They say bodybuilding shows are won from the back. Even if you don’t have competitive aspirations, big lats and a beefy yoke set you apart from the average gymgoer. What’s more, your back is the foundation from which you attempt every bench press personal record — not to mention any heavy-duty overhead lift.
If you’re brand new to the gym, a few sets of pull-ups probably do wonders for bringing up your back. However, if you’ve been in the game awhile, you probably yearn for the days when the gains flowed like water and one or two exercises did the trick. Fortunately, there’s no reason to frantically hop programs in search of the secret sauce for muscle growth. A well-made back routine can be tweaked, tailored, and furnished to meet your needs.
This article will provide you with three distinct back workouts suitable for your specific fitness level. They’re cut from the same cloth, but are tailor-made to get you into a bigger t-shirt in no time.
Bodybuilding Back Workouts by Difficulty
- Bodybuilding Back Workout — Beginner
- Bodybuilding Back Workout — Intermediate
- Bodybuilding Back Workout — Advanced
You have to abide by the rules of training before you can break them. For a fresh-faced trainee, those rules are simple — pick a few movements, progress the amount of weight you use or the number of repetitions you perform over time, and be patient.
If you’re fumbling through your first year or two in the gym you’re far from needing high-octane training techniques or over-the-top volume. Be consistent and the gains will come.
Your back is composed of three distinct sections. The upper region, where you’ll find your traps, rear deltoids, and the scapular stabilizers, your mid-back, dominated by your lats and rhomboids, and your lower back, home to the erector spinae.
Beginners have the privilege of working almost exclusively with exercises that target more than one region. As a beginner, you must train movement patterns just as much as you work your muscles.
How to Progress
If you’re trying to gain muscle by lifting heavier over time, the hardest exercises have to come first. Focus on adding some weight to your deadlifts and rows each week.
For the subsequent movements, you may find it difficult to continue adding weight to the face pull. You also may not be ready to tackle a weighted pull-up yet, either. In these cases, aim to squeeze out another rep on each set every time you perform the workout.
As an intermediate lifter, the gym probably doesn’t intimidate you any longer. Congratulations on your early gains. To keep the train rolling, you’ve got to throw more fuel on the fire.
In practical terms, this means taking on extra exercises and being more selective about the tools you’re working with.
Broadly, the principles are the same in your fourth year as they were in your first. With that said, you can’t stack plates on your bar indefinitely. To avoid hitting a plateau, you’ve got to open up new avenues to progress through — more volume, better contractions, less rest.
Your exercises should also evolve to suit your personal preferences. The standard deadlift is great at improving a lot of things at once, but that’s exactly what makes it a lackluster option compared to more precise variations.
- Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlift: 3×6-8
- Barbell or Dumbbell Row: 3×8-10
- Wide-Grip Cable Pulldown: 3×8,10,12
- Dumbbell Pullover or Straight-Arm Pulldown: 2×12-15
- Trap Bar Shrug: 2×12-15
- Rear Delt Flye: 2×15+
How to Progress
The variables may change but the formula stays the same. A good intermediate program will give you more than one way to progress in the gym so you have somewhere to take your training if it gets too hard to slide another five pounds on the bar.
Targeted rep ranges let you push hard when you feel good and ease up if the magic isn’t there. Exercise options enable you to pick the movement that feels best for your body. Expanding rep targets should help you avoid hitting a wall too early — your body doesn’t use the same energy reserve for a set of five reps as it does in a set of 15.
Hard and heavy bodybuilding training isn’t for the faint of heart. After enough years in the gym, your gains may not come as easily as they once did.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Training your back at a high level is about personalization and persistence. You need the right exercises, the right training techniques, and heaps of grit to get it done.
After enough years in the gym, three sets of eight simply won’t cut it. You don’t need to move mountains to make gains, but you should prepare to work harder and longer than in the past.
Intensity techniques like drop sets and supersets are the name of the game here. Clever methods of increasing your training density and set-by-set effort will keep you on the path to building a truly monstrous back.
