Built By Science: Back

To more effectively and efficiently train your back, learn how your muscles, bones, and joints work together to create movement. Back up your back training with science!

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It's not uncommon to train the big, showy muscles on the front of your body when you first hit the gym. Your arms, pecs, and abs look great in the mirror, which makes it easy to neglect your back as a novice lifter. Your back, however, is just as important as the front of your body when it comes to aesthetics, strength, power, and performance.

People who are serious about creating a great physique know that a thick, wide back is going to distinguish them from other competitors, athletes, and lifters. Understanding the anatomy and movement patterns of your body will make your back training more effective and efficient. I'm going to teach you everything you need to know to build an unbelievable back.

Built By Science Back
Watch the video: 14:00

Muscular Anatomy

Your back is made of multiple muscles. Although we can't go over every single one, I'm going to cover the primary movers most people are interested in training. Here's what you should know to build a barn-door back.

Latissimus dorsi

The lats are probably the first muscles people think about when they talk about back training. They originate at the humerus—the upper arm bone—and connect to the scapula, the lower thoracic spine, and to the thoracolumbar fascia, which is a membrane covering the deep muscles of the back. Because they span such a large portion of your upper back, your lats are critically important if you want to build width and size.


Your traps are much bigger than you probably think they are. There are actually three distinct subsets of your trapezius: the upper trap starts at the base of your skull, comes down, and attaches to your clavicle; the middle trap starts on your spine in your upper-middle back and attaches to the scapula; and the lower trap originates at your lower-middle spine and attaches to the scapula.


The rhomboids are deep muscles that lie under the traps. They run at an angle from your thoracic spine to your scapula. Even though they're not superficial, you want to put emphasis on them because they're critical for front-to-back thickness.

Low Back?

For this lesson, we'll be talking about the upper back muscles. We break down many of those lower-back muscles in the abdominals and core-training video.

Skeletal Anatomy

Your spine is incredibly important for any major movement, but training your back doesn't begin and end with the spine. There are other important bones and joints that you should recognize and understand.

Thoracic Spine

Your thoracic spine is your upper back. It's made of 12 unique bones and runs from the base of your neck to your lower back. You don't lift through your spine, but your spine sets the stage for surrounding motion. A stable upper back is vital to safe and effective back training.


Your scapula is basically your shoulder blade. It's where your horizontal pull movements originate. The scapula is a triangular bone that connects the humerus to the clavicle.

Glenohumeral Joint

Your glenohumeral joint, better known as the shoulder joint, is essential for any pulling motion. It's a ball and socket joint that allows your arms to be highly mobile. Because it's so mobile, your shoulder joint is relatively fragile. This makes smart training essential.

Muscle Function

As you begin to know and understand the muscles, bones, and joints in your back, you'll learn how they create movement. Movement, as we all know, is the basis for our training. Understanding how these movements work will help you develop a solid upper back and keep your shoulders healthy.


Your lats are responsible for moving your shoulder joint. Your shoulder can extend, adduct, and internally rotate because of the lats. Strong, activated lats are especially important for pull-ups, heavy deadlifts, and other big pulls.


Your traps also move your shoulders. When you reach up, your upper and lower traps and your serratus work together to create upward scapular rotation. Your traps also have a role in pulling your shoulders together and sliding your scapula down your ribcage. You also use your traps to slide your scapula upward when shrugging.


The rhomboids are responsible for your scapula's retraction and downward rotation.

Understanding how these movements work will help you develop a solid upper back and keep your shoulders healthy.
Understanding how these movements work will help you develop a solid upper back and keep your shoulders healthy.

Key Exercises

We don't train the back with jerky motions that bend and twist the spine. Instead, we use our muscles, bones, and joints together to create smooth, efficient movement. These exercises will challenge the components of your back to work in concert for maximal development.

It's also important for you to learn how your body works in different planes of motion. Each of these exercises will challenge your back muscles on various planes, giving you a well-rounded physique and solid overall athletic development.


Chin-ups are vertical pulls that target your lats. Execution is fairly basic, but these can be a tough move to master. Once you manage to hit multiple reps with your own body weight, you can progress this move by adding resistance.


When executing a pull-up, make sure you move through a full range of motion. Extend at the bottom to lengthen the muscle and finish by trying to pull your chest to the bar. This extra pull and squeeze will help build those lower traps and your middle back.

EXERCISE 2 Dumbbell Row

This horizontal pull is fantastic for developing the rhomboids, middle traps, and balance between your arms. It's a fairly simple exercise, but it's easy to bungle with poor form and excess weight.

Dumbbell Row
Dumbbell Row

To execute a dumbbell row, use whichever stance you prefer and set your upper back. Initiate the pull through your elbow and squeeze the shoulder blade back. More motion isn't always good motion, so don't let momentum take over. Lead with the elbow and finish with the shoulder blade.

EXERCISE 3 Dumbbell Pull-Over

This is a great movement for isolating the lats. It will also help you develop some anterior core strength and additional shoulder mobility.

Dumbbell Pull-Over
Dumbbell Pull-Over

To get the most out of this movement, lay on your back and exhale hard. Hold that abdominal contraction so your lats get a good stretch. As the dumbbell goes overhead, you'll have to work hard to maintain your position. If you arch your back too much, your lats will never get the stretch and you won't get the same kind of growth, so keep your core tight.

EXERCISE 4 Face-Pull

This hybrid pull will get you out of the standard planes of motion and add some variety to your training. The face-pull is a great option for building the upper and middle back.

Face Pull
Face Pull

When you perform the face-pull, hold a rope attachment with your thumbs up. If your thumbs are down, there isn't much space for your rotator cuff to move. The thumbs-up is grip is much friendlier for your shoulders. Set your upper back, lead with your elbows, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Finish with your elbows in line with your body.

Better Back, Built By Science

The back works as a seamless, integrated system. You'll need a nice, stable spine, a strong scapula, and a healthy shoulder joint train your back effectively.

Look for the exercises and techniques discussed above in the weekly back workouts of the six-week Built by Science program. Watch all the overview videos before attacking the gym. Remember, you need to combine mind and muscle to build your best possible body.

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