BackFrequently Asked Questions

What are the basics of building back muscles?

There are a few famous bodybuilders known for their great backs. Arnie, Ronnie Coleman, and Dorian Yates all had one thing in common: they knew the secret to working their back muscles. One of the most powerful secrets is to start each exercise with your back, rather than pulling with your arms. 

Beginner-level trainers usually start their workouts with their arms, but experienced athletes know they need to start by engaging their back muscles. 

Before we look at some basic tips to build a bigger back, let’s quickly go over some “back science”. Yes, I’m talking about the anatomy of the back here.

The trapezius, or traps for short, is a wide, triangular muscle that goes from the base of your neck right down to the middle of your spine. You might be able to feel this muscle working whenever you raise your shoulders or  turn your head. You can focus on this muscle by doing shoulder exercises. 

The rhomboid major and minor muscles both start along the spine and attach to the scapula. You can activate these muscles by bringing your shoulders together. The teres major starts along the edge of the scapula and attaches at the humerus. You can pull your arms back because of it. 

The latissimus dorsi is the back’s largest muscle and is shaped like a “V”. You’re using this muscle when you pull down or lean forward. Lastly, the erector spinae are the muscles supporting your spinal column. 

Look past these fancy terms and you’ll see that all we’re trying to do here is recognising which back exercises you need to do to get real results. If you’re only working some of these muscles, you’re just not going to get that Mr. Universe look. 

What are the best back workouts and exercises?

There are many ways you can include these back exercises into your current workout routine. Some pros, like Arnold, like to do chest and back exercises together, but you can also work your biceps and back on the same day. I reckon this is a good way to go because your biceps are pretty much doing a lot of work on back day, anyway. 

Before jumping into the exercises, let’s talk about the form for your back workouts first. 

1. Stick to a thumb press grip. This means your 4 fingers should be above the bar and your thumb should be pressing it.

2. Don’t squeeze the bar too hard or you’ll be working your biceps and forearms way too much. The thumb press grip should help prevent you from doing this.

3. After you’ve got a hold of the bar, push your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together.

4. Make sure you can feel your back muscles contracting.

5. Don’t try to exceed the recommended reps or the weight until you’ve got that form right. If you’re not engaging your back muscles, what are you even doing here? If you need to use lighter weights, do it.

Now that we’ve got our form right, let’s head on into the exercises. 

1. Band bent-over row 

In all its forms, the bent-over row is great for your back muscles. This variation of the bent-over row uses resistance bands. If you’re a beginner, it may be best to use the lighter resistance bands first.

To start the row, place a resistance band on the floor and step on it with both your feet. Grab the two ends in either hand. Use an overhand grip on them. Next, hinge your hips, bend your knees but keep your back straight. Squeeze your back as you pull those bands up towards your chest. Make sure your arms and elbows stay on your side. Pause and then return to start. 

2. Renegade row 

Choose a pair of dumbbells with a weight that you are comfortable with and get down into the plank position. Hold the dumbbells with your palms (the dumbbell heads should be pointing towards the wall) and make sure they are parallel to each other. Squeeze your glutes (your core should be really activated right now). Using your lats, start rowing by lifting a dumbbell to your chest and then lowering it back. You should have a complete control of the movement. If you’re squirming all over the place, lower the weight and start again. Do 1 push-up and then move onto the other arm. 

This one is definitely not for beginners. If you need to work on your core strength before you move onto this, do that first.

3. Dumbbell single arm row 

You only need 1 dumbbell for this one. Put a dumbbell on the bench, rest one knee and hand on the bench while your other leg stays out of the bench. Bend down while keeping your back straight, grab your dumbbell and start lifting it up to your torso. Listen up because this is important: don’t rotate your shoulders when you’re doing this! Pause before lowering the dumbbell to the starting position.

4. Chest-supported dumbbell row 

Lie face down on an inclined bench. Make sure your chest and hips are fully supported by it. Grab your dumbbells and allow your arms to hang down. Activate (a fancy word for squeeze) those back muscles and pull the weights right up to your hips so your elbows form a 90- degree angle. Make sure you squeeze those shoulders, pause for a second, and then lower the weights down. 

5. The inverted row

Let’s shake things up a bit here with an inverted row. This is a killer on your back even though it doesn’t look like it. Start off with your bar placed at about the height of your hips on a power rack. Lower yourself down to the ground under the bar and grab it with the overhand grip. Your hands should be just above your shoulders and your legs and knees should be straight. You should give yourself enough space so that you can suspend yourself from the bar.

Once you’re ready, lift yourself up from the ground and keep your spine straight. Your chest must touch the bar before you lower yourself back down again. 

6. Bent-over barbell rows 

More weight = more muscle. If you want to do rows with a heavier weight, this one’s for you. Bent-over barbell rows will work all your major back muscles, especially the ones at the middle. Just make sure you don’t overload the bar so you don’t end up hurting yourself. Lastly, keep an eye on your form. Remember, if your form isn’t good, you won’t go very far. 

Start with an overhand grip on the barbell, placing your hands a bit wider than your shoulders. Bend down and lower your torso until it’s parallel to the floor. You’ll want to keep a natural arch in your back—rounding is a big no-no! Pull the bar up to your abs and then squeeze your shoulders together. Pause and lower the bar to the ground.

