February 07, 2022
A wide, thick, V-tapered back is the true sign of a dedicated lifter. Building one takes time and effort. It separates the men from the boys in the gym. There is a reason for the saying “shows are won from the back” in bodybuilding circles. If you want to build yourself a barn door back, you need to base your training on a foundation of barbell exercises. They provide the best bang for your buck and a unique challenge for your back musculature.
In this article, we'll explain exactly why barbell back exercises are so great and the training variables you need to employ, and then we will show you how to do 8 of the best barbell exercises so you can develop a broad, thick, V-tapered back.
The back is a complex network of inter-connected muscles. To fully develop your back it’s important to understand the muscles involved and how best to train them. Let me begin by giving you a quick overview of the anatomy and functions of the muscles of the back. This information will help you to create a training program that completely trains your back and allows for maximal development.
Sitting beneath the lats, the erector spinae muscles appear as two bulges running parallel to the spine before being covered by the trapezius.
The Iliocostalis is the lateral most muscle, then the longissimus, and finally the spinalis is the closest to the spine. These can be broken further into regions and sections. Briefly, they originate along the vertebrae and ribs, starting from the sacrum and iliac crest. They insert on higher vertebrae and ribs, extending to the mastoid process on the jaw and occipital bone on the back of the skull. Contracting these muscles results in back extension.
The lats are the bodies widest muscle covering the whole back (excluding the trapezius). The lats have multiple origins. The vertebral origin attaches to the bony projections on T7-L5, spanning from the mid to lower back. The costal, iliac and scapula origins are from the bottom 3-4 ribs, the iliac crest and inferior angle of the scapula (the bottom inside corner), respectively. The lat has one insertion: the floor of the intertubercular groove of the humerus. Between the pectoralis major and teres major, the lat goes under the arm to attach at this groove - which is an indentation running vertically down the front of the humerus.
Their primary functions are shoulder extension, medial rotation, and adduction of the upper arm. Shortening the lat brings the upper arm to your side, meaning pull-ups, pull-downs, and rows really target the lats.
The trapezius is a broad and flat muscle. It's shaped like a pair of triangles: with corners at the base of the skull and mid-back and furthest tips on each shoulder. The trapezius has 3 distinct regions: superior, middle, and inferior.
The superior (upper) trapezius originates at the medial third of the superior nuchal line and external occipital protuberance of the occipital bone and inserts on the lateral third of the clavicle - a long way to say it runs downwards from the skull's base to the outside of the collarbone. Contraction causes a shrugging motion.
The middle portion originates on various spinous processes and ligaments from C1-T3 in the neck and upper back. It then inserts at the acromion and superior crest of the scapula spine, which is the furthest tip and the top border of the scapula. Contracting this region retracts the shoulder blade, pulling the shoulder blades together.
Finally, the inferior (lower) traps originate from lower down vertebrae, T4-T12, and insert at the scapula spine. These fibers run up from the mid-back to the top of the scapula. Their contraction brings the scapula down and toward the midline, called scapula depression.
Finally, we have the Rhomboids, made up of the minor and major muscles - originating at the spinous processes at C7-T1 and T2-T5, respectively. The minor inserts at the medial end of the scapula and the major inserts at the scapula’s medial border. In short, they originate at the spine and insert on the inside border of the scapula, running at a slight downward angle. Their contraction retracts the shoulder bringing the scapula toward the spine, and their angle causes slight elevation. By inserting on the inside border, they help prevent scapula winging.
While training your back with dumbbells and machines is effective (both for beginners who need lighter loads and help with form and advanced trainees who need more exercise variety and volume) there are some unique benefits only the barbell can provide (again, for both beginners and more advanced trainees)...
More bang for your buck:
Free weights are inherently less stable than machines, requiring significant contribution from stabilizing muscles. A chest-supported machine row might allow you to really focus on one muscle, but a barbell row will provide stimulus to the erectors and traps to hold the bar and remain bent-over while the lats and rhomboids do the bulk of the work to move the bar. Using barbells means you don’t have to train every muscle from every angle every session. This is great for newbies, those with time constraints, or those who want to maximize time efficiency in the gym.
