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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
June 06, 2023
In this day of modern training, everyone is all about sculpting a massive, thick back and the biceps that come along with it. Having a nice V-taper accompanied by massive traps and bulging biceps shows that you're serious about your training and it can instantly change how people perceive you. Plus, your back is responsible for building good posture and injury resilience. A large portion of common injuries and ailments can be traced to a weak back as the culprit.
It goes without saying that training back and biceps together is common practice in bodybuilding, just like chest and triceps. Back and biceps are considered synergistic muscle groups, meaning they work together in many pulling movements. This allows for both balanced development and time-efficient workouts, among other benefits which we will discuss further below.
In this guide, which applies to both men and women, we are going to teach you everything you need to know about back and bi workouts, and we are going to provide you with the ultimate back and biceps workout routine that you can do at the gym (or your home gym).
Table of Contents:
The "back" consists of several different muscles which work in unison to manipulate your arms and add stability to your spine. In fact, your back is even active during movements that take place on the anterior of the body, such as bench pressing
Commonly referred to as "the lats" the latissimus dorsi muscles are two large, flat muscles located on the body's side. From about mid-back to the lower back, the lats connect directly to the spine. They wrap around to the side and travel upwards when it begins to taper off and links to the upper extremity.
The lats have a lot of different functions, including:
From an aesthetic perspective, developed lats are responsible for creating the V-taper as they can protrude out to the side of the body. This is why they're also referred to as "wings" on guys whose lat stick out from their sides.
The trapezius muscle; better known as the "traps". The traps are the one muscle whose size can have a dramatic effect on how jacked you look. If the area between your neck and shoulder is flat, you're not going to intimidate anyone. However, if you have massive boulders sitting there, you'll get respect immediately.
The trap's origin is located from around mid-back on the spine and runs up all the way up the neck and to the skull where it attaches to the external occipital protuberance. This is why it's also referred to as "the neck muscle". The traps run towards the side of the body, angling up towards the shoulder where it inserts to the scapula and clavicle.
Besides making you look swole, the traps are extremely important for producing neck health and creating good posture and vital for scapular control. They are primarily responsible for:
Have you ever looked at a lifter, and they seem to have a massive canyon in the middle of their back? What you're looking at is a well-developed set of erector spinea muscles sitting on either side of the spine.
The erector spine is actually a series of 3 major muscles that work to manipulate the spine:
This group of muscles sits on either side of the spine and travels up and down its entirety from the sacrum and hips to the base of the skull. Strengthening these muscles is of extreme importance for a healthy spine and posture.
The rhomboid major and minor are two small muscles that sit on top of each other and are shaped like rhomboids. For those not familiar with geometry, a rhomboid is a parallelogram with uneven sides and differences in angles.
These muscle origins come from the upper spine and are inserted on the scapula. While small, they play a critical role in scapular control. Both muscles work to manipulate the scapula, press the scapula against the thoracic wall, and retract the scapula.
Not having strong rhomboids will prevent you from keeping stable scapular control, leading to a cascade of biomechanical deficiencies. Without proper scapula control, the upper extremities cannot operate off a strong base, thus causing irregular movements as well as causing the joints to overcompensate.
Rhomboids are trained anytime you are retracting your scapula and bracing them. That's literally what they do, and it wouldn't be possible without them. This being said, as long as you use good form during your pulling exercises (you better be!), you'll train your rhomboids. However, it's always a good idea to throw in some mobility work and light movements to build your rhomboid's strength and endurance.
While technically the deltoids are your shoulders, there are three heads; the anterior, acromial (sometimes referred to as medial or middle), and posterior. We are worried about the posterior as it is actually part of the back (hence the name “posterior’) and works in conjunction with the other back muscles.
The main function of the posterior deltoid is pulling the arm back at various angles. The good thing is you don’t need to worry too much about including a specific exercise for the posterior delts. This is because virtually every back exercise that involves the arms hit them already.
Everybody knows the biceps! The biceps are a large two-headed (bi) muscle that sit on the upper arm. These two heads are separated into the long head and short head, which is determined by their origin.
The short head originates from the coracoid process of the scapula while the long head originates from the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. The two heads then run down the arm and merge together in the mid-region to form one larger muscle mass yet still distinct from one another. In other words, the muscle fibers are never shared. Next, this one muscle mass runs down past the elbow and inserts the forearm's radial tuberosity and bicipital aponeurosis.
The biceps are unique in that they actually cross two joints: the shoulder and elbow. Specifically, they cross the:
Together, the biceps work to manipulate the arm several ways:
Before we learn what to do to get a strong back and biceps, it's essential to understand why having a powerful back and biceps is actually very beneficial.
