The back is one of the largest parts of the body. It is made up of various different muscles which link in to basically every other muscle group.
You might not realize just how crucial your back is until you come across a problem with it, such as a pulled muscle or a postural issue.
So well connected is the back, that it is often the underlying problem for all manner of issues. For instance the Latissimus Dorsi links to your bicep, so some elbow pain can originate in the back.
Posture issues you can get from chest work can lead to issues with your shoulders and neck if your back isn’t kept up to the same level. If the chest gets bigger and stronger whilst the back doesn’t, it will get tighter and drag the shoulder muscles and joint forwards.
The lower back will also help to ensure that you can stand up straight. The majority of back issues people get when they are older are due to an over reliance on a back which isn’t strong enough to take this strain.
Poundage & Posture
Your back is stronger than the muscles along the front of your body, meaning you train it using bigger weights. Exercises such as deadlifts and heavy rows will allow you to use some real poundage when it comes to training.
If your training is focused more upon the aesthetic side of things then a big, well developed back is a must. It looks great in itself but also prevents your upper body looking slouched or under developed. Regardless of how the actual musculature of your back will look, your posture will improve, which is more aesthetically pleasing than a hunched back or slouched shoulders.
What is the back?
The back is made up of a large variety of muscles which interlock over each other in order to protect your ribs and spine – in turn protecting your organs and nervous system.
The interlocking aspect of these muscles makes for a strong section of your body, however, if you do get an injury it can be really hard to identify exactly which muscle is the culprit. Try determining if a suspect tightness is your trapezius or rhomboids to see what I mean.
Going from the bottom (literally) up, we have;
- The spinal erectors
- The latissimus dorsi
- The rhomboids
- The trapezius
The Spinal Erectors
These are based at the bottom of your back, just above the glutes (the butt) and they basically do what they say on the tin – they keep your spine erect and upright. If you damage these it can be hard to do the basic things like standing, bending or walking to a comfortable degree.
The point made earlier about training the lower back to help the glutes and legs refers to this area.
The exercises which will most effect this area would be;
- Deadlifts, and its variations
- Good mornings
- Glute ham raises
The Latissimus Dorsi
Otherwise known as ‘the lats’.. The pair of muscles that go from just above spinal erectors, out across from the centre of your back towards your arms and connecting into your bicep. They are the muscles responsible for giving bodybuilders and lifters that ‘winged’ look.
Pretty much any pulling movement will involve this muscle, along with the biceps. The main ones would be;
- Rowing – bent over, pendlay, dumbbell
- Pull ups
- Lat pulldowns
Trapezius and Rhomboids
These two muscle groups have been grouped together due to their proximity to each other. As mentioned earlier it is difficult to differentiate between the two when something is up.
These muscles become involved during any shrugging movement where you raise your shoulders, or any movements where you turn your neck or raise your arms over head. Keeping these muscles healthy is imperative for shoulder joint health.
With this in mind, the main exercises would be;
- Uprights rows
- Face pulls
How to Build a Back
The main thing is to focus on sufficient levels of volume and intensity while also overloading progressively.
Volume, intensity and progressive overload are worth an article in their own right, but we’ll cover the detail here in brief.
Volume is basically the amount of work you are doing. It is generally the amount of reps multiplied by the sets multiplied by the weight, or reps * sets * weight.
The number you get from this short equation is your overall volume – you don’t want to be going mad with this every session, sometimes it’s good to have a lower volume session to aid recovery.
This is basically how hard the work that you’re doing is. The harder it is the more intense it will be, but the more intense it is the harder it is to recover.
This means that a lot of intense work will lead to a quicker, and more intense (that word again), build-up of fatigue. 3 sets of 8 with 70% of your one rep max is far less intense than 8 sets of 3 with 85% would be, for example.
This refers to the principle of gradually increasing the amount of work you’re doing, be that through volume and/or intensity.
Exercise to include
There are many muscles in the back so it is not just a case of one exercise covering the back and that’s that. You need to keep in mind the cross over with other body parts, as well as which part of the back each focuses on.
Bent over row
This exercise is where you pick up a barbell from the floor, or a rack, bend at the hips (not the back) and row the bar from a hanging position into your ribcage. Keep your legs a little bent to take the pressure off your hamstrings.
This exercise will mainly use the latissimus dorsi (aka the lats) as this draws the arms in towards your body in any pulling motion. However, the trapezius muscles, rhomboids and the spinal erectors will also be working hard to stabilize you.
Other body parts to consider here;
the biceps. Any pulling motion will use your biceps too, if your biceps are a little fried from loads of curls then it could affect your strength on these.
Lower back – works as a stabiliser, if this is a little tired or weak then rowing will be more difficult.
A good deal of people will argue whether to include this on a back day or a leg day as it definitely effects both. To do this you will pick up a bar from the floor and raise it to hip height so that your back remains straight, and your knees, hips and shoulders are locked out.
This is very likely to be your strongest lift, so the amount of weight you can shift means that you do have to be careful with it – make sure you learn proper form and then build a massive, strong and sexy back.
Other body parts to consider
Basically everywhere. This exercise makes heavy use of legs too but it also affects your traps, biceps and forearms due to the grip you use on it.
It is definitely a fatiguing exercise so it’s a good idea to do it first in your workout and maybe plan the rest of your week around it.
Another excellent strength builder, these work basically the same muscle as the rows do. However, they take a lot more stability and control to master so start with a band or an assisted pullup machine.
Most people will find them hard at first, so concentrating on rows and the lat pulldown as you build up to these wouldn’t be a bad idea.
[Editor: Yep, and there’s nothing worse than busting out an embarassing number of pull ups in the gym].
Other body parts to consider – biceps, for the same reason as the rows. While very difficult to master initially they are not quite as intense as deadlifts but should be treated in a similar manner.
To build a big, strong back you need to approach your training intelligently.
How you organize your volume and intensity in order to progressively overload and also pick out and manage the correct exercises. Do these and you will be stronger before you know it.