The back sure can seem a bit mysterious, can’t it? You see well-defined backs on muscular individuals, where seemingly every muscle is cut and defined. It gives the appearance of a great mountain range, with peaks and valleys, causing you to want to reach out and touch it.
And yet you consider your own back and, realistically, you may have no clue what it looks like. Whatever state your back may currently be in, if you want a true bodybuilder back you’re going to need to target it like a bodybuilder.
This means you’ll likely need to make a few additions to your back workout.
Understanding The Back Muscles
Before we dive into working out the back lets focus on the muscle groups of the back. Knowing these groups will help you understand how to best target each. So let’s start at the top and work are way down.
First, there are the trapezius muscles, better known as the traps. These muscles start at a point at the base of your skull (if you feel the half-curve in the back of your head where the spine connects this is where the traps start).
The muscles then expand over the top of your shoulders and connect to you shoulder joint, then come back to a point in the middle of your back. It basically creates a diamond shape of muscles along your back. The bottom tip of the traps curve over the next major muscle group: the lats.
Scientifically called the Latissimus muscles, it’s easier to just call these muscles the lats. The lats spread out like butterfly wings from your spine.
If you were to hold your arms out horizontally, the muscle groups start under the bottom of the traps, and then curve up around the side of your body, above your oblique muscles and into your arm pit. The bottom of the muscles then attach to your hips.
You may want to consider a portion of your deltoids (shoulder muscles) in with the back. While you hit the front delts with most of your chest presses and shoulder presses, the rear delts often do not receive as much attention as the front and side delts.
So, if you’re not hitting your rear delts when targeting your shoulders you should focus on this area of your body as well.
Lastly there is your lower back. This area is often one of the weakest points in the entire body simply because very few exercises actually target the lower back.
Despite not receiving as much attention (there are a number of small muscle groups here that connect to the upper portion of your gluteus, your obliques and the bottom portion of your lats), this is an especially important part of your body.
You rely on your lower back when you sit. It’s often an area that is strained and leans to lingering pain during the day (chiropractors will often talk about issues with the thoracic area of your spine, which is where these muscles are located over). Thankfully, much like your abs, it doesn’t take an extreme lift to target these areas of the body and to strengthen the small muscles (Teach Me Anatomy, 2019).
Building a Stronger Back
When lifting for a bodybuilder back you will want to start with the heavier lifts first. Much like working other areas of your body, the heavier weights will typically be used by more of your back.
You’ll then ween your way down to smaller lifts. Each of these lifts listed below are designed to fully target your back, so you will receive a complete back workout, ranging from the top of your traps to the bottom of your lower back.
When it comes to lifting, this is one of the top four lifts you need to be doing (the other three are the squats, bench press and shoulder press).
The barbell deadlift works so much more than just your back though. Basically, it works everything from your legs to your shoulders. However, it targets more of your back than any other area of your body, so we’ll put the barbell deadlift into this workout routine.
There are a number of deadlift variants out there. One of the most popular is the mixed-grip lift (or the sumo foot spacing). You’ll want to do these lifts on leg day as it takes some muscle strain away from the back and places it on the legs.
With this lift, start with your feet close together and your arms on the outside of your feet. Keep your back straight the entire lift (do not round your back, otherwise you may pull a muscle or strain a nerve. At the top of the lift, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
This puts maximum strain on both your traps, rear delts and your lats.
So when should this lift appear during your routine? It is one of the few floater lifts that will depend on how much weight you’re using. If you’re going for sheer weight, when you’re maxing out at four or six reps, do this one first. If, however, you’re going more for reps, such as 12, put this in the middle.
Bent Over Barbell Deadlift
While you’re using the barbell, you might as well perform the bent over barbell deadlift right after the regular deadlift. This is another lift that lets you maximize the amount of weight you’re lifting with.
Keeping your back straight and hinged with your hips and thighs at about a 120 degree angle, hold the loaded barbell so your arms are nearly straight (keep a slight bend so your elbows don’t lock up). It will come down to just above your knees.
Now, pull the weights up into your chest so the barbell comes to about your bellybutton. The weight should stay close to your legs. This will help prevent your elbows from pushing out (which would take the weight strain away from your back and put it on your traps and arms).
