Get Your Wings and Build a Big Back
Back day. Quite possibly my favorite day of the week. I love training back and it shows. Back is definitely a strong point for me and it was a strength when I started as well. Genetically, I lucked out because I already had a great V-taper before I even touched a weight. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t worked hard over the years to get my back to where it is today.
I capitalized on my advantage and busted my ass for years, constantly pushing myself and using my creativity to craft the most brutal back workouts I could put myself through. This is unlike any other article for back you will ever read. If you want to build a big back, then look no further…
The way I’ll present the information in this article is by organizing it into certain rules about back training. I have learned these rules and used them as guidelines for my back workouts for years. They have helped me make awesome gains and more importantly, avoid injuries and poor workouts. These are my rules that I know to be true and I am certain that a lot of lifters don’t follow them. That’s why I will explain them in detail. Hopefully, you guys will see the value in these rules and will use them to guide your own back training:
1. Think of Back Exercises in terms of WIDTH VS. THICKNESS
This will make things a lot easier for you because not all back exercises are created equal. Certain movements will help you develop width and some will help you develop thickness. Here are some examples for each.
Width: Pull-ups, Lat Pulldowns, Pullovers
Thickness: Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, T-Rows, Machine Rows, Deadlifts, Good Mornings
In general, the majority of your exercises should focus on thickness because thickness is ultimately what will help you in getting a big back. In other words, you shouldn’t rely on pulldowns and pull-ups as your main mass builders because those exercises don’t put on the most mass. Width exercises are more helpful in stretching out the lats which is why I prefer doing them earlier in the workout. That or including them as the follow-up exercise in a superset where the primary exercise was a row.
Ex. Dumbbell Row superset with Lat Pulldowns… That gives the back an amazing pump.
When I first started to actually train back in a split fashion, I made the mistake of focusing almost exclusively on width building movements.
Here’s a sample back workout 2007:
Wide-Grip Pullups- 3*10-12
Lat Pulldowns- 3*10-12
Close Grip Pulldowns- 3*10-12
Close Grip Cable Rows- 3*10-12
Now you might look at that and think that’s not a bad back workout. And from a volume standpoint it’s not too bad. I had the right idea as far as hitting it with volume but overall, that back workout is horrendous. There was no effort on trying to build a base. Just different attempts at trying to build a big back by focusing on width movements. My back barely grew during that time and doing those types of workouts was the reason why. Fast forward to Summer 2008 and you would have witnessed by back really starting to grow.
Sample Back Workout from 2008:
Wide-Grip Pull-Ups: 3*10-12
Dumbbell Rows- 5*12-15
T-Bar Rows- 4*10-12
One-Armed Hammer Strength Rows- 4*10-12
See the difference? A year later, my back workouts focused almost exclusively on building thickness vs. width. In fact, the main width-building movement was concerned to be a warm-up for the heavy rowing that made up the majority of the workout. The volume didn’t even change that much. The difference maker was where I focused my efforts… in this case building THICKNESS.
** Also keep in mind that your back width is mostly determined by genetics, due to the fact that this is what determines your overall width. Wide people have wide backs. So if you are narrow, there isn’t too much you can do really widen the lats. Your best bet is to focus you efforts on building thickness.
An example of this is current Mr. Olympia Phil Heath. He is naturally a very narrow competitor. His back workouts focus heavily on rowing movements…. If you find pictures of him online, you’ll see that his back turned out okay.
2. Elbows Lead the Way
Another thing that prevents guy from building an impressive back is that they just don’t have the form and mind muscle connection down. They approach back workouts with the mindset of simply “pulling weight.” They pull the weight and the majority of the work is felt by their arms and delts. This is a VERY COMMON MISTAKE.
The one piece of advice I get hated for more than anything else is when I tell gym newbs to focus on machines when they first start off. There is a reason for this.
This is because most people, especially those first starting off, have a terrible grasp on the idea of establishing the mind muscle connection. They just don’t put an emphasis on it. They want results and they want them now. Well, they can’t have it now because they have to master the #1 Rule. They have to gain experience literally feeling the target muscle work.
In my opinion, the barbell row is one of the most difficult movements to master. In all my years at many different gyms, I have rarely seen anybody executing this exercise with proper form. It took me probably 5 years until I had mastered the movement and made it a part of my back routine.
