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Back Workouts That Build Strength, Size & Shape

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

A guy tensing his back muscles after completing back workouts.

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If you’re struggling with ideas of how to target your upper-body posterior muscles, these four back workouts will help.

Designed to build strength, size, and shape across all the muscles of the back, these four workouts can bring balance to a chest and biceps-heavy routine.

Each of the four back workouts has been created to confer a specific outcome. For example, workout one, Back Strength Blast, which is comprised of big compound exercises and heavy lifts, will build a strong, powerful back.

Workout three, V Back Shape, is like taking a hammer and chisel to the muscles. It has been designed to carve out that coveted ‘V’ shape synonymous with large lats.

Interchanging between the four workouts will help you develop a strong, well-defined back.

Benefits of these back workouts

For starters, there are multiple workouts here that will provide you with a good few weeks’ worth of training. You can interchange the back workouts with each training session or focus on one workout for a week or two before moving on.

By following the latter approach, you’ll be able to get the most out of each of the four back workouts.

mirror muscles

If you’re guilty of training mainly your anterior muscles (a.k.a. ‘mirror muscles’), then it’s likely that you’ve developed anterior/posterior strength imbalances. Left unchecked this can throw your posture out of alignment and result in that unsightly ‘hunched’ forward look.

For those who are making this training mistake, these workouts off the opportunity to bring some much-needed balance both to your training and anterior/posterior strength.

strong back

These workouts can support you in forging a strong back. Back strength is an important physical attribute and one that ought to be pursued with enthusiasm.

The back is like a bridge that provides support and stability for the entire body. If the bridge is weak or underdeveloped comparative to other body structures, it is liable to break.

Metaphor aside, a weak back can result in increased injury risk, poor posture alignment, and adversely impact on physical performance generally. It’s for these reasons, and a few more besides, why back training should take precedence.

Furthermore, developing strength is meritorious for the many benefits it confers. As the author of the highly comprehensive book Strength Training | A Complete Guide To tells us, ‘Strength training is not only about lifting weights and building muscle, it’s also about creating a balanced musculature that can move with grace and fluidity, respond optimally to any physical demand, perform well in sport, minimise injury risk and – importantly – be aesthetically pleasing.’


Back workouts #1: Strength blast

This pared-down workout has but one objective: to build Hulk-like strength in the big muscles of the back. Consequently, don’t expect to find face pulls or any other fancy isolation exercises. Superfluous, sculpting movements have been reserved for workout three.

The only exercise equipment required to complete this workout is an Olympic barbell and an assortment of bumper plates. Your aim here is to complete the stipulated number of sets underneath each exercise. There are a couple of different ways you can approach this workout though.

First, focus on completing all the sets of one exercise before moving on. Second, oscillate between the two exercises until you’ve progressed through the pairing.

Remember, because this is purely strength training, ensure to take plenty of rest between sets (2- to 3-minutes) and keep the resistance high.

Barbell deadlift

Method: 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps (80 to 100% of body weight)

Back muscles targeted: erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Deadlift key techniques

  • Adopting a shoulder-width stance, start with your feet under the bar.

  • Bending at the knee grasp the bar; your hands are slightly wider than your feet.

  • Using glute and lower back strength, stand up.

  • As you stand ensure to drive the hips forward.

  • Once upright, return the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Bent over row

Method: 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps (60 to 80% of body weight)

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Bent-over row key techniques

  • Assuming that you’re starting with an Olympic bar on the floor, to get into position perform the first phase of the deadlift (see technique overview above).

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width and hands spaced slightly wider along the bar.

  • Keeping a shallow bend at the knee joint, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the knee cap.

  • The back must remain perfectly straight.

  • Applying a smooth rowing action touch the bar to your stomach.

  • To complete the exercise, extend your arms and repeat.

Back workouts #2: Kettlebell strength workout

Believe it or not but you can build back strength without an Olympic barbell. Surprising I know.

Kettlebells offer a dynamic training alternative to targeting the traps, lats, and rhomboids. Also, because kettlebells require considerably more effort to control, your core and cardio system will be actively engaged as well.

Kettlebell AMRAP

You’ll notice with workout two that there are no stipulated sets or rep ranges. That’s because you’re going to be competing against the clock. Comprised of 5-minute AMRAPs, the objective here is to amass as many repetitions as possible in the time allotted.

