I’ve always loved training back, and figure it’s high-time I share some fundamental exercises for anyone who wants to ramp up their back gains. This article is also for those who have either neglected their back development and are finally ready to get serious about creating their masterpiece. 

By the end of this article, you will have a new workout to add to your arsenal so you can build an aesthetically pleasing back, with defined traps and rhomboids, sleek lines for that taper, and clear distinctions at your latissimus attachments. 

Importance of Back Day

Aside from the obvious reasons like that whole thing called postural integrity, building a well-developed back is essential for having a physique that demands attention. 

There are those that neglect any pull muscles — like hamstrings, back collection, and rear delts — and I refer to them as “basic”. That’s actually not the word I use, because I’m not cool enough to use trending tweet vernacular, but the other adjectives I’d use to describe those with offensive proportions would reveal my authentic self, and I’ve been told I need to stop doing that on company pages. So, I’ll leave it at this: if you have the sort of muscle development that draws attention to your inattentiveness (or negligence), you need to read this article. And change your wretched ways.

For the record, that little rant was targeted at those who should know better. If you’re just starting out, I applaud your seeking of knowledge. By the end of this article, you’ll be fully equipped to chisel away at one of the cardinal muscle groups for creating a lust-inspiring silhouette. 

At the very end of the article, you can find the routine with sets, reps, and rest times. Read this article on its own, or watch the video as well (or don’t read and just watch the video, whatever). 

For my fellow nerds who actually read things as opposed to just watching videos, you get a little bonus — because I play favorites. In this workout there will be modifications for each exercise. In the video, the only modifications are ways to make the exercise easier (boring). In the article, however, I will provide modifications to add intensity to the workout. They are, of course, categorized as difficulty modes — like in a video game, naturally.

Cardio Row Machine 

This is simply to warm up. You don’t need to go crazy with high intensity interval training or anything. In fact, I suggest you don’t. The idea is to get your pulling muscles warmed up, get blood flowing, and slightly elevate your heart rate. 

8-12 minutes at moderate intensity.

Bent over barbell rows

  • Primary muscles targeted: lats, rhomboids, middle and lower traps
  • Secondary muscles targeted: biceps, core stabilization, erector spinae, rear delts, forearms

If you’re not doing bent over barbell rows in your back day workouts, you have zero excuse next time you wonder why your back isn’t growing. Obviously if you have previous injuries, that’s a good reason to avoid this staple exercise, but if you’re healthy, these need to be incorporated into your back routine.

They are an extremely effective way to build back thickness, and depending on grip, can have a seriously awesome impact on your biceps development. If you are watching the video along with reading this article, you will notice that I am not performing the rows with my body parallel to the floor. That is by design. You are more than welcome to try that variation, but I prefer a little more of an angle, because my traps are naturally small and in order to cope with that insecurity, I frequently try to adjust angles to prioritize them. Also, Dorian Yates performed his at a higher angle, so…

Note to females: Just because I referenced Dorian Yates does not mean that performing bent over barbell rows will make your back freakish like his. If anything, hitting rows will amplify your back sexiness — believe it or not, there’s more to an aesthetic physique than the peach. 

Steps:

  1. Check your ego at the door. I’m looking at you guys. 
  2. Grip the barbell at about shoulder width. You can use an underhand or an overhand grip, but I prefer underhand (because I like a controlled overload weight with biceps)
  3. Lift the barbell off the rack, step back to clearance. Feet should be about shoulder width apart. In this starting position, pull your elbows back so that they’re behind you and contract. This will help you get a better mind-muscle connection during the exercise.
  4. Keeping your core tight, push your hips back as if you were about to perform a stiff leg deadlift, and allow for a slight bend at your knees. You want to be far forward enough that the barbell has a free travel, unhindered by your thighs.
  5. Slowly lower the barbell until it’s just below your knees. Without rocking, and keeping your back stable, powerfully row the barbell to your navel. Hold the contraction. Repeat for desired reps.
  • Modification (easy mode): Bodyweight Rows — from barbell: 
  • Modification (hard mode): SuperSet
    • Bent over barbell rows
    • Bodyweight rows — from barbell
  • Modification (nightmare mode): Giant Set
    • Bent over barbell rows
    • Barbell shrugs
    • Bodyweight rows — from barbell

Standing barbell (ab) roll-out

  • Primary muscles targeted: Abs, back
  • Secondary muscles targeted: shoulders, triceps

Yes, this exercise is frequently used to improve core strength, and it’s definitely a great way to build solid abdominal muscles. It’s equally as propitious for the back, though. In other words, standing barbell roll-outs doubly help you create a nice tapered aesthetic.

This stellar exercise is a great way to help build the width of the lats, giving you that king (or queen) cobra aesthetic, and creating an impressive sweep of the lower lats. These are especially for those of you who, like me, tend to develop back thickness before width, as this heavily isolates the lats. 

