If you want a killer upper body you’ll definitely need to include a few of the best back exercises into your routine. A strong back is really important both in terms of aesthetics and general wellbeing.
In this post we will look at:
- The health risks of skipping back exercises
- A guide to your back muscles (with pictures!)
- Key exercises for muscle development
- How to incorporate these into a great routine
Read on to find out more.
Weightlifting can lead to a bad back
Your back is so important to your day to day life, I think we need to step back and appreciate how important it is that we keep it safe up front. 25% of Americans suffer from back pain each year, don’t become one of them!
Many new weightlifters, including me when I started, focus too much on the “obvious” areas such as chest and arms . Your back half therefore drops waaaay down the priorities list.
The problem lies in not training your body equally. The classic newbie error is to hammer lifts that focus on chest and abdominal development which creates an imbalance in muscle density between the two halves of your body. Extended periods training like this will lead to posture issues, for instance it is common for weightlifters who do not work out properly to develop rounded shoulders.
This occurs as the pectoral muscles are worked too frequently resulting in DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) or general tightness. Imagine your pec physically contracting – this draws your shoulder down towards your front. As your shoulders and back are not as strong as the pectoral, they are not strong enough to hold correct posture.
Poor posture ultimately can lead to a rounded spine which, ironically for those who were seeking aesthetic gains when they first started on the poor lift in path, doesn’t look great.
The moral of the story is, work your back!
A guide to your back muscles (with pictures!)
There are a stack of muscles on your back helping keep you upright:
A few of the key ones I want to draw out are:
- Trapezius – also known as “trap” or “your traps”. Developing this muscle will develop the area between your neck and shoulder socket. Building this up adds greatly to the impression of aesthetic size.
- Deltoids – also known as “delta” we will discuss in a separate article on shoulder and arm development. This muscle is responsible for lifting your arm on the frontal plane and gives the bulbous shoulder look when developed. This increases the top of the upper body “V” shape.
- Latissimus dorsi – also known as “laterals” or “lats”. As this muscle wraps around your body, developing this will increase your width. This is the key muscle for creating the V shape on your upper body.
- External/Internal obliques are usually trained as part of abdominal workouts. Specifically, oblique crunches and twisted leg raises hit these as supporting muscles to the main abdominals. We will cover these in a separate post later. The Obliques are much smaller than the lats/delts/traps.
It’s worth noting the gluteus maximus muscle on your backside and working down onto your leg. This huge muscle is one of the main targets of the barbell squat and is the largest muscles in your body. We’ll cover this in a separate post.
Per the pictures shown, an effective back workout will greatly improve aesthetics as well as the health benefits we’ve covered already. I’ve tried to pull out how the muscle groups connect with other “workout silos” to show that we need to give it as mud focus otherwise it will become a weak point as we develop the surrounding areas. For instance the delts feed into shoulder/arm routines & gluts mainly by lower body exercises.
Key exercises for development
As part of a previous post I went into detail about the merits of compound vs. isolation movements. To summarise, compound movements engage much more muscles and therefore are a more effective use of time.
I’m going to embed few videos which are much more useful than text to explain each movement. The best compound back exercises are:
- Deadlifts – a conventional deadlift is still the daddy of mass building as it engages so many different muscles to pull the weight and stabilise. This is essentially lifting a weighted bar from the ground until you are upright. This is a great way to build up lower back strength and is one of the best exercises to increase body “thickness” front to back.
- Bent over row – I like to hold an angle a little less extreme than parallel to the ground and draw the barbell up towards my hips. This is another great move for all over engagement.
- Pull ups – most people are familiar with pull-ups, but few can rep out a lot of them properly. Focus on form and use power bands if required to reduce the load. For grip width, go wide to get wide. The further apart your hands, the more “outer” the focus on the lats.
Each of the above lifts will improve your back and a host of other muscles. I wouldn’t worry overly about the grip style being over/under of pull up vs. chin ups, instead focus on the lift movement (or “form”) being correct and on adding weight to the bar. That is the best way to gain strength.
Depending on your goals you might want to compliment the above with a few additional lifts. These movements are generally a little more focused and step closer (but not fully) towards isolation lifts:
- Hyperextensions – adding weighted hyperextensions to your routine is a great way to add additional work for your lower back. I rate these highly personally.
- Goodmorning – another lower back option. Be sure to perform in a power rack to avoid possible injury (see my post on them here)!
- Flat bench DB rows – hits each arm separately, utilising a lot of supporting muscles to stabilise the lift. I frequently cycle this into my routines, despite finding it really tough!
- Upright row – another one that hits the arms. This focuses on biceps, delts and hits the traps as the weight gets to the top of the range of motion.
- Shrugs – a regular of mine. Great way to target the traps if you go for a regular grip. Can change the focus to shoulders by widening the grip on the barbell.
- T Bar rows – another great row derivative, although one I tend to overlook in favour of bent over rows & flat bench DB rows. Great video inter here:
- Straight legged deadlift – depending on how your program is set up, for example if doing heavy squats leading into deadlifts, a conventional deadlift may be too intense for you. Straight legged ones remove some of the stress while still getting a great stretch on. Not as effective as the conventional alternative.
Working all your body is really important to progressing your strength and physique. By cycling in some of the best back exercises above into your workout you will increase the effectiveness of your program.