Lift larger loads and progress forever:
Dumbbells are an excellent muscle-building tool but have some pitfalls - especially as you start to get strong. Heavy dumbbells can be comically large, forcing technique adjustments to accommodate them. This can impact and impede the standardization of execution. Dimensions aside, greater weights on dumbbells can present a practical challenge to set-up for a set. Your ability to reach the starting position safely can sometimes become reliant on a team of gym buddies to come to the rescue. Finally, many gyms don’t have overly heavy dumbbells. In this scenario, you are forced to use technique and tempo strategies to make these weights genuinely challenging. It might feel good to max out the rack, but the idea of a lifetime of paused reps and painfully slow eccentrics is enough to give anyone nightmares.
In contrast to dumbbells, barbells instability is contained predominantly within the exercise itself, not the set-up, aided by the fact most gyms have dedicated spotter arms or racks. This is part of the reason greater loads can be lifted with a barbell. Regardless of the number of plates, the grip and set-up remain the same. The bar doesn’t get thicker, and your range of motion isn’t impeded. You could progress forever - if only your body would permit it.
As a beginner, you might feel the barbell is intimidating and that dumbbells are a better place to start. However, as long as you can pick up a barbell, you should be incorporating it into your routine from the get-go - even if you are just using an unloaded barbell. In fact, big compound movements using a barbell is really all a beginner needs for strength and hypertrophy. It isn't until you get more advanced that you really need isolation work and nuanced training.
Barbell training is fun:
Ok, this is subjective but, if you’ve ever been to a deadlift party on a Sunday morning, you know what I mean. The movements are so versatile you can train with others without needing too much accommodation. There is also something enjoyable about feeling like you can visualize your progress by the number of plates on the bar. Moving the pin down on a cable stack doesn’t feel the same.
There are some important training variables that you must follow when it comes to back training. Here are 6 things you need to pay attention to and employ into your workouts over time...
Like with any muscle, you want to facilitate the greatest range of motion safely possible. For back training, this means allowing shoulder flexion to stretch the lats, and protraction to stretch the traps and rhomboids. Specific to barbells, the range of motion of the lats, traps and rhomboids is increased when you’re parallel to the ground, accommodating greater protraction and flexion.
You should also ensure the target muscle is the limiting factor of the exercise. By focussing on pulling from the elbow - not the hand - you can stop the bicep from fatiguing prematurely, focussing more on back recruitment. The direction of the elbow dictates what region of the back is used. Rowing to your chest with flared elbows will stress the mid and upper back, while rowing to your hip crease, driving your elbows into your side, will be more lat focussed.
Finally, it is important to standardize your technique to allow for an accurate assessment of progress. Doing so will help you to understand if you’re actually getting stronger or just getting more upright from session to session allow you to add load.
2. Strategic Variation:
This means using multiple exercise variations will yield better results than using one single exercise. The variations can provide a slightly different stimulus, ensuring all bases are covered. This might mean including exercises that challenge the same muscle at different ranges - like pullovers and rows for the lats, challenging the lats at stretched and shortened positions. These variations don’t have to occur in the same session, and some variations don’t even have to be in the same mesocycle. But it is important to include variation in your training (provided there is a good a reason behind it).
3. Targeting various regions of the back:
People generally require 12-20 sets per muscle per week for maximal hypertrophic gains. However, I recommend starting with 6-8 sets per week for each region (lats, upper/mid and lower) for two reasons. Firstly, you might make good progress on 6 sets per week, making gains without wasting time. Secondly, you can always add more sets in. It is better to be cautious and try to get the most from the least and then incrementally increase training volume if needed. Doing more volume than you actually need is literally and exercise in getting tired for the sake of it.
If you finish your first microcycle and you really feel like you didn’t do enough, you can add a set to a few exercises. You’ll be up at 12-14 sets a week for back in no time.
When a certain amount of volume stops being effective and your progress stalls you can add sets to increase volume and use that as a driver of renewed progress.
As a word of caution, there is a lot of overlap with back exercises - especially free weight ones. If you can’t add in more free weight rows due to lower back fatigue, it's a good idea to start including some machines and cables to create the extra volume.
You should aim to train you back 2-4 times per week. The frequency you choose can largely be dictated by personal preference. There isn’t any significant difference in outcomes between the two, three, or four back sessions per week provided the per session volume doesn’t become so overwhelming that the quality of work subsides. This usually occurs around the 8-10 sets per muscle group per session point. However, be aware this might be lower with heavy barbell compounds. This is one of the reasons many veteran lifters supplement a main barbell back exercise with some dumbbell, machine, or cable work to keep training volume high, provide a muscle building stimulus, but manage fatigue.
