“Out of sight, out of mind.”
The grizzled former amateur bodybuilder, still well built and one of the strongest guys in the gym well into his 60s, had been a fixture at the club for years. John didn’t speak to others that often — his focus on the task at hand was always intense — but he couldn’t help but to take a moment to offer his advice to the trio of college-age teens learning their way around the equipment.
The conversation, which I had unwittingly eavesdropped on as well during a set of preacher curls, had been about training splits. The guys were discussing whether they should double up on their weekly arm training. “We could do back and legs in one day, and that would leave us Saturdays for more arms,” one of them suggested.
That’s when John ventured into the fray. “Sorry to listen in,” he started, “but I couldn’t help but overhear. I’ve been right where you all are now, and yeah, it was a long time ago, but if I could go back, the one thing I’d change when I began training was to make sure my back always had its own training day.”
He went on to explain why. As he recalled, his arms, shoulders and chest were showstoppers (which wasn’t hard to believe considering his condition all those years later), but his first few competitions ended in bitter defeat as soon as he turned around. “Once the judges saw my back,, I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “It was only then that I got serious about training it.”
Out of sight, out of mind — it’s a common mistake in bodybuilding. People trend to concentrate on the muscles they see most often in the mirror. It’s not that back doesn’t get any attention … just not the same level of fixation on the flaws and correcting them with tenacity.
Here, however, is your opportunity to change all that. The tools to turn your back into a powerhouse follow, with a breakdown of its key muscles, followed by the 20 best exercises (plus a number of great alternatives), capped with two complete workouts — one designed to increase your thickness, the other your width. Follow this lead, and you’ll be able to create the perfect bodybuilding physique, coming and going.
Anatomy of a Huge Back
The back is a relatively complex array of muscles aligned around the spinal column and spreading outward to the edges of your torso. The key muscles from a bodybuilding perspective, in order, from the neck to your hips, are:
Muscle(s): Trapezius and Levator Scapulae
Location: Upper to middle back, starting at the neck
Movement: Elevates the scapula (shoulder blade)
Best Exercises: Shrug, Upright Row
Muscle: Latissimus Dorsi
Location: Fans out from the upper and mid-back to the outer edge
Movement: Extends and adducts shoulder blade, and also rotates it inward
Best Exercises: Pull-Up, Lat Pulldown, Straight-Arm Pulldown, Straight-Arm Kickback, Kettlebell Swing
Muscle: Rhomboids, Teres Major
Location: Inner middle back (rhomboids), outer middle back (teres major
Movement: Adducts shoulder blade
Best Exercises: Bent-Over Barbell Row, One-Arm Dumbbell Row, T-Bar Row, Hammer-Strength Machine Row, Selectorized Machine Row, Seated Cable Row, Inverted Row, Rack Pull, Deadlift, Dumbbell Renegade Row
Muscle: Erector Spinae
Location: From upper to lower back along the spine
Movement: Flex and extend spinal column, support vertebrae
Best Exercises: Stiff-Legged Deadlift, Back Extension, Superman
Muscle: Lower Trapezius
Location: Lower back around spine
Movement: Lowers shoulder blades
Best Exercises: Stiff-Legged Deadlift, Back Extension, Superman
The 20 Best Back Builders
These exercises, along with the alternates provided with each, make up the upper echelon of back movements. We present them in the top-to-bottom order they were introduced in the “Anatomy” section. (And by the way, if you want to jump right to it, below the list of 20 you’ll find two sample workouts, one that emphasizes more width and the other that targets thickness — choose one based on your current goals, or rotate between the two every time you hit back in your split.)
1. Barbell Shrug
To Do: Stand holding a barbell directly in front of your quads. Keeping your chest up and abs tight, shrug your shoulders straight up toward the ceiling, squeezing your traps at the top. Slowly reverse the motion to lower back to the start.
Alternatives: Dumbbell Shrug, Smith-Machine Shrug
2. Barbell Upright Row
To Do: With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand holding a barbell in front of your thighs with a wide, overhand grip. With your core tight, pull the barbell up toward your chin, keeping the bar close to your body. In the top position, your elbows will be high and pointing out to your sides. Hold for a second before slowly lowering to the start position.
