I competed for many years as a pro bodybuilder, and when I competed, there was only one stage category. As I retired; figure, physique, and bikini were taking over, and I had to rethink how I should train my female clients—and myself. Nowhere was this training evolution clearer than in how women desired to build their backs.
Women's physique competitors—and most non-competitive women who lift—aren't just looking for a big back. They often want wider shoulders that flow gracefully down into a long, defined torso—that classic "hourglass figure" that says, "I lift and don't mind showing it."
A bodybuilding-style back-and-shoulder workout can also be a great accessory day for powerlifters, CrossFitters, and anyone else who focuses on strength and skill during their lifting week. No matter what type of back you want to build, these workouts will help you get there!
Know Your Back Muscles
The best back exercises tend to target multiple muscles at once so knowing what each muscle does can help you become more targeted in your execution and prevent certain muscles (I'm looking at you, upper traps!) from taking over.
- Latissimus dorsi: This big back muscle contributes significantly to shoulder adduction (pulling down a straight arm), extension (pulling back a straight arm), and transverse extension (moving the elbow laterally away from the chest). It's also the most important muscle for back size and width.
- Teres major: The teres major assists with most of what the lats do and is also one of the very pretty "bubbly" muscles of the upper back.
- Teres minor and infraspinatus: These two small muscles are part of the rotator cuff, and both help extend, rotate, and abduct the shoulder. They're crucial for shoulder health.
- Rhomboid: major and minor. These muscles contribute to scapular retraction (the squeezing of the shoulder blades together), and scapular downward rotation. They are also important for your posture.
- Posterior deltoid: You may hit your delts on shoulder day, but they also get worked by several row variations during back training. They're major players in shoulder extension—when the arm moves behind the body—as well as shoulder abduction and external rotation.
- Erector spinae: Although these muscles are largely located below other muscles, the spinal erectors are still important! They run the entire length of the back, straighten and rotate the spine, and when defined, they catch the eye and reinforce the appearance of a smaller waist.
- Trapezius: upper, mid, and lower. The major function of the traps is to elevate, retract, and depress the scapula. Few women train their upper traps because these muscles tend to take over any upper-body movement anyway. To contain their development—and to have healthy shoulders—be very aware of your form.
That's a lot of muscles, and a lot of movements. Luckily, training them all doesn't have to feel like an anatomy lesson! I like to organize my back training simply, with what I call a "3x3" approach.
This is my all-encompassing approach to back training. It helps me make sure that each workout covers all the bases and provides easy ways to add variety into my training. If I notice that I haven't done a certain grip or position in a while, I'll add it back in the mix.
Now, let's put all these principles into action with a few workouts.
Beginner Back Workouts for Women
Back training can be a challenge to those who are new to lifting. It's not that the exercises are more complex, it's because you literally can't see the muscles at work, and may also struggle to "feel" the back working as a result.
For this reason, I suggest beginners start by mastering the basic exercises, using the three grips and the three angles. Alternate these two workouts 1-2 times per week. After a month or two, when the movements feel less awkward and you are more aware of your back working, move on and explore the diverse options available to you.
Women's Hourglass Figure Workout
Plenty of women start their back-sculpting regimen by chasing down exercises to lose back fat, and then change that thinking once they see how adding shape and building muscle can give them the appearance they were seeking: gracefully wide shoulders, fully developed upper lats and posterior delts, and a tight lower back with prominent erector muscles. This workout is perfect for crafting that shape.
This is a high-volume workout, so consider it for intermediate lifters and above. And if it's too much for you, dial it back by a set, or skip the dropsets.
No matter if you're building back shape or size, extra protein will help you do it.
Women's Back Workout for Size and Strength
All the back workouts here will help build size and strength. However, this high-volume routine is for ladies who seek superior back strength and low, deep lats.
For lifters following this type of workout, I would suggest doing posterior delts on a separate day, with shoulders. By hitting all three angles, you can be assured that you will work all the muscles in your back. Similarly, by choosing your hand grips wisely you can be confident that you are building the design of your choosing.
High-volume back training is better with the powerful fatigue-fighting ingredients in the best pre-workouts!