If you happen to be looking for an in-depth, no BS, straight the point guide on how to train your back muscles, consider this your lucky day.
In this article you are going to learn everything you need to in order to create your own back training routine.
If you are going for that lean, defined, muscular, or “toned” back ( all of those words mean the same thing by the way ) then this article is for you.
Just be sure to stick with me here. If you are reading this, commit to reading ( and watching ! ) the whole thing.
Don’t skim it or half read it. It won’t bring you any value that way and I want to be sure you learn something from this article.
Therefore read every section, watch every video, and no skimming around.
I promise this will be one of the best, if not the best, guide to training your back you have ever read.
We got a deal? Rad, let’s do this then.
How To Train Your Back Muscles
What Are Your Back Muscles?
Before we get into exactly how to train your back muscles, we have to know what and where your back muscles are.
We also have to know what your back muscles do from a function standpoint.
All of this will help you understand the exercises we are going to go over today as well as create your own routine based on what you want to work more.
We won’t be getting too in depth, but at least having a general baseline knowledge of what these muscles do can help you train them that much more efficiently.
I like to break the back up into two divisions when it comes to training it for hypertrophy ( Again, that “lean”, defined look you are going for ).
That would be the upper back and the lats.
Let’s cover both right now.
** Disclaimer, a lot of the information I have learned through this article has come from the knowledge and platform of N1 Education. In my opinion one of the best educational sites out there, if you would like to check them out, you can do so HERE ** .
Upper Back Muscles
When talking about the upper back muscles, there are 3 main muscles I like to focus on.
Those are going to be
- Rear Delts
- Traps (Upper, Mid, and Lower )
You can find some pictures of each one here below.
I also included a picture of your scapula. We will be referring to this a lot, so be sure you are just simply aware of what that is.
Think of your scapula as your shoulder blades primarily.
When it comes to the rhomboids, the rhomboids main job is to help retract the scapula and move it upwards slightly.
The rear delts are located on the back of your shoulder right on top of the ridge of the scapula. These muscles help move your shoulder into shoulder extension and somewhat retraction.
Your traps have 3 different divisions to them, the upper, the lower, and the mid traps.
The mid traps we don’t directly train too often as they are mainly used as a pivot point for your pressing and pulling motions ( think Chest press, rows, pull downs, etc).
The upper trap helps with retraction and elevation of the scapula, where as the lower trap helps with stabilization of downward rotation of the scapula.
Again, we don’t need to go through a whole anatomy class ( though if you want to learn a ton about this, I highly suggest checking out N1 education courses ), I just want you to have a solid understanding of where these muscles are on your body and what they do.
The second grouping of muscles is going to be your lat muscles.
Some people may think the lat is one muscle, and it is, but there are different divisions of the lat muscles.
There are 3 distinct divisions of your lat muscles. These are going to be
I will attach a picture here below of the lat.
Your lat inserts into your humerus ( your upper arm ).
Remember this as this is going to play a huge role when talking about how to bias your lats in exercises.
For the thoracic lats, those are responsible for pulling the humerus ( the upper arm ) at the most horizontal motion.
For the lumbar lats, those are responsible for pulling the humerus at somewhat of a horizontal motion and down to your lumbar spine ( lower back ) .
For thoracic and lumbar lats, think row variations are the prime movement for those two ( we will get into some more as we continue in this article ).
Then the iliac lats are most responsible for pulling down from a vertical position, so think exercises like pulldowns.
Keeping in mind that all 3 parts of your lat will be working at all times, it is just certain exercises can target certain portions better than others.
Which, is what I will show you in this article.
Once more, I don’t need you to be an expert on this stuff, just a brief overview of what is going on from an anatomy standpoint will help things make sense and we start to get into exercises.
How To Train Your Back Muscles : Upper Back
Now that we have some basic understanding of where these muscles are going to be located on our body and what they do, let’s get into how to train them.
This is important because if you want to bias a particular area of your body when you are training it, picking the proper exercises can do just that for you!
Let’s start with upper back first, primarily rear delts.
When looking at rear delts, you want to try and make sure you are training them in their proper movement pattern.
A lot of people have tried to do this exercise below for their rear delts.
And a lot of people, me included, never really got their rear delts more developed.
Why? Because this movement doesn’t train the muscle through the complete range of motion or it’s function.
Just simply pushing your arm out to the side doesn’t complete the shoulder extension that we are looking for when we are wanting train rear delts.
Therefore picking proper movements that allow for this can be incredibly helpful in developing a physique.
One of the main aspects of back training that you are going to see pop up again and again, whether you are training upper back, rear delts, lats, whatever, is your elbow positioning.
I will touch on this various times because where your elbow ends up is a huge indicator of what part of your back is working.
For any upper back training, your elbows are generally speaking going to end up a bit father away from your body at an angle.
When we are looking at training rear delts, you want your elbows to end up at about a roughly 45 degree angle. Like this here below.