6. Rep ranges and intensity:
Most back training should fall in the 5-20 rep range, letting practicality dictate where specific exercises fall on this continuum. Performing sets of 15-20 rep deadlifts aren't the most practical choice as your cardiovascular system is likely to become the limiting factor. Similarly, sets of 5 on a barbell pullover aren't clever, as they place a significant stretch on the lats. Failure using a heavyweight in a fully stretched position is risky.
Letting the exercise guide the intensity of efforts is also smart. Most sets of barbell exercises should be terminated with 1-3 repetitions in reserve (RIR). These create a stimulus but, manage technique breakdown and injury risk. Exercises like deadlifts or squats are riskier to take to 0 reps in reserve (RIR), whereas a bicep curl or reverse fly can be taken all the way failure with low risk. Barbell back exercises tend to fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Taking a set to total failure can put your lower back at risk. It's a good idea to stop a rep shy of failure if you're concerned about form breakdowns.
The following exercises are in no particular order. Although, we are kicking this off with the king of back exercises.
We have categorized the exercises as such:
So, they will come in that order, together completing the entire back and giving you the 8 best barbell back exercises of all time.
Deadlifts work the whole posterior chain from hamstrings to traps. They predominantly train the back isometrically, placing huge strain on the erectors, lats and upper back to maintain proper form while the lower body provides the movement. This one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises and is the foundation of many great physiques.
Here are some set-up and technique points to get the most from them:
It's easy to get carried away, rushing negatives, and bouncing weights. This might feed your ego but just increases injury risk and hinders gains by ramping up fatigue and unneeded loading. Deadlifts are a wonderful exercise, but they are very fatiguing - especially as you start getting stronger. If you’re taking an hour to warm up and they leave you too drained for anything else, you might need to reconsider if they’re worth it. Their cross-over with lower body training is also something worth remembering.
Related: Deadlift Exercise Guide & Variations
The erectors are just like any other muscle, growing best when lengthened and shortened under load. Back extensions do just that. Many are scared to let their spines move from neutral positions, it is a great way to build muscle and even resilience in the lower back - you have joints there for a reason and they flex and extend all the time in real life. These can be a wonderful way to add volume to the erectors without added leg volume or crazy loads.
Note: The pic shows a bodyweight back extension using the hyperextension machine, but this is the same way it's done with a barbell except you will be holding a barbell with your arms extended (you can also place it along your upper back like you would a good morning). As a beginner, start with just your bodyweight before progressing to using a barbell.
Many of you won’t allow your lower back to deviate from neutral during training, so enter this unfamiliar range with caution. Start light and use pauses, before building your way up.
Related: Back Extension Variations
Being one of the only ways to train full shoulder flexion with a barbell, this variation of an Arnold Schwarzenegger favorite places huge stress on your fully stretched lats. The weight gets further from the shoulder as you stretch, increasing torque at the joint and on tension through the lats. A stretch under load is sure fire way to make gains.
It’s great to stress the muscle in the lengthened position, however this is where the muscle is vulnerable. Start light and focus on the contraction. Additionally, the torque is relatively low at the starting position with joints stacked and the bar close to the shoulder. It would be a good idea to include an exercise where the lats are challenged in a shorter position.
A narrow grip helps keep the elbows tucked - biasing shoulder extension and adduction - forcing lat recruitment. This variation can be performed either under or overhand, but generally people state underhand is best for lat activation. As the lats are involved in medial rotation, underhand and overhand bias stretched and shorter lats respectively. Playing with both can help determine which provides the best mind-muscle connection.
This is a great compound exercise, also hitting the mid, upper, and lower back. However, remember adding sets will increase volume for those muscles too - having a knock-on effect for their training. So, you need to think “big picture” with your program design and consider the work done by the traps and lower back on barbell rows when selecting the number of additional exercises and sets performed to specifically target them. Generally, you don’t need too much extra isolated wok for these if you’ve trained hard on rows. Using less systemically fatiguing machine or dumbbell work to train your traps and take the loading off the lower back is often a good choice in this scenario.
An extra factor to consider with narrow grip barbell rows is that the lats don’t fully stretch in this exercise. For complete lat development, combine these with an exercise that challenges the lengthened range.
This single-arm, lower load variation provides stability and some respite for the lower back. Although I’ve preached about the benefits of barbells, a lighter fixed plane movement can help reduce global fatigue without limiting the target muscles volume. This variation is set up to attack your lats and mid back, focussing on one arm at a time to iron out any imbalances.