Alternatives: Dumbbell Upright Row, Smith-Machine Upright Row, Cable Upright Row
To Do: Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip. Hang freely, arms fully extended and ankles crossed behind you. Contract your lats to raise your body upward, concentrating on keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to your flank to raise yourself. Hold momentarily as your chin crosses the level of the bar and then lower yourself down to the dead-hang, elbows extended position.
Alternatives: Hammer-Grip Pull-Up, Reverse-Grip Pull-Up, Assisted Pull-Up Machine
4. Lat Pulldown
To Do: Sit at a pulldown machine so the bar is directly overhead or slightly in front of your body, your thighs snug under the stabilizer pads. Grasp the angled ends of the bar with a wide, overhand grip. With your core tight and feet flat on the floor, pull the bar down to your upper chest, your elbows back and pointed outward in the same plane as your body. Slowly return the bar along the same path, stopping before the weight stack touches down.
Alternatives: Reverse-Grip Pulldown, Hammer-Grip Pulldown, One-Arm Pulldown
5. Straight-Arm Pulldown
To Do: Stand a few steps back from an upper pulley station and grasp a short straight-bar attachment with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, contract your lats to pull the bar straight down toward your thighs. Hold that contraction for a moment, then return the bar to a point just above parallel, stopping before the weight stack touches down and begin the next rep.
Alternatives: Rope Straight-Arm Pulldown, One-Arm Straight-Arm Pulldown (with one-arm hammer-grip bar attachment)
6. Straight-Arm Kickback
To Do: Stand next to a flat bench, putting your non-working arm and knee on the bench for support. Hold a dumbbell in your free hand, allowing it to hang straight down perpendicular to the floor. Keeping your elbow straight, lift your arm back until it reaches a point parallel with your torso. Squeeze your lat, then lower the dumbbell back to the start.
Alternatives: Straight-Arm Cable Kickback (with one-arm hammer-grip bar attachment)
7. Kettlebell Swing
To Do: Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, holding a kettlebell by its handle with both hands, allowing it to hang in front of your hips. Squat as you lower the kettlebell between your legs, then swing it up and out in front of you as you extend your knees to drive it up. At the top, your arms will be outstretched in front of you and the kettlebell will be around shoulder height. In one continuous motion, allow the kettlebell to come back down to the start position as you bend your knees to position yourself for the next rep.
Alternatives: Dumbbell Swing, Cable Pull-Through with Rope
8. Bent-Over Barbell Row
To Do: In a shoulder-width stance in front of a barbell, lean forward at your hips until your torso is just above parallel to the floor. With knees slightly bent, grasp the barbell with a wide, overhand grip — it should hang straight down in front of your shins and clear the floor in the bottom position. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up to your abdomen, bringing your elbows above the level of your back, hold for a one-count, then slowly lower along the same path.
Alternatives: Bent-Over Smith-Machine Row, Bent-Over Dual Dumbbell Row
9. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
To Do: Place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench, your other foot planted alongside. In your free hand, hold a dumbbell, arm hanging straight down toward the floor. Pull the dumbbell up toward your flank — your elbow should bend and extend above the plane of your back as you shift your shoulder blade inward for a complete contraction. Then lower the dumbbell along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Alternatives: One-Arm Cable Row, One-Arm Barbell Row (fixed bar, holding it in the middle)
10. T-Bar Row
To Do: Step onto a T-bar platform, bend at the hips and grasp the handles with an overhand grip, clearing the bar from the supports with your arms straight. Keep your chest up, back flat and head in a neutral position as you pull the handles toward you — do not raise your upper body, all motion should take place in the arms, back and shoulder blades. Hold the peak-contracted position momentarily before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position.
Alternatives: Barbell T-Bar Row
11. Hammer-Strength Iso-Lateral Row
To Do: After loading the plates on each side, adjust the seat to a height at which your elbows will come straight back as you pull. Sit with your chest firmly against the front pad and reach forward to grasp both handles with a neutral or overhand grip. Lift the weight from the supports, and then bend your elbows to pull the handles straight back, squeezing for a one-count at full flexion before slowly re-extending your arms. Don’t let the weight touch down between reps.