This will make sure your form is going to bias the rear delts and get work done, as opposed to just hitting a combination of everything.
Which, isn’t a bad thing, but if you are looking to isolate your rear delts, this is a great option for you.
Now, let’s get into some exercises of what this may look like. I will give you 3 of my favorite rear delt exercises here below.
DB Chest support 45 degree rear delt row
The chest support 45 degree angle rear delt row gives you a great rear delt workout with a fairly simple set up.
This movement is going to allow you to stretch the muscle at the bottom, while fully contracting the muscle on the way up by going into that 45 degree ish shoulder extension at the top.
Really think about driving with the elbow and finishing in that position where you found earlier from the video.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-12
1/2 kneeling 1 arm cross cable rear delt pull
This is a great exercise for fully stretching the rear delt as you are going to be having your arm come across your body.
It will also allow you to shorten and contract the muscle by bringing it through into shoulder extension.
Be sure to watch the video for proper form tips.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-12/ea arm
1 arm rear delt cable fly
This movement I like to get more of a fly variation into the mix.
This is a much better exercise in my opinion than the reverse pec dec machine I put above.
You can get the muscle fully stretched while bringing it into shoulder extension still.
Really think about leading with the elbow and pulling back with the shoulder at the bottom.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 10-12/ea
That basically covers it for rear delt training, now let’s move onto rhomboids and traps.
Rhomboids & Traps
When it comes to training the rhomboids and traps, we have to remember their functions.
Your elbow position is going to be finish a tad bit higher than what it would in a rear delt row for example. See below.
Your intent is also a bit different. In a rhomboid based row, you are looking to retract the scapula a bit more than you would in a rear delt row.
Also, your upper trap is going to get worked in rhomboid based row movements as well as somewhat of collateral damage.
You could do the old shrugs for your upper traps, there is nothing wrong with that.
Yet most people’s upper traps get worked in a ton of row variations so I will show you one of my favorite exercises for those lower traps.
Let’s cover some exercises that you can throw in to get some work done.
Upper Back Pulldown
For this movement, even though you are pulling from above, you can emphasize your elbows out wide and pulling down to hit more of your upper back.
People think this is a “lat” movement, it really isn’t, and we will explain why in the ladder sections.
Really think about driving your elbows out as you pull down, then as you finish think about them pulling together at the bottom.
Keep a slight arch in your upper back.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-12
Seated Cable Row
Now you may have seen this video before, but take note of the handle I am using.
Most people try to use this handle when they do this movement.
I would advise against this simply because your range of motion is going to get cut short. You can’t drive your elbows back as far.
If your range of motion gets cut short, then less work gets done by your muscles.
To optimize this movement, be sure to pick a handle that allows you to have your elbows travel farther back. Anyone of these below will work.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-10
Cross Cable Y’s
This movement is first off a great movement for your medial delts first and foremost as this gets them in the most shortened position.
Yet it is also great for the lower traps because as you raise your arms up, your lower traps have to do a ton of work stabilizing this movement.
Therefore it makes it a great way to work your shoulders and lower traps in the same exercise, winner winner chicken dinner!
Sets : 2-3
Reps : 10-12
The movements we just listed pretty much covers the upper back training portion part.
Remember us talking about elbow position? Remember this.
For upper back training, your elbow is going to drive past the midline of your body.
Now when it comes to how to train your back muscles for your lats in particular, let’s dive into what that might look like.
How To Train Your Back Muscles : Lats
Remember when it comes to training lats there are 3 divisions you can target.
I am going to give you exercises for all 3 yet just remember, your entire lat will work at some point in these movements.
We can simply just bias a bit more of what we work in certain exercises.
One of the other main points when training your lats in particular is for the most part, we are not going to be bringing the arm past the midline of your body.
Once you bring your arm back past that, your upper back is going to do most of the work.
If we are trying to bias our lats, we are going to really think about driving the upper arm down and then back.
As well as keeping the elbows close to our body.
Remember in the upper back work, our elbows were veering out farther away from our body.
For lat work, we want to keep things tight to our body.
As well as thinking about keeping a neutral spine and our core braced.
The minute you start to arch your lower back, it is going to turn into less of a lat movement and more of an upper back movement.
Your lats need that neutral spine, core braced, and proper ribcage position to pull on.
This goes for any row or pulldown. Let’s take a closer look here below.
Let’s first cover the iliac lats.
Remember this division of your lats does a great job of pulling things down from up above.
A big emphasis on down.
With this being said, doing movements that are pulling things down from above is going to be most advantageous for this part of your back.
Now, this isn’t necessarily directly above your head. This is more at an angle out in front of you and above your head.
Think about reaching your arm up directly above your head, then going down about 15-20 degrees in front of you.
I can include 2 of my most favorite exercises here below for that.
