A big back is hard to ignore – you can always see it, it’s a sign of hard work, and it shows off your hard work.
With massive benefits and carryover, everyone wants to know how to get a bigger back. Today, we’re going to take you through the most important methods and tips to improve back width and thickness.
Let’s get started with how your back muscles work!
The back – anatomy and basics
The back is important to both your appearance and performance. Effective back training means looking bigger quickly, as well as keeping joints like the spine, hips, and shoulders healthy.
The back muscles define your silhouette, outlining your overall appearance. The V-taper is one of the most important examples – the taper from the hips and waist upwards (and outwards) to your shoulders. This is an important part of a lean, athletic physique.
Equally, the muscles of the upper back control the health of the shoulders. The mid-back (in strength and mobility) affects the health of the spine and upper body.
The lower back is connected into the hips and the muscles of the spine, where it stabilizes your most important joints.
The Back Muscles
The back is composed of many muscles. The really deep muscle group – the erector set – control the position of the spine itself and how it moves relative to the hips.
You train this muscle group through rounding (flexing) and extending the spine, or resisting the flexion demands of heavy weight – like in the deadlift.
These will make your back look thick, but don’t often contribute to things like width.
They’re not the best silhouette muscles, but exercises that develop strength and control in the erector set also make your back stronger, and improve your spine and hip health.
On top of the erector set, other muscle groups control the hips, shoulder blades, or shoulder joint and their relationship to the spine. Rhomboids, for example, connect the shoulder blades to the ribcage and spine – and you train them with bent over rows (for example).
Meanwhile, the traps connect the spine to the shoulder joint – and bolt your head onto your upper body!
There are many muscles here that produce back width – but muscles like the traps (particularly upper traps) are important for your upper body silhouette. They define the shoulder girdle, making you look bigger and stronger.
The latissimus dorsi – or lats – are the big wing-like muscles that attach from the back to the shoulders and are the key to the V taper.
They’re the defining back muscle for width, and training them will have huge bang-for-your-buck in making you look bigger and more athletic.
The lats are involved in pulling the shoulders (and scapulae) down towards the hips. They counteract the upper traps and work best with either vertical pulling exercises or the sweeping motion of straight-arm exercises.
This gives them two major functions – and combining the two (with, e.g., lat pulldowns and snatch grip deadlifts) helps you grow wider and thicker – quicker.
The lats are the main target muscle for getting a bigger back in the shortest time possible. They are also the largest muscle on the body by surface area, so they get big fast!
How to build a bigger back: key factors
Overload: Work More – Work Harder
As with any muscles, the important part is that you overload the muscles of the back over time. Continue to challenge them and they will grow – whether that’s with heavier sets, more reps, or more sets.
The best way to build muscle is to improve your work capacity at medium-heavy weights.
This comes from doing more and more over time, increasing each part of the rep scheme a little at a time: sometimes more weight, sometimes more reps, and adding sets for each exercise – or just more exercise.
You can also do this by adding more training sessions per week – which is quite demanding. However, when you’ve grown and hit a plateau, adding more regular training can be a huge stimulus for new growth.
Make sure you’re training your back 2-3 times a week, especially if you’re splitting them into the spinal muscles (like the erector set) and horizontal/vertical pulling exercises.
Full Range Exercise: Stretch-Mediated Growth
Exercises that involve a full-muscle stretch have been shown to produce more muscle growth per rep than others. They are the best choice for building strength and size, helping you build a bigger back with less time and reps.
Exercises that involve a stretch – like the pull-up or even lat pulldown – can be used to get more growth per rep, set, and session. Make sure you work the full range of an exercise to get the best results – and be humble enough to use lighter weights to get better range. Don’t use too much weight to move properly.
This is especially important with exercises like barbell rows and pull-ups where weight is quite high and it can be tempting to cut the range of motion short.
This isn’t just bad technique but directly reducing the effectiveness of each rep – only do partials as you get more fatigued, or when you’ve already hit a long, stretch-inducing exercise first.
Loading For Back Exercises: Light, Medium, and Heavy
Remember that there’s a time and place for each kind of loading pattern. You won’t make the best muscle gains unless you’re using a mixture of heavy, mid, and light loads – you need to be able to keep training even as you become more tired through a workout. Those heavy exercises require too much weight without changing gears.
Some exercises are better-suited to heavier loads – like the barbell row or lat pulldown. These are used to stimulate strength gains and force fast-twitch fiber growth.
Medium exercises like the dumbbell row and seated cable row also contribute to building a bigger back but have a smaller amount of challenge because the position is disadvantageous. This makes them a great choice after heavier exercises as you deplete your fast twitch muscles and switch to slower, higher-durability fibres.
Finally, you can use light exercises that are possible even when you’re too tired to hit good weights in other exercises.
