By BJ Gaddour
Besides the biceps, the core is the area of the body that every gym rat becomes most obsessed with. A lean midsection has long been the measure of a man’s fitness, sexual prowess, and even work ethic.
But have you ever heard of back abs? “Back Abs” are considered the new “abs” and describe a condition where there is both a remarkable amount of muscular development and definition on—you guessed it—the back.
It basically looks like you have abs on your back.
Why focus on muscles you can’t see in the mirror? Truth is, any skinny guy can have abs, but only a strong and shredded guy can have back abs. So if being elite is important to you, having back abs should be, too.
There’s also so much surface area and metabolic potential on the back of your body. The more muscle you have on the back, the less fat you’ll have on the front and everywhere else.
Plus, all of these muscles protect your spine and make your body more resilient. It’s one of the few truths we know in fitness: Performance and posture will improve if you pay enough attention to the muscles you can’t see.
For functional anatomy purposes and what you can actually see on the human body, the back has three main compartments: upper, middle, and lower.
The upper back consists of the trapezius muscles, or the traps. These diamond-shaped slabs of muscles on top of your shoulders are possibly the most noticeable part of a muscular man.
Underneath the traps are your scapular or shoulder blade muscles, consisting of the rhomboids and levator scapulae. Developing these add thickness to your back so you look more impressive from the side.
The middle back consists of the latissimus dorsi, or lats. These are what look like wings on muscular men and provide that coveted V-taper of a superhero.
Well-developed lats also make your waist look smaller from every angle.
The lower back consists of your spinal erectors (including the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis) that actually run the entire length of your spinal column.
When you are lean and these muscles are developed to their potential, it looks like a Christmas tree is running down your back.
Related Article: The Best Exercises For Your Back
How to Get Back Abs
You need to master the following 6 moves.
You’ll notice that all of these moves have one key theme: They train your back muscles to stabilize and prevent movement of your spine, especially at the lumbar level (lower back).
Before I share the moves, a quick reminder that just like regular abs, back abs are also built in the kitchen.
You’ll often hear that diet is 80% of the equation. That percentage will vary a lot based on your genetics but it’s needless to say that what you eat is a big part of the equation. I could write a whole article (or book) on nutrition, so let’s just keep this as simple as possible.
Most men should shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight and 0.5 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight.
So if you weight 200 pounds, you would consume 200 g of protein and 100 g of fat as the foundation of your diet. From there, you should consume 50-150 grams of carbs post-exercise (sometimes less, sometimes more).
Start here and tweak your macros based on what your body responds to best. Most men do better with more fat and less carbs in their diet, but some men (usually hard-gainers) need more carbs and less fat.
But start with that formula, and it will put you on the fast track to back abs when combined with the bodybuilding moves below.
The deadlift is the king of back exercises. It hits the upper, mid, and lower back, plus the back of your lower body (your glutes, hamstrings, and calves). I recommend doing heavy deadlifts at least once per week.
Do 4 to 6 sets in the 1-to-5 rep range to build the bulk of your back strength and muscle mass.
If you’re doing multi-rep sets, use a pause and reset between each rep so that you’re basically stringing together dead-start singles. Some occasional high-rep work is fine, but there are better and safer moves for higher rep back work outlined below.
In terms of which deadlift variation to choose, I’d recommend conventional deads if you have the hip and ankle mobility to do them properly.
If not, you can modify with sumo deads, trap bar deads, block/rack pulls, or stiff-legged deads. If you use a mixed-grip, just be sure to switch hands from set to set to prevent unwanted strength and muscular imbalances between sides.
2. Farmer’s Walk
I consider farmer’s walks, or carries, to be the mobile version of deadlifting.
Loaded walking works your whole body, but really develops the traps and lats. Plus, you can use different variations to tweak which muscles get targeted.
Level changes involve moving from holding the weights at hip level to shoulder level or overhead. You can also perform single-arm carries to work your lower back muscles more.
My favorite carries workout is to do continuous single-arm carries for 10 minutes, switching arms every 25 to 50 yards or every 30 seconds. It really helps shore up imbalances between sides.
Do them overhead for a killer challenge that will make you better at almost every other exercise while bulletproofing your shoulders.
The swing is like the explosive version of deadlifting. It works all of the same muscles but trains them to produce force as fast as possible with lighter loads.
Related Article: 10 Badass Kettlebell Swings
They are also better suited for high reps or longer work periods than deads.
There are lots of ways to incorporate them into your routine. You can commit to performing a set number—say, 500 reps— each day, doing as many sets as needed throughout the day to get to that number.
Or you can plug it into a whole body circuit as a hip-dominant or back move. Or you can use it for cardio intervals, going 30 seconds “on,” 30 seconds “off” for 10 to 20 rounds.
My favorite ways to swing are doing 10 to 20 reps every minute on the minute (EMOM) for 10 to 20 minutes, or setting the clock for 10 minutes and getting as many swings as possible for time.
Pullups are the king of lat exercises. You want to find a way to do pullups as often as you can for best results since they respond best to high-frequency training.
You can pepper them in between sets of squats or bench presses. Or you can have a pullup bar handy at home or work, and just do a submaximal set every time you pass the bar or on the hour.
Mix between wider and closer grips, and overhand, neutral, and underhand grips for the best results.
You can also mix in pulldowns for higher reps if you can’t do pullups. I also recommend adding in hangs to make it easier to do pullups and to decompress your spine
You get your vertical pulling from the pullups and you get your horizontal pulling from rows.
You want to pull from both angles for complete back development and shoulder health. Rows will still work your lats but hit your upper-back muscles more than pullups.
I like to use all types of rowing variations including barbell, dumbbell (single-arm is my favorite), cable, machine, and bodyweight using a bar of a suspension trainer like a TRX.
I recommend training rows in the 8-to-15 rep range for 3 to 5 sets. Leave the heavy work in the 1-to-5 rep range to deads and pullups.
I also like using a rowing machine for back cardio, whether it be for intervals or for distance. It’s a great way to end a back day.
Oh, yeah: Bump down the loads on your rows, dammit!
Most guys use way to much momentum, and this really impairs the training effect on your upper- and mid-back muscles.
You should be able to hold the midpoint of the exercise for at least a count on each rep. And stop the pull at the point where your arms form 90-degree angles to prevent your shoulders from rolling forward and getting impinged.
6. TRX Shoulder Raise
The most overlooked aspect of back training is isolated scapular work performed with straight-arms. These not only serve as a great warmup, but also help you develop a better mind-muscle connection with your upper-back muscles. They also fortify your shoulders so they can handle the rigors of intensive back training.
Mix between making the following shapes: T, W, Y, and I.
I also like doing a TRX Row to Overhead Press to really carve the back and improve external rotation and arms overhead positioning. Sets of 10 to 20 reps work best here.
I like using the TRX because you can seamlessly adjust your body angle to make it easier or harder. It also teaches you how to keep tension in your upper back for prolonged periods of time.
Now it’s time to get to work, baby! Either plug these movements into your current weekly training regimen or follow the custom workout outlined for you below that hits every muscle fiber in all three sections of your back.
Let the gainz begin, men!