It’s hard to dispute that a big, thick, and wide back is impressive to look at, and if you’re looking for an aesthetic taper from your shoulders down to your waist then you’ll definitely be wanting a good set of lats. At the same time, though, you’re also going to want to make sure that your back is symmetrical and that each of the various muscles is well-developed.
Well, look no further, because this article has you covered. I’m going to give you 5 guaranteed ways to bulk up your back while maintaining symmetry and muscle balance.
1. Barbell rows
These beauties are the absolute king of building a huge, wide back. You don’t need any fancy equipment and you’ll be able to get some serious quality work for your lats.
To set up for a barbell row, start with the bar on the floor, place your mid-foot under the bar, reach down to grab the bar, and then set your back tight, ready to begin the movement. For the movement itself, think about pulling your elbows up and back as you squeeze your lats. Control the bar all the way back down to the starting position.
You’ll notice that the movement is completely controlled, with no momentum being used. This forces you to focus on using (and building) your lats rather than your ego.
2. Overhand pull-ups
Since your back is a pretty complex mix of muscles, I’ve always found it best to include both horizontal pulling movements (like the barbell row) and vertical pulling movements.
Without a doubt, the best bang-for-your-buck vertical pulling movement is the basic overhand pull-up. To perform this exercise, you’ll need to approach a pull-up bar and grab it with your palms facing away from you. Once you’ve got a good hold of the bar overhead, you need to pull yourself upwards, aiming to bring your chin above the bar.
When performed with a full range of motion, the overhand pull-up is a challenging exercise, and that’s before adding any weight. Throw a weighted vest or belt into the mix and suddenly you’ve got near-infinite possibilities!
I challenge you to find anyone who can perform 3 sets of 10 pull-ups with 20kg of weight added who doesn’t have an absolute beast of a back.
Top tip: If you’re not quite strong enough to do pull-ups yet, why not try negatives? This is a variation where you jump to the top of the pull-up position and try to control yourself down as slowly as possible. Use these for a few weeks to build up your strength for full pull-ups.
3. One-arm dumbbell rows
One-arm dumbbell rows are your assistance horizontal pulling movement. I’ve included them because they allow you to focus on each side of your back independently. This makes them a great way to keep your back symmetrical and prevent any imbalances.
To perform them, you’ll ideally need access to a flat bench. You’ll then rest one knee and one hand on the bench for support.
Make sure to keep the movements slow and controlled, and really try to feel the contraction of your working lat.
Top tip: If you already have a muscular imbalance, then always use your weaker side first and match your performance with your stronger side. So if you can only perform 8 reps on your weak side, make sure you only perform 8 reps on your strong side. This should allow your weaker side to slowly catch up without losing any size or strength on your stronger side.
4. Pull-downs (any variation)
This is your assistance vertical pulling movement and is performed using a lat pull-down machine, available in pretty much every gym. You’ll want to sit at the machine, tucking your legs underneath the support to keep them in place. Once you’re in place, grab the attachment above you and pull it down towards your chest before controlling it back to its starting position.
There are loads of variations and you can use any you like, including:
- overhand standard grip (palms forward, arms shoulder-width apart)
- overhand wide grip (palms forward, arms wider than shoulder-width apart)
- neutral grip (palms facing inwards to the side – requires a special handle)
- underhand grip (palms facing you)
Don’t worry too much about the alleged differences between these movements. A lot of bro-science bodybuilders tend to exaggerate differences, but they’re minuscule. The reality is that genetics plays a much bigger role in how your back responds. Instead, just find a movement you like and focus on training hard and putting in the work.
5. Back extensions
Back extensions are often overlooked in most people’s back workouts, probably because the lower back isn’t considered sexy! But if you want to stand out from the crowd with a fully developed, well-balanced back, then these are a great exercise choice.
This exercise is also really popular in weightlifting circles because it strengthens your back, helping to make you both stronger and safer when performing heavy squats and deadlifts.
Putting it all together
The back responds pretty well to most rep ranges, so feel free to experiment. I’ve found that going slightly heavier on the rows and pull-ups works great, as does going slightly lighter on the assistance movements. So this might be 6−8 reps on the barbell rows and pull ups, but 10−15 reps on the assistance movements.
From experience, I would say that most people tend to need between 14 and 22 sets per week in order to really grow their back. There’s no way to know exactly how many you’ll need because a lot depends on your training history, nutrition, sleep, and genetics. Because of this, I recommend starting at the lower end, with around 14 working sets per week, and building up your volume over time towards 22 sets per week.
Although you can have one big “back day” per week, I really do recommend splitting your back training into two days. I recommend this because by the end of a massive back workout, your lats will be tired and you’re much more likely to use poor form and excessive momentum. By splitting your work across two days, you can keep your form perfect and focus on working your lats as hard as possible.
Suggested training routine
Barbell rows: 3−5 sets of 6−8 reps
One-arm dumbell rows: 3−5 sets (per side) of 10−15 reps
Pull-ups: 3−5 sets of 6−8 reps
Pull-downs: 3−5 sets of 10−15 reps
Back extensions: 2−4 sets of 8−12 reps
Time to start bulking up that back
That’s your back training taken care of. With these five exercises in this order, you can build a massive, well-balanced back without wasting your time and energy on dozens of unnecessary exercises.
Don’t forget, though, training on its own won’t build muscle; you still need to make sure you’re eating enough calories and getting enough high-quality protein.
So get to the gym, then get to the kitchen!
Have you tried my advice yet? Let me know in the comments.