Note to guys: If you’re feeling glum about not getting to flex your ego during the barbell rows, you’re in luck. Performing these from your feet is challenging, and even if they aren’t, they look unique and challenging, so if your crush is close proximitying you, get to it. Then, you know, wipe the sweat off your forehead using your shirt — while flexing, of course. Sure, they know what you’re doing, but so long as you own it without grunting or being too douchey, it might work in your favor. (Hey, cheesy or not, played a role in catching my partner’s attention.)

Steps:

  1. From a standing position bend over and grab an Olympic barbell with 45-pound plates on each side, as you would when you are about to lift the bar off the ground. This is your starting position.
  2. Keeping your back arched slightly, exhale and quickly inhale while rolling the barbell out as far as you can until your arms are fully extended, you are on your toes and the front of your body is flat, almost touching the floor.
  3. Once fully extended, lead back to the starting position by sort of crunching and pulling your elbows in toward the clavicle. This slight bend in the elbow is one of the biggest tweaks to more effectively target the lats. Slowly come up as your pull.
  4. Repeat for desired reps
  • Modification (easy mode): Kneeling barbell roll-out
  • Modification (hard mode): Super Set
    • Standing Barbell Roll-Out
    • Kneeling Barbell Roll-Out
  • Modification (nightmare mode): Tri-set
    • Cable Straight Arm Pulldowns
    • Standing Barbell Roll-Out
    • Kneeling Barbell Roll-Out

Wide Grip Pull-Ups

  • Primary muscles targeted: Lats, rhomboids, traps
  • Secondary muscles targeted: biceps, forearms, 

A lot of people like gauging strength by bench, deads, and squats. That, to me, is just silly. Don’t get me wrong, deads and squats have a lot of practical applications, and bench…sort of does. But, if you ever find yourself being chased by a mythical beast, and come to a dead end, where all that stands between freedom and getting maimed is a wall (just high enough that you could jump to get your hands on), you’re going to feel really silly about all that time you spent performing pec dances in between bench sets. 

Honestly, if you must be convinced why to include pull-ups in your workout regimen, then I almost don’t even see a point in trying. I get it, they’re hard. It’s why so few people do them. I avoided them for a long time in my younger years, because it was so disheartening. Unless I started kipping, I couldn’t get over eight reps back then, and since the only form of cheating I support is one that provides me infinite rare candies and master balls, I refused (and still do) to abandon my dignity. 

So, instead, I forced myself into finding mental hacks to get myself amped up for performing them. Did them multiple times a week, even if it was only three sets on other muscle group days (except legs, because recovery, duh). I added 90 pounds using dip belts somedays, jumping to the top of the rep, then lowering myself for a count of ten seconds. Implemented Arnold’s training method of shooting for an overall pull-up rep count instead of going by sets, and even employed some techniques I learned from a military buddy. 

But this isn’t my struggles with pull-ups, it’s about giving you a killer back workout. So, yeah…anyway…

Steps:

  1. Leap up and grip the bar with your hands shoulder width apart (or a little wider) and your palms facing away from you. Hang with your arms fully extended, you can bend your legs at the knee if they’re dragging on the ground.
  2. Keep your shoulders back and your core engaged throughout. Then pull up. Focus on enlisting every upper body muscle to aid your upward endeavours. Don’t enlist your legs, or momentum. We’re focusing on building muscle here. No offense crossfitters.
  3. Move slowly upward until your chin is above the bar, then equally slowly downward until your arms are extended again. 
  4. Note: To perform a “proper” pull-up, you have to use full ROM. I’ve never been a fan of propriety though. I care about efficacy. When it comes to really developing the back, experiment with your range of motion. You don’t want to do half reps obviously, but if you lose tension on the lats when fully extended, then don’t fully extend.
  • Modification (easy mode): Assisted Pull-Ups or Cable lat pulldown
  • Modification (hard mode): Drop set
    • Heavy negatives overhand grip
    • Underhand grip pull-ups 
  • Modification (nightmare mode): Drop set/superset
    • Heavy-ass negatives — added weight
    • Bodyweight Pull-Ups
    • Cable Lat Pulldown

Single Arm Dumbbell Row (Drop Set)

  • Primary muscles targeted: lats, traps, rhomboid
  • Secondary muscles targeted: biceps, forearms, rear delts, core

Dumb bell rows are paramount for building an awe-striking back. Performing unilateral dumbbell rows allows for greater focus on symmetry, especially if one side of your body tends to “connect” better than the other. They require stability, since you must counterbalance the weight held in one hand.

Adding in the drop set makes them exponentially more effective, since you’re taking the muscles to failure, and then beyond. Adding intensity into workouts is a tried and true way to shock your back into new growth.