In terms of aesthetics, building your back is necessary for creating the ever-coveted V-taper. Moreover, developing a well-defined back is no easy feat. It is a sign of years of hard work in the gym. But, even better, it can actually improve your quality of life.
Here's a table outlining the benefits of having a strong and well-developed back and biceps:
Benefits of a Strong and Well-developed Back
Benefits of Strong and Well-developed Biceps
Enhanced Arm Strength and Power
Increased Upper Body Strength
Improved Grip Strength
Enhanced Spinal Stability and Scapular Control
Improved Pulling and Lifting Abilities
Reduced Risk of Back & Neck Injuries
Enhanced Aesthetics and Muscle Definition in Arms
Improved Athletic Performance
Increased Functional Strength for Arm Movements
Better Balance and Coordination
Improved Overall Upper Body Symmetry
Enhanced Core Strength
Increased Confidence and Self-Esteem
Improved Body Mechanics
Improved Performance in Arm-focused Exercises
Increased Range of Motion and Flexibility
Assists in Various Upper Body Movements
Improved Overall Upper Body Symmetry and Proportion
Enhanced Functional Strength and Performance
These benefits highlight the advantages of having a strong and well-developed back and biceps, including improved posture, strength, aesthetics, functional abilities, and overall body mechanics. It's important to remember that these benefits are not exhaustive and may vary depending on individual fitness goals, lifestyle, and specific activities or sports. For example, in this study, a woman with chronic elbow pain had her symptoms alleviated entirely after completing a program that only focused on strengthening her middle and lower traps.
The goal with our back and biceps workout routine is to not only build the aesthetics you desire, but also to build the strength to become injury resilient and pain-free.
Training back and biceps together is a common practice in many workout routines. There are a few reasons why these muscle groups are often trained together:
While training the back and bi's together is a tried and true method used by many of the greatest bodybuilders for decades, it is important to note that there are various training methods and approaches, and what works best for an individual can vary.
We went over the anatomy and function of the biceps and back for a reason. Being able to identify the different muscles of a muscle group and their different parts is pivotal in creating the best workout plan for hypertrophy and strength. Knowing how the muscles function makes selecting the correct exercises a much easier task. It also helps with the mind-muscle connection.
Therefore, let's get started in examining the exercises you'll be using at the gym when doing our back and biceps routine.
The reason we have so many exercises for you is because our back and biceps routine actually consists of two different workouts. Session A and Session B, which you will rotate through either weekly or bi-weekly, depending on your split (more on this later too).
The rack pull is a beast of a movement and is easily the best exercise to load some massive weight. Some uneducated lifters look at the rack pull as a "cheat" deadlift, but those "in the know" look at it as one, independent movement. While the movement is obviously very similar to the deadlift, the bar is set at a raised height of your choosing. Doing so essentially lowers the range of motion, meaning you can lift more weight. More importantly, the rack pull is basically the second half of the deadlift, where the back is more involved. Therefore, we want to set the bar at or slightly above knee level. If the setting above is a couple inches above your knee, choose the setting below the knee of it's closer.
While this is going to hit your entire back, it's an exceptionally amazing exercise for the traps. Multiple studies have found that the trap musculature has the highest EMG activity during the deadlift when the bar travels from the knees to lockout. In order to get high activation, sufficient weight needs to be used so these are best performed with heavyweight, low reps, and high sets.
If you pay attention to who has some of the most impressive upper backs, you will notice that Olympic lifters are on the top of the list. This is due to the massive force they are required to generate by their upper back during cleans and snatches. However, Olympic movements are extremely technical and take some good coaching. In other words, they are not suitable for everyone.
The snatch-grip high-pull basically takes out what you need of the movement and throws out the rest. The high pull starts with the bar on the ground like a deadlift would but you take a wider grip, like the snatch. You then explode up using the triple extension and use this power to assist your arms in pulling the bar up to shoulder level. You will need bumper plates for this movement as the bar is then put back on the floor using a controlled fall. These are best performed with low reps, multiple sets, and adequate rest between each rep (NOT SET, REP) as you need time to set up. In other words, take your time
Chin-ups are the king of pulling exercises, and yes, I mean pulling. Many people will point to the pull-up (which is also excellent), but the chin-up wins when looking at the amount of muscle mass used and ability to load. Proof? What's easier to do; chin-ups or pull-ups? Unless you're one of the odd ones, you'll say chin-ups. Many people will incorrectly think that the pull-up is better because it's more challenging; however, the difficulty of an exercise doesn't dictate its effectiveness. In reality, chin-ups are easier as you're using more muscle mass. This means that you can place a greater load on it.
