Pretty much every lifter wants to build a bigger back. Unfortunately, this idea often gets over-complicated. Lifters then spend too much time either doing the wrong exercises, doing too many exercises, or doing exercises the wrong way. Below is a guide on how to build a bigger back you can follow so this doesn’t happen to you.
Vertical vs Horizontal Pulling
Before you learn how to build a bigger back, you need to know the difference between back movements. Vertical pulling exercises such as chins, pullups, and pulldowns build your lats. This is what gives your back that “wide” look. Conversely, horizontal pulling (i.e. – various rows) build your rhomboids. This is what gives your back that “thick” look.
While you can target different areas of the lats with different vertical pulling styles, grips, and widths, the lats still get worked on a pretty thorough overall basis no matter what exercise you do. However, varying up your rows can greatly change how your back is hit.
Pulling into your lower abdomen is going to work much more of your middle to lower back. On the flip side, pulling higher into your abdomen is going to work your upper back. In fact, if you pull as high as your nipples, you’ll target your lower traps and rear delts, too.
Should You Pull With a Narrow Grip or Wide Grip?
There are a lot of different theories on what sort of grip width to use if you want to build a bigger back. Old school contention is that the wider the grip, the wider the back. This was often thought so because a wider grip tended to feel like you were stretching your lats more.
However, the reality is that the wider of a grip you use (for either vertical or horizontal pulling), the shorter your range of motion (ROM) becomes. To work your muscles through a fuller ROM, you actually want more of a moderate grip. This doesn’t mean that using a wider grip from time to time is a bad idea, though. It just means that around a shoulder-width grip should be your main focus.
What About Deadlifts?
Though deadlifts aren’t necessarily a direct lats or rhomboids exercise, it’s almost impossible to not build a bigger back if you do a lot of them. In fact, think of almost any super strong deadlifter you know, and chances are they’ll have a beefy back. Check out some deadlift variations here.
To get a good mix of working the spinal erectors, upper back, and traps, do rack pulls from just below the knee. Use a traditional deadlift stance with your feet at about shoulder-width and your arms outside the knees. Be sure to keep your head up and drive with the hips in order to pull the most weight. Your lower back will work hard at the bottom of the movement, but the upper back and traps will both be hit hard from the mid-point on.
One thing to keep in mind when doing deadlifts is that if your main goal is to build a bigger back, use an “over-over” grip with both of your palms facing backward. This is different to a more standard “over-under” grip where one palm faces forward and one faces back.
“Over-under” tends to give you a stronger grip and lets you pull more weight. However, pulling max weight isn’t your goal here. Instead, your goal is back development. Utilizing two different grips will alter how each side of the back is hit. You could switch between “over-under” and “under-over” to balance development, but just going “over-over” makes more sense. If you’re worried about not being able to pull as much weight, you can make up for it by wearing straps.
Narrow Your Focus
One of the problems newer lifters have when they want to build a bigger back is that they try to do too much. Because the back is the second largest muscle group on the body (behind legs), is comprised of so many different muscles, and can be worked through so many ranges of motion and different movement patterns, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.
What ends up happening then is that you can fall into the trap of trying to do too many different exercises to hit every little muscle, from every little angle. This spreads out your focus, and instead of getting really good at a few exercises, you give only mediocre effort to many.
A much better bet is to narrow the exercises you target. Between your shoulders and back workouts, you want to focus on:
- A deadlift variation
- No more than two rowing variations
- No more than two vertical pulling variations
- Rear delts
- One traps movement
Note that the rear delt and traps work can be done during your shoulder training.
Pick out what exercises you’re going to use, focus on how to build a bigger back, and stick with them for no less than a year or two. Because the back is such a big muscle group, it does take a lot of work. This means it can take much longer to see commensurate increase in strength and muscle gain than it does in exercises for other muscle groups.
How to Build a Bigger Back
Of course things can vary depending on what your overall routine looks like, but below is a sample workout that would most definitely help you build a bigger back:
- Rack pulls – 3-5 sets x 6-8 reps
- Shoulder-width parallel grip pullups / pulldowns* – 3-4 sets x 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell rows** – 3-4 sets x 8-10 reps each side
- Rear delt flies*** – 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell shrugs**** – 3-4 sets x 6-8 reps
*can be switched out with curl grip chins / pulldowns
** can be switched out with curl grip barbell rows
***could be done during your shoulder workout; could be switched out with banded pull aparts
****could be done during your shoulder workout; hold the contracted position for 2 seconds on every rep
With a little bit of effort and focus, you can build a bigger back. It’s not easy and may not happen quickly, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. Stick to a few basic exercises, focus on your form and include a deadlift, vertical and horizontal pulling, as well as rear delts and trap work.