Upper and Lower Back Exercises for Growth
Most men want to include different back workouts into their body building routine because they are hoping to achieve that distinctive, v-shaped look. Identifying the right back workouts, however, can be easier said than done.
Part of the difficultly involved with selecting the best types of back workouts can be traced to knowing which muscles to target. And while certain chest routines and upper body exercises can help with creating mass, it is important for men to have specific focus on the muscles of the back in order to experience true growth in this area of the body.
The photograph above is of actor and model, Marco Dapper. I chose him for this back workout article as the lead picture because Dapper has an achievable “look” for most people who are hoping to develop a defined, meaty back. Keep in mind that Dapper has a mesomorph/endomorph body type, which means he has a medium build.
In this article, I am going to provide you an overview of the back and its muscles, discuss why it is important to select the right exercises for inclusion into your back workout routine and touch upon issues related to back safety and health.
Upper & Lower Back Muscles
The back is a complicated network of muscles that can be divided into three distinct parts. Specifically, we are talking about the upper back (traps), the middle back (lats) and lower back (erectors). See the graphic below to visually inspect and identify these back muscles.
Back Workout Goals
Guys looking at different back workouts generally are hoping to add thickness and mass to this area of the body. Generally speaking, we are talking about what many people refer to as a V-Shape or V-Cut look.
- Characteristically, a V-shape means:
- Wide, meaty lateral muscles (lats) run from the upper back and tapper downward towards the lower back.
- Well-developed rhomboids that “pop” and bulk when flexed.
- Obvious development and differentiation of the Teres muscles (major and minor).
- Noticeable mass that gives a reverse pyramid structure to the lower back (erectors through the lats).
- Well-developed Trapezius muscles (traps) that appear thick but not overdone.
I am including this photograph so that you can see what a classic V-Shape looks like. Notice that the guy in this picture has a well build back but that it is not overdone. He has well developed lats and traps, shoulders Teres muscles. Combined, this gives him the “V” or “Christmas Tree” look. His tattoos help to provide definition to what you see in the photograph.
Before we move into the specific exercises for creating an impressive upper and lower back, it is important that we spend a few moments going over some issues related to back safety.
I am touching upon this topic because a lot of the guys I know who work out regularly have experienced a number of back problems and injuries. I myself have problems with my lower back which can be traced primarily to genetics.
According to research, over 100 million people in the United States live with chronic back pain. I have seen some research suggesting that as many as 85% of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Underlying issues related to back pain are thought to be linked to issues like:
- Poor posture
- Sitting long periods of sitting
- Heavy lifting
- Excess body weight
- Strained muscles
Body Builders and Back Exercises
For Body Builders, particularly men who are over the age of 35, there comes a point in time when reality sets in about the ability to do certain types of back workouts with becoming injured. If you have ever experienced a back injury while working out, you know how devastating and debilitating these can be! A bad back injury can take you out of the gym for weeks, if not months. And so my simple advice is this:
If you have a history of chronic back problems or if you have injured your back in the past, use extreme caution with back exercises. Gain medical clearance for any back workout routine from your health provider before starting new back exercises.
If you are a body builder with a history of back problems, your goal should be to identify the exercises you can do and avoid the ones you cannot. For example, I cannot do traditional squats on the Smith Rack (Smith Machine) because my disks bulge during the downward motion due to genetics.
In plain English, my lower back cannot handle the weighted compression around the erector muscles. I have accepted this as my reality and learned to work around the problem by doing other exercises and by using machines designed to provide support and balance.
Back Workout Injury Prevention
There are a few things you can do to help prevent back injuries when lifting weights. I will just list a handful here however, what I am posting is not intended to be a complete list. If you suffer from chronic back pain, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, MD. You will find a number of physiological and psychological issues that are connected to chronic back pain, including the impact of emotional stress on back muscles.
Quick back injury prevention tips
- Stretch your back for at least 5 minutes before each workout, regardless of which body part you are exercising.
- Focus on muscular endurance over development.
- Avoid back exercise immediately after waking up because your back muscles have not yet warmed up, which can cause back spasms.
- Think about exercising your back at least 2-3 days a week to help with building back endurance.
- Lighter is better if you are prone to back injuries according to the scientific research. Focus on getting in that full range of motion and not the amount of weight you can lift!
Body Building Myth: You Must Do Dead Lifts
What you will immediately notice in the back exercises I am presenting here is that you don’t have to engage in a bunch of squatting/lifting moves in order to develop the upper and lower back.
In fact, many body builders make the mistake of thinking exercises like the deadlift are the key ingredient to building mass. It is simply not true! While exercises like the deadlift can be helpful, they are not the end all be all if your goal is to create that V-shape look. I recognize not everyone is going to agree with what I have stated here. I respect that.
