Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.
When I ask people which muscles they want to build and improve, hardly anyone ever replies their back. It doesn’t take a genius to know why: it’s one of those body parts that you can’t see when you’re training. Along with big legs, I can really tell if someone knows what they’re doing in the gym if they have a well-developed back. If you compete or have any aspirations of competing, a thick, balanced and wide back is essential. A well-developed back also has huge postural and injury-prevention qualities.
As with all other body parts, more load doesn’t always equal more growth. The lats are one of your biggest muscles and involved in a high number of movement patterns so they have a huge range that they should be trained through. As with other muscle groups with a large range of motion, it can be very easy to over develop one specific area.
Have you seen the guys who walk around with their arms out by their sides like they’re carrying carpets under their armpits? This is because they train their chest and shoulders way more than their back, which causes a flexed thoracic spine. They also over-develop the part of their lats up by their armpits. But if you train your lats through a full range of motion and use a wide variety of exercises there will be no need for us to walk around like a penguin.
Before we get into the best ways to build a bigger back there’s something else I want to clear up and it’s that you don’t need to do wide-grip pull-ups to make your lats grow wider. Hardly anyone can do a full-range wide-grip pull-up with maximal contraction. This means that the upper fibers of the lats get developed but the lower fibers are rarely targeted. To do a wide-grip pull-up and recruit your lats fully you need to be able to depress your shoulders before you pull yourself up. If your shoulders are elevated as you start you’ll just end up pulling up through your biceps and upper lats. There are many back exercises that will help your lats develop, don’t get fixated on pull-ups as the gold standard.
Angles and engagement
Because the lats are a large muscle involved in various movement patterns you need to hit them from a variety of different angles to maximise muscle growth and achieved a balanced look. You also need to learn how to properly contract the part of the muscle that each exercise targets. You could do a bent-over dumbbell row, lat pull-down and barbell wide-grip row in one workout, because each move will target a different portion of the lats.
However, if you fail to engage and contract the muscle during each of the moves then other muscle groups will come in and assist the lift, so you still run the risk of over-developing a certain part of the muscle, typically the upper portion. Indeed, most people struggle with effectively targeting the lower muscles fibers of the lats. This is usually because they use way too much weight for most exercises, which makes it practically impossible for them to contract the muscles in their shortened position. As is the case for almost every muscle group, lightening the weight you use to focus on correct form and muscle engagement is far more effective.
The value of variety
I vary my back training enormously, but there are a few staple exercises I really like. Firstly, you should master the rack pull, which is incredible at building thickness in the erector spinae muscles that run down either side of your spine. Perform it right by ensuring you achieve thoracic extension – chest up – at the top of the movement. This shortens the muscles, and then that get stretched on the way back down.
I also like to use dumbbell rows, but the point isn’t to go as heavy as possible and just shift the weight from A to B. My goal is to always ensure that I contract my lower lats hard in the fully contracted position. If you can’t contract hard and maintain full control of the dumbbell, you’re using too much weight.
Another firm favourite of mine is the standing cable face pull. It’s an exercise you need to go quite light with, but it’s a great exercise for developing the rhomboids, which lie between your shoulder blades.
Learning how to effectively retract your shoulder blades is essential for building impressive lats. If you can’t retract your shoulder blades, you end up directing the effort towards the upper lat fibers on most exercises. If you are new to this move then you will tire very quickly when you add it to your workouts. But don’t be tempted to swing the weight with the rest of your body. Just be patient and focus on retraction then contraction.
Training frequency often comes down to how weak your back is in relation to the rest of your body. If it’s weak, then I would suggest doing two or even three back workouts each week, one session focusing on heavier eccentric lifts – which causes more damage to the muscles – and the others focusing on higher reps and driving lots of blood and nutrients into the muscles.
One of the key things to consider when back training is that a percentage of it will require you to bend over. These exercises will be barbell rows (all variations), deadlifts and rack pulls. The reps you select for these exercises will depend on the strength of your lower back. I like to stick with reps ranging from six to 12 for any exercise where your start position is bent. Any higher and the lower back will start to fatigue, which is a limiting factor. Always consider placing heavy exercises that load your lower back towards the start of each workout, as you’ll be too fatigued later on to perform them correctly.
If your goal is size and density then you must work through a range of repetitions – some heavy and some lighter where the focus is on applying maximum tension. I often place priority ranges of the muscle at the start of the workout. I tend to start my back workouts with a couple of exercises around the six to eight rep range, then increase the reps in subsequent moves to the ten to 12 rep range. I like to finish off most back workouts with some type of supersets, with the aim to drive as much blood into the muscles as possible.
Education and execution
Effective back training is all about programming. Don’t just turn up to the gym and do an exercise because you think it targets the ‘back muscles’. Learn which part of the back each exercise directly targets, then learn how to execute each movement correctly, focusing specifically on contracting the target muscle through each full movement.
If you throw heavy weights around, you’ll more than likely overload your biceps and forearms, and you’ll continually stimulate the same part of your lats every time – the parts that are already strong. If you’re weak in one particular area, learn how to contract it and be patient. It will grow, it will develop, and you’ll soon have a back you can be proud of.