How To Build Your Back: A Short Guide

Whether you’re looking to have either a monstrously large back or just a moderately defined back, the methods are largely the same when it comes to training. If you want a bigger back, you’ll want to opt for volume over strength when it comes to progressing. If you just want a defined, muscular back but aren’t seriously concerned with getting larger, you can spend most your time just focusing on getting stronger. Either way, you’ll use much of the same exercises outlined here. First off, what muscles are we particularly concerned with when building our back?

Muscles Involved:

  • Rhomboids
  • Rear Delts
  • Teres Major / Minor
  • Traps
  • Lats
  • Spinal Erectors

We can make some general groupings of how these muscles fit together:

  • Rhomboids, Traps, and Rear Delts
  • Lats and Teres muscles
  • Spinal Erectors


Horizontal Pulling

Main Muscles: Rhomboids and Traps
Secondary Muscles: Rear Delts and Lats

  • Barbell Row
  • Seated Cable Row
  • Chest Supported Row
  • Rear Delt Flies
  • Face Pulls

Vertical Pulling

Main Muscles: Lats, Teres Major/Minor
Secondary Muscles: Rhomboids, Traps, Rear Delts

  • Lat Pulldown
  • Pull Up
  • Chin Up
  • Shrugs
  • Upright Row
  • Side Delt Raise

Low Back

  • Good Mornings
  • Back Extensions

Total Back

Main Muscles: Glutes, Hamstrings
Secondary Muscles: Quads, Spinal Erectors, Traps, Lats, Rhomboids

  • Deadlift
  • Deficit Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift


How often should you train your back?

The unfortunate answer is: there’s no definite answer. There are, however, guidelines based on how long you have been training hard. If you’ve been in the gym for 3 years but haven’t seen noticeable results, consider yourself new to the gym.

Realistically, you can get away with training your back one day per week as a beginner. As time goes on, you will likely benefit from adding a bit more frequency. Training once per week entails training every major muscle group in your back with a primary lift for 2-4 sets. An example of this would be:

Sample Back Day
Deadlift – 3×8
Barbell Row – 3×10
Lat Pulldown – 3×12
Upright Row – 3×12
Back Extensions – 3×20

While you could do this all in a single day, you would likely get better results by spreading out all of this volume throughout this week. The reason for this is that your back will simply get tired throughout the workout, thus reducing the quality of each subsequent exercise. You may benefit from doing Deadlifts one day, Barbell Rows and Back Extensions on another, and Lat Pulldowns and Upright Rows on another. This way your back is fresh each time you train it, and you can focus on providing quality work for your muscles.

The further down your lifting career you get, the more you can start to add sets and frequency. When it comes to just getting more muscular, there’s one simple rule you can pretty much live by: if it isn’t sore, you’re safe to train the muscle. You don’t need to add any fancy back work. You likely just need more of it, and you need to spread it out to make sure you’re getting quality work throughout the week, rather than just trying to fit 20+ sets of back work into a single day.

Another way you could tailor your training is by assigning certain days to certain types of pulling movements.

Day 1: Horizontal Pulling
Barbell Row – 2-4 x 10
Face Pulls – 2-4 x 15
Rear Delt Flies – 2-4 x 15

Day 2: Vertical Pulling
Shrugs – 2-4 x 15
Lat Pulldown – 2-4 x 12
Upright Row – 2-4 x 12

Day 3: Full Back
Deadlift – 2-4 x 8
Barbell Rows – 2-4 x 10
Lat Pulldown – 2-4 x 12
Back Extensions – 2-4 x 20

If you start at the lower end of sets for this and work your way up throughout the weeks, you can set yourself up for months of volume progression. Each day will be challenging, but not stupid. Progress is often able to be boiled down to smart planning. If you can plan out both your days and weeks to come, chances are you will see results.

Curious about how to make sure you’re training hard enough? Check out my posts about the necessity of training close to failure here and my post about properly implementing RIR/RPE here.

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