October 06, 2021
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 shows that you're serious about your training and can instantly change how people perceive you. Plus, your back is responsible for building good posture and a large portion of common injuries and ailments can be traced to a weak back as the culprit. Therefore, you’re going to learn the best back and bicep workout for strength and mass here and now.
In this article, you're going to learn:
Before we learn what to do to get a strong back, it's essential to understand why having a powerful back is actually very beneficial to your health. Yes, having a V-taper is accomplished through building your back, and a thick back is a sign of dominance at the gym. However, it can actually improve your quality of life.
Weak back muscles are the root of a large percentage of common ailments that we hear about today. Sore lower back, poor posture, and joint pain, just to name a few. For example, in this study, a woman's chronic elbow pain was alleviated entirely after completing a program that only focused on strengthening her middle and lower traps. In fact, weak necks and lack of proper scapular control (study) are two of the more common issues seen. Still, a weak lower back brings in a host of other issues such as general pain or can be the trigger for other ailments below the waist. Regardless, if none of this will be an issue after performing this back workout routine,
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.
Rhomboid Major and Minor
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.
Function of the Biceps
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:
Some may blow the above anatomy and function off, which would be a grave mistake. Identifying the different muscles of a muscle group and their different parts is pivotal in creating the best workout plan. Knowing how the muscles function makes identifying the correct exercises a much easier task.
Therefore, let's get started in examining the exercises you'll want to use. We will be using these exercises in our back and bicep workouts.
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 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
Your biceps will get a good workout with the above plan, but again, we want some bicep-specific (isolation) exercises that target elbow flexion.
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.
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. A stronger muscle can….you get the point.
Therefore, just do both. The beginning of the session will start with a heavyweight. As you progress, the exercises will get lighter.
Order Of Exercises:
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.
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 with any other program you have. Obviously, when you are trying to concentrate on one area, other areas may need to sacrifice some time.
To give you an idea of how this workout can fit into various programs at a frequency of approximately two times a week...
You could do a 5 or 6 day PPL split:
Body Part Split
If you have a 4 or 5 day body part split:
If legs and shoulders are more important for you to build up, you can switch them with chest and triceps.
All in all, with smart programming, you can make it work.
Another option, is to do one back and bicep workout per week, and alternate Session A and Session B each week...
Week 1: Back & Bi Workout Session A
Week 2: Back & Bi Workout Session B
Week 3: Back & Bi Workout Session A
Week 4: Back & Bi Workout Session B
...and so on.
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.
Now Go Earn It!
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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