Training Back: Width & Thickness



When training the back muscles, it is important to include a variety of exercises to achieve both width and thickness. Here are a few different exercises to try on your next workout.

Cable Lat Pull Downs: 4 sets X 12-15 reps

Using the Precor cable pull down machine with handles allows you to focus more on unilateral development. Grasp the handles and pull the cables down with your palms facing forward and the elbows back.

Tips: Lift the chest as you lower the handles and squeeze the shoulder blades together.  Hold and squeeze at the point of contraction, and release it back up slowly. Make sure to extend fully to the top for a full stretch.


Lying T-bar Rows:  3 sets X 12 reps

These are great for adding thickness to your inner back. They are challenging, so hit them early in your workout.

Lift the bar off the rack and extend your arms in front of you.  As you exhale slowly pull the weight up and squeeze your back at the top of the movement.  Inhale and slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position.

Tips: Keep the upper arms as close to the torso as possible in order to better engage the back muscles. Do not lift your body off of the pad at any time. Also try not to use the biceps when lifting the weight.


Hammer Strength Iso Lateral High Row: 4 sets X 12 reps

These work the muscles of the upper and middle back (trapezius, rhomboids, and rear deltoids), as well as the latissimus dorsi (for the width of the back). This plate loaded machine also allows you to develop and strengthen both sides of the body equally.

Grasp the handles with an overhand grip and pull down and back lowering the handles toward the seat. Try to keep your chest on the pad. Slowly return to the starting position.

Tips: Maintain good posture throughout the full movement. When pulling back, bring the elbows behind the back for a good squeeze of the back muscles. When returning to the starting position, be sure to fully extend your arms and stretch to the top.

Reverse Grip Machine Rows: 3 sets X 12 reps

Reverse grip rows will incorporate the lower lat fibers, as well as recruiting the middle back and rear deltoids.

Grasp the lower handles with the palms facing up (underhand grip). The chest pad should be in line with the top of the chest. Pull the weight toward your body, squeeze the shoulder blades together toward the end of the range of motion, and return the weight back to the starting position with control.

Tips: When pulling back, keep a neutral wrist and concentrate on allowing your back muscles to do the work. Biceps will be recruited, but the focus should be on your back.


Divergent Lat Pull Down: 4 sets X 12-15 reps

Lat pull downs are excellent for creating width in the back. The divergent lat pull down machine is similar to a traditional lat pull down. However the handles move further apart as you pull down, providing a fuller range of motion through the lats.

Pull the bar down toward your chest drawing your elbows back as far as possible. Hold and squeeze at the point of contraction, and extend back up slowly.

Tips: Lift the chest as you pull the handles down. Relax the grip and move the focus to your lats, rather than your forearms or biceps. Be sure to extend fully to the top range of motion to allow for a good stretch through the lats.


Superset: Perform 15 reps of both exercises straight through without resting. Rest 30-45 seconds between each set. 3 sets X 15 reps

These exercises isolate the muscles are good finishers to your back workout.

Attach a rope to a high pulley and make your weight selection.

  • Rope Straight-Arm Cable Pulldowns (isolation move for the lats): Stand a couple of feet back from the pulley and take the rope with both hands. Lean forward from the hips, keeping your back straight, with your arms extended up in front of you.
    Keeping your arms straight, extend the shoulders to pull the rope down to your thighs. Pause at the bottom of the motion, squeezing your lats. Return to the starting position.
  •  Face pulls: (for the rear deltoids and middle back) Facing a high pulley with a rope, pull the weight directly towards your face, separating your hands as you do so. Keep your upper arms parallel to the ground.

Stimulating Muscle Growth: ROM, Volume, Supersets, Tri-sets, Negatives

Lifting progressively heavy at low repetitions and sets has primarily been the focus for building muscle size. Indeed, heavy lifts can stimulate the nervous system and release testosterone and Human Growth Hormone. However, there is research that suggests that similar results can be obtained by increasing volume and range of motion. Once you build a solid foundation, it is time to consider using alternate methods to stimulate muscle growth. The next time you are able to perform a set of 10 reps at your current weight, try using some of the methods below rather than automatically increasing the weight.

  1. Increase your ROM (range of motion in the exercise). For example, go deeper in you squats. Try a rear leg elevated split squat (Bulgarian split squats).  Work through the entire extension with your bicep curls, rather than lifting heavier and only focusing on the top or bottom range of the exercise.
  2. Achieve a mind muscle connection. I have addressed this in earlier articles. However, most people do not realize the importance of feeling the weight as opposed to simply moving the weight. It is easy to zone out and push or pull the weights without truly focusing in on the effort. Your goal is to make the weights feel like they weigh more than they actually do.
  3. Have days where you focus on high volume. If you continually perform 6 to 10 reps day after day, the nervous system ceases to respond. High volume means more reps and sets of the exercises. You could simply have one high volume set followed by lower rep sets or end each exercise with one burn-out high volume set. Burn-out or finisher sets are an excellent way to condition the muscles and stimulate the pituitary gland to release Human Growth Hormone.
  4. Incorporate supersets and tri-sets. Once you have reached a certain level of strength, your body can become immune to your reps and sets. Supersets and tri-sets are a good way to bump up the intensity by forcing a lot of blood into the area being worked. They are combinations of two or more exercises with minimal rest between sets. If you are new to supersets a good way to start is by combining exercises for opposing muscle groups.  For example, bicep curls and tricep pulley push downs. Supersets and tri-sets can also be used to target one single relatively large muscle group.
  5. Work the negative. Slow down the negative portion of the exercise so that it takes twice as long to complete the repetition. If you raise a weight in 3 seconds and lower it in 5 seconds, try raising it for 3 seconds and lowering it for 10 seconds.