Let the weight down as slowly as possible. This really increases the strain and helps tear up your muscles for maximum definition later (University of Rochester Medical Center, 2018).
Wide Grip Pull-Up
The pull-up is one of the best exercises you can do.
It’s always great when you can build a solid body without relying on weights. For this all you need is a pull-up bar. To fully target your back you need a wide grip. The closer your grip the more your biceps, triceps and front shoulders are engaged.
With the wide grip you’ll be working the upper part of your lats and the middle portion of your traps. In terms of full muscle stretch, this is one of the best. If you’ve ever seen someone do a pull-up with their shirt off you’ll know the back traps squeeze together tightly. This will help give you the defined look you’re hoping for.
Shoot for around 8 to 12 pull-ups with this arm configuration.
It’s best to focus on a single-arm method when performing the dumbbell row.
For this, grab a dumbbell and find a bench. Place the knee and palm of the same side on the bench to help anchor your body, then keep your back flat and parallel to the ground. Row up with the dumbbell, keeping your elbow tight to the body. Lift the weight as far up as possible (again, remember you want to maximize the stretch on your back, and the best way to do this is to pull the weight up further).
Doing each arm individually is important as it helps strength the two sides of your back independently. This helps make up for any shortcomings one side of your back might have.
The cable row is great for hitting the middle of your back.
While the lift is rather straight forward let us make a suggestion for using a different cable attachment. Typically you’ll find the cable row is fixed with a handle placing your hands close together. Instead, swap this out for a wide-grip bar often used for a lat pull-down.
This bar has handles that bend downward. This is ideal because it allows you to pull the weights further.
With the regular row handle you can only pull as far as your abs, which stops your elbows at your sides. However, with the wide-grip lat bar, your arms pull back further. This gives your muscles extra stretch and increased definition.
There are a few ways you can target your lower back. The superman exercise is good to sprinkle in while performing your ab workouts.
The only downside to relying completely on the superman for your entire lower back conditioning is the range of motion is limited and you’re not using any weight for the exercise. Instead, you’ll want to bring another lifting method into the fold.
One of the back exercises we love because of just how complete it hits the region of the body is the back extension. For this you’ll need the back extension machine (the device that you stand in with a 45 degree angle and pads just above your knees to lock in you into position).
Grab a weighted plate. Starting out with 10 is good and you can move up from there. Begin by “standing” straight (you’ll be pointed in a 45 degree angle).
Now, lower your upper body down, hugging the weight to your chest. Come back up and pull your lower back as tight as possible. You’ll feel it right in your lower back here. Repeat this process. You can shoot for 15 or so reps, or you can see how many complete reps you do in 30 or 45 seconds (Medical News Today, 2018).
This might be one of the most underrated lifts you can do for your back, but it is a must. It’s a great exercise to do at the end of your back workout as you won’t be lifting very heavy. It also targets not only your rear delts but the top of your traps, which are areas most other lifts do not fully hit (especially the upper traps).
For this you’ll need the cable machine with the rope attachment. Position the cable just above your head. Now, face the machine and take hold of the rope with both hands so the bulb on the end of the ropes come out the top of your fists. Your arms should be extended out from your body.
Now, pull the rope attachment toward your face, allowing each hand do pull its side of the rope as far back as possible (your hands will be near your ears). Your nose will come to near the middle of the “Y” rope section.
Keep your elbows in tight while doing this, otherwise you won’t be working your upper back. Hold in this position then return slowly to the beginning.
If you really want to take it to the next level (you might as well, right?), when the cable is fully engaged and your hands are back by your ears, extend your arms up above your head, like you’re doing a shoulder press.
You may need to reduce the weight some in order to do this as it is a major strain on this area of your body. Keeping your arms and elbows in tight, your arms should be fully extended, then bring your arms back down to your ear level and return to the starting position.
Trust us, it might look a bit goofy, but no lift will give you a stronger, thicker upper trap like this one.
Training your back can be a bit tricky simply because you can’t see your back muscles as you’re working out. Once you understand all the muscles your back has then you are able to make sure you are hitting all of them during your workout.
As long as you’re following through with these lifts you’ll have a great looking bodybuilder back in no time! So, the next time you’re at the gym, use these different moves for a great looking back.