Exercises like single-arm lat pulldowns, single-arm cable rows, and straight-arm pulldowns are great choices for ‘finisher’ or ‘burnout’ sets. This is also the perfect time for supersets – especially combining vertical and horizontal pulling exercises into supersets or tri-sets.
Training tips to get a bigger back
Learn to use your lats: more than just pull ups
Learning how to feel and control your lats is one of the easiest ways to get the most from your back exercises. These are huge muscles that make up a lot of surface area – and a small tweak to get proper position can really improve results.
Lat activation just ensures that you’re getting them to do the work of important lifts. This involves how you move, but also how you warm them up to get them working – which helps you get more results from the same amount of work.
You can use light exercises at the start of a session to stretch out the muscles of the back and improve the feel.
This is often referred to as mind-muscle connection and it helps you make sure the exercise is hitting where you want, producing the muscle gains you’re trying to achieve. This also involves conscious effort in the exercise, practicing perfect form wherever possible.
This can help you get the most from back workouts and ensure that the right muscles are doing the work – and getting the results.
Develop the silhouette: shoulder width and shape
Building a bigger back – even the appearance of one – comes fastest when you build the silhouette first. The easiest way to do this is to focus on the lats, the traps, and the delts. These produce the whole silhouette, and you can patiently build thickness alongside or afterwards.
These are all important, and they have a little overlap, but each has a few amazing exercises you may want to try for get a bigger back:
Lats: pull-ups and chin-ups, lat pulldowns, Helms rows, Pendlay rows, and wide-grip deadlifts (or variations – like the wide-grip Romanian deadlift)
Traps: shrugs, overhead press, wide-grip overhead press, overhead shrugs, full-range shoulder raises (like Lu raises), rear delt flies, and cable scarecrows
Delts: overhead presses, shoulder raises, rear delt flies, face pulls, incline press (both dumbbell and barbell variations)
Combining these different muscles as the primary beneficiaries of your workouts mean getting a lot of visible growth in your back without as much time. You can combine these with a wide range of other exercises to improve your width and thickness, but these are the best ‘bang for your buck’ on looking bigger – especially in the V taper.
More Pulling Exercises
Most people simply need more pulling exercises to get a bigger back. If your back is small, it’s likely because you’re not practicing pulling exercises as often as you should.
Back muscle exercises are best around 2-3 times a week and should be as regular in your program as pressing exercises. This helps with both back size and shoulder health, and even better posture.
To help with this, you should find a few simple rowing or vertical pulling exercises that you like for lats and lower traps. These should be built up with weight and reps at high priority, and then you can add variety to your medium and light exercises to add variety and finish workouts.
Straight-arm pulling exercises and other forms of “sweeping” towards the body are the most effective ways to build lat strength that isn’t from rowing. Using the lats for both of their functions is important, so make sure you’re using this kind of exercise deliberately, too.
The best example is the wide-grip or snatch-grip deadlifts. These use the lats in their ‘sweeping’ capacity, as well as in the stabilisation and extension of the spine. This is perfect for the development of better strength and muscle mass.
Alternatively, you can use normal deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, rack pulls, and/or stiff-legged deadlfits. The important part is to make sure you’re performing plenty of reps with good weights and focusing on internally rotated shoulders and squeezing the bar back with straight arms.
It’s hard to get the hang of initially, but this helps you build a bigger back while you also improve your strength in the deadlift and other hip-hinging exercises.
Single-Arm Exercises for Bigger Back Muscles
One thing most people are neglecting is training single-arm exercises – especially vertical pulls. Dumbbell rows are a great way to build better back strength and thickness, but what about single-arm lat pulldowns, single-arm straight-arm pulldowns, or single-arm cable rows?
These are simple but effective medium and light versions of popular pulling exercises. They have different mechanics and require you to actively stabilise your arm near your body, which helps them build chest and upper back strength more effectively.
These also pair with the best of two-handed exercise, which you can use first as your heavier choices. For example, a great back workout might look like this:
- Heavy Paused Pendlay Row 5×8
- Dumbbell Row 6×12
- Seated Cable Row 6×12
- Single-arm cable row
- Single-arm kneeling lat pulldown
These don’t take much more time or effort, but they can completely change the health of your shoulder and push your back development through a plateau.
How To Build a Bigger Back: Our Final Thoughts
The back is a huge space but it can be significantly improved with just a few simple changes to how you workout. These simple principles and exercise recommendations can be used in any workout plan to add more back volume and improve how you perform exercises.
These two simple changes are easy to use however you train – and however often – to get better results. If you’re trying to build a bigger back, you should be practicing moving well, adding in new and high-efficiency exercises to cover all the important areas.
Take these ideas into your next week or month of workouts and put in the consistent work. A large back helps just about every other exercise, supports better health, and can completely change the way you look – especially in clothes.
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