Here is what I know – the scientific research suggests that certain types of back exercises lend themselves to higher incidences of injury simply because they: (1) Place compression or weight loading to the spine, (2) Involve torque or rotation, which may result in various shear forces; and (3) Add tensile stress through excessive motion on the spine.
Don’t let some meat-head or misinformed trainer at your gym tell you that people only get injured with Deadlifts because they are “using improper form”. While that may be true for some body builders, that’s not the whole story and is overly simplistic. It’s like this folks – some people are simply more prone to back injuries than others because of genetic issues and previous back injuries. It’s that simple.
It is for this reason I am not including Deadlifts as part of my list of 5. Note: I am not saying you should not do them. I am saying that if you have back problems, you might want to look at alternatives. If you really want to include deadlifts into your workout routine, I encourage you to check out this video made available by Instructional Fitness.
OK, let’s move on to the 5 best back workouts. Are you ready? Let’s jump right in!
Back Workout 1: Pull Up Hold
The pull up hold is a great exercise for development muscles likes the traps, lats and rear shoulders. The benefit of this particular exercise is that you are not placing pressure on the spine or lower back. Some guys do the pull-up with a weighted vest or by placing a chain around their neck to add weight.
Hang from a pull up bar with an overhand grip and place your hands at around the same length you would when conducting a barbell bench press. Mentally focusing on the upper back and shoulder real shoulder muscles, pull your chest up to the bar and hold for 10-20 seconds (beginners 10).
Try to do at least 5 reps. Build up to 10 reps over the course of time. Consider the option of a weighted vest, a chain or dangling a dumbbell between your feet to add greater resistance.
Back Workout #2: Two-Part Dumb Bell Row
The dumbbell roll is another great exercise to help develop the upper back muscles. When done properly, this back workout exercise as part of your routine can help to add width and mass, giving that tapered look so many guys are looking to achieve. And again, notice this exercise does not compress the spine.
Grab a pair of dumbbells, preferably light weight so that you become familiar with this exercise and get in that full range of motion.
Bend at your knees and hips and slowly lower your torso until it is just about parallel with the floor. Allow the dumbbells to hang from your shoulders, palms facing towards you and with controlled form. This is your starting position.
Shrug your shoulders and gently pull your shoulder blades together. Now hold that position for 2-3 seconds.
Start rowing the weight by bending your elbows and raise them out to the sides as you pull the weights to the sides of your torso. Keep squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Now lower the weights to the starting position. Repeat.
Back Workout #3: Cable Diagonal Raise
The cable diagonal raise is yet another great exercise to help you build mass around your lats, deltoids and the upper and lower Teres muscles. Like the previously mentioned back workouts, no compression is being put on the spine.
Start by attaching a handle to the low side of a pulley cable station. Standing erect with the left side of your body perpendicular with the cable, grab the handle with your right hand in front of your hip. Make sure your elbow is slightly bent. This is your starting position.
Now pull the handle up and across your body until your hand is over your head and your thumb is pointing up (similar to Statue of Liberty). Hold for one half second.
Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Back Workout #4: Alternating Dumbbell Shoulder Press
An excellent upper back exercise that targets the lats, Teres (major and minor) and the rhomboids muscles. And I will point out again that this back exercise does not place direct on the back. You can do this one standing or in the seated position.
Grab a pair of dumbbells and start out with light weight. Hold a pair of dumbbells just outside your shoulders with your arms bent, facing one another. Make sure your feet are set about shoulder length apart with your knees slightly bent. This is your starting position.
Press the dumbbell in your right hand upward until your arm is straight. Hold for half a second. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position.
Now, repeat exactly this same move on your left, using a pressing motion during the lift (like you are pressing up the ceiling).
Alternate between right and lift and keep repeating as part of your set.
Back Workout #5: Rack Pull
The rack pull is a very effective exercise for working the entire back with particular emphasis on lower back muscles. You need to know however this exercise does place compression on the back. It is an alternative to the traditional deadlift but places less loading on the spine while also avoiding a complete weighted bend (a motion that is known to wreck backs). Use caution with this exercise and do not use any weights at first.
Set up a barbell at knee level at a traditional squat rack. Get into the short-stop stance. This means your back and hips are slightly bent against the bar. Bend over and slowly grab the bar with an overhand grip. Make sure your hands are just outside of your legs. This is your starting position.
Now slowly stand up making sure you are pushing your hips forward. Slowly return back to the starting position. Repeat again.
Back Workout Summary
The five exercises I have listed here are great for developing the muscles of the back. There are obviously many other things you can do for lower and upper back muscles. In my experience, the ones I have listed here should be considered as part of any back routine. And it goes without saying that making sure you have a strong core.
I am including a book recommendation entitled: Core Strength Training that is designed to give you some exercises that you can do at home and at the gym to strengthen all of those back, pelvic and abdominal muscles.
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