Building a quality back isn't the same as building chest, arms, or shoulders. First, it's a larger area, so it takes more work to break down the muscle fibers and promote muscle growth. Second, you can't really see the back muscles working, so it's hard to know if you're engaging the muscles correctly. That's something you can't depend on.
Take a calculated approach to building that barn-door back. It isn't just about doing the exercises, but also why and how. These five hacks can get you started on your own path to both looking good and being strong.
Hack 1: Focus on Your Weakness
Before you do another rep, take a photo of your back and analyze what you see. Which do you need more: width or detail? If you look like you have plenty of thickness and detail, but it looks like your back goes straight down from your armpits, then you need width in your lats for a better V-taper. If you have plenty of width, but in the photo your back looks like a flat wall, then you lack thickness and detail. Whichever weakness you identify, you can modify your routine to address it.
The first few exercises in your back routine should emphasize your primary goal, since that is when you are fresh and can lift the most weight. Someone who wants to focus on power and thickness might start with rows, which emphasize thickness and detail. If width is your issue, simply start with pulling movements instead, saving the rows for later.
Hack 2: Squeeze When You Pull
Most back exercises involve moving the shoulder blades. Whether you're doing a row, pull-down, pull-up, or deadlift, your shoulder blades will always be pulled together when you do the concentric (lifting) portion of the rep. This is how you know the muscles in your back are engaged—and you're maximizing the range of motion.
Hack 3: Rediscover the Pull-over
Many great bodybuilding champions of yore used some version of the pull-over to help them develop their lats. Arnold Schwarzenegger preferred the classic dumbbell version. Dorian Yates was a major fan of the machine pull-over. Even Jay Cutler liked doing straight-arm pull-downs, mimicking the pull-over motion. Those are three Mr. Olympias right there!
The lesson is inescapable: If you want to build mass like the pros, include the pull-over with your back training. Not many gyms have a pull-over machine, but if yours does, use it. Dumbbell pull-overs lying across a bench are another solid option. Regardless of the apparatus, use moderate weight and focus on the stretch through the lats on each rep.
Hack 4: Save Lower-Back Exercises for the End of Your Workout
The end of the workout is the best time to hit lower back. There's already a lot of blood in your back as you approach the end of the session, so you'll already be warm and primed to work this area.
Another major benefit of saving lower back for last is that you'll be fatigued and less prone to letting your ego override your common sense. Less weight means less chance of an injury and greater focus on muscle contraction. Using a plate to add weight to your hyperextensions is a great option—as long as you take your time and focus on the muscles throughout the entire rep.
Hack 5: Rest Longer Between Sets
Since the back is a larger area than other muscle groups, making it grow requires more volume. So give yourself a little more time to recover between sets. Ninety seconds would work for most people, but if you're struggling to hit those higher weights and reps, take a full 2 minutes. It might feel like too much in the beginning, but it will feel just right as your workout winds down.