Seated 1 arm cable lat pulldown
This begins supreme in my opinion to the regular lat pulldown, shown here below.
The regular lat pulldown is actually quite good for your upper back. It is not advantageous for your lats because again, we want our elbow to not cross the midline of our body and pull down instead of pulling back.
In the seated lat pulldown video I have above, you can see I am pulling the weight from slightly out in front of me and down.
I can keep the angle down the entire time, as opposed to having to lean back and pull past my body.
With this movement, think about driving your upper arm down and that your elbow is a spear going down to your hips.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-12/ea
This is a great exercise for those at a home gym ( or even a regular gym! ).
It is not easy by any means, but it is a great way to get those iliac lats involved from pulling down.
Remember, the intent here should be you are trying to drive the elbow down, not pull yourself up.
Sets : 2-3
Reps : 6-10 ( or as many as you can! )
1/2 Kneeling Cable Lat Pulldown
This is yet again another great option to hit the iliac lats.
If you do not have a bench, this is your go to right here.
You can also perform this with a band HERE if you want to!
Sets and reps would stay the same.
Again notice how the elbow in all of these is getting pulled DOWN to the hips, not back behind the body!
When it comes to how to train your back muscles, I hope you are seeing the elbow path is super important.
The thoracic lats will require mainly rowing movements.
I am going to drop some of my most favorite movements here below you can try on for size!
1 arm landmine row
This movement is a great movement to work the upper part of the lat fibers.
Be sure to again keep your core braced and do NOT arch your lower back.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-10/ea arm
1 arm thoracic lat db row
This movement is similar to the one above, just with a dumbbell instead of a barbell!
All the same mechanics, sets, and reps apply.
Last but not least we have the lumbar lats. These are going to attach down towards the lumbar spine.
There are a few main ways to train these, I will put some exercises here below!
1 arm db row
You have probably seen this exercise before, but to make it a bias of the lower lumbar lats, follow along the video I have here.
The main thought process here is to drive the elbow down and back to the hip, again not past the midline of your body.
Your upper arm going down and back, not straight back.
Also, you want to be mostly parallel to the ground as you pull.
Sets : 2-4
Reps : 8-10/ea
1 Arm cable lat row
This movement provides a great way to train your lower lats because you can angle yourself and your body with the cable.
Everyones structure will be different, but as you see in the video, you can set yourself up to have that cable and arm path exactly where you need it!
Remember to once again drive the elbow down and keep a neutral spine.
Sets : 2-3
Reps : 8-12/ea
How To Train Your Back Muscles : Sample Workout
That was a lot thrown at you on how to train your back muscles, I know.
Let me try to quickly recap and put together a sample back workout you could do!
First, remember that your elbow path helps decide what part fo your back is going to work.
Having your elbows at an angle and going past the midline of your body, for the most part, is going to work more upper back.
Your elbows can stay close to your body and if they go past the midline of your body they will be working upper back, but for the most part, the farther away your elbows are from your body the more upper back you are working.
Having your elbows travel down and then back, as well as NOT past the midline of your body is going to work more lats.
Now, let’s say you wanted develop a sample workout routine.
Well, I would first recommend hitting back on 2 separate days throughout the week.
One because a frequency of two times per week has been shown to be optimal for muscle growth.
Two because there are going to be multiple things you have to train and trying to fit it all into one day could be a nightmare.
Let’s say you are doing a 4x per week upper / lower split. Essentially meaning you are hitting an upper body workout 2x per week and a lower body workout 2x per week.
On your two upper body days, for your back in particular, it could look something like….
Exercise 1 – db chest support rear delt row 3×8-10 reps ( upper back / rear delt movement )
Exercise 2 – 1/2 kneeling 1 arm lat pulldown 3×8-12/ea ( iliac lat focus movement )
Exercise 3 – 1 arm db row 3×10-12/ea ( lumbar lat focus movement )
Exercise 1 – seated 2x arm cable row 3×8-10 ( thoracic lat focus movement )
Exercise 2 – Upper back pulldown 3×8-12 ( rhomboid focus movement )
Exercise 3 – 1/2 kneeling 1 arm rear delt pull 3×10-12/ea ( rear delt focus movement )
Bam, that right there would cover all of your bases when it comes to back training!
You are hitting every part of the back throughout the week in 6 exercises.
If that isn’t efficiency, I don’t know what is.
How To Train Your Back Muscles : The End
I hope you enjoyed this journey of how to train your back muscles.
I know this stuff can be complicated at first, so don’t be afraid to go back and check things out one more time.
Or, I also have an article on how to create a workout program HERE.
Or if you are feeling like “Dude, f this, just tell me what to do and I will do it” I can put my membership site here below which holds all of my training programs that I have ever created.
I can take the guesswork out of it for you and tell you exactly what exercises, sets, reps, etc to do so you won’t have to wonder.
Just do work and see results!
Any questions don’t hesitate to reach out.