“I would rather have a big burden and a strong back, than a weak back and a caddy to carry life’s luggage.”Elbert Hubbard
A strong back will support everything else you do. From lifting whatever heavy loads that come your way, to standing firm like an oak.
Visually, you might not be able to see your back in the mirror. But to others, a broad back might be the most prominent aspect of your physical impression. Even for those uninitiated to the world of iron, a strong back speaks of strength that was not easily won, but rather toiled for methodically over the years.
In this article, you will learn how to train your back effectively. From back muscle anatomy and growth, to the time-tested exercises that lifters, bodybuilders, and athletes have deployed for decades in pursuit of greater back size and power. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective back workout.
Back Muscle Anatomy
There are about a dozen large muscles on your back. That means, that lumping them all together with the expression “back muscles” isn’t always very accurate.
It is beyond the scope of this article to give you a complete understanding about all the different back muscles and their functions. Instead, the aim of this article is to give you a working knowledge of the back muscles for bodybuilding and athletic purposes.
The back muscles are layered from superficial muscles (like the trapezius or the lats) to deep muscles (like the erector spinae and the rhomboids). While most of the larger back muscles originate from either the midline along your spine or your pelvis, the different muscles might insert on your spine (but in a different place), ribs, shoulder blade, or upper arm.
These different origins and insertions determine the muscles’ functions, and can thus serve as a guide for how to train them.
For the sake of this article, I will roughly divide the major back muscles into the three following groups:
- Back Extensors. These are the muscles that extend your spine or keeps it extended against loads, such as when you are doing a deadlift or a back extension. The primary muscles for this are the multifidus and erector spinae. They run along your spine, all the way from your sacrum up to your cervical spine.
- Vertical Pulling Muscles. These are the muscles that pull your arm closer to your body from an overhead position, such as when you are doing a pull-up. The primary muscles for this are the lats and the lower muscle fibers of the trapezius.
- Horizontal Pulling Muscles. These are the muscles that pull your arm closer to your body from a position where it is extended in front of you, such as in a barbell row or cable row. The primary muscles for this are once again the lats, but also the trapezius and rhomboid muscles.
The key to well-rounded back muscles, and putting together a comprehensive back workout, is to combine exercises that train all three major functions.
Back Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Back
In this section, we’ll take a look at five classic back exercises that complement each other in terms of what back muscles they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great back workout.
1. The Deadlift
“The deadlift also serves as a way to train the mind to do things that are hard.”Mark Rippetoe
No, the deadlift isn’t easy. And no, the point isn’t to be macho.
The point is that the deadlift might be the single most functional (in the broad sense of the word) exercise, and all-around best developer of back muscles that you can do in a gym.
The muscles along your spinal column are worked especially hard. Trained intelligently and in a disciplined progression, this means that the deadlift can be used not only to increase your whole-body strength, but to injury-proof your back for years to come.
You can read a lot more about deadlift training in our massive guide: How to Deadlift: Technique, Training, and Gaining.
Looking to increase your deadlift strength? Check out our training program Deadlift Disco, in our app StrengthLog.
If the deadlift shares the throne of back exercises with anyone, then it does so with the pull-up.
Of course, the pull-up can be a very difficult exercise depending on your weight and your starting point. If they are too heavy for you, you can substitute them with lat pulldowns.
Two hidden benefits of the pull-up are that 1) you can do them anywhere you’ve got access to something to hang from, and 2) getting better at bodyweight exercises such as it gives you a sensation of mastering your own body, which can be a great boost to your sense of self-worth.
3. Dumbbell Row
Since dumbbell rows are unilateral (one-handed), they make it easier for you to really focus on the worked muscles one side at a time, and this increased mind-muscle connection is likely positive for your muscle growth.
Set yourself up so that your working arm can really come forward in the bottom position, and then pull your shoulder blade back in the top of the movement.
4. Back Extension
With the heavy work done, it is time for some finishing, muscle-building touches.
Back extensions target your erector spinae and multifidus in your lower back. They are a great way to train your lumbar back, without being as taxing and strenuous as deadlifts. They also lend themselves well to higher rep ranges, which might provide a slightly different stimulus for muscle growth.
If bodyweight back extensions are too easy, you can increase the resistance by holding a weight plate against your chest, or placing a barbell across your shoulders (like in a squat). Just place the weight on the ground in front of you between sets, to make it easier for you to pick it up when you are in position.
- Good Mornings
- Machine Back Extension
5. Reverse Dumbbell Fly
In much of today’s training, the front deltoids tend to get a lot of attention, but the rear deltoids less so. The reverse dumbbell fly rectifies that, by targeting your rear delts, trapezius, and rhomboids.
This exercise is all about muscle contact, and since you’re dealing with small muscles, you should be extremely conservative about weight. Once again, with the heavy work out of the way, you can leave the strength focus behind. Instead, focus on muscle contact and technique first, and increasing the weight second.
Back Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective back workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises complement each other, and cover all the major muscles of the back.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from low-ish reps with heavy weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
- The angle and type of work the muscles do will vary between exercises, with static work in some exercises but dynamic in others. Also, the working angle will change between exercises.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Back Workout
- Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Pull-Up (or Lat Pulldown): 3 sets x 8 reps
- Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Back Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Reverse Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets x 15 reps
This back workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
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This back workout begins with three working sets of deadlifts. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your back training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”
If you hit three sets of five reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 5.
You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 5, 4, 4 instead of 5, 4, 3 last time) until you get all 3 x 5. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.
After the deadlift, it is time to move on to the upper body pulling exercises: pull-ups (or lat pulldowns) and dumbbell rows. These exercises are similar in their execution (e.g. you’re pulling your arm closer to your body), but the different angles of pull mean that slightly different back muscles will be worked, and at different muscle lengths.
The same principle of progressive overload still applies to these exercises, and you should always strive to increase the weight you’re using for a given rep goal. However, you shouldn’t increase the weight at the cost of technique.
With much of your strength and power training taken care of in the deadlift, take the opportunity to focus even more on technique and muscle contact in the remaining exercises, thus striking a balance between chasing strength and muscle hypertrophy.
You’ll be finishing up the workout with light back extensions and reverse dumbbell flyes, and the focus on technique rather than absolute weight increases even more for these exercises. Sure, try to increase the weight you are lifting in these exercises over time with the same technique, but above all, try to get a good muscle pump in the right muscles.
How often can you train this same back workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, once a week is probably about right for most of you. Maybe repeat it something like every 5–7 days, depending on your schedule and how recovered you are, and when you believe that you can beat your previous weights.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and weights, and maybe switch or exclude some exercises, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your back muscle anatomy, what some effective back exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome back workout.
Please feel free to download our workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy.
- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. Effect of Adding Single-Joint Exercises to a Multi-Joint Exercise Resistance-Training Program on Strength and Hypertrophy in Untrained Subjects.