If you walk into any gym, you’ll see easily 80% of guys working out their chest or biceps. While these are definitely the “show muscles”, if you want to cut an impressive figure in a suit and tie, you’ll need to work your back as well. Proper back training will result in massive performance boost as well – your back muscles are the biggest and strongest muscles in your upper body and are crucial if you want a bigger bench press or deadlift. Finally, back training helps to prevent injury. A severe strength imbalance between your chest and your back may result in your shoulders drooping forward. In fact, this is the number one cause of poor posture among regular gym-goers. This makes your rotator cuff muscles prone to injury and is to be avoided at all costs.

Strong V-shaped Back - Photo by Anthony Johnson via Flickr

Strong V-shaped Back – Photo by Anthony Johnson via Flickr

The Best Back Exercises

A complete back workout routine will involve both vertical and horizontal pulling motions. Your back is a complex structure with both big muscles – the latissimus dorsi, or “lats” – and smaller muscles such as the supraspinatus and subscapulae, so variety is key if you want a fully-developed back.

The best vertical pulling exercise, bar none, is the pull-up. The pull-up will help to add width and sweep to your upper back faster than any exercise out there. Of course, pull-ups aren’t easy. If you find bodyweight pull-ups too difficult right now, don’t fret. Start with assisted pull-ups – you can get a friend to hold you by the ankles and assist you, do kipping pull-ups (where you swing your legs to generate momentum during the pulling motion) or simply use the assisted pull-up machine in your gym if there is one – and gradually decreases the assistance as you get stronger. You might even progress to weighted pull-ups before you know it! Here’s a tip for engaging your lats – as you pull, picture your shoulder blades moving outwards and downwards. This visual cue helps you contract your back muscles.

As for horizontal pulling exercises, you’ve got plenty of options. The bent-over-row, cable row and T-bar row will all help you add thickness to your middle and upper back for a physique that just exudes strength. The bent-over row is probably the most effective for beginners. Make sure you row the bar to your sternum and concentrate on moving your elbows back, rather than your wrists. This will ensure you engage the back muscles instead of just working your biceps. It also helps to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the motion. This applies to any rowing exercise – contract your shoulder blades for one second at the top of the row, and you’ll get an unbelievable pump.

Training Techniques

The back is composed primarily of fast-twitch fibers and you’ll want to hit these hard with high-weight training. Keep your sets short and fast with no more than 10 to 12 repetitions. Since your back muscles are so large, they recover quickly, so keep your rest times short as well. You should be resting no more than 60 seconds between sets.

Another useful technique is supersetting, where you perform two different exercises back-to-back (no pun intended) with no rest in between. A set of 12 pull-ups, followed immediately by a set of 10 cable rows, will set your back muscles on fire and yield great results.

A broad, thick V-shaped back is the cornerstone of an impressive physique. With the techniques in this article, you’ll be splitting shirts and drawing envious stares from your fellow Crossfitters in no time at all!

Article by Joel Niven