So, warm-up, set a 5-minute countdown timer, and see how many reps of the following three exercises you can complete!

Kettlebell stiff leg deadlifts

5-minute AMRAP – how many reps can you complete?

Back muscles targeted: erector spinae.

Stiff leg deadlift key techniques

  • Stand with a kettlebell dangling between your legs.

  • Adopt a shoulder-width stance.

  • Lock a slight bend in the knees.

  • Under control, hinge forward at the hips until the bell dips below the knees.

  • Pause momentarily, return to the upright position.

  • As you stand erect focus on executing a smooth movement.

Kettlebell swing

5-minute AMRAP – how many reps can you complete?

Back muscles targeted: erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Kettlebell swing key techniques

  • Hold the kettlebell between your legs, palms facing inwards, feet spaced over shoulder-width.

  • Keeping the back straight pull the kettlebell between your legs.

  • Using glute and transverse abdominus strength, propel the kettlebell level with your shoulders.

  • Allow the bell to return to the start position and repeat.

Double kettlebell bent-over row

5-minute AMRAP – how many reps can you complete?

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

kettlebell bent-over row key techniques

  • Standing now with two kettlebells dangling between your legs, hinge forward at the knee as though performing a stiff leg deadlift.

  • When the bells are just below the knee line, fix your position.

  • Remember, the knees remain slightly bent and you are looking forward not down.

  • Employing a smooth rowing action, simultaneously raise the kettlebells until they tough your torso – somewhere between your navel and nips.

  • Return to the start position under control.

  • Repeat!

Back workouts #3: v shape back

Workout three offers a slight change in training direction. Whereas the previous two workouts were designed to develop strength and muscular endurance, here the focus is on shape and tonality. When approaching workout three, then, think of yourself as a sculptor and the exercises your hammer and chisel.

back gym workout

To sculpt a super-chiselled back it helps to have access to a wider variety of exercise equipment. Consequently, this v shape back workout is more suited to the gym. And because the emphasis has shifted from strength and size to shape and definition, you should reflect this in how you perform the exercises.

Though argument has yet to abate concerning best lifting procures for carving deep muscular tonality – slow? fast? pause for two seconds? pop at the top? squeeze until you explode! – it is recommendable to slow the movement down and, yes, squeeze at peak contraction.

Also, in order to adequately engage the muscles, the weight should be low to medium but the sets and reps high – 6-plus sets of 12-plus reps.

Lat pull down

Method: 6 to 8 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

lat pull down key techniques

  • Before getting into position, ensure the machine has been adequately set up.

  • Grasp the curved bar ensuring to take an extra wide grip.

  • Once seated, and knees locked under the pads, pull the bar to your chin slowly and under control.

  • To complete the exercise, return the bar to the start position.

  • But do not rest the weight until you have completed the final rep.

Dumbbell shrugs

Method: 6 to 8 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Back muscles targeted: trapezius, rhomboids, infraspinatus.

Dumbbell shrugs key techniques

  • Stand with two dumbbells by your sides.

  • Adopt a shoulder-width stance.

  • Keep your eyes fixed forward, core tight, chest out.

  • Attempt to touch your ears with your shoulders.

  • Hold at the top position before returning to the start.

Face pulls

Method: 6 to 8 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Back muscles targeted: rear deltoids, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

face pulls key techniques

  • Set a cable pully about face height.

  • Using the rope attachment, stand a couple of feet back from the exercise machine.

  • Holding either end of the attachment a foot or two to your front, proceed to pull the rope level with your face.

  • If you’re executing the exercise correctly, you will feel a burn manifest in the mid-section of the back – traps, rhomboids, infraspinatus.

pull up

Method: 6 to 8 sets of 4 to 8 reps

Back muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Pull up key techniques

  • Take a wide grip on the pull up bar, palms facing out. The hands should be spaced about 1.5 shoulder widths.

  • A pull up is always initiated from the ‘dead hang’ – that is, arms perfectly straight, and no swinging to generate momentum.

  • Look up at the bar before executing the movement.

  • Pulling evenly through both arms, heave your chin an inch over the bar.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering back to the dead hang.

