Build A Better Back: Balanced Back Workout And Training Guide

Back training is a science. Study your back before you attack to ensure the best possible results. Read this before your next back day!

Many articles on back training are geared toward people looking to rival Dorian Yates. While that's an admirable goal, the importance of building a strong back extends beyond bodybuilder aesthetics. The muscles in your back serve many functions in everyday movements, from maintaining good posture to carrying heavy objects around your home. Training your back properly will also help reduce back pain, improve overall strength, and help you maintain proper form during your workouts.

Because of your back's complexity, training it can be a bit overwhelming—especially if you're a physique athlete trying to isolate each muscle. Also, because your biceps play a big part in most back exercises, it's easy to depend upon them to do the work instead of your back muscles. If you're not getting results from your back training, it's probably because you're missing out on some key aspects. And that's where I come in.

Keep reading for a guide to the finer points of back training and a balanced full-body workout to help you build the back you want!

A Quick Guide to Back Anatomy ///

The human back is an intricate system of muscles. Each muscle group has its own unique function, yet they must all work together to protect your spine and prevent injury. If you're not sure about the key players back there, here's some help:

Latissimus dorsi: As the largest muscle group in the back, the lats serve an array of functions. They extend, adduct, medially rotate the humerus, and raise the body upward during movements like chin-ups.

Trapezius: Your traps connect the upper extremities of the vertebral column. It runs from the base of the skull, out over the scapula, and down the cervical spine. The traps elevate, retract, and rotate the scapula during exercises like shrugs, side lateral raises, and rows.

Rhomboids: The rhomboids act to retract the scapula and rotate it to depress the glenoid cavity. The rhomboids also affix the scapula to the thoracic wall.

Erector spinae: The erectors are a bundle of muscles and tendons that run vertically in the grooves on the side of the vertebral column. They extend and laterally flex the spine.

Teres major, teres minor, and infraspinatus: These are smaller muscles located near the humeral head. They're used to adduct and medially and laterally rotate the arm.

Other important muscles include the serratus anterior, deltoids, subscapularis, abdominal obliques, and the gluteus maximus.

The most important aspect of back training is to learn how to activate the major muscles and use them appropriately during all lifts. In contrast, untrained lifters can sometimes over-utilize the erector spinae and under-utilize their lats, traps, and rhomboids.

Keys to Good Back Training ///

To ensure that you get the most out of your training, pay attention to these three key factors:

1 / Scapular Protraction and Retraction

Scapular protraction is often referred to as "abduction of the scapula." You can feel it when you round your shoulders forward to create thoracic flexion. The primary movers during protraction are the serratus anterior. Your pecs can act as synergists.

Scapular retraction, or "adduction of the scapula," occurs when you move the scapula posteriorly and medially along the chest wall. You can achieve scapular retraction by bringing your shoulder blades together, using the rhomboids and traps as the primary movers.

These two movements are antagonistic, or have opposed actions. Used together, they secure the scapula in place to provide a support (fulcrum) from which you move your arm (lever).

Scapular protraction and retraction are an important part of horizontal pulling (row) movements. Beginner and even intermediate lifters often make the mistake of making the biceps the primary movers in horizontal pulling exercises. To get the most out of rowing movements, learn how to properly retract your scapula.

When you set up for a row, start at the bottom of the movement in scapular protraction. Your lumbar spine should be flexed so that you feel a good stretch in your upper back muscles. The first part of your pull should be scapular retraction. Keep your arms down with slight elbow flexion, and just retract the scapula so that your shoulder blades move together. Once your scapula is abducted, focus on pulling your elbows behind you until your hands reach your ribcage just below your chest.

Once you master this part of the movement, you will feel how well your back muscles work during a row. Your biceps will be working as synergists rather than primary movers.

2 / Activating the Lats

During vertical pulling exercises like pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pull-downs, your lats should be the primary movers. Many lifters, beginner or otherwise, overcompensate for poor lat activation by over-using the biceps during vertical pulls. Generally, this lack of lat activation occurs because the lifter doesn't know how to use his or her lats properly during a vertical pull, or because he or she is trying to use too much weight.

To learn how to activate your lats during pull-ups and pull-downs, try this exercise: Hang from a pull-up bar so your arms are fully extended over head. Get a good stretch in your traps and your erector spinae. Keeping your arms completely straight, pull your shoulders down so your lats contract. Avoid shrugging your shoulders up by your ears—nothing else should move except your upper back muscles. Rather than feeling your scapula squeeze together, you should feel it moving downward. Return to starting position (dead hang) and repeat.

This exercise mimics the beginning of your vertical pulling movement. It should begin your pull-ups, chin-ups, and lat pull-downs. Once you engage your lats in that initial movement, focus on moving your elbows back behind you. As you bring your sternum to the bar or the bar to your sternum, you should feel your lats contract and your pectoral muscles stretch.

As you pull your elbows behind you to move your body toward the top of the movement, it's important keep your core engaged to prevent lumbar hyperextension (arching your low back). Use your abdominals, obliques, and erector spinae to stabilize your spine in neutral position.

3 / Pulling with Your Back, Not Your Hands

One of the largest mistakes made during an upper-body pulling exercise is the actual act of pulling. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but bear with me. When you try to pull the weight toward you, your mind will first focus on your biceps. But if you rely on your biceps, you'll completely remove your back from the exercise.

To prevent yourself from doing this, try to take your hands out of the equation. I mean, don't cut them off or anything, but rather than using your hands and forearms to pull the load, think of them as hooks that connect your elbows to the weight.

For a mental picture, think of a forklift. The forks hold the weight, but the truck relies on the tilt cylinders, and mast to lift and lower the load. Your hands hold the weight, your back muscles are doing the actual work.