Proper form means leading with the elbows with a slight arch in your back.
Don’t think in terms of pulling with your arms. Think of your hands as hooks that are simply holding the weight. The elbows are the primary means by which the work is done. This goes for all back exercises where you are pulling… rows, pulldowns, etc.
Check this guy out:
That’s an example of POOR FORM. I don’t need to see him in person or see a video to know that. The bar is far from the legs and he’s lifting it to halfway up his stomach. Instead of leading with the elbows, this guy is simply pulling the weight. On that particular rep, the majority of the lift is being done with the arms. I see rookies doing rows like this all the time.
3. Volume is KING
Volume is how you build a big back. The bigger the muscle the more volume you need. Back is a big muscle. Now, this was something I understood early on. You could see that in my workout sample from 2007 above.
But in short, your back needs to be hit with a bunch of different exercises and worked from many different angles in order to achieve full development. Hard work builds an impressive back. It’s not a body part you can really skim on with moderate volume. If you want it to grow then you are going to have to slug it out and hammer it with all different types of rowing movements and learn to incorporate supersets
Sample Back Workout Summer 2011
Barbell Rows superset w/ Cable Rows- 5*20
Dumbbell Rows superset w/ Machine Pullovers- 5*15
Hammer Strength Rows superset w/Lat Pulldowns- 4*12-15
Deadlift- 1 All Out Set*20
FST-7 Movement: Machine Rows- 7*15 (30 sec rest between sets)
Now that’s a back workout. That’s a lot of volume. I would not recommend that anyone try that without a few years under your belt. That’s just a guideline of what a back workout looks like for someone who has a lot of experience and constantly pushes themselves to make gains (naturally). That’s a back workout that is heavily reliant on rows, perfect for adding slabs of beef to your back.
It will be difficult, but hammering your back with VOLUME is the surefire way to make it grow.
4. Be Mindful of Asymmetries
Another thing guys tend to overlook when they first start off is that they have unbalanced body parts. Everyone does… no one is perfect. In my very first article, I think I explain every asymmetry I have. Since back is a large body part it’s very common for there to be one lat bigger/more developed than the other.
You have to address this. Creating you ideal physique isn’t just about building size. It’s also about building BALANCE. That’s why it’s very important to address those early on by incorporating unilateral movements (using one arm at a time). So incorporating movements such as dumbbell rows and various types of one-armed machine rows is crucial to total back development. It will ensure that each side receives adequate volume.
From my own personal experience, my left lat is naturally smaller and more prone to atrophy than the right one. I have balanced this out over the years because of my extensive use of dumbbell rows.
5. Machines Vs. Free Weights
The great debate. What’s better machines or free weights? There really isn’t an answer to this because I believe that both are necessary for building your body. But I feel that back is a little bit different.
Back is different because the machines that his back… really hit the back hard. They really isolate the muscle and force you to lead with the elbows in order to fully work the muscle. With barbell rows and dumbbell rows, there’s a lot of room for error. You could have issues with stability, your degrees of asymmetry could vary, you could have poor habits when it comes to form… the list goes on. That’s why I don’t recommend those movements (especially the barbell row) for dudes that are just starting off in the gym. I have seen so many dudes mess up this movement in the gym, to the point that they don’t even hit the lats because the movement is taken over by all the other body parts (sometimes the joints too).
Don’t get me wrong, the compound movements will certainly help you build the most size and density. It’s just highly depend on whether or not you have truly mastered your form and mind muscle connection. I think it comes down to being honest with yourself and asking what you really want. Do you want to develop great form, master the movement, and build your back? Or would you rather do the “cool” exercises right now because that what the magazine/online forum said, even though you have no concept of form or mind muscle connection? The answer is clear.
Check out this video of Dorian Yates (6-time Mr. Olympia) demonstrating the barbell row. Here’s probably my favorite bodybuilder of all time because of his hardcore workouts and the fact that he was truly a MASTER OF FORM:
6. When to Deadlift
The deadlift is absolutely a KING MAKER exercise. It’s such a simple exercise and yet it’s so effective. Deadlifts help build overall density and thickness unlike any other exercise. Most people do deadlifts on back day. I’m cool with that. Most people start off back day with deadlifts… I’m not too cool with that. Here’s my reasoning:
The deadlift is a taxing exercise. It taxes your entire body. It saps you of your energy because it requires so much of you. It also requires a lot of grip strength to be used.