Pull up modification

If like many other trainers you find pull ups prohibitively difficult, there are a couple of methods of modifying them which make the exercise more accessible.

For example, inverse pull ups are performed on a bar set at waist height. The legs are stretched out to your front feet fixed on the floor. You are hanging from the bar. With the feet firmly planted, your body weight is reduced by about a third. In this position simply pull your chest to the bar.

Alternatively, a training band can be attached to the pull up bar. You can place your knee or foot in the loop of the training band which will offset a portion of your body weight. The pull up is performed as per the description above.

Seated incline reverse flys

Method: 6 to 8 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Back muscles targeted: rear deltoids, rhomboids, infraspinatus, trapezius.

Reverse flys key techniques

  • Set a 45-degree incline on a workout bench.

  • Place two dumbbells at the rear of the bench.

  • Take a reverse seated position so that your chest is pressed against the back support.

  • Pick up the dumbbells then, ensuring to maintain a shallow bend in the elbows, fly the DBs back as though you’re drawing open a pair of curtains.

  • When executing this exercise, focus on performing a smooth controlled movement.


Back workouts FAQ

Are back workouts important?

Yes, back workouts are very important for bringing about strength balances and improving posture. Recalling the ‘back as a bridge’ metaphor, developing the muscles of the back can serve to strengthen the whole body.

In addition, developing back strength can also improve physical performance generally as well as in certain sports. A study conducted on professional rowers established this outcome.

When rowers were put on a strength routine, which involved resistance exercises such as deadlifts and bent-over rows, they experienced an increase in performance. There are innumerable studies showing how strengthening the back and body can increase improve physical ability (Strength Training | The Complete Guide To).

Should I workout with a bad back?

Only a qualified physician or physiotherapist can offer sound advice on back rehabilitation.

Before attempting to train with a bad back, it is imperative to ascertain the nature of the injury first. By doing so you may be able to adjust your training routine so that it doesn’t exacerbate the injured area.

But this should only be attempted with the advice and guidance of a trained professional.

What is the most effective back exercise?

The answer to that question hinges on your fitness objectives. A trainer who prioritises strength over aesthetics will harbour a different perspective of what qualifies as ‘effective’.

However, if effective is being used as an objective measure to classify exercises that engage the widest range of muscles, then without doubt deadlifts are the most effective.

‘The deadlift is a fundamental exercise for increasing overall mass, strength, and power in both the lower and upper body. Like squats, it is a maximum-stimulation movement,’ (Strength Training | The Complete Guide To).

Related: Best Pull-Day Exercises >

What exercises are bad for the back?

In the book The Art of Expressing the Human Body, martial arts master, and fitness fanatic Bruce Lee recounts his close encounter with permanent paralysis after performing good mornings – a hyperextension exercise that sees the trainer bow forward with a loaded barbell on their back.

Escaping with a damaged sacral nerve and six months bound to an armchair, Lee recognised the inherent dangers of good mornings. He never performed the exercise again.

While any exercise is potentially dangerous if performed incorrectly, exercises that require hyperextension (good mornings/stiff leg deadlifts) and/or compression (back extensions) movements should be approached with extreme caution.

Can I do a back workout at home?

Yes, you could create an effective back workout at home even with minimal equipment. Some of the best back-building exercises include the pull up, inverted rows, and isometric exercises such as the reverse plank. Not one of these exercises requires equipment - except pull ups, but they can be performed on the swings at your local park.

But if you wanted to include resistance to your back workout at home, a resistance band is a must-have piece of exercise kit. Resistance bands cost very little – compared to an Olympic barbell or an assortment of dumbbells. Yet, resistance bands are extremely versatile and will enable you to perform deadlifts, bent over rows, and a whole host of other back exercises. (Start mastering these resistant band exercises >)


Enjoyed these back workouts?

Get your hands on 50 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits Vol. 1.

This image shows the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits volume one. Inside the image it identifies the key features of the book which include: 50 circuits and workouts suitable for all levels of fitness and ability, Benefits of circuit training and why you should include circuits in your exercise routine, How to create and design your own circuit, Essential training principles, Fitness challenges and exercise competitions, Circuit and workouts suitable for most training facilities, and a 10-minute whole-body stretching plan.

This Compound Workout Routine builds whole-body strength.


About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam via LinkedIn or

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