7. Bent-over underhand barbell row 

Now, this one is the same as the previous exercise, except for one huge difference—the grip. Because you’re using an underhand grip, you’re working an entirely different set of muscles.

Grab onto that barbell with this underhand grip, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart  and bend forward again so your torso is parallel to the floor. Pull the bar up to your abs, squeezing those shoulder blades together. Hold for a moment and then lower to the floor. 

What's the best fitness equipment for my back?

A lot of the exercises I’ve shared with you require nothing more than a pair of dumbbells, a barbell, and a resistance band, but there are so many amazing back exercise equipment out there that I’m going to cover them here too. You don’t need a rowing machine to perfect those back muscles, but it sure can help. 

1. Dumbbells

Before we talk about any of the fancy equipment out there, we’re going to cover the basic equipment first – and you can’t get more basic than a dumbbell. If you’re on a limited budget, you can get a pair of fixed weight dumbbells that will really test your limits, or you can spend a little more and get some adjustable dumbbells. As always, think about where you’re going, not just where you currently are. If you think you’re going to outgrow your dumbbells very quickly, it may be best to invest in something a little more expensive that can grow with you. 

2. Barbells

Barbells are like the bigger version of dumbbells. You can get one with fixed weights, or spend a little more and invest in a few bars and pairs of weight plates. Barbells are so flexible. You can use them to target pretty much every muscle group of your body, so it’s worth spending a little more on them. I’m not going to cover the different types of weights here, but if you’re looking at Olympic weight lifting, my advice is for you to look into coated weights. 

3. Resistance bands 

Resistance bands are made from durable material, usually synthetic latex rubber. Some are closed bands, while some have handles on their sides. These lightweight bands don’t take up a lot of space and you can just throw them into your gym bag or bring with you anywhere you go!

4. Seated row machine 

The seated row machine blasts your back and arm muscles in just a few explosive movements. It works with a weighted horizontal cable machine. It’s up to you if you want to use both hands or use the machine single-handedly. Just as with the free weights, your form needs to be on point and your back needs to be straight. Every motion must be controlled. If you’re having a difficult time, your weights are probably too heavy. 

5. Assisted pull-up machine 

Pull-ups are great for working your back muscles, but how many of you can actually do them on your own? The answer is probably, “not very many”. This is where this machine comes in. The machine’s function is pretty much in its name: it helps you do pull-ups. As you build your strength, you can decrease the level of assistance you’re getting from it. 

6. Back extension machine 

Also called the Roman chair, the back extension  machine isolates and targets your lower back muscles. What makes this machine so great is that you can strengthen your lower back while staying in a fixed movement line. To use this machine, you just need to lie face-down with your heels locked down under a roller and start flexing at the waist. Granted, this isn’t a big “show-off” area, but you’ll thank me later on in life once you have strengthened this part of your body. 

7. The T-bar row 

The T-bar row doesn’t give a lot of room for free movement, so technically, it’s a machine, even if it looks like a free weight. If you use this as a free-standing machine without leaning on the pad, you’ll end up hitting your lats. Using a horizontal grip works just about every major muscle in your back.

Your back should not be sniffed at when you’re building your muscles. It is your body’s frame, and you’ll only be as strong as it is. Make sure you’re training your back muscles right. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll benefit from that. 

What are Lats?

Lats (AKA Latissimus Dorsi) are the large V-shaped back muscles on either side of your torso. You have a left lat, and a right lat. On each side, they connect from under your arm pit, on your humerus (upper arm bone), to the iliac crest, just above the top of the back of your pelvis!

Lats are used in almost all back/pulling exercises. They internally rotate your shoulders, adduct your arm (or bring it closer to your ribcage), and extend the arm back behind you. Thet help pull things closer to your body.

Lats are also known in bodybuilding circles as the ‘Wings’. The bigger your lats, the wider you will appear from the front. Google “Chris Bumstead Lats” to see what we are talking about!

How do you flex your Back Muscles?

With practice! Here are a few basic steps to flex your back, namely your Lat muscles:
1. Put your hands on your hips.
2. Retract your shoulder blades, together.
3. Stick your chest out.
4. With your hands on your hips, bring your elbows forward in front of you.
5. Push your shoulders and elbows down, as if you are trying touch your hands with your elbows.

You are now Flexing your Lats! If you cannot feel it yet, practice! Bodybuilders practise flexing their muscles for years to get it perfect. The art of being able to show off the muscle you’ve build to the judges when on stage is a big part of bodybuilding competitions! Or more importantly dominating the dance floor in a tight t-shirt.

How to work out Lower Back?

The lower back is trained indirectly in basically every core or compound exercise, such as squats, deadlifts, pullups, rows etc. The lower back helps keep your spine safe and your body rigid. This will allow you to lift heavier weights much safer.

To isolate the lower back (for adding extra muscle and strength to the area, for injury prevention/aesthetics), Glute Ham Raises, Reverse Hyper Extensions, Supermans and Bird Dogs are some great starting exercises. If you are already doing the basic compound lifts (squats, deadlifts etc), pick one lower back isolation exercise, for 3 sets of 15-20 reps at the end of your workout. Test it and see how that improves your compound lift performance/muscle building goals!