Your grip is your most important asset when using your hands to lift weight.
This is why forearm strength is so important (more on that later). When you start off a back workout doing heavy deadlifts, you use up a ton of energy and more importantly, a ton of grip strength. This was a mistake I ran into back in 2007 when I was starting off my back workouts with deadlifts. I would deadlift first and would use most of my energy on that first exercise. More importantly, a lot of my grip was gone and I couldn’t pick up nearly as much weight.
For a while, I didn’t deadlift at all but by 2011 I had re-incorporated the deadlift into my back workouts and made them better than ever. How did I do it? I put deadlifts in at the end of the workout.
There are a lot of advantages to saving deadlift for THE END of your back workouts.
- It will build character. Saving the hardest exercise for last will do that. It will force you to really give it everything you got. If you do, you will have left it all at the gym… which is how it should be.
- You actually don’t lose as much grip strength doing all the other exercises first as you would by doing the deadlift first.
- This will naturally make your deadlift stronger. For instance, if you can deadlift 315 for 10 reps at the beginning of back workout and then build yourself up to the point where you can deadlift 315 for 8 reps AT THE END OF A BACK WORKOUT… You will naturally be bigger and stronger because of it. Try deadlifting at the beginning of a workout again if you want… I guarantee you’ll do a lot better than 315 for 10.
- Deadlifting is a total back exercise but the majority of the lift is done by your lower back. Nothing sucks more than dragging your ass through a back or leg workout because your lower back is cramped up/fatigued. This is very possible if you start off back day with deadlifts. And if your form isn’t on point… it’s almost guaranteed.
- Deadlift builds a lot of density. It’s always a good idea to hit a muscle with the density builders once it has been pumped up. This will definitely be the case if you save if for the end of an intense back workout.
I hope this was helpful. I can guarantee that this is unlike any of those other generic “How to Build a Big Back” articles you see in the fitness magazines. This came from my 8 years of actually doing this and learning what works vs. what doesn’t work. The main points to truly grasp from this article are the following.
1. Back workouts should be thought of in terms of width vs. thickness exercises. Width is very much based on genetics. You should still include width exercises. Consider doing them at the beginning to give the lats a good stretch before row movements. Just keep in mind that thickness exercises (rows and deadlifts) are what will build the most size.
2. Elbows lead the way meaning… you’re not simply “pulling the weight.” When you are not mindful and just try to pull as much weight as you can, that is a recipe for poor form where the arms and delts do a lot of the work. Instead, lead with the elbows. Moving them back is the means by which the work is done. Form is key and this is undeniable when it comes to proper back workouts.
3. Volume is King. You want a big, well-developed back? You gotta hammer it with a bunch of different exercises from many different angles. As time goes by, you should strongly consider incorporating supersets and giant sets.
4. Address your asymmetries. Almost everyone has uneven lat development. One is usually bigger/stronger than the other. You should work on this by incorporating plenty of unilateral rowing movements into your routine. This will help you achieve total, balanced development over time.
5. The line between free weight vs. machine becomes even more blurred when it comes to back training. Nothing can replace the overall density you get from heavy barbell/dumbbell rows and deadlifts. But in my own experience, using heavy weight with impeccable form on machines is what helped build my impressive back development. Also I absolutely believe that machines are better than free weights for new guys. New guys don’t yet have the necessary grasp of form or mind muscle connection to benefit from free weight back movements. More importantly, machines will help them work the muscle more directly and build up that mind muscle connection… and that’s what’s most important.
6. Consider deadlifting at the end of your workout. The end of your workout is when you should be going hardest. When you are physically taxed, that’s when your true character will reveal itself. Leave it all in the gym. Doing deadlifts at the end of your back workout will certainly take care of that.
Be safe guys. And really challenge yourself in the gym. Think about how you can incorporate this advice into your own routines and let me know if you have any questions. I have included a pic to show my own back. It is the product of 8 years of hard work and following the advice that I gave in this article.