Back to Basics | A Workout to Supersize your Back Muscles

Back to Basics | A Workout to Supersize your Back Muscles

Does the thought of back day make you groan?

Or are you looking for a new way to get an attractive, strong and sculpted back?

Even if back day is your least favourite workout day, you still need to put in as much time and effort as you would with any other muscle group.

In fact, the back muscles are arguably the most important ones to train.

Why Train Your Back?

In today’s society, back muscles are the ones we use the least often day-to-day. Most people work in sedentary jobs these days, sitting at a desk for hours at a time. We also sit down to eat, drive, socialise, relax in front of the TV or reading a book. And guess what? When we’re sitting, we’re not using our back muscles at all.

Another good reason to get some back exercise in, is that it reduces the risk of workout-related injury. One of the most common gym injuries is a strained back. This is mainly down to the fact that people haven’t taken the time to strengthen it properly before increasing the intensity of other exercises.

And finally – to put it simply, a well-toned back looks great.

So, if you’re guilty of prolonged sitting down, you’re worried about injury, or you simply want to make strength gains in your back, then make sure you sit up (or better still, stand up) and pay attention to the workout we’re about to share in this article.

Oh, and even if you have incorporated a regular back workout into your routine already, keep on reading as we’ll share some valuable insights on making sure you’re training your back properly and the best exercises to perform for maximum gains.

Back to Basics

Before we get stuck into the workout routine, let’s take a few moments to make sure that you’re up to speed on how the back muscles work and some important pointers on looking after them properly.

The back comprises of 3 major muscle groups:

Latissimus Dorsi | The side muscles which help with arm movements

Erector Spinae | Lower back which helps to flex, extend and rotate your upper body

Rhomboids | Between your shoulder blades and help with shoulder movements – important for posture

As you can see, the back muscles are frequently used for moving other body parts, so it’s vital that they are kept strong and well looked after. Therefore, any back workout should exercise each of the three muscle groups equally.

Avoid Back-to-Back Workouts

The frequency of workouts and the inclusion of plenty of rest is critical to maintaining a healthy back.

The number one rule is to allow at least one full day of rest between moderately intense workouts, i.e., with an amount of weight that fatigues, but doesn’t exhaust your muscles. This is true of exercising most muscle groups, but it’s even more important when working out your back as the risk of injury is even greater.

If you are building up to higher intensity workouts, i.e., heavy weights, then you need to increase the number of rest days to two between workouts.

In summary:


Moderate Intensity
High Intensity
Medium weight with 3 sets of 10 to 14 reps
Heavy weight with 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
1 rest day between workouts
2 rest days between workouts
Workout up to 3 times per week
Workout 2 times per week

 

The Ultimate Back Workout

This workout routine is designed to exercise all 3 muscle groups equally. The suggested amount of sets and reps are for an intermediate level, but make sure that you stop or reduce reps if you feel any extreme discomfort or pain.

Most of the exercises can be performed with just barbells and dumbbells, but some require specialist gym equipment such as cable rows and t-bars.


1 | Wide-Grip Pull-Up

3D Illustration of man performing wide grip pull up

Sets: 4

Reps: 8 - 12

We’ll start our routine with the humble pull-up performed with a wide-grip, which means it will give your lat muscles a good workout. Don’t worry if you struggle to do a full pull-up at the moment, check out the variation.

Method

  1. Grip the pull-up bar with your hands as far apart as possible. Let yourself hang down with arms fully extended.
  2. Slowly pull yourself up while flexing your elbows and pulling your shoulder joints in towards the centre of your back. Be careful not to swing or jerk yourself up.
  3. Keep going until your chin is at or above your hand level.
  4. Pause momentarily at the top, then lower yourself steadily in a controlled motion back to full arm extension.
  5. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets. Build up to the maximum recommended amount.

Variation

If you find a full pull-up impossible at the moment , most gyms have a weight-assisted pull-up machine that is ideal as it effectively reduces your body weight. This makes the pull-up much easier and will still work out the same muscles, but to a lesser degree. Keep reducing the weight over time until you can do them unassisted.


2 | Bent-Over Barbell Row

3D Illustration of man performing Bent Over Barbell Row

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 - 12

For the next exercise, we move towards the middle of your back. The Bent-Over Barbell Row is perfect for targeting the middle back as well as the upper and lower muscles to a lesser extent.

Be careful to take the time to practice good form with this exercise and don’t go too heavy too quickly – i.e., take your time and build up the weight slowly.

Also, if you have any kind of recurring back problems, it’s best to skip this exercise or perform something similar with a machine rather than free weights.

Method

  1. Choose a moderate weight and grip the barbell with your palms facing downwards.
  2. Adopt a stance with a straight back, knees slightly bent, with your torso leaning forward, i.e. bent at your waist. Keep your head looking up and facing forward. The barbell should be hanging directly down in front of you at around knee height.
  3. Keep your torso still, exhale and lift the barbell up towards your chest. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides and don’t use your forearms to lift, just to support the weight.
  4. Lift as far as you comfortably can and at the top of the motion squeeze your back muscles and pause for a moment.
  5. Inhale and steadily lower the barbell back to full extension.
  6. Repeat slowly for the required number of reps and sets.

3 | Standing T-Bar Row

3D Illustration of man performing stand up t-bar row

Sets: 4

Reps: 8 - 12

Another exercise to target your middle back muscles, the T-bar row can be performed with heavier weights than the previous barbell row, as long as you can maintain a controlled motion and have no existing back problems.