Steps:

  1. To set up, grab a bench or a sturdy thigh-high platform to lean on when doing the exercise. Ideally, the bench will have a space between its underside and the floor that’s high enough for you to roll your dumbbells from one side to the other. 
  2. Now that you have your bench, grab three dumbbells of different weight. Each drop should be about 10-20% lighter than the weight you were previously lifting, so select your dumbbells accordingly. For example, I used 90lbs, 75lbs, and 55lbs (the 60 was taken). To make things quicker, I place the dumbbells on one side, in a row of descending order.
  3. Put your left leg on the bench and grab the far side with your left hand, then bend over so your upper body is parallel with the ground. Reach down and pick up the heaviest dumbbell in your right hand with a neutral grip (palm facing you), then hold it with your arm extended, keeping your back straight.
  4. Bring the dumbbell up to your sternum, concentrating on lifting it with your back and shoulder muscles rather than your arms. Keep your chest still as you lift. At the top of the movement, contract. 
  5. Lower the dumbbell slowly until your arm is fully extended again.
  6. Do all your reps on one arm before switching to the other side, then roll the dumbbell under the bench and rep out on your left side.
  7. Upon getting in your desired reps (to failure), set the heaviest dumbbell down, and roll it out of the way. Without resting, switch back to your right side, grab the next dumbbell and repeat the exercise on both arms. 
  8. Then, without resting, repeat the exercise with the lowest weight in your dumbbell stack. That’s one set.
  • Modification (easy mode): No drop set…if you’re scared.
  • Modification (hard mode): Add an extra drop to the set
  • Modification (nightmare mode): Super set to Drop set
    • Single Arm heavy (cheat) reverse fly
    • Single Arm Dumbbell Row drop set

Putting it all together:

The following few sections are simply an overview of how the above workout routine would look, so you can screenshot it and use it effectively during your next back day. I’ve included each modification as well.

Note: if two exercises are within the same “cell” of the table, that means they are to be performed in a super set fashion.

Back Workout: Easy Mode

ExerciseSets & RepsRest time
Cardio Row machine8-12 minutesN/A
Bodyweight row — from barbell4 x 8-2045-60 seconds
Kneeling barbell rollout4 x 8-2045-60 seconds
Assisted pull-ups (or cable lat pulldown)4 x 8-1245-60 seconds
Single Arm dumbbell row4 x 8-1245-60 seconds

Back Workout: Normal mode

ExerciseSets & RepsRest time
Cardio row machine8-12 minutesN/A
Bent Over Barbell Rows1-2 x 8-12 (warm-up sets)
4 x 6-8 (working sets)
90-120 seconds 
Standing Barbell Roll Outs4 x 8-20 (AMRAP)45-90 seconds
Wide-Grip Pull-Ups4 x 8-20 (AMRAP)45-90 seconds
Single Arm Dumbbell Row4 x 6-12 (3 drops per set)2-3 minutes

Back Workout: Hard mode

ExerciseSets & RepsRest time
Cardio row machine8-12 minutesN/A
Bent over barbell rows
Bodyweight rows
4 x 8-12 reps
4 x AMRAP
90-120 seconds
Standing rollout
Kneeling rollout
4 x AMRAP
4 x AMRAP
90-120 seconds
Weighted pull-up negatives (overhand)
Pull-ups (underhand)
4 x 4-6 (6-8 second negative)
4 x AMRAP
2-3 minutes
Single Arm Dumbbell Row4 x 6-12 (4 drops per set)2-3 minutes

Back Workout: Nightmare Mode

ExerciseSets & RepsRest time
Cardio row machine8-12 minutesN/A
Bent over barbell rows
Barbell shrugs
Bodyweight rows
4 x 8-12 reps
4 x 8-12 reps
4 x AMRAP
2-3 minutes
Straight arm cable lat pulldown
Standing rollout
Kneeling rollout
4 x 8-15
4 x AMRAP
4 x AMRAP
2-3 minutes
Weighted pull-up negatives (overhand)
Pull-ups (underhand)
Cable lat pulldown (neutral grip)
4 x 4-6 (6-8 second negative)4 x AMRAP4 x 10-152-3 minutes
Single arm reverse dumbbell fly
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
4 x 8-12
4 x 6-12 (4 drops per set)
2-3 minutes

Logan Peterson

Logan Peterson is an avid writer and an unprofessional, non-competitive bodybuilder. Logan has several degrees, all of which he made up to sound more credible (for obvious reasons, Legal said he can’t list them). In truth, he simply has an insatiable curiosity. After eleven years of obsessive research, he knows too much about fitness, nutrition, and supplementation for his own good. Despite all appearances, he’s fiercely nerdy. Outside of fitness, his passions are reading and writing; his genre interests run the gamut from litrpg to satire. Due to ADHD, he’s currently working on several novels, and will likely publish all of them at once. And yes, he wrote his own bio...in third person.

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