When I ponder on this question, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m short (I stand 5ft1ins), I grew up in a Victorian beach style house in San Francisco and had to climb my way to the cabinets to reach the cereal bowls. I began utilizing those back muscles at a young age, and the foundation was set! Of course, the boring answer would be I have a little bit of genetics helping me out.
The second thing that comes to mind is my many years of powerlifting. The one compound movement that will develop not only a strong back, but a beautiful back, is the conventional deadlift. I attribute the dense muscle I’ve developed to conventional deadlifting. I do many forms of deadlifting, I don’t deadlift often (once every three-four weeks) but what I do hits the entire posterior chain better than any other exercise.
If you’ve never deadlifted or are new to deadlifting, the most important thing in developing a strong back (actually your entire posterior chain) is getting your conventional deadlift form correct.
I’m not here to tell you how to deadlift, you can learn this by watching videos or asking a powerlifter who pulls conventional at your local gym to help you. Start light and work your way up in weight. Just because your friend pulls a certain amount of weight doesn’t mean you can do that too (at least not right now).
Also, take the time to learn the amount of weight to increase for each set – you need to base this on feel.
When the weight is light, you can take bigger jumps in weight. Once the weight starts to feel heavy, the jumps need to be smaller.
There are a number of deadlifting exercises and tips, some of which are outlined below (there are a few videos/pictures included too):
1. Building a strong back requires one to pull conventional, not sumo. Sumo deadlifting primarily utilizes the hips/hamstrings. Conventional deadlifting works the entire posterior chain. What may be heavy weight for one person may be light weight for another. Make sure you train smart and know when you’ve reached your maximum. Also, when deadlifting, always squeeze the bar tightly and squeeze every muscle fiber in your body. This will aid in helping you lift heavier weight and will also aid in keeping injuries to a minimum.
2. Heavy pulling up to a one rep maximum or up to 3-5 reps. Once or twice per year, I will test my one rep maximum to see where my strength is. If I’ve been doing things correctly and am injury free, I should have a PR (personal record). Once I’ve set a PR, I shut it down afterwards or will do a drop set of some weight, then move onto assistance exercises.
3. Heavy pulling for sets of 10 reps. I will also do waves of 10 rep sets where I may do 6-8 sets of 10 rep sets working up in weight for each set. The wave is generally for three deadlift sessions. Being that I only deadlift once every 3-4 weeks, the wave can take up to 9-12 weeks to complete.
4. Trap Bar deadlifts. Nothing works the traps better than doing trap bar deadlifts (it also works your quads). Sometimes I’ll do high volume, moderately heavy weight, and sometimes I’ll go for the gusto and do heavy weight for a triple.
5. Medium weight deadlifts for sets of 20 reps. This might be one of the hardest pulling exercises because it requires strength and endurance. One may want to take time building up to 20 reps and also slowly going up in weight until the strength/endurance is developed. I tend to not lift more than 50%-60% of my one rep maximum when doing this high volume. Also, I usually don’t do more than five sets total. You will be guaranteed to feel trashed for the next few days following this exercise.
6. Rack Pulls can work various areas of the back depending upon where you place the pins. It also gives you the opportunity to target in on weaker areas focusing on the building of mass and strength. Play around with the pins and feel where it hits your back. Whatever area you want to focus on, make sure the pins are at the appropriate height to aid you in achieving your goal.
Now, deadlifting and other deadlifting variations aren’t the only things I do to build my back. I actually pull on a leg day (I do legs twice per week) since I consider this a posterior chain exercise. One day per week I focus entirely on my back and will train my back for up to two hours. Additionally, on my chest/shoulder day, I will also add in three to four back movements (always different from what I did on the previous back training day).
My back day will focus on all parts of my back (upper, middle, outer and lower). I also play around with the machines. Take the time to feel where the machine hits your back. I’ve learned that some machines do absolutely nothing for me and others hit the back seriously crazy! There are also two other things I’ll do with the machines to hit other areas and to add variety:
1. Adjust the seat height. For example, if I drop/increase the seat height by one pin, I can hit two entirely different areas of my back.
2. Change the hand positioning. For example, you may have a rowing machine you use that allows for a neutral hand grip only. By adding handles to the machine will put your hand positioning in a barbell grip and will hit another area of the back (or you can even use an underhand grip too). You can add handles to virtually any of the machines and change the hand positioning from neutral to barbell, overhand to underhand, or a combination of all grips. The key is to play.