Further, you're getting a killer bicep workout as well. Bret Contreas used EMG readings during an at-home analysis of pulling exercises. This included a ton of exercises, from deadlifts to hammer curls. Do you know which exercise caused the greatest EMG readings in the biceps? Weighted chin-ups!
This was due because the flexion of the elbow goes through a full range of motion, and the body is able to be loaded significantly. Remember, this movement is relative to your bodyweight, so the activation should be similar for everyone who works in the 4-6 rep range; for some, this means weighted for others not.
In fact, chin-ups are such a good movement; you're going to train them twice as much as the other movements.
To really finish hitting the traps, your best bet is going to be using barbell front shrugs. Using the barbell forces you to use a pronated grip with your hands out in front of the body. This does two things benefiting optimal trap growth:
These factors make the barbell front shrug the highest rated exercise when comparing EMG readings. Still the barbell shrug is a movement that allows heavy loading. When performing these, you want to focus on using heavyweight with slow reps. Even though the range of motion is larger with front shrugs, it's still relatively small. Therefore, you want to use slow reps to get as much time under tension as possible.
Dumbbell bent-over rows are going to destroy your middle back; in a good way. Rack pulls and shrugs take care of your upper back and these dumbbell rows will hit your middle & lower traps while also getting a good workout in with your lats. Further, due to the unilateral nature of the movement, you will naturally get a bit of core work and fight your body from rotating. Regardless, the dumbbell bent-over row is an amazing exercise to train your back.
Related: Bent Over Row Variations
The lat-pulldown with a bit of a twist. As the name implies, you'll perform the lat-pulldown while on your knees. Regular lat-pulldowns are great too but doing them from your knees provides an extra benefit. Because you are not able to brace yourself using your knees, lat pull-pulldowns from your knees require full bracing from your entire body, much like a pull-up. In fact, this study found the EMG readings from lat-pulldown from the knees had the most similar to a pull-up. However, this movement is going to focus on the lats.
Related: Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives
We love T-Bar rows. While barbell rows are also awesome, T-bar rows tend to allow people to use more weight for some massive backs. Further, as the weight is on a pivot, they seem to cause greater activation than a barbell row where the weight is pulling straight down. If you don't have a T-bar-specific machine, you can use a landmine set-up; either will work.
Related: Best T-Bar Row Alternatives
We already have dumbbell rows and the T-bar row, so there's no need to add another row; except this standing row. These are performed with a pulley machine and any handle can be utilized; Neural, straight bar, rope. Do yourself a favor and mix it up. Regardless of where these standout, you are performing them standing up, which demands a much higher degree of stabilization in your core (and body in general).
Above, we talked about Olympic lifters having great backs. Do you know who else does? Swimmers! Swimmers (more commonly known as straight arm pulldowns) basically just mimic the freestyle stroke using a load. They're fairly easy to perform and all you need is a pulley system. The most important aspect of this movement is keeping your arms straight and pulling your arms down; don't pull your elbows back.
Face-pulls are a must for any athlete as they are a prime movement to increase the upper back's strength and endurance. Still, performing these movements regularly will significantly improve scapular control and your shoulder mobility. Face-pulls are best done with lower weight and high reps. Further, including a good squeeze at full contraction is always a good idea. When you perform this movement, really be mindful about pulling your scapula back.
Related: Face Pull Alternatives
Last but not least are back extensions. To be clear, you will have trained your erector spine pretty good already in the above exercises. However, we want some specific movements, so we'll throw these in as your last back exercise. Still, since your back will already be pretty fatigued, you'll perform just 1 set to momentarily failure, and that'll be it.
Related: Back Extension Alternatives
The biceps 21 do the trick of smashing the biceps really well. Bicep 21's consist of doing 21 curls in 3 continuous sets of 7.
Because you have already put some heavy loads on your bicep earlier, it's a good idea to perform some lightweight exercises with maximal reps and bicep 21's do the tricks.
The 2nd bicep exercise you'll do are hammer curls with a rope. Performing the exercise with a rope adds just a little bit of extra resistance at the top of the movement, where you pull the rope outwards. This causes a bit higher activation. Again, your biceps have already worked heavily so you'll want to use lightweight and high reps.
Before you start slinging heavyweight with the exercises above, you need to get your back warmed up and your muscles activated. Doing so not only lessens the likelihood of getting an injury it can also improve the performance of your session by allowing you to lift more weight.
Further, this is a great time to perform the mobility and lighter exercises we discussed above.
