by Tony Gjokaj February 24, 2020 8 min read

Hey, legion!

Today we are going to talk about the back and how to simplify training in this very detailed and intricate muscle group!

Remember that our backs are one of the most complex muscle groups in the human body. This means that this is going to be a PACKED blog post!

Let's get into it!

Anatomy and Function of Back Muscles

The back comprises of many muscles that assist in providing many functions of the body. Our back contains the Lattisimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Erector Spinae and so many smaller and intricate muscles.

Lattisimus Dorsi

The Lattisimus Dorsi (or Lats), is probably one of the most popularly known muscles on the back. They give you that wing shape on the lat spread; they are what produce the “width” of the back.

Our lats assist with the following:

  • Moving the shoulders and arms up and down. Picture you climbing a rope or pulling a chain to unlock a sliding door.
  • Pulling your arms closer to your body.Picture you playing tug of war or starting up your lawnmower.

 When it comes to the lats, a lot of people assume that only exercises like the “Lat Pulldown” only assist the Latissimus Dorsi. That is incorrect. Rowing movements like the Barbell Row also help in developing our lats.

The Rhomboids

The Rhomboids are the muscles that are in between the trapezius and lattisimus dorsi. These muscles function by “pulling back” (retracting) the scapula, and elevating/lowering the scapula as well.

These muscles are one of the major underlying issues when it comes to frequent sitting. If the rhomboids are weak, it will affect the upper back muscles and even the shoulders (rotator cuffs). It is imperative that we mobilize this area by pulling things close to our body (similarly to the functions of the Lattisimus Dorsi).

The Trapezius

The Trapezius (Traps) are a large muscle group that starts on your shoulders and moves all the way down to the upper back.

It functions in many ways:

  • To move, rotate, and stabilize the shoulder blades.
  • To turn the head and the neck.
  • To turn your arms.

 In addition to that, the Trapezius helps us bring our shoulder blades up, and even keeping the shoulders “locked” when carrying heavy objects.

When it comes to the trapezius, many people overemphasize the shrugging motion and forget the movement of carrying things. This is a prominent issue in our society because our shoulders tend to shrug up when we are sitting for long periods of time. Adding more direct trap work may impinge/weaken the area.


Another prominent problem in today’s society is that our grip strength as a population has decreased while we have overactive or tight trapezius muscles. A lot of us work in corporate jobs that require us to sit for long periods of time, thereby giving us a variety of tight muscles – in this case, tight trapezius muscles.

Spinal Erectors

The Spinal Erectors are the muscles that reside in your back and “erect” the spine, keeping it intact. In addition, these muscles allow us to extend our spine in the cervical (neck area), thoracic (upper-mid back), and lumbar (lower back) portions of our spine.

Our erectors tend to be overactive due to prolonged sitting and slouching. A combination of mobility and strengthening will improve our posture – granted we don’t overwork these muscles.

Now, the following section will help you strategize in building some wings and barnyard doors.

Back Training Strategies

To strategize back training, one should think of optimizing their development with a Horizontal Pull and a Vertical Pull. Horizontal Pulls consist of exercises like the barbell rows or pullovers. Vertical Pulls consist of exercises like the lat pulldown or a pull-up. 

  • Do about 14-22 Weekly Sets TOTAL. For the back in its entirety (The Lats, Trapezius, and Spinal Erectors), utilize 14-22 total weekly sets. Anything above this may impede recovery.

Lattisimus Dorsi: Vertical Pulls

When it comes to the pull-up and/or lat pulldown, they both provide very similar muscular development to the body. The only main difference is for the lat pulldown is your body is locked in place, while the pull up allows your whole entire body to move.

In order to optimize muscular development for the vertical pull movement, I would recommend the following strategies:

  • Go with a shoulder-width grip (rather than wide-grip). As the lat’s function is to move the shoulders and arms up and down, it is more effective to pull at a shoulder width.
  • If you’re ONLY targeting the back, always go overhand. Underhanded exercises will provide muscular development to your biceps as well but may minimize some of the muscular development to the back.

Lattisimus Dorsi and Rhomboids: Horizontal Pulls

When it comes to horizontal pulling exercises, your intent is to pull the bar or weight closer to your body. The following strategies are important when it comes to overall back development.

 When talking about the Lattisimus Dorsi (and the rhomboids), you can target them in the following way:

  •  Incorporate a pullover for one of your horizontal pulls: either as a pre-exhaust exercise or a finisher. The pullover will work the lats and the upper back in a long range of motion. It will assist in strengthening the serratus and stretching the rhomboid. This will help with overall health to your upper back.
  • Do more horizontal pull work than horizontal push/bench work. In this society, we tend to have tight chests and rounded shoulders. This is why it’s important to emphasize your back development to stabilize your shoulders and loosen up your chest. A basic rule of thumb is for every chest exercise, you should do at least a 1:1.5-2 ratio of chest and back sets/reps. For example, if you do 4 sets of 6-8 on the bench, do at least 4 sets of 8-12 on rowing movements.

