hard to handle.
Single-arm Dumbbell Row
The Dumbbell Row offers a highly efficient exercise for the upper back and the shoulder. It’s one of the few exercises out there which heavily recruit the Rhomboids and middle Traps while involving muscles of the shoulder blade such as the Teres Major and Infraspinatus.
The use of Dumbbells in this exercise comes with an additional advantage. It allows you to address imbalances between the left and right sides which would otherwise be difficult with other equipment such as the Barbell.
How to do the Single-arm Dumbbell Row
- The free side provides most of the support needed for proper form. Lean on a flat bench with your knee and hand. The arm should be straight and make sure you maintain a straight torso.
- Grab the Dumbbell with your free hand.
- Lift the weight upwards until the arm is parallel to the floor. A slight inward angle to the pull can be added to place more emphasis on the Rhomboids and the mid-Trapezius muscles.
- The Dumbbell Row should come after compound movements such as Pull-ups and Deadlifts.
- Again, your form is crucial here. Avoid twisting the back, as well as swinging the arm for more momentum. This prevents cheating, thus allowing for more efficient involvement of the target muscles.
This provides a great isolation exercise for huge and explosives Latts. As a single-joint exercise, it’s best positioned after multi-joint movements such as Pull ups or Deadlift. It can also come in after Deadlifts to replace Pull ups, which most starters find rather too hectic too soon.
How to do the Latt pull Downs
- The Cable machine is a great piece of equipment for this exercise.
- Set the bar in an overhead position, kneel down in front of the machine. The knees should be shoulder width apart.
- The back should be straight, with the chest slightly drawn outwards.
- Grab the bar and pull it downwards to chest level.
- Return to the starting position with control.
Limit movement to the shoulder and arms. Do not cheat on yourself by leaning forward. Start with low loads to allow mastery of proper form.
Single Arm T-bar Row
This is somehow similar to the Bend-over Row only that it allows you to deal with imbalances by exercising one side before the other. Like the Bend-over Row, it also emphasizes the upper back but with less emphasis on the Erector Spinae.
How to do the Single Arm T-bar Row
- The position should be the same as the Bend-Over Barbell Row as discussed earlier.
- Hold the T-BAR, just behind the plate and row backwards until the bar touches the chest.
- Return to the previous position in a controlled manner.