Bird Dogs are one of Stu McGills famous "Big 3" movements for back mobility and health. This movement is performed by getting in a quadruped knee position. You will then move one arm, and its contralateral leg. This is a fancy way of saying "opposite," so your right arm will move with the left leg and vice versa. Your legs will move backward in a straightening action so your leg will be parallel with your back at the top. The arms will lift up in front of the head like superman. However, for our purpose, you will also want to alternate by lifting it out laterally (the side) as well. This is going to loosen up your back and joints, activate your back muscles, and overall just create a robust core.
Scapular pull-ups are pull-ups that are only using your scapula. You start this movement in a hang with your shoulder protracted. Now, keeping your arms straight, you will retract your scapula. Hold this position, and then lower yourself down. While this is an excellent exercise for warm-up and activation, it's also a great way to throw in some grip training which everyone should be doing.
Band pull aparts are basically reverse flies using bands. They are going to train your entire upper back and improve scapular control. This will be a great way to start your back training exercise. Still, these are some of the best basic exercises you can do to add work volume to your upper back to improve posture. This is why you want to do these every day.
You'll then move into 1 set of banded curls till 80% failure. Nothing fancy here. You're just wanting to get the biceps warm, primed and ready to go.
Above we went over the best exercises you need to perform to grow the back you want. Now, we just need to schedule them into a workout plan. When writing a program for strength and muscle hypertrophy, there are a few variables we want to consider.
Training frequency refers to how many times a week you're going to train a specific muscle group. In our case, it's the back and biceps. The optimal training frequency that maximizes the amount of quality volume seems to be twice a week. Training your back and biceps two times a week will allow you to train with high intensity but also mitigate fatigue. That said, once a week will work too. This will depend on your workout split.
Often, people make the topic of rep schemes way too complicated. Should I lift heavy for strength or should I lift light for muscle growth? How about just doing both?
First off, our understanding of the rep spectrum has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Originally we believed that if you want to get strong, you need to lift with a load of >85%1RM. In order to gain muscle, you need to lower the weight to <80%1RM. However, we now know that only one of those is correct, kind of.
Studies have now shown that for hypertrophy, any weight can be used. Basically, volume is volume regardless if you're using 3RM or 12RM. However, moderate weights do allow you to produce more volume, so reps of 8-12 are still best, just through different mechanisms.
However, for strength, you need to use those heavier loads. Some strength can be built with lighter loads when you're a beginner, but that won't last long.
Still, strength and hypertrophy play off each other. A stronger muscle can allow more volume to build a bigger muscle. A bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle. Therefore, just do both. The beginning of the session will start with a heavyweight. As you progress, the exercises will get lighter.
Your session should always start with the "biggest" exercises and then move down towards your most minor as the session progresses. 90% of the time, this refers to the movement that you will be using the most weight with. An example where this may not be the case are shrugs. Even though you can use a large load with shrugs, the range of motion is small.
You're going to have two sessions: session A and session B.
You want to perform these sessions with 2-4 full days of rest in between. We will look at various splits after running through the workouts so you can see how the two sessions will fit into your specific routine.
For reference: RPE = rate of perceived exertion. We use an 8 RPE for some exercises, which means you have ~2 reps left in the tank (80% failure rate) and you are using a challenging weight of 68-92% 1RM. So, if we write just 8 RPE, that means do as many reps until you reach 80% of your failure rate. If we state 8 RPE and a number of reps, choose a weight load that leaves you with just ~2 reps left in the tank in that rep range.
|Rack Pulls||4 sets||4 reps|
|Chin Ups (weighted if necessary)||3 sets||8PRE 7-10 reps|
|Barbell Front Shrugs||4 sets||4-6 reps|
|T-Bar Row||3 sets||6-8 reps|
|Kneeling Lat-Pulldown||3 sets||8-12+ reps|
|Back Extensions||1 set||Failure|
|Bicep 21||2 sets||7x7x7|
|Snatch Grip High Pulls||5 sets||3 reps|
|Chin Ups (weighted, if possible)||3 sets||8RPE (4-6 reps)|
|Dumbbell Bent Over Rows||3 sets||6-8 reps|
|Standing Cable Row||3 sets||8-10 reps|
|Swimmers (or lat pushdowns)||3 sets||12+ reps|
|Back Extensions||1 set||Failure|
|Rope Hammer Curls||3 sets||12-15+ reps|
You can utilize this plan with any other program you have. Obviously, when you are trying to concentrate on one area, other areas may need to sacrifice some time.
Below we will look at two common splits (PPL Split & Body Part Split) and how sessions A and B will work into them.
3 Day PPL:
Now, to give you an idea of how this back and biceps workout plan can fit into various programs at a frequency of approximately two times a week...
