The Best Back Workout for Density and Width

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated May 5, 2018

For a lot of guys who work out, the back is an afterthought. Because they can’t see it, they tend to forget about it and put all of their training energy into the ‘showy’ chest and biceps muscles. Yet there is nothing that conveys raw power and Herculean manliness like a thickly muscled upper back that tapers down to the waist in a perfect ‘V’ shape.

In this article, we reveal the workout that will get you to that ideal back in the fastest, most productive manner possible.

Your Back Attack Mindset

The fact that you cannot see the muscle that you are working requires that your back training needs to develop a greater mind muscle connection than when working any other body-part. You need to know exactly what part of the back each exercise is hitting (you’ll find out in the next section) and focus exclusively on contracting and extending that portion when doing the movement.

It is also vital that you do not allow momentum to come into play on your back movements. It’s all about isolating the working muscle group.

The Complete Back Attack

Before we get into the specifics of working the different parts of your back, let’s get started with our foundational mass and strength builders.

The deadlift is your essential mass attack weapon for the back. It will add thickness to you lats, traps and rhomboids like nothing else. We will, therefore, begin our workout with three heavy sets of deadlifts.

There is a lot more to the back than just the latissimus dorsi or ‘lats.’ However the lats form the largest part of the back musculature. They feed up and around from the thoracic lumbar fascia in the middle of your back toward your armpits.

The best way to train the lats is to pull your arms down and to your sides. The exercises that best achieve this movement are pull ups and lat pulldowns. We will be doing lat pulldowns because they allow you to use more weight than your bodyweight allows. When doing the lat pulldown, using an underhand close grip allows for a greater stretch through the lats.

The trapezius is a large muscle group which runs from the base of your neck and fan out to the shoulders and then back to the spine midway down your back. To build mass in the traps we will do the shrug movement. A great follow up move which works in the direction of the muscle fibers, which are angled from the neck to the shoulders, is the straight arm cable shrug.

The teres major is a small muscle group that sits above the lats. To hit this muscle area you need to do a set or two of your lat pulldowns with an overhand neutral grip where your hands are slightly inside of your shoulder width.

The rotator cuff muscles full in the space above your scapula. To work the rotator cuff, you need to externally rotate your arm. To target this area, we will do the ‘W’ raise with dumbbells.

The Rhomboids are located beneath the traps and ran up on an angle toward the neck. They attach the shoulder to the spine. We will hit the rhomboids with the seated rowing exercise.

In your lower back, you have muscles that run up and down the spine and act like stabilizers. We will complete our workout with hyperextensions.

The Workout

Deadlift

The deadlift is the single greatest exercise you can do to elicit muscular growth through your upper body. Specifically, it will add density to your back and thicken and strengthen the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. This is also a great exercise for the buttocks and hamstrings.

Place a loaded barbell in front of you and stand with your feet under the bar at the midfoot level. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. Bend down to grasp the bar with an overhand grip at shoulder width.

Initiate the lift by pushing your legs into the floor. In fact, you should think of the first part of the movement as a leg press where you are trying to push your feet into the ground. This will allow you to bring the bar up to the level of your knees. From here hinge your hips forward to get up to a standing position.

Keep your arms straight until you are fully erect and the bar is resting against your mid thighs. Lower the bar smoothly, bending at the waist and knees to return the bar to the floor before moving directly into the next rep. Look slightly up during the movement and do not round your back at any time.

Perform a warmup of 12 reps and then load to a weight where you will struggle with 3 sets of 6-8 reps.

Barbell Row

Set a bar inside a power rack so that it is sitting a little bit below the level of  your knees. Bend at the knees and hips so that your torso is at approximately at a 45 degree angle. Grab the bar with an overhand grip just outside your knee width. Keeping your elbows tucked in at the side, pull up to bring your elbows as far behind you as you can. The bar should come up to just below your sternum. Fully contract the lats in the top position and the lower slowly to full extension.

Do 3 sets of 8 on this exercise with a weight that challenges you on the last few reps of each set.

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown will widen your upper lats  and put you well on your way to developing an incredible V shape. It also allows you to utilize more weight than your bodyweight can provide when you do pull ups.

To begin take a close, underhand grip on the bar. Sit on the seat with your knees hooked under the support. Your arms should be stretched fully above your head and you should feel the pull in both your lats and your shoulder blades.

Pull the bar down, concentrating on bringing your elbows back and down as far as possible. Concentrate on making the upper back do the work. Do not lean backward to involve the lower back. Hold the contracted position for a second before slowly returning to the fully extended position.

You will perform two sets with the close, underhand grip. On the  third set, switch to a neutral overhand grip that allows you to target the teres major muscles.

Do 3 sets of 8 with your maximum weight for good form.

Barbell Shrug

This exercise directly involves the trapezius muscles of your upper back, as well as your entire shoulder structure. The combined muscular effect will allow you to lift some heavy weight. You should perform this exercise inside a power rack for total safety and confidence.

To begin the movement, place the safety bars of the power rack in a motion that allows the bar to rest two to four inches below your hands when you are standing up straight within the rack. Take an overhand grip on a barbell and stand erect as you pull the weight up off the pins. Your hands shudder be slightly beyond shoulder width.

Once you are standing upright, begin to shrug your shoulders upward as quickly as possible with no pause at either the top or the bottom of the movement. Think of getting shoulders up to your ears and then rotate them backwards as you go down.

Perform 2 sets of shrugs with a heavy weight for 10 reps per set.

Straight Arm Cable Shrug

Stand side on to a low cable pully machine and grab the handle. Keeping your arm straight, shrug the shoulder up and back to compress the scapula and pinch the shoulder blades together. Hold for a second and then return to the start position.

Perform 2 sets of 12 reps on each arm for this exercise.

Dumbbell ‘W’ Raise

Grab a light pair of dumbbells and bend your knees and hips so that your torso is at a 30-degree angle to the floor. Hold the dumbbells in front of your body with your elbows slightly bent. Now lift from the shoulder joint as if you were doing a rear delt raise. However, in this move you are rotating the arms backwards. Think about bringing your thumbs back behind your shoulders.

Do 2 sets of 12 reps on this exercise.

Seated Row

Sit in front of a low cable pulley machine and grab the handles. You want your legs to be slightly bent and locked in that position. This should put you in a bent forward position as you hold onto the cable. Maintaining a neutral back position, pull the handles in toward your stomach. Keep your chest out and shoulder blades back, never allowing your lower back to arch. Try to bring your elbows back as far as you can.

Perform this exercise in a smooth, rhythmic motion and do 3 sets of 12/10/8 reps, increasing the weight on each succeeding set.

Hyperextensions

Position yourself on a hyperextension machine with your hands behind your back. Lower your torso to the floor and then return to a horizontal position. Hold for a count of two, feeling the tension in your lower back and then repeat.

Do 3 sets of 12 reps on this exercise.

Workout Summary

Deadlift – 3 x 6-8

Barbell Row – 3 x 8

Shrug – 2 x 10

Straight Arm Cable Shrug – 2 x 12

Dumbbell ‘W’ Raise – 2 x 12

Seated Row – 3 x 12/10/8

Hyperextensions – 3 x 12

Perform this back workout as part of a 3-day split routine, paired with the biceps. On the other two days, work your legs/shoulders and chest/triceps. The 4th day should be a rest day. Then repeat the 3-day cycle. Follow this program for 12 weeks and you will make unprecedented gains in terms of back strength, width and size.

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