Alternatives: Hammer-Strength Low Row, Hammer-Strength One-Arm Row
12. Selectorized Machine Row
To Do: Sit at a selectorized row machine with your feet flat on the floor and your chest pressed against the pad. Grasp the handles with either a neutral or overhand grip, and pull them toward you, squeezing your lats for a one-count. Then return to the start and repeat. Don’t let the stack touch down between reps.
Alternatives: Any of the Hammer-Strength Rows mentioned above, Seated Cable Row
13. Seated Cable Row
To Do: Attach a close-grip handle to the seated row cable machine and sit upright on the bench, facing the weight stack. Place your feet against the foot platform with your legs slightly bent, then reach forward to grasp the handles, leaning back until your upper body is erect and your arms are fully extended. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, pull the handle toward you by bending your arms, squeezing your shoulder blades together as the handle reaches your midsection. Hold for one second before slowly returning to the start position, not letting the weight stack touch down between reps.
Alternatives: Wide-Grip or Rope Attachment Seated Row, One-Arm Seated Row (D-handle)
14. Inverted Row
To Do: This move, which resembles an upside-down push-up, can be done with a barbell set in a power rack or a Smith machine bar racked about waist high. Position yourself under the bar at a point where it lines up to your mid-chest, holding it with an overhand grip just outside shoulder width, arms extended with your upper body elevated. Your body should be in a “plank” position, torso and legs aligned and only your heels in contact with the floor. Contract your lats and bend your elbows to pull your chest to the bar, then extend your elbows to return to the start.
Alternatives: TRX Row
15. Rack Pull
To Do: Inside a power rack, place the barbell on the safeties set just under knee level. Grasp the bar just outside your legs so it rests flush against your shins. Keeping your abs tight and back flat, raise the bar explosively, pulling it up your quads with a powerful extension at the ankles, knees and hips until you are in a standing position, finishing the rep with a forceful shrug at the top. Lower the bar along the same path, allowing it to settle on the safety bars, then repeat.
Alternatives: Smith-Machine Rack Pull
To Do: With your toes beneath the barbell, squat down and grasp it with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Allow the bar to rest flush against your shins. With your chest up and back flat, lift the bar from the floor by extending your hips and knees to full extension. Be sure to keep your arms straight throughout as you drag the bar up your shins and thighs until you are in a standing position. Lower the bar downward along the same path until it touches the floor. Allow the bar to settle for a couple seconds before beginning the next rep.
Alternatives: Dumbbell Deadlift
17. Dumbbell Renegade Row
To Do: Place two dumbbells on the floor in front of you and get down into a four-point position, your lower body balanced on your toes behind you, legs splayed, and one hand holding each dumbbell. From this position, alternately row one dumbbell up to your flank and lower it to the floor. One lift with each arm equals one rep.
Alternatives: Standing Dumbbell Bent-Over Row, One-Arm Dumbbell Row off rack
18. Stiff-Legged Deadlift
To Do: Stand upright in a shoulder-width stance holding a barbell in front of your upper thighs with an overhand grip. Maintain a slight bend in your knees. Keeping your chest up and core tight, lean forward from your hips, pushing them rearward until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor. As you lean forward, keep your arms straight and slide the bar down your thighs until it reaches your shins. From here, powerfully lift your torso while pushing your hips forward until you bring the bar back to the start position.
Alternatives: Dumbbell or Smith-Machine Stiff-Legged Deadlift
19. Back Extension
To Do: Position yourself on the back extension bench — often a piece of equipment that puts your body at a 45-degree angle to the floor (versus the old-school roman chair, which puts you in a horizontal position) — so that your ankles are behind the pads and your feet firmly on the platform. Your body will be in a plank, from head to feet, your hands folded over your chest. Hinge at the hips to lower your torso as far as you can, then flex through your lower back and glutes to lift yourself back to the plank position.
Alternatives: Barbell Good Morning
20. Lying Superman
To Do: Lie facedown on the floor in a superman position, which is legs straight and together, arms straight overhead with your upper arms running alongside each ear. Simultaneously lift your legs and arms up off the floor a few inches — as high as you can — for a two count, then lower yourself back to the floor.
Alternatives: Swiss Ball Back Extension