Building Your Back Muscles

We’re here to get serious. Because today, we’re talking about why you’re not growing. Spoiler alert: it’s something quite simple.

Once again, it’s all contextual. But you’re here because you want to know how to grow a big, massive back. You want that v-taper, yeah, you want those barn-door-lats man, you know you want that thickness, you want those traps that stand off the back of your neck like everyone talked about in bane and batman, but we want to stay and keep it natural. That’s what we’re about.

back muscles

Too Hard or Not Hard Enough?

Now one of the biggest reasons why people don’t grow is: they’re just not training hard enough. I often talk about training smart and I do stand by that, you do have to train smart before you train hard. But you need to create a demand for the body to actually grow. If you don’t provide enough stimulus, you’re not going to grow. If you provide too much in an unintelligent way with crap form, you’re going injure yourself. 


So first of all, yes, you want to have a level of form especially on the big movements.
Now with the back a lot of people get this wrong: they’re pulling, they’re not selling the scapula, and it’s a really, really simple mistake to make. But once you fix it, you’ll notice a massive difference in the development of your lats – you’ll also get a far better pump, a better squeeze and you’ll be able to take things much closer to failure (on the appropriate exercises). 

Form is probably one of the biggest mistakes and this is going to be the same with any muscle group, but specifically with the back: it’s setting the scapula (the shoulder blades). There are a couple of positions to consider when we do this:

We’ve got retraction & protraction, elevation & depression. Think: retraction is back, protraction is forward, elevation is lifting up, depression coming down.

A lot of the time what we see in the gym with people training, is they’re in that they’re in a protracted position too much. Now it’s good to spend a little bit of time in that position (protraction) outside of the gym or with specific functional rehabilitation exercises, however when we’re in the gym: we want to make sure that we’re in this retracted and depressed position for the most part. One, because it puts the shoulder girdle to the shoulder itself in a safe position (so we’re not pulling up into the traps or into the neck muscles), and two: straining – we’re actually activating the lat (which is the bigger part of the back).

The different musculature in the back is:

Low Cable Row

But to keep things simple, the biggest part of the back is the lats and we’re going to be using all the other muscles anyway synergistically if we learn to move correctly.


Consider a seated or horizontal row, what we want to do is: instead of (for the most part) thinking about just pulling back and protracting forward, think about keeping the shoulders back and down, you don’t want them too far back (you don’t want to be arched, because then you’ll lose a neutral spine), you want think about breaking the bar (so your shoulder blades are coming back and down), almost think about bringing them down so you’re squeezing the lats underneath your arm pits. This way you’re going to be able to active your lats a lot more, you’re going to be able to move more load, you’re obviously going to build more muscle and create more volume.

Think about pulling back and down (for the most part), so it’s almost like a the train motion you would make with your arms when you were a kid. Watch in action by seeing the video below at 5minutes and 20seconds.

The Back, as a Muscle Group

What we’ve got to consider is that the back is one of the biggest muscle groups in the body, and often we train a lot of the other smaller groups (like chest, arms, etc) a lot more than we train the back. But if we think about, it we don’t live our life backwards. So yes, there are rule-of-thumbs like for every push we should do two pulls. But for every rule, there’s always a rule against the law. We must consider that there is a lot of variety in exercise selection and we want to make sure that we vary the difference vertical pulling versus horizontal pulling. As we’ve already talked about with form, it’s very important that we get this right and we use those different variances and identify over time where our weaknesses are vs where our strengths are.

It’s not rocket science, there’s only so many vertical and horizontal pulls we can do in the gym. And yes now and again it’s good to move through different variances, different torsions, etc, but I want to keep it simple: if we’re here, we’re here to build muscle, which means we want to make sure we’ve got a variety of vertical pulls, horizontal pulls and a mix of pronated (overhand) grip, supinated (underhand) grip and neutral grip too.

Exercise Variety & Cross-Over

Back and shoulder exercise

More to the point, its about having enough variety, but at the same time not having too much. Understand the variance and crossovers. If you are training your back multiple times a week (which you should be), we should be making sure we’re ticking all those boxes. That means ensuring we’ve got different hand grips, we’ve got different vertical and horizontal pulls, and we’re keeping it simple.

Training Till Failure

So we’ve already talked about training intensity (in terms of training hard), and the reality of it is: once you learn to train smart, you’ve got a pragmatic approach, you’ve got a structure, you’ve got a programming, you do need to take it to the house. Now that doesn’t mean training till failure all the time, and I wouldn’t recommend doing that on the big, compound movements – reason being is they’re high-risk / high-recovery, but they are high reward. If you’re doing that all the time though, you’re going to limit your potential for the rest of the workout. You’re also going limit your potential to be able to train that muscle group again in the next 24/72 hours.

On the smaller isolation movements or on your accessory lifts, or after your first one or two main movement, you can push a little bit closer to failure (as machines are generally a bit more lower-risk / low-recovery). It can be a really good tool to lean on and have that variety in your training, but starting off with your most prioritized movement.

Training Frequency For Back Muscles

Another thing that a lot of people don’t consider is the frequency, of which we touched on before. So again, your back is a big muscle group so you want to be training it multiple times a week, every muscle group (especially if you’re a natural lifter) you want to be training 2-3 times a week as you can’t put enough volume in a short space of time. If you have 1-1.5 hours each week to put into one muscle group, your body can only tolerate so much intensity, volume and damage at one time; and you’re only opening that anabolic window once a week for that muscle. Then you’re waiting a whole seven days for it to come around again. So it’s much more advantageous if you can train that muscle multiple times a week, let it recover, and then spread the volume that you can not only recover from, but also increasing.

Picking a Rep Range (Back Exercises)

Pick a good couple vertical and horizontal pulling movements, and learn how to do them correctly, load them up over time, and when you stagnate: that is when you should progress or change the variation (or even change the rep ranges). In terms of rep ranges, with your bigger compound movements (barbell rows, etc. – the first, heavier movements), I would generally recommend the lower rep range. You don’t want to be going in the region of 12 – 14 reps on those, especially if you’re not drop setting. You’re better to stick between 4 – 8 reps, then as you go through your workout and you can add more to the accessory or isolation movements to really rack up the reps.

Final Points

That’s when you can really get into almost bodybuilding work if you like, hypertrophy rep ranges, drop setting, super setting; tools like these that you can implement over time. It’s not always about doing as much as you can, but going through phases of variation and making sure ultimately that you’re progressing over time.