Back

How to sculpt a broad muscular back

Check out this instructional video by Mike Chang, one of YouTube's most prolific online personal trainers with millions of followers. Here he takes you through some great back exercises, starting with the pullups, then one-arm dumbbell rows (see how he doesn't over rotate his torso), then dumbbell bent-over rows, and finally upright rows which target the upper back (upper traps mainly) and also shoulders. When performing rowing actions, make sure you don't round your back. Stick your bum out, and keep a dip in the lower back to protect your spine.

Remember, your back consists of several muscles, chiefly your lats, the traps, and the rhomboids. Make sure you work all these muscles from all angles for nice rounded development. If you attack your back from just one angle every time, or repeat the same favourite exercises, you'll become over-developed in some areas and under-developed in others. For example, don't always to bend-over dumbbell rows, sometime perform barbell bentover rows and at a slightly different angle. Likewise, don't always use the lat pulldown machine, spend more time doing pullups and chin-ups at the pullup bar.

A broad and well-muscled back not only looks amazing, it also helps improve your posture, particularly important if you have a sedentary desk job. Make sure you focus on all the main muscles of the back, so you achieve balanced development. No shortcuts permitted!

The two largest back muscles are the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius, and the relationship between them is explained by legendarybodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger:

"The central muscle of the upper back is the trapezius, a triangular muscle that extends down to the shoulders from either side of the neck, then comes together over the spine about halfway down the back. In a highly developed back, the traps will be full and massive, balancing off the latissimus dorsi muscles on either side."

Arnie was a big fan of stretching the lats to help develop them. His favourite lats stretch was to bend the knees, plant his feet wide, and grab a solid bar with his left hand (such as the side bar of a cable crossover machine), and stretch his left lat, then do the same on the right. "This lengthens the muscles, helps you to get a fuller range of motion and a deeper contraction, and develops the lower area of the lats as they extend down to the waist." (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding). You can vary how high up the bar you grip, and this gives you a varied series of stretches.

Don't neglect the smaller muscles: rhomboids, levator scapulae, spinal erectors, and several more. Ensure your exercise routine is balanced so that all your back muscles get sufficient and balanced development.

Remember: it's not only muscularity you should aim for, but also good posture, and protection from lower back injury by strengthening the muscles of your lower back and around your spinal column (the spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum, ilio-costalis lumborum, serratus posterior, to name just a few). One great exercise for the lower back, which you can do without any equipment, is the prone cobra: lie face down with your arms by your sides, palms up. Now raise your chest, shoulders and arms off the floor and squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your neck neutral (ie- don't look up and don't let your head drop down). Hold the position for 20 seconds, rest,  and repeat.

Are you looking for a personal trainer in London to help accellerate the development of your back muscles? click the link and let's get started. And if you train back on your own, make sure you get a gym instructor to check you're performing each movement with good form, to avoid injury, and get the most out of the exercise.

Back Muscles

Lats (latissimus dorsi)

Your lats (marked blue in the diagram on the right) are the largest muscles of the upper body. They give the back its broad v-shape. This large muscle covers either side of the upper back from the shoulder to the bottom half of the spine, down to the rear of the pelvis (hip-bone). The single point of insertion of the lats is the bottom of the bicipital groove of the humerus (the top of the upper arm, under the shoulders). The main action of the lats is to pull the shoulders down and back.

The  best exercises for the lats:

Barbell deadlifts - the ultimate mass builder for the back.

Starting position: with the barbell on the floor, stand close to the bar with your feet shoulder width apart, squat down and grab the bar slightly wider grip than the width of your legs. This squat position should be with your bum sticking out, your head looking forward and slightly up, and without rounding your back. Now lift the bar to waist height, arms straight, powering up with the legs, and keep the bar close to your shins on the way up, and touching your quads at the top of the movement, and let your arms hang straight down throughout. Squeeze the shoulder blades back at the top of the movement, then return slowly to start position. Don't let your knees move towards each other during the movment, or you'll risk damaging your knee joints.

Lat pulldown (machine) to front - safer for the vertebrae than the old-school method of lat pulldown to behind the neck. Pulldowns to the front also enable greater range of motion, but don't attempt to bring the bar below your upper chest. The wider your grip, the more you target your upper lats (and the less your biceps are able to assist). Make sure your knees are anchored under the support pad. Avoid arching back or swaying back to complete each rep, which engages your lower lats, as you want to keep the emphasis on the upper lats with this exercise.

