I've got a confession to make: I'm fine with post-workout selfies, but I'm tired of seeing the same old ab and chest shots. Beach-muscle photos abound on social media, but there seems to be a serious lack of well-developed backs out there. I'm talking about dense lats, three-dimensional traps, a wide V-taper, capped rear delts, and lower-back musculature that makes foothills on either side of the spine.
It's extremely tough work to build that kind of back, so it's no wonder so many folks only take pics from the front. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you're in the right spot; the four techniques in this article are proven winners for unparalleled back development! Use them to take your back size, strength, and symmetry to new heights. Soon enough, you'll be snapping selfies of your better side.
Deadlifting forces you to use virtually every muscle in your body as you take the bar from the floor and transition to an upright position. In the chain of muscles involved in this process, nothing is left behind, and everything is forced to contribute.
It all starts with your lower back. Nothing will build your spinal erectors like the repetitive action of heavy deadlifting for reps. The deadlift is more than a lower-back exercise, though. As you move through the full range of motion and transition from the lower part of the lift to the lockout phase, your grip, lats, traps, and other upper-back muscles take over.
When you lock out the weight, you're holding a very heavy weight in a dead-hang position, which places anabolic-spiking pressure on your traps, creating a synergistic combination that builds thickness in your upper back and shoulders.
- To more effectively target your back, use a conventional hip-width stance when deadlifting. Furthermore, because the range of motion is greater than in a sumo deadlift, more mechanical work is done, and the muscles are under greater tension for a longer amount of time. Sumo deadlifts can maximize leverage for powerlifting, but aren't great for building size, whereas conventional deadlifts serve as the gateway to hypertrophy heaven. When growth is the objective, you want to keep reps in a variety of ranges, working both low and high.
- Everything in training operates on the risk-to-benefit ratio. When using good form, the risk is relatively low on this continuum, and the benefit is high. Stop deadlifting for the day before your form starts to breaks down. Otherwise, you'll lose the desired training effect and potentially win the local chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon a new patient.
- If you're unsure of how wide to place your feet, use the same stance you'd do with a standing vertical jump. From here, you can adapt your stance to your personal preferences.
This movement is a tried-and-true bodybuilding basic, but I'm putting a unique spin on how you complete each set. Instead of following a vanilla formula of 3 sets of 10, let's instead do as many reps as possible for a given amount of time! Your goal is to go for 30 seconds. For a 30-second set (each side), you'll want to use a weight at which you can perform about 10 reps.
You'll likely reach failure (at 2 seconds per rep), so you'll continue with partial reps until you hit 30 seconds. Don't stop your set when you reach failure! Start with your weaker side, and match the number of reps on your stronger side.
- Start with your first set as your heaviest. On each subsequent set, reduce the weight by approximately 20 percent. So, if you're using a 100-pound dumbbell for your first set, the second set would be with 80 pounds, and the third set with 65.
- Doing the rowing movement unilaterally allows you to better concentrate on each rep, and then take the set beyond failure. Ultimately, this results in your backside muscles spending more time under maximal tension and enduring greater amounts of metabolic stress, two keys for hypertrophy.
- This is about building a big back, so don't let your grip be a limiting factor! By all means, throw on straps as needed.
Check out this video of two-time Arnold Class champion Branch Warren starting with a 250-pound dumbbell row for 30 seconds. Warren drops the weight a few times in the video, but picks it right back up again to keep his set going for the requisite time.
Here's one you'd never expect to make a list of big-back moves, because since it's a single-joint exercise, but it was a favorite of powerlifting bench-press world-record-holder Doug Young, a man who was built like a bodybuilder and even became a training advisor to a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger. In every upper-body workout—not just on back day—Young included 6 sets of straight-arm pull-downs.
In some pulling movements, the biceps are the limiting factor. But when you do a single-joint movement like this one, the biceps are taken out, which allows you to better isolate your lats. And this exercise does that especially well.
Straight-arm pull-downs can be performed with a lat bar or rope attachment on a cable lat station. Knock them out for one minute straight—don't worry about reps—with a weight around your 20-rep max. Go at a controlled pace, focus on range of motion, work the muscle, and control the negative.
- Some movements aren't ruined by cheating and may even be enhanced, but this is not one of those movements. Keep it strict!
- At the top of the movement, focus on stretching your lats; on the way down, focus on tightening them, keeping your arms extended throughout. By keeping your torso slightly inclined, you'll more effectively target your lats.
- Keep the negative portion of the rep under control at all times, taking five seconds to reach the top position before starting your next rep.
- If you have trouble feeling your lats during the movement, do a lat-spread bodybuilding pose for six seconds prior to performing the exercise, and slow down the negative to a full five seconds.
Here's Warren again demonstrating this exercise. Warren is shown using the five-second negative rep.
Most of us are familiar with the overhand-grip pull-up; a neutral grip simply means your palms face each other. Here, you want them about shoulder-width apart. This movement is much more friendly on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders than either the overhand or underhand (chin-up) version.
The primary function of the lats is to pull the humerus (upper arm) down and into the body, but they also have a synergistic role in extension and lateral flexion of the spine. Both of those functions take place with the neutral-grip pull-up, which is why many bodybuilders feel it is the king of lat-building movements.
Start the pull-up from an arms-extended position, and hold the bar keeping tension in your lats and shoulders while squeezing your glutes. Pull your chin over the bar by driving your elbows down; lower your body under control to the starting position.
- Why be normal? Do these pull-ups in cluster sets so you can sneak more volume into a minimal amount of time. Do 3 reps, rest 15 seconds, and repeat this sequence for four minutes.
- If this is too easy—which is highly unlikely, because you won't know until toward the end—by all means, add weight. If this is too difficult, do these band-assisted, or use an assisted pull-up machine.
- To increase intensity, do these with a five-second eccentric; once you can no longer maintain that tempo, switch to a traditional tempo.
In this video, Mike Rashid does the entire group of exercises, including the neutral-grip pull-up cluster set (but you won't be doing the seated cable row).
Below is a workout that puts all four of these champion-makers together in a single routine. Give it a shot for a month, and you'll see—and feel—a significant difference. After a few sessions, you'll be clamoring to pull out your phone.
Photo-Worthy Back Workout
- Do as many warm-up sets as you need of each movement.
- Don't take deadlifts to muscle failure; always leave a rep or two in the tank.