Muscle Building Exercises for The Back

muscle anatomy chart

The below muscle building exercises will build strong, wide and thick back muscles. In order to an build an impressive and massive back, you'll have to understand the back muscles, their function and how they work.

Your back is composed of three muscles, the latissimus dorsi (lats), the trapezius (traps) and the spinal erectors.

The latissimus dorsi are large triangular muscles that extend from underneath the shoulders down to the lower part of the back on both sides. The latissimus dorsi are the largest muscles of the back and upper body. The basic function of the latissimus dorsi is to pull the shoulders downward and back.

The trapezius muscle is the triangular, flat muscle that extends out and down from your neck down to the shoulder blades.

The trapezious muscle ties into your shoulder muscles.

Your spinal erectors are several smaller muscles in the lower back that help to keep your spine erect and guard the nerve channels. The spinal erectors take the longest to recover from an intense back workout.

Exercises for The Upper Back

In order to develop the muscles of the upper back, your back workouts should consist of plenty of rowing movements.

All rowing exercises will involve both the trapezious and latisimuss dorsi muscles. For a truly impressive back, you also need to develop back width as well as back thickness.

Developing a wide back requires doing pull-down and pull up movements to widen the lat muscles.

Muscle Building Exercises - Bent-Over Barbell Rows

The bent over barbell row is a free-weight compound muscle building exercise. When done properly, bent-over barbell rows will thicken the entire upper back and widen the lats. Bent-over barbell rows will also work your lower back to a lesser degree.

Bent-over barbell rows are done by standing with your feet flat on the floor and approximately 8 to 10 inches apart. You should hold the bar with a wide, overhand grip. Bend your knees slightly and bend your upper body forwards until it's about parallel to the floor.

Be sure to keep your back straight and slightly arched and your head pointing slightly up. Let the bar hang down at arms length in front of you. Focus on using primarily your back while lifting the bar until it touches your upper abdominal muscles. Lower the bar slowly and under control back to the starting position and then immediately start on your next rep.

As with all back exercises and rowing movements, it's important that you make your back muscles do most of the work and not your biceps. I highly recommend that you use a thumb-less or "hook" grip where your thumbs are not gripping the bar. This will make your biceps do less work and will help you get a better contraction of the upper back.

In order to fully stress the lat and trapezious muscles, do not bring the bar up to your chest as doing so will involve more of the biceps.

Muscle Building Exercises - Bent-Over Barbell Rows Variations

You can also do barbell rows on a smith machine. The execution is the same as the free-weight version except that you're using a smith machine bar. Just like free-weight barbell rows, be sure that you are focusing on pulling with your back muscles to minimize biceps involvement.

Muscle Building Exercises - Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Just like bent over barbell rows, bent-over dumbbell rows will develop your lat muscles, trapezious and to a lesser extent, your lower back erector muscles.

Dumbbell rows allow you to work each side of the back independently, thus helping to balance out any muscle strength imbalances that you might have in your upper back.

You can do dumbbell rows simultaneously or only using one arm at a time.

To properly perform dumbbell rows, start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your knees slightly bent. Bend your upper body forwards while keeping your head slightly up and your back straight and slightly arched. Let the dumbbells hang down at arms length in front of you below your shoulders.

Lift both dumbbells up at the same time as far as possible to your sides while holding your upper body steady to avoid involving the lower back. In order to keep biceps involvement to a minimum, the weights should come up to your sides and not your chest.

It's extremely important that you NEVER round your lower back while doing any type of rowing movement. Not only will rounding your back cause serious injury to your lower back, but doing so will also take stress off of your lats and traps.

Muscle Building Exercises - T-Bar Rows

T-bar rows will add thickness to your upper and middle back when done properly. If your gym does not have a t-bar machine, simply take a barbell and secure it into a corner to keep it from moving. Find a v-bar handle that's used for close-grip pull-downs and place it on the bottom of the barbell.

Stand on the floor with your feet approximately 8 to 10 inches apart and your knees slightly bent. Bend over and grab the handles of the t-bar with an overhand grip. Slightly straighten your legs and lift your upper body until its at a 45-degree angle to the floor.

While remaining in this 45-degree bent over position, lift the bar up until the plates touch your chest. Lower the bar slowly until it's back down at the starting position, while making sure that the weight does not touch the floor.

Keep your lower back straight throughout the entire movement to avoid injury. By using a narrow grip, you won't be able to bring the weights up to a full range of motion, thus you'll be mostly working the outer lat muscles.

