When you first start lifting, building your back is often the least of your worries. It’s not really something you see and unless you’re into bodybuilding you might not even know what a good back looks like. I’ve had non-fitness friends say they didn’t even know we had muscles in our backs!
But aesthetically the back can play a huge part in our shape. For women, if you want to achieve the illusion of an hourglass shape, building your back is a great way to start. Once you build your lats your waist will look smaller and more cinched in, thus creating the hourglass illusion.
Practically as well, building your back is really important!
The muscles that make up your back play a crucial role in assisting many lifts. For example, having strong lats it’s crucial to deadlifting heavy, because your lats need to be engaged when you go heavy. A good set of traps also will help create a solid ‘trap shelf’ for your barbell back squat.
When wanting to build any area of your body, it is important to understand the muscles that make that area up. This will not only help with knowing how to programme but will also help with mind to muscle connection.
Anatomy of the Back
The back is made up of:
The Trapezius, more commonly known as the Traps, is a broad, flat and triangular shaped muscle that covers almost all of the muscles at the nape of the neck and a large part of the back. The muscle originates from the occipital bone at the base of the skull and is inserted into the clavicle and scapula.
The fibres of this muscle provide pull in three directions: pull, down and in. The upper fibres elevates the scapula (shoulder blade) and the lower fibres pull the scapula downwards. Its main function is to turn the head and raise the shoulders.
The Latissimus Dorsi, or the Lats as they are commonly known, is the biggest muscle in the back. The Lats are the V shaped muscle that starts at the back of your arm pit and goes down towards your lower back.
The main function of the Lats is to pull the arm downward. However, when the arm is in a fixed position they can pull the arm upwards.
The Rhomboideus major and the Rhomboideus minor
The rhomboids originate on the spinal column and attach to the middle of the shoulder blade. The main function of the rhomboids is to squeeze the shoulder blades together.
The Teres major originates at the back of the shoulder blades. Its main function is to pull the arms backward.
The erector spinae is a group of muscles that support the spinal column. These muscles are: the longissimus, the spinalis, and the iliocostalis. Their primary function is to extend (erect) the spin.
Each muscle plays a key role in everyday functions and can be targeted by a variety of exercises.
Exercises for Back Growth
So now you know what the muscles in the back are, let’s look at how you can actually target them. There are three key movements you can utilise to build your back:
- Pulldown/ Over and Ups
Each of these three movements focuses specifically on a different muscle group, so ensuring your back day has at least one variation of each is a great way to ensure you’re targeting your whole back.
While typically you may consider the deadlift to be a lower body movement, with the primary focus of most variations being the glutes and hamstrings, the deadlift is actually a great move to strengthen your back.
In terms of a full deadlift you have two options that will specifically target your Trapezius (traps); the Conventional deadlift and the Sumo deadlift.
A Conventional deadlift employs a narrower leg stance, with your hands on the bar wider than your feet. Whereas the Sumo deadlift employs a wider leg stance, with your feet turned slightly outward and your hands in between your legs.
A 2002 study found that both the sumo deadlift and the conventional variations recruited from the traps in the same way. So when choosing between the two base it around what’s already in your programme.
Furthermore, in order to reap the benefits of deadlifting for back strength correct form is imperative. In both variations your back should be flat, shoulder blades tight and lats engaged.
If adding a full body move like the deadlift to your split wouldn’t work for you, a great alternative is the rack pull. The rack pull focuses specifically on the top part of the deadlift, and therefore recruits mainly from your traps.
To perform a rack pull you should adjust a squat rack so the barbell sits around knee height. Like a deadlift, you should not rely solely on your upper body to lift the barbell, your glutes are a massive support during this movement.
There are countless row variations that can be added into your workout split, it’s just about finding the right one for you.
The most common row variation is the bent over row. Although this itself has several variations from the barbell bent over row, to the supine bent over row, to single arm bent over rows, the list is practically endless.
However each variation will target muscles in a slightly different way. For example, a study found that the standing bent over row produced large activation symmetrically across the back. This shows that compared to other row variations it targets muscles like the traps more.
The same study also found that the inverted row elicited the highest activation of the lats, upper-back and hip extensor muscles. So if growing your lats is something you’re particularly focused on, this is a great move to add into your back days to really target those lats.
Lastly, we have the upright and chest supported rows. These variations either use machines or free weights. Chest supported, or prone, rows primarily target the lats, rhomboids, traps and rear delts. These are a great accessory move to add in towards the end of a back day.
Pull Down, Over and Up
The Pull variations make up quite a ride range of exercises, from variations of the Lat pull down and pull over to the traditional pull up, all play an important role in carving a good back.
The pull up might be considered one of the most standard forms of resistance training, but that’s for a good reason. The pull up targets every muscle in the back we’ve spoken about. Yep that’s right, everything from the lats and traps right down to the erector spinae. Due to how many muscle groups the pull up targets it is best placed towards the beginning of your workout.
Next in the pull variations is the lat pulldown variations, which, as the name says, predominantly target the lats. Similarly to the bent over row, there are multiple variations of this, most of which involve using a different gripped handle. For example, a V-handle or a wide grip handle.
A recent study found that both the front of neck and V-handle are the best variations for the objective of a lat pulldown. The study also found that the behind the neck pulldown should be avoided.
The V-handle can also be substituted for two D handles on either side of the wide grip bar if your gym does not have a V handle.
The lat pull over is also a great exercise to have an understanding of. Not only is this good to have in your programme, but it is also good for when the gym is busy and you can’t get on a cable machine.
The pull over is similar to a skullcrusher, however instead of having bent arms, your arms are straight and you are pulling from your lats by contracting them. This exercise can be performed with either a barbell or a dumbbell. It has also been suggested that performing this exercise on a decline further engages the lats.
While there are so many more back exercises you can add into your routine, these three categories cover the basics you need to form a good back.
Disclaimer: while training is important, a good back (or any muscle group) cannot be formed without correct nutrition. Training for Hypertrophy and consuming enough protein to help your muscles rebuild and re-grow is vitally important.