The back has gotta be one of the most aesthetic and — when developed — impressive looking groups of muscles there is. If you’re like me and you want to widen those pesky lats to Icarus levels, or really bring those tectonic plate-like striations to the surface, or simply get stronger, then we have the exercises for you. I won’t go into the unnecessary details, but form and consistency are your best friends.
Just remember though: these exercises have to be done alongside a good diet and sleeping regimen. “Train like a beast, eat like a king, and sleep like a baby.” You won’t gain mass if you don’t eat a surplus of calories, or rest appropriately.
1. The Pull-up
The pull-up is one of the toughest but most effective exercises you can do for your back overall. If done two times a week, you’re bound to get those lat wings you always wanted. The problem for most people, including myself, is that they can’t seem to do a single pull-up to begin with. Which is okay. It’s about slowly improvements, and as long as you stay consistent, you’ll hit your goals eventually.
If you go to a gym, try find an assisted pull-up machine. This is the best way to strengthen your back and prepare it for eventually doing unassisted pull-ups. It’s not an easy ride, but it’s worth it. If you don’t have access to one of these machines, then you can do other exercises to strengthen your back, or you can try some alternative pull-ups, such as inverted rows. Make sure you keep a wide grip to engage your back more, and try focus on your lats every time you pull — one of the best ways to do this is to keep your shoulders down as you go up.
Try hitting a minimum of 4 sets of 10-12 reps. You also want to make sure you’re utilising Progressive Overload — so each set you have to increase the difficulty, even only slightly, by either doing more reps, resting less (aka increasing density), or increasing the amount you have to lift.
2. The Deadlift
Deadlifts are the second most difficult compound movement (the first being squats) ever. The difficulty is literally in the name. Deadlifts are absolutely imperative for building a bigger and stronger back, and with proper form, that’s exactly what you’ll do. The best thing about deadlifts is that they use pretty much all of your muscles aside from your chest, so you’re working much more than your back. That’s a double-edged sword though, because the next day you’re going to be wrecked, so choose your deadlift days appropriately.
Unlike with pull-ups, you can do deadlifts on pretty much any weight, but just remember Progressive Overload. Technique is the most important part of this, so do your research, and make sure you maintain that spine neutral, chest out, lats flared, core engaged, then lift.
Again, try 4 sets of 8-12 to start off with, increasing weight, reps, or density over time.
3. The Seated Cable Row
Personally, I find it difficult to get that mind-muscle connection when I’m doing barbell or dumbbell rows. The constant gravity you have to pull against, whilst epitomising what makes free weights so great, makes controlling my lift a little tougher. I still do traditional rows, but lately I’ve been trying out cable rows and they’ve helped me fully engage my lats.
Cable rows, like every exercise really, is about form. I personally don’t think you should be letting the cable go all the way to the start and then heaving it back like you would on a rowing machine. The most effective method I’ve found is controlled pulls, where you retract your scapular on the concentric phase of the exercise. Keep your back straight and your eyes forward. You can even try doing one-arm rows to focus each lat individually.
Again, if you’re a beginner then go for 4 sets of 8-12 reps with Progressive Overload. Once you get comfortable with it, then you’ll need to increase the stress (weight/reps/density/speed/time under tension) to keep the effectiveness of the exercise.
4. The Lat Pulldown
This exercise is another handy alternative and introduction to pull-ups, and therefore a surefire way to get that V shaped back. The best thing about them is that there’s a wide variety of techniques you can employ to do this exercise, which not only utilise different parts of your back, but can add some enjoyment to the workout (that’s the main reason for variation, not the 4 week shuffle myth). You can use a standard lat pulldown machine with a wide grip bar (which you can pull down to your chest or behind your neck), or try one-arm pulldowns with cables using different grips.
You can change it up a lot, but just keep your form in check at all times. Engaging those lats — mentally focusing on working them and using the correct technique for each movement — is crucial to getting them bigger.
4 sets of 8-12 reps should get you started, but you’ll want to increase the intensity in one way or another every time.
5. T-bar rows
While I find it tough to engage my lats properly on these, I still recommend them as the best exercises for your back as a whole. When your form is on point, you can feel it hitting all aspects of your back. The only downside to this exercise is that you can’t just walk over to a barbell and do it. You need a specific area/equipment to do this exercise properly. Most gyms will have them though. It’s possible to improvise with an ordinary barbell, but it just never feels right when I do.
Like with most exercises, a straight back is paramount for safety and proper muscle activation.
As usual, try out 4 sets of 8-12 reps with Progressive Overload. Don’t jump the gun though, this exercise gets tiring really fast.
There are some we’ve missed out, but so long as you incorporate these 5 exercises into your weekly or biweekly back workouts, then you’re bound to see some explosive results (so long as you eat and rest properly too).