• Ben

The Perfect Back Workout

Okay so for us to workout how to structure the ‘perfect’ back workout we first need to identify what the different muscles of the back are and what they do.

Muscles of the back:

· Trapezius (traps)

· Latissimus dorsi (lats)

· Rhomboids

· Erector spinae

There are many other smaller muscles of the back including several subsections of each of the above, but for simplicities sake we will stick with these 4, since effectively training these 4 is what will give the visual effect of a muscular back.


The traps function is to stabilise and move the scapula (shoulder blade). The best way to work these muscles is with a ‘shrugging’ motion moving your shoulders up towards your ears or through scapula retraction. The appearance of big traps helps with making the entire upper body look larger and more muscular. Some key exercises which work the traps are; farmers walk (carrying a weight in one or both hands and walking up and down), shrugs, face pull (this is one of the exercises that work the trap muscles through scapula retraction, so it is important to include both a shrugging and retracting motion to most effectively work the traps)


The lats are the big muscles in your back which when well developed give a wide profile to your back. They are worked by a variety of different exercises including vertical pulls such as the pull up and lat pull down as well as horizontal pulls such as underhanded bent over row. When performing rows for the back I have always found a very effective training tip to be to focus on moving your elbow back behind your body, this helps to focus on achieving the ‘squeeze’ which helps fully engage the muscle. This training cue also helps you to pick an appropriate weight, since if you cannot effectively row a weight so that your elbows go back behind your body, then the weight is likely to heavy and you won’t be able to perform effective reps with it.


The rhomboids are another muscle where there are a wide range of exercises which can target them, including but not limited to, bent over wide grip rows, seated cable row, face pulls and band pull aparts. The rhomboids are a very important muscle not just from an asthetic standpoint, but also from a functional standpoint, they are a key muscle to work and try to engage if you spend all day at a desk and have started to notice your shoulders rolling forwards. Additionally, they provide stability for your shoulders which is another very important feature due the the range of movement at the shoulder joint.

Erector spinae:

These muscles run up either side of the vertebral column and extend out on the lumber, thoracic and cervical sections of the spine. These muscles work to straighten the back and allow for side to side rotation. A lot of trainees avoid exercises such as the deadlift which work the erector spinae, because they are worried about injury. This in some cases especially when there has been a history of injury or weakness in this area can be a valid concern, however it is important not to neglect the erector spinae completely so a substitute such as back extensions should still be added.

The deadlift:

The deadlift is often put up on a pedestal as one of the great gym based exercises with fans claiming it works virtually every muscle and some extremists even claiming it alone can define a training plan. Whilst a lot of this is just overhype from people chasing Personal bests, let’s have a little look at how much muscle the deadlift actually works. The deadlift works all of the following muscles (to varying degrees):

· Glutes

· Hamstrings

· Quads

· Hip flexors

· Abdominals

· Erector spinae

· Trapezius

· Latissimus dorsi

· Rhomboids

Okay so I know what you’re thinking, that’s all of the leg muscles (except calves) and all of the major back muscles, so can’t I just do deadlifts? Well no! the above is one of the reasons there is such a strong argument for including deadlifts into your training plan, and it is also the reasons if you haven’t got any other factors such as previous injuries affecting your exercise selection, then I would definitely recommend including the deadlift in your programme. However, the deadlift has the highest recovery cost of all exercises, this means that you can’t do it too frequently, twice a week for most people should really be the maximum, because it isn’t even just the affect it has on your muscles, it is incredibly neurologically taxing on your system. Moreover, some muscles like your lats can be worked by the deadlift, but you have to pay special attention to engage your lats. Just because the deadlift can use all of the above muscles doesn’t mean it always will. I know a lot of people who naturally wont bend down low enough so instead of using their quads for the first portion of the lift it becomes almost like a stiff leg deadlift just working the hamstrings. Some people initiate all of the movement from their mid back, leaving their lower back relatively unworked. So it is important to focus on muscle fibre recruitment with this exercise rather than just focusing solely on how heavy you can go!

So what might a good back workout look like:

1. Deadlifts

2. Wide grip lat pull down

3. Seated cable row

4. Shrugs

5. Cable face pulls

This is just a very simple example of a workout which you could implement to target all of the major muscles of the back. Each of the exercises have many different adaptations and alternatives such as single arm variations or free weight options, but the above just gives you a basic example of how it could be set up.

The backs like all muscles have both fast and slow twitch muscle fibres so it is important to perform lower rep heavier sets to work the fast twitch muscles and higher rep lighter sets, in order to engage and work the maximum amount of muscle fibres. It is important to note though that very low rep (below 3 reps) set on all exercises, but especially exercises such as deadlift do carry a much higher injury risk and will also take much longer to recover from so this should be taken into account when planning your training, if you have either had an injury in the past or your lifestyle probably won’t allow for adequate recovery, then it may be more rational to perform sets of 6-8 reps on the deadlifts.

I hope that this has helped to give you an idea of how you can structure your back workout, if you have any questions or are interested in any of the training plans then feel free to drop me a message.

Next week’s topic – The perfect chest and shoulders workout