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The Ultimate Guide to Back Workouts:

By Tyler Woodward

Tired of having a skimpy back? Want to build some wings? Here's everything you ever need to know about how to build a complete principle-based back workout.

Key Takeaways:

Back Anatomy 101:

Back Anatomy

It’d be pretty difficult to perform the “ultimate back workout” without having some understanding of the location and function of the muscles of the back. For this article we will define the muscles of the back as:

  • The Lats (Latissimus Dorsi)
  • The Teres
  • The Traps (Trapezius)
  • The Rhomboids

The Lats and teres muscles are the only muscles of the back that attach to the humerus (upper-arm bone). The lats and teres are primarily responsible for “humeral extension” or pulling your arm into your body from either out in front of you or to your side. Your lats will be more active when your arms are straight out in front of you or slightly out to either side. The wider your arms get the more active the teres will be. 

The traps and rhomboids do not attach to the humerus and instead run from our spine to our scapula. I like to consider the trap and rhomboids “coordination” muscles as they are primarily responsible for moving and rotating our scapula to keep it in “rhythm” with our arm. The traps are responsible for rotating the scapula up and down, retracting the scapula in, elevating and depressing the scapula. The rhomboids are only responsible for scapular retraction or pulling the shoulder blades into one another. 

Muscle Physiology 101:

Muscle Physiology

How muscles work is often very poorly misunderstood, but this shouldn’t be the case. The basics of how muscles function is actually a very simple concept. Muscles link together two different bones and pull them towards one another. The points where muscles attach are known as their origin and insertion. When a muscle contracts or moves the origin stays fixed while the insertion point moves towards the origin. For example, the lats insertion attaches to the upper-arm bone (humerus) and it originates in a fan-like shape across the spine. When you contract your lats you are pulling your arm down and in towards your spine. 

I think it can be very helpful to envision the way muscles contract like a rope attached at both ends. If you move your arm as far up and forward as possible and slightly out to either side, you will fully lengthen your lat. This is like a fully taught rope. Now, if you reverse that motion and bring your arm down as if you are tucking your elbow down and  into your pocket then you are fully shortening your lat. This is a shortened or loose rope, like a tug-of-war toy hanging from your dog's mouth. 

Every muscle in the body operates in this same fashion and therefore has a direct line of pull, just like a rope. So in order to build the ideal program we need to take this into consideration to take each muscle through its full range of motion. 

Physics 101:

Physics 101

This is an important one, especially for back training. Having a basic understanding of physics allows you to understand where an exercise is most difficult. This thereby teaches you which point along the range of motion of a muscle group the exercise is overloading. This is really important because muscles are much stronger in their lengthened position (when the muscle is stretched and the bones are furthest away) than their shortened position. 

The amount of force our muscles need to produce to move a given load/weight is known as torque. If you have ever lifted weights before you may have noticed that all free weight exercises are the most difficult when your joints create a 90 degree or right angle. This occurs at the bottom of a bench press, at parallel in squat, and at the top of a lateral raise or row. This is because torque is always greatest at 90 degrees because the weight in this position is the furthest away from the joint. Think about it…

Let’s say you’re holding a grocery bag full of food. You can probably hold the bag with your arm hanging straight down for as long as you want. If you move your arm out away from your body, let’s say to about 45 degrees, you can still hold the bag out there for a while, but it’s much more tiring. Now if you move the bag all the way out away from your body, so your arm is at 90 degrees relative to your torso, you’re probably going to quit holding your arm up after a couple seconds. This is because it takes more force to lift the same weight when it is further away from you. At the same 90 degree angle (wtih your arm all the way up), if you were to bend your elbow so your arm is in an L-shape you would be able to hold the bag for twice as long compared to the straight elbow. Again, because you have just halved the distance.

Why Is This Important For Back Training?

As I stated before, your back muscles are significantly stronger in their lengthened position than in their shortened position. If we only use free weight exercises for the back, then we will only be overloading the shortened position of the back. This means you are leaving a lot of force and tension on the table that your back could produce, but is not given the opportunity to do so. This is why machine and/or cable training for the back muscles is absolutely imperative for building an aesthetic back.

Muscle Mechanisms:

Muscle Mechanisms

When we perform resistance training the goal is to create physical changes in our muscle cells, known as adaptations. These changes occur in response to stress following the idea, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. There are two adaptations that can occur in our cells that result directly in muscle growth. 

  1. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - This is what has come to be known as, “the pump”. The pump mainly occurs as a result of performing an exercise that overloads the shortened position of a muscle. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy results in an increased storage of muscle glycogen and water, meaning there is more fuel to power more and stronger muscle contractions.
  2. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - This is often known as “functional hypertrophy” and occurs when we break down the contractile proteins in our muscle cells. This causes them to build back stronger, so over time they can produce more force and you can lift heavier weights. Myofibrillar hypertrophy mainly occurs from exercises that overload the lengthened position of a muscle. 

The Ultimate Back Workout:

The Ultimate Back Workout

In order to build the ultimate back workout we need to abide by the following principles:

  • Take the back muscles through their full range of motion, while applying adequate resistance throughout this range of motion
  • Program exercises that bias both mechanisms of hypertrophy into your workout over time to maximize  muscle-growth and strength

One-Day Lats

2-Day Workout

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Notes on Exercise Selection:

  1. Don’t go wider for lats - At some point along the lines someone thought the wider of a grip we take, the wider our lats will get. Our lats do not pull into our body from our side, rather they pull down and into our body from in front of us. The lats wrap around our rib cage and use the rib cage for leverage as a sort of anchor point. The wider we go in a pull-down or row variation, the more other muscles like the teres, rear delts and traps begin to take over. Most modern-gym machines “lat exercises” are in fact teres, rear delt and trap exercises, so be wary of trying to use them for lats.
  2. As I mentioned before, it is nearly impossible to build a big back without performing some versions of cable exercises. If you don’t perform cable or machine pulldown or row variations then you are leaving a ton of force production and therefore a lot of potential growth on the table. 

So many people struggle to build a big back, especially lats, but if you follow these two notes and the workouts above, you’ll watch your back grow like never before. 


My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good
~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology