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How to get a BIG Back

Updated on September 17, 2012

So you workout hard, sweat like a constapated elephant, power through back exercises week after week and month after month. All the hard work and still those pesky lats stay hidden beneath your frame. Although you are following a strict diet and doing more than just putting in time at the gym, you are still have trouble building a big back. You have noticed sizeable gains everywhere on your body but when it comes to building your back muscles, you feel like you are spinning your tires in the mud. Frustrated, you ask yourself, "how do I get a big back?"

Back training can cause frustration for even the most advanced bodybuilders in the world.


Anatomy and Function

Second only to a person's legs, the back muscles size up to be one of the largest muscle groups in the human body. The latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles are the primary movers of the back and makeup about three quarters of the surface area.

A person's back is divided into the upper, medial, and lower portions. "The human back is the large posterior area of the human body, rising from the top of the buttocks to the back of the neck and the shoulders. It's surface is opposite of the chest and its height being defined by the vertabral column and its breadth being supported by the rib cage and shoulders." [I]

The back muscles are responsible for retraction of the spine and vertabre column, support of the upper body, posterial protection of vital organs, retraction of the rhomboid and lats, elevation of the shoulders, and shoulder extension. The muscles in the lower back (the lumbar spine area) fire the core muscles in back bending movements that move people upright from a bent over position. They also stabilize the core while the body is isolated in a bent over position. Finally, although the lower back muscles do not aid in trunk twists, they do help with forward bending (flexion) of the spine.

Because the human back takes up approximately a quarter of a person's frame, inexperienced training and a lagging routine will cause nothing but headaches. People around the world envy those that walk amongst us supporting the "V taper". Although it is not impossible to obtain, a lot of people fail miserably when it comes to adding size and tone to their back muscles. Like you, they simply want to know how to get a big back!

Example of different pull-up grips
Example of different pull-up grips | Source

Many Pull-Ups, Lots of Grips!

If you want to know how to get a big back, the best advice is pull-ups. I stress this in bold because if there is one exercise that should be performed during every back workout, it is pull-ups. Pull-ups are one of the oldest exercises known and are still around for a reason. They are hard and challenging but rewarding if done properly with a full range of motion. **For maximum results on how to get a big back, add two variations (different grips) of pull-ups exercises for four sets each. **

By changing hand positioning, you can simply change the stress of the pull on your working lats.

Examples of different pull-up hand positioning is: wide-grip, narrow-grip, neutral-grip, supinated-grip, and pronated-grip. Refer to the picture in the upper right.

I recommend changing your hand positioning after every four sets of pull-ups. If your workout entails only one exercise of pull-ups, one hand position will suffice for the day. Rather than changing your grip every set, record or remember what type of grip you used. Next time you train back, switch to a different grip.

Because pull-ups are easier said than done, you may have to start by using a body assisted pull-up machine or use the buddy system to get started. Although fine for the beginning, you should work toward transitioning to free weight pull-ups. Losing body fat and gaining strength should help.

If you have been struggling with building your back properly and have not been doing pull-ups, you know now what needs to be done in pursuit of how to get a big back!

Shoulder Range of Motion
Shoulder Range of Motion | Source

Resistance from All Directions

Because the shoulders are a unique and shallow ball-and-socket joint, there is a huge range of motion that the shoulders provide. "Normal range of motion in the shoulder includes approximately 150 degrees of abduction, 180 degrees of flexion, between 45-60 degrees of extension, 90 degrees of lateral rotation, and 70-90 degrees of medial rotation." [II] As you can tell, the shoulders are very versatile when it comes to movement.

So what does shoulder movement have to do with developing a solid how to build a big back routine? Actually, a lot!

Because the traps and lat are attached to the shoulder joint, their muscles provide the generators of power to elevate the shoulders and flex the shoulder joint. In order to train these muscles efficiently, it only makes sense to switch the angles of resistance imposed upon the shoulder joint.

We already spoke about doing pull-ups and the great benefits they provide in how to get a big back. The angle of resistance for doing pull-ups has the resistance coming from overhead. This has the arms totally positioned over a persons head and the shoulders fully flexed. There are only a few other back exercises that mimic this type of resistance. The pull-down is one example.

So if pull-ups and pull-downs provide good examples of exercises that has the stress coming from overhead, what other angles of resistance are there? Low and medial.

Examples of good low resistance back exercises are: Bent over barbell rows (see video at bottom of hub), one arm dumbbell rows, bent over dumbbell rows, and T-bar rows (see video at bottom of hub).

Examples of good medial resistance back exercises are: Seated rows, one arm cable rows (see video at bottom of hub), alternating step back one arm cable rows, and rowing machines (a lot of cardio on this one).

In pursuit of perfecting the how to get a big back, make sure your back routine has an equal amount of exercises with resistance coming from overhead, medial, and low. Stay away from all medial, all low, or all high exercises over the span of a back workout. Get your back muscles guessing what is coming next. Switch it up with variety of resistance from all directions.

Example of a full Scapular Pinch
Example of a full Scapular Pinch | Source

Pinch the Scapula Together

When training the upper back muscles, it is more than just going through the motions, heavily loading the muscles and trudging through various types of rowing exercises. Whereas you might be able to get away with this when training a muscle group like the legs or chest, the back muscles are unique because of the shallow ball-and-socket joint and the wide range of motion it provides.

In how to get a big back, one of the best tips I can give anyone is to pinch the Scapula together on every dual rowing exercise, every time. The scapula pinch should begin on the contraction phase of upper back exercises. It should be fully pinched when the weight load is at its highest point and the row bar/handle is positioned in a persons belly button (refer to picture on upper right).

*The scapula pinch does not work when doing single arm rows or working uni-laterally.*

Prone Cobra's and Hyperextensions

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Start | Source
Finnish | Source

Seated Good Mornings & Stiff Leg Deadlifts

Click thumbnail to view full-size
StartFinnishStiff Leg Deadlift
Start | Source
Finnish | Source
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Stiff Leg Deadlift | Source

Do not neglect the Erectors!

A lot of back training encompasses a tremendous amount of tugging and pulling. Although a great way to develop the upper back muscles, this does not do much for the lower back.

The lower back is such a vital aspect to a person's core but is often neglected.

It is almost comical how someone will train abs every time they visit the gym but then leave without doing one exercise for the lower back. If someone is that concerned about their core, why are they skimping out when it comes to the lower back? Simple, because society has molded people into thinking that having a six pack is sexy. Does anyone even notice the lower back? Chances are, probably not.

So why these crunch happy people are busy spending hours busting their butts doing crunches, they are actually weakening their lower back muscles without even realizing it. Because the abdominals are connected to the lower back through the kinetic chain, the strengthened abs cause the lower back muscles to stretch. Stretched muscles against their contracted antagonist counterparts are weak muscles.

So how do people strengthen their erector spinae muscles? In how to build a big back, I recommend throwing in one of these four exercises every time you train back or at least once a week. Listed in order, from easiest to advanced, they are: The Prone Cobra, Hyperextensions, Seated Good Mornings, and Stiff Leg Deadlifts.




What Back Exercise has given you the most results?

See results

Proper Technique for Bent Over Barbell Rows

Example of Proper one Arm Cable mid Row

Proper Technique of T-bar Rows with Olympic Barbell


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