Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to a Build a Thicker, Wider Back

Anatomy of the human back
I remember when I first started lifting weights after my parents bought me a Weider home gym and weight set, I didn't put much emphasis on training my back. At that time, I didn't think back muscles looked very awesome and actually thought that a super developed back like the ones I saw on the professional bodybuilders in the magazines looked gross.

Because of the lack of attention to my back, it has been one of my weakest and least developed body parts for a long time...until recently. In order to bring up my back I decided to put more focus on it by increasing the volume, having separate workouts for width and thickness, and really trying to feel the back muscles and letting them do the work. 

In looking back, I believe my weak and underdeveloped back was due to the following three mistakes.

1. Not enough intensity and volume

When I first started lifting weights, exercises for my back were an afterthought. It was a situation where I would throw in a few sets at the end of a chest workout, thinking that was enough for my back. 

So I was doing something like 12-16 sets for my chest and only 4-6 sets for my back. Obviously, this was a pretty uneven disbursement of sets between the two opposing muscle groups.

Through my years of lifting, I've found that the back muscles can handle a relatively voluminous and heavy workload. But early on, because of the amount of weight available for me at home, I couldn't really load my back muscles with enough weight for a truly intense workout. So back exercises were probably done for between 15-20 reps.

If i were to be able to go back and do it over again, I would make sure to mix it up with rep ranges between 3-6 and also 8-12 reps. I would also make sure the number of sets for my back at least equaled the number of sets for chest, if not more.

2. Ineffective choice of exercises

I remember only doing 2 back exercises when I first started in my basement:
  1. Lat Pull downs 
  2. DB Bent Over Rows
I guess I was doing lat pull downs for width and dumbbell rows for thickness? :P

For those that know a little bit about back training, you know these two exercises leave a lot to be desired when it comes to training the musculature of the entire back.

The lat pull down is a good second or third exercise for your back but it shouldn't be your primary and only one. Single arm DB rows are also a good exercise but not as your primary one either.

Example of how to do Pendlay rows

My back could have had much better development had I done pull-ups/chin-ups instead of lat pull downs and Pendlay barbell rows instead of the single arm dumb bell rows (if I was only able to choose two). Even better if I would have done ALL of them!

The Pendlay barbell rows and pull-ups are my two favorite back exercises for developing an awesome back. If you're not sure how to do the Pendlay row, check out the link at

You can also check out this article on if you'd like to see more on the EMG activity of different back exercises.

3. Inability to "feel" the back muscles

Unless a person is a natural at "feeling" the back muscles during back exercises, it is very difficult to learn how use your back muscles instead of your arms and shoulders to do the exercises.

I never had anyone show me how to do this. It wasn't until I became more interested in back training that I read and learned about some tips on "feeling" my back.

When it comes to rowing/thickness exercises, something that helps me is to keep in mind the movement of the shoulder blades. I try touching my shoulder blades together on the concentric portion (they won't actually touch) and then let them spread apart on the eccentric portion of the exercise.

During back width exercises, I initiate the movement using the lower lats and really focus on feeling the lower lats throughout.

Another tip is to picture your hands as "hooks" and "pulling with your elbows". Doing this automatically helps my arms be less active and thus my back does more work.

You can either imagine your hands like hooks or you can actually buy hooks!

Using wrist straps also helps with allowing the back muscles to do the work and involve less of the biceps and forearms. 

I used to not want to use straps but I just started using them recently and they really help you focus on your back and allow you to exhaust your back beyond what your forearms allow you to handle. 

I'm currently using the Harbinger Big Grip "No-Slip" Pro straps which are really great.

So why did I do so little for my back? Well, because I couldn't SEE my back muscles when looking in the mirror of course! :P

I know I'm not the only person guilty of this. Many people disregard their backs when they first start training. Everyone wants to blast their pecs and biceps because those are what we see most in the mirror! But knowing these three mistakes and some tips on how to get a more effective back workout should lead you to seeing better results in the future!

Recent back picture taken 07/26/11. I wish I had a before picture of my weak back to show!
Here's an example back workout I used to bring up my back. It consisted of a back width day and a back thickness day usually with 2 or days rest in between the back workouts.

Format below is Exercise: number of sets x rep range

Back Width Workout
-Weighted Pullups - 4 x 6-8
-V-Bar Lat Pulldowns - 3 x 8-10
-Wide grip Lat Pulldowns - 3 x 8-10
-Kneeling J-Pulldowns - 2 x 12-15

Back Thickness Workout
-Pendlay Rows - 4 x 6-8
-Seated Cable Row - 3 x 8-10
-Machine Row - 3 x 8-10
-One Arm DB Row - 2 x 12-15

Good luck with your back training!


Prof. Dr. Andro said...

Excellent article, Duong.

If you keep that level, I hire you as a writer (well I would if I could offer you more than the attention of my readers ;-)

Duong Nguyen said...

Thanks Dr. Andro. Your comments are always appreciated :)

Richard Ma said...

Good info ... Keep up the posts! You are one of the first blogs I read everyday =)

Duong Nguyen said...

Thanks for the comments Richard!

Byron said...

Hey man, do you do all these programs in just one day?

Duong Nguyen said...

Hey Byron, the back width and back thickness workouts were done on different days.

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