If you’re looking to build a bigger, stronger-looking back, you’ll be hard-pressed to overtax the muscle group with too much work.
“The back can take a lot of training volume,” says Justin Kompf, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist at CLIENTEL3 training studio in Boston. “So to really build back mass, you need to have at least one back-focused day per week in your lifting routine, ideally along with another day devoted to the posterior chain, or entire backside of your body—back included.”
That means you’re going to need a lot of back-building exercises in your weight-room arsenal for a healthy mix of movements. Use these 8 exercises to build your best back workouts for mass.
The best back workouts for building mass centre on the all-important deadlift, which allows you to train the lats and spinal erectors with huge loads, according to Kompf.
How to: Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and a loaded barbell roughly an inch in front of your shins. Push your hips back and allow a slight bend in your knees to grab the barbell with an overhand grip, your hands about shoulder-width apart or right outside of your legs. Keeping a neutral spine and your arms extended, inhale, and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. Forcefully exhale, push your feet through the ground to thrust your hips forward and straighten your knees to stand tall, keeping the bar staying close to your body as possible as you stand up. Pause at the top of the movement, then slowly reverse the motion and control the weight down to the ground.
Recs: Use the deadlift to kick off a posterior chain workout, opting for heavier loads as you master the form. Complete 4 to 5 sets of 5 to 6 reps to start, resting for about two minutes between sets.
Decline Bench Pull-Over
For the pull-over, setting up at a decline increases the lats’ total range of motion for greater gains.
How to: Lie down on a decline bench with both legs secured and a dumbbell on the floor behind your head. Reach your arms back to grab the dumbbell with a diamond grip. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weight until your arms are completely vertical and parallel to the floor. Pause, then slowly lower your arms behind you to return to start.
Recs: The single-joint exercise is best saved for the second half of your back workouts. Perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
The exercise focuses on the erector spinae, also called the spinal erectors, which bulge along both sides of the spine to give the back a more 3D look, says Kompf. Bonus: They are quick to hypertrophy, which means they’ll develop muscle quickly.
How to: Lie face-down on a hyperextension bench with your upper thighs on the pad, your feet secure, and a weight plate against your chest with your arms crossed. Hinge at the hips to lower your torso as low toward the floor as possible. Squeeze your low back muscles to raise your torso back up to start.
Recs: Opt for light weights with high rep counts to avoid overstressing the lumbar spine, performing 3 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 reps. Also, resist the temptation to extend your back past neutral; stop when your torso is in line with your legs.
Chinups are great, but for back mass, pull-ups are better. They put more of the load on your wings by limiting how much your biceps can pitch in during each pull.
How to: Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width, and assume a hollow-body hang with your legs straight and just in front of your torso. Pull your shoulder blades down and together, then pull through your arms to draw your elbows down your sides and bring your upper chest to just about touch the bar. Pause, then reverse the motion to return to hang.
Recs: Perform with a variety of rep and set schemes, using a weight belt or weight vest during low-rep sets or a resistance band for assistance during high-rep sets. Consider drop or pyramid sets.
This variation of a pull-up exercise takes core and glute strength (often limiting factors for pull-ups) largely out of the equation, making this exercise a great option for completely fatiguing the lats.
How to: Sit at the lat pull-down machine, grab the bar with your hands about double shoulder-width apart, and secure your legs under the pads. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back and then pull with your arms to draw your elbows down the sides of your torso and the bar to your collarbones. Pause, then slowly reverse the motion to return to start.
Recs: Do not lean back to initiate the pull. Set up with a slight lean so that the bar can clear your face, then maintain this position with a stationary torso. Perform 3 to 4 reps of 8 to 10 reps.
Seated Cable Row
Horizontal rows are ideal for building mass in the upper-back musculature, including the rhomboids and traps, Kompf says.
How to: Sit at a cable row machine with your feet flat on the pads and knees slightly bent. Grab a triangle attachment and sit up tall. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and pull through your arms to row the handles in to the bottom of your ribs. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides and pointing straight back. Pause, then slowly reverse the motion to return to start.
Recs: Perform 3 to 4 reps of 8 to 10 reps. Note: For back balance, perform roughly two horizontal pulling exercises for every one vertical pulling exercise in your weekly routine.
The upper-back-focused exercise helps to round out your rhomboids, upper and lower traps, and the rear delts.
How to: Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart, and hold a cable machine’s rope attachment or resistance bands so that your thumb is pressed against the ends of the rope. Step back so that there is tension in the cable. Squeeze your shoulder blades back row the rope up up and to your shoulder, allowing your elbow to point diagonally to your side as you so do. Pause, then slowly return to start. All motion should occur in the arm and upper back of your working side. Keep everything else as still as possible.
Recs: You can vary lines of resistance to work more musculature by setting the cable at a different height—high, middle, or low—every four to six weeks. Perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps.
Incline Chest-Supported Row
Lying on a bench increases stability, meaning you can pull more weight with each rep. It also eliminates all chance of swinging the weights up so that you really isolate your lats.
How to: Set an incline bench to a 45-degree angle and, holding a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip, lean your torso onto the bench, feet braced on the floor. Let your arms hang down straight toward the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and then pull through your arms to drive your elbows up and behind you to row dumbbells to your ribcage. Pause, then slowly reverse the motion to return to start.
Recs: Consider loading this exercise heavier than other horizontal rows, leaning closer to 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps.
Reverse Cable Fly
By using a cable machine instead of dumbbells, this fly variation increases time under tension, for superior muscle growth in the rear delts. They are technically part of the shoulder, but they are a big deal when it comes to shaping your rearview, Kompf says.
How to: Stand in the middle of a dual cable machine, and fix the cables to shoulder height in the center of the machine. Grab the ends of the cables with the opposite hands. Maintaining a slight bend in your arms, squeeze your shoulder blades together to move your arms out to your sides. Pause, then slowly reverse the motion to return to start.
Recs: Be humble and go far lighter than you think you will need to. Perform for high reps—12 or more per set, saving this exercise to help wrap up back day.
By K. Aleisha Fetters