A Lean Life

A Back Workout to Build a Sculpted and Muscular Back

Pull-ups for Back WorkoutWith an intense and effective back workout, you can build one of the most impressive physical features found in any gym.

What is this impressive feat of resistance training?  Think MMA great Georges St. Pierre…or Bruce Lee – it is the V-shaped back (more commonly referred to as lats).  And you don’t have to be a 350 lb muscle head to achieve an impressive look.

Actually, quite the opposite.  Most people, men and women alike, will tell you that the most attractive physique is lean, muscular look, without being overbuilt and bulked up.

We see it every day, but it’s a dated look.  In my gym, there was a young guy (early 20’s) who I saw pretty consistently for a year, and he was making impressive and natural gains, and building a great physique.  Then one day…somehow…someway, I suspect he got on some type of unnatural steroid.

I saw him 3 months later and he had built these crazy huge, unnatural lats.  It looked quite weird.  He went from lean and muscular, to a bulky, muscle head look.  It was truly a sad site.

Aside from this super bulk look, the back is one of 2 or 3 muscle groups that when built correctly with a superior back workout, it will make you stand out from the crowd.  This goes for men and women alike.

V-shaped BackA great look for a man is the V-shaped back without bulges of muscle everywhere.  And women may not need the V to achieve an impressive back, but a nice toned back looks great on a woman as well.

The exercises below are my Top 5 Best Back exercises to complete a well-rounded back workout.  Although I feel that building mass is very important to achieving an overall lean, muscular look, my first priority for back training is width (think V).  The V-shaped back looks great on the beach, but that same tapered V looks great in clothes or a button-down or even a suit.

Let’s first understand the basics of the back.

Back Structure and Function

There are two main muscles in your back that will be worked in your back workout – the trapezius muscle and the latissimus dorsi.

The trapezius muscles (or “traps”) extend from the neck across to the shoulder blade, then halfway down the back to the thoracic vertebrae.  The traps form a diamond shape on the upper half of your back, and their function is to move the arms and shoulder blades.

The latissimus dorsi (or “lats”) covers the lower half of your back, starting at the waistline and extends up on the outer edges of the back inserting to the humerus (upper arm bone).

Latissimus dorsi is Latin for “broadest of the back.”  It is a large, flat muscle, and it is what creates the width…the lats create the V.  Its primary function is movement of the shoulder joint.

Back Muscle Structure

Back Muscle Structure

 Top 5 Back Exercises to Build Lean Muscle

First, remember these basics for back workout routines:

  • Before you lift, do some light cardio (jog in place, jumping jacks) and dynamic stretching to warm and loosen your muscles.
  • Breathe out on the exertion half of the exercise
  • Feel the intensity of your lift – to build muscle you must have strong resistance

#1  Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is a great exercise to increase the width of the back – the V shape – and should be a staple in any back workout program.

  • Start Position:  Requires gym equipment.  Sit on the seat with arms extended up, and grip the pull down bar slightly wider than shoulder width.  You want your grip wide, but I find that if it’s too wide you just don’t have any pulling power.  Lean back slightly, and arch your back slightly.  I also find that gym gloves greatly help me with gripping the bar.
  • Technique:  Pull the bar down until it slightly touches your chest, then return the bar to the start position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  You can adjust the angle of your body to work the muscle at different angles.
  • Caution:  Make sure your entire back (upper, middle, lower) is very warm and loose prior to this exercise.  The lower back is always very susceptible to strain during an intense back workout.  I have done it twice, and it will stop all training until it heals – and that could be 6 months, so be careful.

#2  Wide grip Pull-ups

Wide grip pull-ups also increase the width of the back, and are a great back workout.  This is what creates the tapered V which is a great look, with or without a shirt.

  • Start Position:  Hang from the pull-up bar with arms extended, hands slightly wider than shoulder width, palms facing forward.  Keep your legs slightly bent.
  • Technique:  Looking to the sky, pull your body up until your chin is even with the pull-up bar.  As you pull up, feel your lats contract.  Slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  Chin-ups – similar motion just reverse your hands so palms are now facing you, and narrow your grip to shoulder width.  On the pull-ups, you can also add weight to your body to increase the resistance.

#3  Seated Cable Rows

  • Start Position:  Requires gym equipment.  Sit on the machine and place your feet on the front cross bar.  Keep your legs bent as you grab the handles, then sit up so your torso is at a 90 degree angle and your legs are slightly bent.  Your back should be slightly arched.
  • Technique:  Keeping your torso stable, pull the handles to your abs feeling the lats contract during the movement.  Hold the handles at your abs for a second, then return the handles to the start position.  Breathe out during the pulling motion.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  You will often see seated cable rows performed improperly in the gym.  Do not swing your body forward as you return to the start position.  I used to do seated cable rows this way and that is exactly what led to my first back strain – turned into a 6 month ordeal with two orthopedics.  Keep your torso very still (and therefore your lower back) and work only the lats.

#4  Dumbbell Shrug

This exercise works only the traps.  It’s good to have developed, lean traps, just don’t overdo it.  You can build your traps too big and it starts to have the muscle head look, which in my humble opinion, is not good.  But still a great exercise to have in your back workout wheelhouse.

  • Start Position:  Stand straight holding a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended, and palms facing your body.
  • Technique:  Raise the dumbbells by lifting your shoulders up.  Keep your arms extended, and do not use your biceps.  Return the dumbbells to the starting position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds

#5  Deadlifts

Deadlifts are a great back workout, but will also work your whole body.  It will bulk you up quickly, so be cautious of the overbuilt look.

  • Start Position:  With your barbell on the floor in front of you, bend your knees and grip the barbell with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder width.  Head up looking forward, and back straight.
  • Technique:  Lift the barbell by straightening your legs.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  Make sure you are lifting an appropriate weight so you don’t strain your lower back.  I used to do a lot of deadlifts in the Army, but due to back injuries the past 10 years, they are unfortunately no longer in my wheelhouse.

Honorable Mention

These are some additional exercises that are also very good for building lean muscle in your back workout:

  • One-arm Dumbbell Rows – One hand and one knee on a bench, with your torso horizontal and your other hand holding a dumbbell straight down, perform a one handed row with the dumbbell.  I have never loved this exercise, but it is good for variety.
  • Hyperextensions – These are great to stretch the lower back and to strengthen the lower back in order to prevent injury.  When I injured my lower back, the orthopedic told me that hyperextensions were the best exercise for recuperation and prevention.  The key is to hold the position at the top and bottom of the exercise for 3 seconds – see video.

Each time I set foot in a gym, I do hyperextensions…always.

Avoiding Injury

No injury is more notorious, or more prevalent, than the dreaded “lower back injury.”  I have strained my lower back twice, and been to several orthopedics.  It is not an injury you want to have.  Couple of tips to avoid injury:

  • First, make sure you stretch your lower back daily – this makes all the difference.  See this page for lower back stretching routines.
  • Before you exercise the back, make sure your back is loose and your muscles warmed up.  This is best done with some light cardio for a few minutes and also some dynamic stretching.
  • Always keep your workout motions steady and controlled – never jerky.
  • Do not overlift with too much weight.
  • If you are lifting things around the house, only lift with your legs, never your back.
  • Hyperextensions are a great exercise to do for back rehabilitation (if injured), and to strengthen the lower back for prevention…what’s the ole’ saying…”an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

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