Putting It All Together ///

A good back workout will involve horizontal pulls, vertical pulls, and deadlifts. An important part of structuring your weekly workouts is balancing your pushing and pulling movements. (I addressed this in my previous article). If you do a typical five-day body part split, you may notice that your weekly workout has far more pushing than pulling exercises. The workout split that includes a day for chest, a day for shoulders, and a day for back, has you pushing twice as much as you are pulling. Not only is this bad for symmetry, it's probably the reason your shoulders hurt.

To prevent this, use a push/pull sequence in your workout routine. Try dividing your body into four functional movement groups:

  • Upper body push
  • Upper body pull
  • Lower body push
  • Lower body pull

Divide your week into two- or four-day splits. Make sure that your push and pull movements are balanced.

Push/Pull Workout Routines for a Beautiful Back ///

Perform these full-body workouts on alternating days. They are push/pull balanced and will help you build that back you've been working toward.

Day 1 & 3: Upper/Lower Push


Day 2 & 4: Upper/Lower Pull



Bookmark and Share

Related Articles

About The Author

Kellie Davis is a freelance writer and blogger turned fitness coach living in Northern California.

RATE THIS ARTICLE
POOR
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
EXCELLENT
OVERALL RATING
7.6

Out of 10
Good
61 Ratings

24

Comments

Showing 1 - 24 of 24 Comments

(5 characters minimum)

      • notify me when users reply to my comment
ralphe011

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
ralphe011

Adding this to my routine....Hoping to see some good results withing the next 3 to 4 weeks...I already do some of this but would like to follow this program....

Feb 22, 2013 12:23am | report
 
sinclairsinclai

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
sinclairsinclai

Feb 22, 2013 6:40pm | report
xMiiDNIGHT

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
xMiiDNIGHT

Try loosening your grip when doing back movements, helps take the arms out of the exercise. Worked for me.

Feb 22, 2013 10:53am | report
 
preti_23

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
preti_23

i agrree with this. i do that too. feel it way more in your back!

Feb 22, 2013 3:37pm | report
Egleaves22

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
Egleaves22

I was so worried this would be brosciencey, but it was actually very well put together. Great article, I think a lot of people definitely need help taking their biceps out of back exercises and this hits the nail on the head.

Feb 22, 2013 12:48pm | report
 
KVGJohn

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
KVGJohn

Wow. Great read, the back is one of my favorite exercise to do which for me helps make my body look big. I always use my back on every workout of course to help focus and work on that muscle.

Feb 22, 2013 1:26pm | report
 
Korigan

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
Korigan

Very informative, thank you.

Feb 22, 2013 3:17pm | report
 
domenic1995

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
domenic1995

thought this would be another broscience article again. it wasn't. Faith restored in humanity.

Feb 23, 2013 5:07am | report
 
motherfitness1

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
motherfitness1

Thanks! I don't do broscience.:)

Mar 15, 2013 5:32pm | report
garret1978

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
garret1978

I love working out my back- probably my favorite muscle group to workout.

Feb 23, 2013 11:01am | report
 
Sabeque

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
Sabeque

I like this push/pull split format, thanks!

Feb 25, 2013 3:18pm | report
 
motherfitness1

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
motherfitness1

Glad you like it. I definitely enjoy adding it into the mix of my workouts. Thanks!

Mar 15, 2013 5:33pm | report
Fit415

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
Fit415

Great infO

Feb 27, 2013 3:03am | report
 
Calyoung

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
Calyoung

Use straps! Take some of the stress off your forearms tris and bis by using straps. This will also help you lift heavier if you have a weak grip stregth, I like to use them for heavey one arm rows to get a few extra before by grip strength fails, I also use a weight belt to protect my lower back during heavey dead lifts, I suggest this to everyone to avoid injury and maximize weight/reps

Feb 27, 2013 11:09am | report
 
PDeV1

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
PDeV1

If you feel your lasts it works ! well for me it's the best way ahha. Make a mind connection, for all your muscles. try to work on it 5min by day !

Article Rated:
Feb 27, 2013 12:45pm | report
 
CdangerT

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
CdangerT

This was really helpful- im so used to just keeping the most basic back movements in my routine and never realized the depth of individual-targetted back muscles. taking a lot away from this!

Feb 28, 2013 3:16pm | report
 
motherfitness1

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
motherfitness1

Glad you found it helpful!

Mar 15, 2013 5:33pm | report
conibea

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
conibea

Exercises #5 & #6 on the upper/lower pull section redirect the reader to you tube exercise performance examples. Are these part of the back routine the writer is suggesting ?

May 12, 2013 3:36pm | report
 
BillyKid95

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
BillyKid95

Thanks a lot for this article

Jun 13, 2013 11:06am | report
 
BillyKid95

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
BillyKid95

Thanks a lot for this article

Jun 13, 2013 11:06am | report
 
aflexxg

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
aflexxg

anybody got an alternative to the glute/ham raise or how to do it with out that machine ?

Jun 16, 2013 8:16am | report
 
SassySydney

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
SassySydney

I like it! Definitely good Transversal Movement. Going to try it on myself and maybe even my clients!

Jan 16, 2014 12:34pm | report
 
SassySydney

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
SassySydney

For the WoodChop - Standing

Jan 16, 2014 12:35pm | report
kellycookie

Rep Power: 0

  • rep this user
kellycookie

Anyone else notice the typo on the Teres Major and Minor in the diagram? Fail!

Mar 7, 2014 2:53pm | report
 
Showing 1 - 24 of 24 Comments

Featured Product