In some ways, back workouts are the straw that stirs the drink in your workout program.
A strong back is essential for safely and effectively performing all of the most effective compound exercises, like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, which are what will deliver the majority of your muscle and strength gains.
In other words, a strong, muscular back is like a ballast for your performance. No matter what you throw at your body—squatting, pulling, pressing, or even running, skiing, or throwing—your movements depend on a sturdy, dependable back.
Sadly, many weightlifters neglect training their back because, unlike the chest, shoulders, biceps, and quads, you can’t easily see it in the mirror. Maybe they do a few perfunctory sets of lat pulldowns and dumbbell rows, but they don’t give their back the same attention and energy that goes into their “mirror muscles.”
This is a mistake, and the back exercises and workouts in this article are the solution.
If you want to learn how to get a bigger back, how to do the best back workouts for mass, and what a good back workout routine looks like, keep reading.
The deadlift trains every muscle in your posterior chain (the muscles on the back side of your body) and allows you to use some of the heaviest weights in any of your workouts, which means it’s ideal for gaining strength and muscle.
How to: Position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Move a loaded barbell over your midfoot so it’s about an inch from your shins. Take a deep breath into your belly, then move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back. Place your hands on the bar just outside your shins and keep your head in a neutral position.
Drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels. As the bar rises above your knees, push your hips into the bar. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Where it fits into your back workouts: Because it’s best to go hard and heavy with deadlifts (sets of 6 reps or fewer), always put them at the beginning of your back workouts when you’re fresh and can lift the most weight.
Deadlift variations for back hypertrophy:
You can generally lift more weight with the barbell row than you can with other barbell back exercises, which means it’s an ideal addition to any back workout for mass.
How to: Position your feet under a loaded barbell about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Bend over and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and with your palms facing toward you. Straighten your back and raise your hips until your back is roughly parallel to the floor.
Initiate the movement by driving through your legs, then, using the momentum generated by your lower body, pull the barbell to your upper body, touching it anywhere between your lower chest and belly button. Once the bar touches your body, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Where it fits into your back workouts: If you start your back day workouts with deadlifts, do heavy barbell rows in the 4-to-6-rep range immediately after. If you don’t deadlift, use the barbell row (or a barbell row variation) as your first back exercise in your back workout routine.
Barbell row variations for back hypertrophy:
The one-arm dumbbell row trains each side of your body independently which allows you to lift more weight per side than you can when you do barbell rows, leading to more progressive overload (and gains!).
How to: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Bend over and put your left hand and left knee on a bench, chair, windowsill, etc. that’s about knee height off the ground. Keep your right foot planted on the floor and let your right arm (the one holding the dumbbell) extend toward the floor. Keeping your back straight, pull the dumbbell upward until it touches your torso. Return the dumbbell to the starting position. Once you’ve completed the desired number of reps, repeat the process with your left arm.
Where it fits into your back workouts: The dumbbell row is best used as a back hypertrophy exercise, so do it in the middle or toward the end of your hypertrophy back workout for 8-to-10 reps.
Dumbbell row variations for back hypertrophy:
How to: Grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, then lift up your feet so that you’re hanging with your arms straight. Without swinging your feet or your knees, pull your body upward until your chin rises above your hands. After your chin rises above the bar, lower yourself to the starting position. Keep lowering yourself until your arms are completely straight and you feel a deep stretch in your lats.
Where it fits into your back workouts: If you’re new to pull-ups or you’ve graduated to doing weighted pull-ups, put them near the beginning of your back workouts as a strength exercise. If you prefer to use them for back hypertrophy, do them near the end of your workout in a higher rep range.
Pull-up variations for back hypertrophy:
The lat pulldown is an excellent exercise for training your lats, biceps, and traps, especially for beginners who struggle to do chin-ups and pull-ups.
How to: Adjust the thigh pad of a lat pulldown machine so that it locks your lower body in place. Stand up and grab the bar. While keeping your grip on the bar and your arms straight, sit down, allowing your body weight to pull the bar down with you. Nudge your thighs under the thigh pads and plant your feet flat on the floor.
Pull the bar toward your chest. Once the bar is underneath your chin (or touches your chest, if you want to make the exercise harder), reverse the movement and return to the starting position. (Tip: a helpful cue for this exercise is to imagine pulling your elbows into the floor).
Where it fits into your back workouts: Use the lat pulldown to add some extra lat volume to the end of your back workout routine. Sets of 8-to-10 reps work well, though you could go as high as 10-to-12 reps per set if you prefer.
Lat pulldown variations for back hypertrophy:
- Wide-grip Pulldown
- Close-grip Pulldown
- Neutral-grip Pulldown
- Overhand-grip Pulldown
- Single-arm Pulldown
Using a cable means there’s constant tension on your muscles throughout each rep. This taxes your back muscles slightly differently than other free weight back exercises, which can be more or less challenging at different points in each rep.
How to: Sit on the pad and place your feet on the foot rest while maintaining a small bend in your knees. Lean forward and grab the handle (you can use whichever handle attachment you want, but I like the close-grip “V” handle), then lean back with your arms stretched in front of you. Straighten your back and pull the cable toward your stomach. Once your hands touch your torso, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
Where it fits into your back workouts: Seated cable rows normally fit best near the end of your back day workouts once you’re finished doing your heavy free-weight rowing exercises for the day. Stick to a slightly higher rep range like 8-to-10 and focus on using a full range of motion to get a deep stretch at the end of every rep.
Seated cable row variations for back hypertrophy:
- Narrow-grip Cable Row
- Wide-grip Cable Row
- Neutral-grip cable row
The dumbbell pullover trains your lats through a full range of motion and in a stretched position, which is important for muscle growth. It also gives you a new exercise to try if you get tired of lat pulldowns and pull-ups.
How to: While lying on a flat bench with your feet on the floor, hold a dumbbell at one end with both hands and rest it on your chest. Make sure your head is as close to the end of the bench as possible. Press the dumbbell over your chest until your elbows are almost completely locked. While maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, lower the dumbbell in an arc over your head until your biceps are next to your ears, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Where it fits into your back workouts: It’s a good idea to finish up your hypertrophy back workouts with some high-rep dumbbell pullovers. Using slightly lighter weights and higher reps makes it easier to use proper form and can help you engage your lats, so stick to 10-to-12 reps per set.
Dumbbell pullover variations for back hypertrophy:
If you’re looking to add mass to your back quickly, you want to do these back workouts.
Below are three of the best back workouts for men and women that you can do whether you work out in a gym, at home with a set of dumbbells, or only have access to machines.
This is a great “big-back workout” that you can use when you have access to a gym or well-equipped home gym.
- Barbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps
- Barbell Row: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps
- Weighted Pull-up: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps
Not having access to a gym full of equipment shouldn’t stop you from doing a back workout for mass. Grab a set of dumbbells and give this hypertrophy back workout a try.
- Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps
- Dumbbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Dumbbell Upright Row: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps
If you work out in a small gym or if you’re travelling and have to make do with a hotel gym, this is one of the best back workouts you can do using only machines.
- Machine Row: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps
- Cable Pullover: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps
+ Scientific References
- Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. In Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports (Vol. 29, Issue 4, pp. 484–503). Blackwell Munksgaard. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13375
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE Open Medicine, 8, 205031212090155. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312120901559
- Dickie, J. A., Faulkner, J. A., Barnes, M. J., & Lark, S. D. (2017). Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 32, 30–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jelekin.2016.11.004
- Jakobi, J. M., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2001). Bilateral and unilateral contractions: Possible differences in maximal voluntary force. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 26(1), 12–33. https://doi.org/10.1139/h01-002
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