This is a great way to add volume to your back without adding extra volume to your erectors or lower body, making it a great exercise to compliment bigger compounds.
To target the mid and upper back with barbell rows, the key is focussing on scapula movement. This variation allows for full protraction and retraction of the shoulder, really focussing on scapula depression and mid back growth.
The considerations for this exercise are identical the narrow grip barbell row. Large compounds challenge the whole back, so adding sets increases the strain on other muscles, impacting their training and how much volume they can handle.
The flared elbows encouraged by the wide grip help reduce lat involvement, letting you target the rhomboids, traps and read delts (not discussed in this article but trust me, it’s a good thing).
The minimization of lat involvement means you’ll be able to use significantly less weight than with other variations. It’s a good idea to aim for 12-20 reps with this exercise - to ensure good shoulder and elbow position.
Popularized by the late John Meadows is another single-arm landmine barbell exercise. With all the same fatigue-limiting and physique balancing benefits as single arm landmine rows - these can complement your back training while limiting global fatigue.
Related: Meadows Row Exercise Guide
What are some drawbacks of barbell training?
The stronger you get, the more fatiguing the movement is. This is true of all exercises. However, the compound nature of almost all barbell movements means as you get stronger, the harder they are to recover from. Training with just barbells might limit your ability to add volume to muscles that are lagging because other muscles can’t deal with any more volume, even as stabilizers.
Not all exercises will fit you and techniques can be challenging. Some people just don’t fit an exercise to maximize hypertrophy. Although barbell squatting can grow enormous quads, some people will befit more from the stability of a hack squat. For many machines provide great stimulus without years of honing technique.
Should you use only a barbell?
You can make great progress using only a barbell, but at some point, you’ll want to take muscles to lengths impractical with a barbel - it’s not easy to fully shorten your quads with just a bar. Part of the magic of the bar is its simplicity. As a beginner, you can get almost everything you need from the bar. However, as you advance your training needs to move forward too. Barbells are heavily compounds focussed and its likely different regions will fatigue at different points so more specific and less fatiguing exercises are required. Finally, machines and dumbbells have their own qualities. Stability, ease of single arm movements, freedom of movement can pose different challenged for the muscles helping to maximize your gains.
Relatively low volume example for the start of a mesocycle in someone new to training. Volume could be added by increasing sets on one or multiple exercises over a mesocycle. Lower back volume is lower than the other regions due to usage during bent-row variations.
Barbell Only Back Workout (2 session per week):
Ideal for beginners, those pushed for time or facilities, or those who want to focus on barbell training.
Session 1: Lat Focus
Session 2: Mid/Upper focus
Deadlift (3 sets x 6-8 reps)
BB row (3 sets x 8-12 reps)
Narrow BB row (3 sets x 8-12 reps)
Single arm meadows row (2 sets x 12-15 reps each side)
Pull overs (2 sets x 12-15 reps)
Single arm landmine bb row (3 sets x 8-12 reps each side)
Wide BB row (3 sets x 12-15 reps)
Hyperextensions (3 sets x 12-15 reps)
Now, if you are looking to incorporate barbell exercises into a multi-equipment back workout, below is a good workout routine...
This is ideal for more seasoned lifters looking to incorporate barbells into their regular routine.
Session 1: Lat Focus
Session 2: Mid/Upper focus
Deadlift (3 sets x 6-8 reps)
Barbell Row (3 sets x 8-12 reps)
Pull ups (3 x 8-12 reps)
Incline dumbbell row (2 sets x 12-15 reps)
Single arm barbell row (2set x 8-12 reps)
Lat Pull down (3 sets x 8-12 reps)
Upper back cable row (3sets x 12-15 reps)
Hyperextensions (3 sets x 12-15 reps)
Barbell exercises are great way to build the foundation of a physique and can be utilized by anyone, from beginners to bodybuilders. They force you to learn correct technique, while hitting multiple muscles at once through a variety of ranges. However, as you become more advanced their compound and unforgiving nature can be a downside. The stronger you get and the more volume you require to progress, relying solely on barbells can result in excessive global fatigue. Be smart. Don’t feel restricted to barbell exercises. Get the benefits they offer and supplement them when needed with other back exercises. Barbells can easily be incorporated into any training program and can be particularly effective alongside dumbbells, machines, and cables to build the biggest, strongest back you possibly can.
More Back Training Resources:
More Barbell Exercise Resources:
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