Muscle Building Exercises - One Arm Cable Rows

One arm cable rows will develop your lower lat muscles and will help tying the lower back into the lats.

Proper execution involves taking a cable pulley in one hand while resting your other hand on your hip or a stationary object. Start with your arm fully extended in front of you while bending your upper body until it's almost parallel to the floor.

Pull the cable handle back to your side as far as possible and feel your lats contract. Extend your arm back to the starting position. After you have completed repetitions with one arm, immediately switch and start with the next arm.

Cables can be very effective back builders because they offer a greater range of motion and a greater stretch in the lat muscles.

Muscle Building Exercises - Seated Cable Rows

Seated cable rows will work the lower lat muscles and develop thickness in the entire back area.

Proper execution of the seated cable row involves gripping the handles of a cable pulley. Then, sitting down with your feet up against the platform and your knees slightly bent. Make sure that you are sitting far enough away on the bench so that the weights don't touch at the bottom of the movement.

Pull the handles back toward your body while keeping your back flat and feeling your back muscles doing the pulling instead of your biceps. Do not sway forwards and backwards too much as this will involve the lower back muscles.

Muscle Building Exercises - Machine Rows

Many gyms and fitness centers are equipped with a wide variety of specialized rowing machines. It's important to know that each machine will work your back muscles differently. As with all back exercises, make sure that you focus on pulling the weights with your back.

Muscle Building Exercises - Pull-Downs

Pull-Downs are very effective at widening the upper lat muscles. Pull downs are somewhat easier to perform than pull-ups because can use less weight than your total body weight.

To properly execute pull-downs, hold on to a long bar that's attached to a seated pull-down machine. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip and sit on the seat with your knees firmly under the support pads. Pull the bar down in a slow and controlled manner until it touches your upper chest. Let the bar slowly extend back up to the starting position and feel your lats stretch.

Always keep a slight arch in your lower back in order to fully stress the lat muscles. As with all back exercises, focus on making your back muscles do most of the work instead of your biceps.

Muscle Building Exercises - Pull-Ups (Chins)

Pull-ups will widen your upper back and lats when done properly. Pull-ups, also known as chin-ups are an excellent back exercise that will expand your lats and build upper body strength.

To properly perform pull-ups, hold on to a pull up or chinning bar with an overhand grip with your hands wider than shoulder width apart. Hang down from the bar at arms length and then pull yourself up until your upper chest almost touches the bar.

Hold the top position for a second before lowering yourself down to the starting position. Never swing your torso or your legs back and forth as this will take the tension off of your lats. Focus on making the lats do the work to minimize biceps involvement.

Exercises for The Lower Back

Like I've mentioned earlier, all upper back rowing movements will involve the lower back muscles to some extent. However, to build a muscular and strong lower back, you must do specific exercises that isolate the spinal erector muscles.

Muscle Building Exercises - Barbell Deadlifts

Deadlifts can be done with both dumbbells and barbells. Barbells allow you to use more weight than dumbbells and are therefore a superior strength and mass builder.

Deadlifts will effectively work the lower back, the lats, the trapezious muscles and the glutes and legs.

Proper execution of the barbell deadlift involves holding on to a barbell with an overhand-medium wide grip in front of you.

Bend your knees and and lean forward while keeping your lower back flat and slightly arched. You MUST keep your entire back straight during the entire movement to avoid injury to the lower back. NEVER hunch your back.

Start by lifting the weight up while focusing on driving with your legs. At the top, straighten your legs until you are standing upright and stick your chest out and shoulders back. Lower the barbell back to the starting position by bending at the knees and leaning forwards at the waist.

Be sure that the weights touch the floor before you begin your next rep.

Muscle Building Exercises - Good Mornings

When properly done, good mornings will isolate the lower back erector muscles.

Start by holding a barbell with across your back on top of your shoulders (same as for squats). Keep your feet shoulder width apart and your legs locked out. Making sure that your back is straight, bend forwards while keeping your head up until your torso is about parallel to the floor. Hold the bottom position for a brief second an come back up to the starting position.

Muscle Building Exercises - Hyperextensions

Hyperextensions develop the spinal erector muscles of the lower back.

Start by positioning yourself face-down across a hyperextension bench, with your heels firmly under the rear pad supports.

Either cross your hands on your chest in front of you or put then behind your back. Bend forward as far down as possible while feeling your lower back muscles stretch. Come back up from the bottom position until your torso is slightly above parallel to the floor. DO NOT lift yourself up any further than parallel to prevent injuring your spine.

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