It is advisable to lean back the whole upper body around 20 degrees, for maximum range of movement. This angle takes pressure off the rotator cuff. At the bottom of each rep, squeeze your shoulder blades together and emphasise bringing your elbows low and close to your sides. Hold the contraction for a second before returning the 'handlebar' to the start position.

Pullups using an overhead bar (vary the width of your grip) -  Ideally get a personal trainer or gym buddy to help you with the last few reps, by grabbing your waist and pushing you up, then you can perform the descent unassisted. Make sure your legs are hanging down, or even slightly behind you, as you perform this exercise, to prevent cheating with leg swing momentum.

All rowing movements (barbell row, seated pulley row, dumbbell row). Read the Arnold Schwarzenegger Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, it has a lot to say about rowing exercises:

"Thickness in the back is achieved primarily by doing rowing exercises - Barbell Rows, Cable Rows, T-Bar Rows"

Not every gym has the T-Bar Rowing machine, so you can use an incline bench at around 30 degrees, sit on it so that the front of your upper body is in contact with the bench, and perform dumbbell rows in that position.

Bent over barbell rows are a great lat-builder. If you have a really wide grip, this builds the rear delts more, and a narrow grip impacts the lats more. Make sure you have a decent level of core strength and no lower back problems before attempting this exercise. It's a highly functional movement, which stabilises your spinal erectors as well as strengthening your lats. This exercise is a good insurance policy against injuries sustained when lifting heavy objects.

You can also perform a barbell row with a supinated grip (palms up), to emphasise the bicep brachii muscles (see biceps page).

Traps (trapezius)

This muscle forms a diamond shape which links the neck, collar bones (clavicles), shoulder blades (scapula), and spine (all the thoracic vertebrae). Well-developed traps produce thickness round the upper back and between/above the shoulder blades. However, over-developed or tight upper traps have the negative effect of making the shoulders look narrow. Correctly developed traps help good posture, and prevent the shoulders drooping forward. Their main action is to raise the entire shoulder girdle. Strong traps help protect your neck.

The best exercises for the traps are:

Dumbbell shrug, or front barbell shrug will develop the upper traps. Shrugs are also great for grip strength, and forearm muscles. Keep your elbows very slightly bent, to protect your elbow joints. Squeeze for a second at the top of the movement, and return down slowly for a count of 2. Don't roll your shoulders as you've probably seen people do in the gym. This is bad for your upper spine and can lead to nerve impingement.

Rowing movements will build the mid traps (as well as the lats, see above). Rowing movements include bentover dumbbell row, standing upright barbell row, seated pulley row.

The one-arm dumbbell row is very versatile, as you can vary the angle of your back depending on where you place your supporting hand on the bench. You can either have your hand on a flat bench, or raise the bench to 45 degrees and hold the higher end. A tripod stance, with both feet on the ground, is more stable than having one leg resting on the bench.

Rhomboids

These are smaller muscles between the shoulder blades (scapula), which connect the scapula with thoracic vertebrae. The rhomboids are deeper than the traps, below the mid traps. They pull back and stabilise the scapula. If you do a wide range of exercises to strengthen the lats and traps, your rhomboids will automatically develop. Strong rhomboids helps you maintain good posture.

Spinal Erectors

These important postural muscles surround the vertebrae and protect the spine. The best exercise for the spinal erectors is the barbell deadlift. Make sure you perform the deadlift slowly and with good form. Always start with a light barbell and build up incrementally over time. Why not save yourself a fortune in physio rehab, and invest in a few sessions with a personal trainer to ensure you're performing the deadlift safely. The last thing you need is a back injury.

Lower Back

This includes the lower spinal erectors, plus several muscles which link the lower vertebrae, the lower ribs, and the pelvis. Their role is to stabilise your core. It's so tempting to neglect this vital area of your body, because they are not 'showy' muscles in the same way that the large muscles are. But a strong core is vital to prevent injury and lower back pain, which you want to avoid at all costs! Make sure your core strength (particularly lower back muscles) is good before you attempt heavy squats or deadlifts.

Best exercises for a strong lower back:

Barbell deadlifts: this is one of the best back exercises for building mass in the whole of your back. Make sure you've mastered good form with a relatively light barbell, before attempting heavy lifts.

Plank (also targets your deep ab muscles: transverse abdominus)

Hyperextensions (either lying face down on floor, or using a machine)

Standing side-bends with dummbell (also targets the obliques, important abdominal muscles).

Stretching after a back workout

A great stretch is to hang from an overhead bar, and relax the back muscles. Another great one for the lats is to grip a vertical bar with just one hand (such as the side of a squat rack or cable crossover machine), bend your knees, and 'sit' back for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.