The Ultimate Back Workout
Build a broader, stronger back

June 8, 2015

The secret to a bigger, stronger back: Quit thinking of it as one big slab of muscle. Unlike your chest, your back is made up of more than just one major muscle group—it has lots of them. In fact, this hard-to-see part of your upper body houses a complex system of muscles, from your lats to your rotator cuffs to your upper, middle, and lower traps, with each area performing a variety of functions. That’s why sculpting a V-shaped torso isn’t as simple as doing “back” exercises, such as chinups and lat pulldowns. What’s more, you probably need to play catch-up. After all, how many men spend as much time on their back muscles as they do on their pecs?

To help you broaden your shoulders, thicken your lats, and beef up your traps, I’ve identified five key back-building obstacles and their fixes. Apply them, and you’ll experience gains in size and strength like never before.

Too much chest work overtrains the muscles on your front, leaving your back undertrained. Turn your workout around with this plan.
Complete this upper-body workout twice a week, resting at least 3 days between sessions. Do the exercises in the order shown, using the heaviest weight that allows you to complete the prescribed number of reps. Perform exercises 1, 2, and 5 as straight sets, completing all sets of each exercise before moving on. Do exercises 3A and 3B, and exercises 4A and 4B, as alternating sets. That is, do 1 set of 3A (not shown), rest for 1 to 2 minutes, do 1 set of 3B, and rest again. Repeat until you’ve done all sets of both exercises. Use the same procedure for 4A (not shown) and 4B.

1. Exercise: Thoracic rotation
Sets: 2
Reps: 20
Rest (min.): 1

2. Exercise: Rack pull
Sets: 3
Reps: 6
Rest (min.): 2-4

3A. Exercise: Dumbbell bench press
Sets: 3
Reps: 8-10
Rest (min.): 1-2

3B. Exercise: Two-part dumbbell row
Sets: 3
Reps: 8-10
Rest (min.): 1-2

4A. Exercise: Alternating dumbbell shoulder press
Sets: 3
Reps: 8-10
Rest (min.): 1-2

4B. Exercise: Pullup hold
Sets: 3
Reps: 3-5
Rest (min.): 1-2

5. Exercise: Cable diagonal raise
Sets: 2
Reps: 10-12
Rest (min.): 1


Your Upper Back is Tight


When you spend a lot of time in one position—sitting at your desk, for example—the muscles of your upper back stiffen, which can lead to poor posture, weak shoulders, and neck and back pain.

Thoracic rotation: Kneel down, place your right hand behind your head, and point your elbow out to the side. Brace your core and rotate your right shoulder toward your left arm. Follow your elbow with your eyes as you reverse the movement until your right elbow points toward the ceiling. That’s 1 repetition. Do 20. After you’ve completed the prescribed number of reps, switch arms and repeat.

You Haven’t Mastered the Deadlift


If you allow your lower back to round when you deadlift—as most guys do—you place your lumbar spine in danger. Trouble is, many men are too weak to keep their lower back naturally arched—the key to safe lifting—as they lift the bar from the floor.

Rack pull: Set a barbell at knee level in a squat rack. Assume a shortstop stance—your hips back, knees slightly bent, and knees against the bar. Your lower back should be naturally arched. Now grab the bar overhand with your hands just outside your legs. Stand up by pushing your hips forward. Begin with no weight until the exercise feels natural, and then start adding weight. Once the exercise becomes easy from the rack, lift the barbell from the floor using the same form


Your Rows Miss the Boat


The row is a great exercise for your middle traps and rear shoulders, but only if you do it right. Many men lift with just their arm muscles instead of working their traps and rear delts.

Two-part dumbbell row: Grab a pair of dumbbells, bend at your hips and knees, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let the weights hang at arm’s length from your shoulders. First pull your shoulders back and hold that position. Then pull the weights to the sides of your torso by squeezing your shoulder blades toward your spine. Lower to the starting position and repeat.


You Have a Glaring Weak Spot


Most men have weak scapular muscles, which stabilize your shoulder blades and provide the foundation for every upper-body lift. If these muscles are weak, your ability to lift more weight on exercises such as the bench press will suffer.

Pullup hold: Hang from a pullup bar with an overhand grip, your hands at the exact width you use when you do a bench press. Pull your chest up to the bar and hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Once you can do more than 5 reps, add resistance with a weighted vest or a dumbbell between your feet, or do regular pullups.


Your Traps Are Top-Heavy


Shrugs build your upper trapezius muscle, making it too strong relative to the middle and lower sections. This can cause shoulder impingement, a painful condition in which the muscles and tendons in your rotator cuff become pinched by your shoulder joint.

Cable diagonal raise: Attach a handle to the low pulley of a cable station. Standing with your left side toward the pulley, grab the handle with your right hand in front of your left hip and bend your elbow slightly. Pull the handle up and across your body until your hand is over your head and your thumb is pointing up (a Statue of Liberty pose). Return to the starting position. Complete all reps and repeat with your left arm.