Method

  1. Load a moderate to heavy weight onto the end of the T-bar, making sure the other end is secured in position.
  2. Stand astride the bar, with a row handle attached to the bar if there isn’t one already built-in.
  3. Stand with your feet fairly wide apart and hips pushed back. Raise your chest and head up as far as they will go. Your arms should be fully extended in this position while gripping the handle.
  4. Exhale and pull up the weight towards your stomach. Draw in your shoulder blades and bend your elbows as you do so. Don’t bounce or jerk to raise the weight - keep the motion slow and steady.
  5. Pause at the top of the motion for a moment, then breathe out and lower the weight gradually until your arms are fully extended once more.
  6. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

4 | Close-Grip Pull-Down

3D Illustration of man performing lose grip pull down

Sets: 4

Reps: 6 - 10

This exercise shifts the focus back to your upper back, giving your lats a rigorous workout.

Caution: don’t be tempted to perform this exercise using the behind the neck variation as it can easily damage your rotator cuff.

Method

  1. Attach a wide-bar to the top pulley of a pulldown machine. Ensure the knee pad is adjusted correctly for your height.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands close together (less than shoulder width apart) and palms facing away from you.
  3. Stick your chest out and push your torso back to make a slight curve at your lower back.
  4. Exhale and pull the bar downwards towards your upper chest while retracting your shoulder blades. As the bar reaches your chest, squeeze your back muscles tightly while keeping your torso still. Make sure the forearms are not tensed, they should just hold the bar, not assist with pulling it.
  5. Pause for a moment, breathe in and allow the bar to return steadily to the top until your arms are fully extended once more. You should feel a stretch in your lat muscles.
  6. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

5 | Axle Deadlift

3D Illustration of man performing axle deadlift

Sets: 3

Reps: 6 - 10

The axle deadlift, as opposed to a standard deadlift which exercises the hamstrings, focuses in on your lower back muscles. It is best performed with a heavy weight, but not right at the limit of what you can lift. Good form and controlled motion are essential to execute this lift without the risk of injury, so take your time and try it with a lower weight to begin with or a use machine for guidance, if necessary. Also, if possible, it’s best to perform this with an axle bar which is thicker in diameter than a standard barbell.

Method

  1. Centre the bar over your feet which should be placed roughly hip-width apart.
  2. Bend at your waist and hold the bar with a shoulder-width over-grip, letting your shoulder blades stick out.
  3. Without moving your feet, inhale deeply, bend your knees until your shin touches the bar while pushing your hips down towards the floor.
  4. Look up and keep your head facing forward, with your back slightly arched.
  5. Exhale and push up firmly through your heels to raise your body and the weight, straightening your knees gradually.
  6. When the bar reaches your knees, begin to pull the bar into your body, retracting your shoulders and shoving your hips forwards firmly towards the bar.
  7. Once you are standing more or less upright, with a slight arch still present in your back and hips pushed forward towards the bar until they are almost touching it, pause for a moment.
  8. Inhale and begin to lower the bar by bending your waist and pushing your hips back, until the bar reaches the floor.
  9. Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.

6 | Pulldown Superset 

Sets: 3 per Exercise A & B

Reps: 6 - 10 per Exercise A & B

Ok, let’s finish on a high with a superset that is designed to exhaust and tone your lats. As with any superset, the idea is that you perform a set of exercise A, followed by a set of exercise B, without a rest period in between, to promote extra strength gains.

Exercise A | Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

3D Illustration of man performing wide grip lat pull down

Caution: As with the close-grip lat pulldown, it is NOT recommended that you attempt the behind-the-neck variation as it can result in rotator cuff injury.

Method

  1. Attach a wide-bar to the top pulley of a pulldown machine. Ensure the knee pad is adjusted correctly for your height.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands wide apart (more than shoulder width apart) and palms facing away from you.
  3. Stick your chest out and push your torso back to make a slight curve at your lower back.
  4. Exhale and pull the bar downwards towards your upper chest while retracting your shoulder blades. As the bar reaches your chest, squeeze your back muscles tightly while keeping your torso still. Make sure the forearms are not tensed, they should just hold the bar, not assist with pulling it.
  5. Pause for a moment, breathe in and allow the bar to return steadily to the top until your arms are fully extended once more. You should feel a stretch in your lat muscles.
  6. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

Exercise B | Straight-Arm Pulldown

3D Illustration of man performing Straight Arm Pulldown

Variation Pictured

Method

  1. Set up the top pulley of a pulldown machine with a wide bar or rope attachment.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands more than shoulder-width apart with palms facing down.
  3. Step away from the machine by approximately two to three feet.
  4. Stand up straight with your arms fully extended out in front of you, and a very slight bend in your elbows. To fully extend your arms, you may have to step or shuffle back slightly more.
  5. Exhale, tighten your lat muscles then begin to pull the bar downwards. Make sure you are contracting your lats throughout the motion.
  6. Keep going until your hands are next to your thighs. Pause for a moment.
  7. Inhale, and keeping your arms perfectly straight, steadily raise the bar back to the top of the motion.
  8. Repeat for the required number of reps and sets.

Variation

Standing with your back straight puts the focus on your lower lats, bending at the waist slightly will exercise your upper lats and teres major.

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