Exercise Routine For A Defined Back

To put a new spin on an old real estate saying, a well-developed back depends on three things: detail, detail, detail. Width is important, but if you move enough weight for a long enough time, you’re almost guaranteed to get wider. Onstage, however, width merely provides the canvas on which to display the intricate thick detail that comes from repeatedly having lit up every muscle fiber in the remotest regions of your traps, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, rhomboids and lats. Your back can be as oversized as a Jackson Pollock drip painting, but unless it has a bunch of squiggly stuff pulsating on the surface, the judges will give you little more than a blank expression.

Precisely because there’s so much going on there, I dedicate one entire training day to back each week. I’ve experimented with myriad variations on virtually every back exercise under the sun, and to be honest with you, they all seem to have worked for me. When I reflect on my experience, however, I always find myself returning to two subtle related technique tips that seem to make a huge difference, regardless of the specific exercise.

First, minimize the involvement of your arms, specifically your biceps. For starters, try keeping one finger of each hand pointed off the bar or handle, which loosens your grip slightly and hence diminishes the force applied from your arms. Second, begin back exercises by exercising your back. This sounds self-evident, but, in practice, the first thing most people do on a row or pulldown is contract their biceps intensely. Only later do they start pulling the weight with their lats.

The best way to learn these simple dicta is to apply them to some basic back exercises. Here are four of my favorites.


This exercise is great for hitting the middle back, particularly the rhomboids. I sit on the rowing machine and grasp the handle, keeping a slight break in my knees. After getting a good stretch forward, I pull the handle into my abdomen, keeping my torso erect and my back arched slightly at full contraction. I let the handle return slowly against slight resistance, getting another good stretch throughout the negative.

How much weight should you use on back exercises? As a general rule, I believe in training as heavy as you can within your target rep range while still maintaining good form. Don’t get hung up on poundage, the key is the number of muscle fibers you activate. If you’re going superheavy all the time, you’re not necessarily recruiting as many fibers as you could with a series of stricter lighter movements.


This is a great exercise with which to begin your back workout since it allows for continuous tension and a complete range of motion. Before I do my working sets, I often warm up by performing 15-30 reps using a really light weight.

To perform the exercise, I raise or lower the pad directly above the seat so that my knees fit snugly beneath it. I attach a bar handle, usually straight, to the high pulley and take an overhand grip, hands just beyond shoulder width. (Going too wide decreases tension on the lats and increases stress on the shoulder joints.) I sit so that my arms are fully extended and my torso is erect, except for a slight arch in my lower back.

I begin the rep by contracting my lats to pull my shoulder blades down and toward one another. As the handle begins moving down, I start bending my elbows. I avoid the temptation to lean back as I pull down the handle; I don’t want to turn this exercise into a row. Once the bar reaches chin level, I hold and squeeze for a second before letting the bar back up for a controlled negative. Even when my arms relax on the way up, I focus on keeping my back tight.

To generate a slightly different stimulus in my lats, I occasionally perform these using a V-type handle, although my technique remains largely the same. One variation I avoid is bringing the bar behind my neck, which hurts my elbows and shoulders.


I actually prefer these to barbell rows; I think the dumbbell permits a more complete range of motion and a greater contraction in the working lat. After positioning a dumbbell alongside a bench, I kneel on the bench and place my stabilizing hand in front of my knee for support. I plant my other foot on the floor and grasp the dumbbell with my working hand. Keeping a loose grip, I use lat strength to pull the dumbbell up and into the side of my rib cage, keeping my elbow in tight while bringing it up as high as it will go. I pause, squeeze, lower and repeat.


Although some shy away from this exercise, it can help build tremendous thickness when it’s done correctly. I stand over a weighted barbell and bend so that my upper torso is at an approximate 45-degree angle. I slightly unlock my knees and grasp the bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip (although an overhand grip works, too). Keeping my feet close together, I pull the bar up along my shins to a start position just below my knees. My back is fixed at 45 degrees, an angle I maintain as I pull the bar up toward my bellybutton. To achieve a full contraction in my lats, I bring my elbows up as high as I can. I then lower the bar back down without rounding my back

Once you’ve mastered these exercises, you can assemble them into a killer routine. My back workouts typically consist of 16-20 total sets, 10-12 reps per set. Unless you’re advanced, you might need to build up gradually to that kind of volume. If you stick with a well-conceived regimen for an extended period, the real estate known as your back will be described in three words: prime, prime, prime.

Pulldowns to the front
Dumbbell rows
Barbell rows
Cable rows

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