Keep in mind, these are just a few of the methods that can be used to increase intensity and muscle stimulation. There are many more possibilities. Also, it is important to first establish a solid base of strength training before increasing volume and intensity.

This morning I used ROM, volume, negative, and supersets/tri-sets to bring extra blood flow to the muscles in my back (an area I have been trying to develop for quite some time).

Superset: 6 sets

  1. Lat Pull Downs Reps: 20/15/15/15/12/20
  2. Seated Cable Rows Reps: 20/20/15/12/10/20

IMG_0045 IMG_0051

Tri-Set: 4 sets

  1. Single Arm Hammer Strength ISO Lateral Row (right, left) Reps: 20/15/15/12
  2. Hammer Strength High Iso Row Reps: 20/15/12/12
  3. T-Bar Row with hands at lowest handles Reps: 10/10/10/10

IMG_0057  IMG_0053 IMG_0063 IMG_0062 IMG_0068

Tri-Set: 3 sets

  1. Wide Grip Pull up on the Max Rack Bar Reps: 20/20/20
  2. Narrow Grip Pull ups working the negative (pull up to the top and lower slowly down to the count of 5) Reps: To failure
  3. Bent Over Wide Grip Rows using the Max Rack Bar Reps: 15/15/15

IMG_0073 IMG_0089 IMG_0075 IMG_0074


Holm L, et al, Changes in muscle size and MHC composition in response to resistance exercise with heavy and light loading intensity, Journal of Applied Physiology, Nov 2008, 105:1454-1461

Denos, L. What is More Effective for Building Muscle Mass? Straight to the Bar

Wuebben, J., PHD and Stoppani, J., PHD Increase Workout Intensity with Supersets: Human Kinetics

Symmetry and Balance: How to Build Your Back

Developing your back muscles can make the waist appear smaller and give the physique a more powerful appearance.  However, working the back is about more than aesthetics.  Training your back will help you improve overall strength, posture, and form in your workouts. The back is complex and training it can be difficult, if not overwhelming.  It is further complicated by the role that biceps play during back exercises. Here are a few key tips to help you keep the focus on your back.

Incorporate exercises that address all the major muscles of the back:

  1. The Latissimus Dorsi are right under the armpits and extend down attaching to the waist.
  2. The Teres Major/Minor And Rhomboids attach to the lats around the shoulder blade region
  3. The Trapezius are at the base of the neck and extend down to the center of the back
  4. The Spinal Erectors are located at the lumbar region (back of the waist) and attach to the vertebrae, ribs and pelvis.  build-a-better-back-balanced-back-workout-and-training-guide_a

Learn how to activate the lats. Many beginners overuse the biceps and fail to incorporate their lats. The latissimus dorsi cover a vast surface and are one of the largest muscle groups in the body.  They affect several major functions such as working to medially rotate and extend the shoulder joint and assist in lateral flexion of the trunk.  When you are performing lat pull downs, first try lowering the weight so that you can achieve a greater mind muscle connection.  Keep your body upright with a slight lean back from your hips, lift your chest up, and pull the bar just slightly under the chin. Use a full range of motion, stretching all the way to the top between each repetition. Pull with your back muscles and not your biceps or forearms.  Think of your hands as hooks that connect your elbows to the weight. Your hands are holding the weight but your back muscles are doing the work. Consider using Versa Gripss ( to ease tension on the forearms and allow for more back muscle activation.



Alway focus on form and lower the weight if needed to achieve a greater connection to the muscles. Learn to retract your scapula to provide support during rowing exercises. As with pull ups and lat pull downs, beginners often make the biceps the primary muscle group during rows.  Protraction of the scapula occurs when you roll the shoulders forward. Scapular retraction is achieved when you bring your shoulder blades together and use the rhomboids and traps as the primary muscle groups.  Protraction and retraction of the scapula can be used together to secure the scapula and give support while you move your arms.

We are going to hit the back hard with this workout. However, the goal is to achieve a mind-muscle connection. Focus on each exercise and visualize the movements. Reduce weight if necessary to help you with this connection.  As always modify reps, sets, and exercises for your fitness level and goals.

Warm Up: Wide and Narrow Grip Pull Ups

Wide Grip Pull Ups  3 Sets X 10 reps w/30 seconds rest between sets

IMG_1050When performing pull ups learn to control the shoulder blades (scapular activation). Set your shoulder blades down and back with each repetition, tightening the back muscles and preparing you to perform a proper pull up. Even if you cannot perform a full pull up, you can try partial reps to activate the back muscles.  Begin in a dead hang and be sure you can set the shoulders down and back.  Once you learn to set the shoulders, you can try bending the elbows and adding a small range of motion up toward the bar. You can also practice the motion on an assisted pull up machine.

Narrow Grip Pull Ups 3 sets X 10 reps w/30 seconds rest between sets


Wide Grip Lat Pull Downs: 4 sets X 12-15 reps w/45 seconds rest between sets. 


Seated Rows: 3 sets X 15 reps w/30 seconds rest between sets


Single Arm Lat Pull Down:IMG_1049 High Iso Row Machine 3 X 15 reps each side (no rest) Sitting side saddle reach back and to the side to grasp the bar. Each time you pull down, focus on the lat muscle. 

Reverse Grip Row on Precor Row Machine: 3 X 15 reps w/30 seconds rest


High Pulley Cable Face Pull: 3 sets X 15 reps w/30 seconds rest. Use lighter weight on these and hold the contraction. Pulling back a little farther will use more of the upper and middle traps.


Straight Arm Dumbbell Pull Overs: 4 sets X 12 reps w/30 seconds rest. Focus on the lats. Elbows soft and not locked. Full range of motion.