You could do a 5 or 6 day PPL split:
5 Day PPL:
~6 Day PPL:
Here is a body part split that allows you to train certain muscle groups twice a week:
If legs and shoulders are more important for you to build up, you can switch them with chest and triceps.
Here is a more typical body part split, aka a bro split, which would have you rotating between Session A and Session B each week:
This program will be plenty to keep you progressing for a while using progressive overload. Every week, try to either throw on a little bit more weight OR add some reps. Either one is going to work but we want to address some specifics.
You'll notice that some of the exercises have a range (6-8). For these, you'll want to start using 3x6. Then, use the same weight and increase the reps until you can perform 3x8. Once you're able, increase the weight a bit so you go back down to 3x6. Now, simply repeat this process.
Your chins are using what's known as RPE or rate of perceived exertion. This simply refers to how hard something feels. An 8RPE basically means 80% failure rate. However, the two days have two different rep schemes. Therefore, sessions will be heavier and one day will be lighter. You need to use weights (or assistance) to account for these reps. On your 3rd set, you can also take it a bit farther with reps.
For the smaller exercises, you're really just trying to get in as much volume as you can. Therefore, these can be brought closer to failure, especially the 3rd set.
Once things begin to get stale, you can simply switch up some of the exercises with similar movements EXCEPT for rack pulls. The only alternative you could swap out for are block pulls. Examples of other swap-outs are;
Doing this will keep things interesting while also adding a slightly different stimulus. That being said, you should run as is (with progressive overload) for 3 months.
Here are some common questions we get regarding back and bi day.
There are several alternative back exercises that you can incorporate into your workout routine to target different areas of the back and ensure overall back development. Here are some good alternatives to the ones in our workout routine: Single Arm DB Rows, Seated Cable Rows, Bent Over Rows (underhand and overhand), and Reverse Flyes.
Best Exercises by Muscle Groups:
There are several alternative biceps exercises you can incorporate into your workout routine to target the biceps from different angles and challenge the muscle in unique ways. Our favorites are: Hammer Curls, Incline Biceps Curls, Concentration Curls, Preacher Curls, Reverse Curls, and Zottman Curls.
Learn more about the best biceps exercises.
Yes, you can include supersets in your back and biceps workout; however, it's important to consider their impact on performance. When performing exercises that target the upper back, such as pull-ups, pulldowns, and rows, your biceps will already be partially fatigued. If you immediately transition to biceps exercises like curls, you may need to decrease the weights used.
A modified superset workout for back and biceps could look like this:
Supersets allow for time-efficient and challenging workouts. However, keep in mind that your performance may be affected. If you have limited time to complete your training session, incorporating supersets can be a viable option. Adapt the workout to your preferences and listen to your body to ensure proper form and prevent overexertion.
There isn't a definitive optimal duration for a back and bicep workout. However, it's generally recommended to allocate around 60 to 90 minutes for your workout session. By maintaining high intensity and minimizing rest periods between sets, you can effectively complete your workout within this timeframe.
To prevent injury, ensure proper form and technique during exercises. Gradually increase weights and intensity over time. Incorporate a balanced training program that includes rest days, flexibility work, and core strengthening exercises. If you have any existing injuries or concerns, consult with a qualified fitness professional or healthcare provider for guidance.
Improve your thoracic spine mobility for greater injury resilience.
Absolutely! Back and biceps exercises can be adapted to suit different fitness levels. Start with lighter weights and focus on proper form. Gradually increase the intensity as you build strength and confidence. Consider seeking guidance from a fitness professional to ensure safe and effective training.
Incorporating stretching exercises after your back and bicep workout can aid in recovery and promote muscle cooldown. Here's an effective stretching routine for your back:
Performing these stretches can help alleviate muscle tension and improve flexibility. Remember to hold each stretch for an appropriate duration and maintain proper form throughout the stretching routine.
After your workout, it's essential to provide your body with a nutritious meal promptly. Focus on consuming a meal that includes an adequate amount of protein to support muscle recovery and carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores. If you're unsure about your protein requirements, refer to our article on "how much protein you need for muscle growth." For instance, a balanced meal could consist of options like rice and chicken or sweet potato and ground beef.
Learn more about post-workout meals.
Results vary depending on individual factors such as genetics, training consistency, nutrition, and overall lifestyle. With consistent training, proper nutrition, and recovery, you can expect to see improvements in strength, muscle tone, and overall physique within a few weeks to a couple of months.
That's all you need. You have no excuse not to have a monster back now. Hit the gym, keep the intensity up, and watch your back and biceps grow with the best back and bi workout routine for mass and strength.
Check out some of our other ULTIMATE workouts:
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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