- Single-Arm Seated Cable Row: 4×12-15
- Kroc Row: 4×10-15
- Weighted Pull-Up superset Upright Row: 3×12-15 reps each.
- Power Shrug superset Lateral Raise: 3×15-20 reps each.
- Face Pull: 60 reps in as few sets as possible.
- Back Extension: 2 sets to failure.
How to Progress
It may not be possible to add weight or tack on another set to an already-long and grueling workout. To drive progress as an advanced lifter, you must fill the small cracks in your training.
This means focusing intently on each rep to ensure you’re contracting the muscle as hard as possible. Using a primer exercise to warm you up and get you connected with your back before moving on to bigger lifts. Reducing downtime via supersets and cluster training to force your body to adapt and grow.
Anatomy of the Back
Your back is composed of a complex sequence of muscles that run from your neck to your tailbone. In order to train them all effectively, you have to know where they are and what they do.
Your latissimus dorsi muscles are large, fan-shaped tissues that affect the movement of your arm and shoulder.
Your lats help draw your shoulder blade backward, as well as pull your upper arm towards your torso. This makes them the major players in all manner of row or pull-up. It’s a common training myth that your grip width for pulling exercises determines whether you use your lats or upper back.
In reality, the degree to which your arm is tucked to your torso or flared out affects how much lat involvement you get. A tucked arm brings your lats into focus more than a flared arm.
Your traps are a powerful muscle that resides on the crest of your cervical and thoracic spine. While they mainly control shoulder elevation and depression, such as during shrugs or deadlifts, your middle and lower traps also help anchor your shoulder blade to your rib cage.
In addition to the trapezius, your upper back contains a slew of small muscles that, when developed, help to create the sculpted look that takes a rear-double-biceps pose to the next level.
The rhomboids, posterior deltoids, supraspinatus, and more all help control the delicate movement of your shoulder. For real-world training purposes, most solid upper back movements will stimulate them all well enough.
How to Alter Workouts the Right Way
No workout is truly one-size-fits-all. As your physique and strength evolves over the years, your training must change as well. While you shouldn’t cling to the same workout for too long just because it once showered you with progress, there’s no reason to stray from a framework that is effective and sustainable.
Before adjusting a workout plan, take stock of your current physical inventory. What parts of your physique are doing well, and what’s lagging behind? Are you in a caloric deficit or a hearty surplus? Which exercises agree with your body, and which ones fight you? Knowing where you’re at will help you decide where you’re going.
Trim the Fat
Once you know what you want to achieve, you can analyze your program and purge the exercises that don’t serve you. For example, deadlifts are fantastic for overall strength and performance. But if you’re a five-plate-puller, doing deadlifts at the start of every back day might simply take up too much of your time for the hypertrophic benefits they provide.
Alternatively, you might find yourself stuck hard with a certain exercise, unable to add weight or reps no matter how hard you try. It might be wise to cut your losses and replace it with an exercise that has room to help you grow.
Turn Things Up
After you’ve redesigned your workout to include more appropriate exercises, you should tweak your rep ranges and include intensity techniques as needed. Keep in mind, though, that you can’t kick up the reps on every exercise without paying the price.
Some exercises are better-suited to higher reps or specialized techniques than others. Cable machines are convenient to adjust, making them great for drop sets.
Dumbbell exercises performed close to the rack make it feasible to exchange your weights quickly. Isolation exercises tend to be easier to hit higher repetition targets with since you won’t rely as much on auxiliary supportive muscles.
Attack Your Back
A heavy bench press turns heads. Hefty, impressive quads show everyone in the gym that you’re not afraid to work hard. A big back, however, can elevate your physique altogether by making your waist appear smaller and your shoulders more broad.
When you find a workout regime that works for you, stick with it. There’s no need to perform the exact same sets and reps for years on end, but it’s a rare privilege to mesh well with your training. Synergy leads to sustainability in both the gym and the kitchen. Make your training work for you, and you’ll have a big back in no time.
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