If you’re reading this, you’re probably expecting to see a list of the best back exercises along with the exact number of sets and reps on how to build a stronger back.
Before we get started, let’s make one thing clear. This isn’t the typical back exercise workout guide.
In fact, you shouldn’t have a workout day dedicated entirely to your back anyway. Working solely on your back for an entire routine is actually quite inefficient.
Rather, you should be doing an upper body workout day that integrates the training of your back muscles in addition to your upper body muscles (chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps) at the proper frequency, volume and intensity.
The Best Back Exercises?
Believe it or not, there is no one particular back exercise that will stimulate muscle growth faster than others.
Truth be told, pull-ups and lat pulldowns will be equally successful at building your back muscles, regardless of what other people say.
The same can be said for rows. This includes dumbbell rows, barbell rows and cable rows which are all equally effective at targeting your back muscles.
There are only a few factors that you have to consider when choosing exercises for your back.
- Vertical plane movements (e.g. lat pulldowns and pull-ups)
- Horizontal plane movements (e.g. horizontal rows, inverted rows)
- Grip position (overhand versus underhand)
- Line of pull (towards your hips/stomach/chest)
And the rest is history.
And for all exercises in general, you should be making selections based on:
- Exercises you prefer doing
- Exercises that do not aggravate any existing injuries
- Exercises that allow you to progress over time
- Exercises that you can execute with correct form
Makes sense, right?
So WTF is this Article About?
If it’s not about doing the best back exercises then how do I build a bigger and stronger back?
The advice I’m going to convey in this article is what you should be focusing on DURING your back workouts.
First Tip: USE Your Back
Although it may sound obvious, the biggest mistake people make when performing back exercises is failing to actually activate their back muscles.
When I say back muscles, I’m referring to the lower back (erector spinae), the lats and rhomboids in your middle back, the trapezius in your upper back, and the teres major located in your outer back.
You may be doing exercises that intend to target these muscles but you aren’t actually activating the right muscles during the exercise.
You’re not activating your back muscles because…
- Your form sucks. Other muscles such as your biceps and lower back are actually doing the work. Or you’re using your body momentum to assist you into getting to the correct position.
- You’re lifting too much weight. This also leads to using the wrong muscles as well as making you more prone to injury.
- Your body can’t perform what your mind is telling it to do. Without the proper neuromuscular connection, people simply can’t utilize their back muscles.
Solutions to #1 and #2: Lift LIGHT Until You Can Lift RIGHT A.K.A Stop Training Like an Idiot
#1 (crappy form) and #2 (lifting too much weight) are seen so frequently at the gym that they’ve almost become the norm.
- Rows that look like deadlifts
- Lat pulldowns that lift the person from the seat after each rep
- Seated rows that look like the person is using a rowing machine
- Pull-ups with unnecessary swinging or kipping (cough Crossfit cough)
- Lacking range of motion (not fully lowering your body and not pulling all the way up during a pull-up)
Funny to watch but totally counterproductive to building a stronger back.
Luckily, the solution to #1 and #2 is:
- Lift with proper technique. If you don’t know what proper technique looks like, get a personal trainer or experienced gym rat to critique your form.
- Leave your ego at the door
- Stop trying to impress people… no one actually cares but you
- Lift LIGHT until you can lift RIGHT
Solution for #3 = Focus on your Elbows
Number 3 is a little trickier to solve since a lot of people still end up using the wrong muscles when performing the exercise, particularly their biceps.
And a lot of it has to do with what’s in your head.
Although it’s pretty much impossible to completely eliminate the use of your biceps, you can minimize the work they are doing relative to your back,
But how do I put the emphasis on my back?
The first step goes back to the basics; learning the correct form which will allow you to recruit your back muscles:
- Chest up and puffed outwards
- Shoulders back
- Lower back slightly arched
- Imagine Superman
Now ignore what your hands and the weight are doing. Rather…
Focus on your elbows.
Visualize your hands as clips and feel that you are pulling the weight with your elbows.
Or better yet, visualize the weight being behind your elbows and pushing the weight behind you with your elbows.
For pull-ups, visualize your elbows pushing down against an imaginary weight which is helping to propel your body upwards.
If done correctly, you’ll be activating your back and actually feel those muscles doing work.
Second Tip: Squeeze
If you’re still having a difficult time feeling your back muscles working, try this simple tip which worked for me and numerous other athletes.
Hold and squeeze.
During the contraction phase of each rep, put extra focus on physically and mentally squeezing your back muscles. Hold that squeezed position for a second and then release.
Literally feel your scapula (shoulder blades) pinching together.
And use the same back muscles to slowly return the weight (or your body) to its initial position.
For each and every back exercise, squeeze like your life depends on it.
If you’ve never experienced soreness or “pump” in your back muscles, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
And if you find yourself unable to hold that squeezed position for a second, then you’re probably lifting too much, bro.
How to Build a Stronger Back
So how do you build a stronger back? We can break it down to 2 simple steps:
- Select a well-designed workout routine in combination with a nutrition plan to support your goals.
- When you’re training your back, use your back muscles by optimizing your position, visualizing and squeezing.