Trapezius

When talking about the Trapezius, it is important to strategize in the following way:

  •  Do wide shrugs or “Monkey” shrugs. According to a study by Pizarri et al, it was noted that shrugs performed at a 30-degree angle will actually elicit a better response to the trapezius muscles than their normal counterparts.
    • This means wider grip stances will illicit better muscular development in the trapezius muscles. We can assume one reason for this is that people tend to use momentum and also use their legs to drag dumbbells up to complete the movement. This a problem in that you’re only doing one portion of the movement: you are NOT allowing your body to do the second function of the trapezius: to carry objects that pull the upper back downwards. 
    • What we propose is a wider shrug: this allows you to go for the full range of motion and even challenges your muscles in a longer and more effective range of motion.
  • Do MORE long-distance carries. Carrying weight long distances will significantly improve your grip strength and trap strength overall. If you are like the majority of the population with “tight shoulders” due to prolonged sitting, this exercise may improve your body’s functionality, or alleviate any pain.
    • Strongman athletes constantly use long-distance carries like the Farmer’s Walk and they have powerful trapezius AND grip development because of it.
  • Do higher reps/more sets. In most guides I have read about trapezius muscles, there hasn’t been any guide to the proper repetitions one can do to develop the trap muscles optimally.
    • We have found that when it comes to repetitions, sets of 10-15 reps are pretty solid for the trapezius muscles as they have a pretty short range of motion.
    • Similarly to the calves, we believe in increasing the volume in the trapezius muscles instead of doing the traditional 3 sets of 8-12 rep range.

Spinal Erectors

  • If you do Rowing exercises and Deadlifts frequently, you may not need to isolate the spinal erectors. Through rowing and deadlifts, you will frequently hit the muscle groups of the back musculature.
  • To optimize overall health in the erectors, be sure to do mobility exercises, and even yoga stretches for back health and mobility exercises to “loosen” up the lower back.

Back Training: Exercise Selection

While there are hundreds of variations of back exercises, we have provided the following exercises to maximize your muscular development. Now while we are all similar anatomically, some movements will feel better than others.

Your goal is to find the best exercises in this section and utilize them consistently to master the movement. While you continue to get stronger with these exercises, your muscles will continue to develop.

There is really no need to change things up if you can stay motivated with your exercises.

Vertical Pulls

  • Pull-Ups: Pull yourself up while using a shoulder-width grip. At the top of the movement, pause for just a small moment, then bring your body down to a full stretch of the lats.
  • Lat Pulldown: Pull the bar down with a shoulder-width grip. At the bottom of the movement, pause just a moment, and then bring the bar back up, stretching the lat in the process.
  • Single Arm Lat Pulldown: Pull the cable down with a close grip stance (about shoulder-width). At the bottom of the movement, pause for just a moment, then bring the bar back up. Stretch the lat at the end of the movement.

Horizontal Pulls

  • Chest Supported Machine Row: with this exercise, you want to keep your chest on the pad as much as possible. Picture pulling the weight/handle as close to your body as possible.
  • Single Arm Cable Row: utilizing this from a seated cable row machine, you will feel a phenomenal stretch throughout the whole range of motion.
  • Chest Supported Dumbbell Row: Adjust an incline bench about 30 degrees. Put your chest on top of the headrest and perform a dumbbell row. Keep your butt out so that you may utilize the whole upper back for the movement (this is a phenomenal exercise).
  • Rope Pullovers:at the start of the movement, keep your lats flexed. When pulling the rope close to your waist, keep your chest up throughout the movement. Imagine you are pulling the rope close to your body, feeling the lats flex at the bottom of the movement. Return the rope back to starting position while keeping your lats flexed.
  • Face Pulls:grab a rope attachment and attach it to a cable machine. Pull the rope towards the top of your head or your neck. Replicate a front bicep flex when squeezing the rope at the top of the movement. Make sure your lats are flexed when returning to the starting position.

Trapezius

  • Wide Dumbbell Shrugs: keep the dumbbells and arms slightly outward and away from your legs. Proceed to lift up with your scapula and allow the arms to glide upward. At the top of the motion, squeeze for just a brief second. When returning down, ensure you have a full retraction at the bottom of the movement (“stretch your traps” at the bottom).
  • Wide Grip Barbell Shrugs: Keep a wide grip (about snatch grip) stance with the bar. Proceed to lift up with your scapula and allow the arms to glide upward. At the top of the motion, squeeze for just a brief second. When returning down, ensure you have a full retraction at the bottom of the movement (“stretch your traps” at the bottom).
  • Farmer’s Walks: Keep a strong stance (chest up, shoulders back and down) while walking the weight. Ensure that you are not shrugging up with the weight or dragging the weight against the legs.

Back Training Summary

To conclude our chapter on the Back, we emphasize 14-22 total sets for the back itself. This will include the lats, the trapezius, and the spinal erectors. You can utilize this by training rows and pulldowns in a 1:1 ratio. If spreading the volume throughout the week, you can ideally train back 2-4x weekly.

Lattisimus Dorsi

When it comes to training the Lattisimus Dorsi, you can train this muscle in the 6-15 rep range. Recall that this muscle is trained through horizontal pulls and vertical pulls. If utilizing both movements, you can train this muscle in various angles, maximizing development.

Trapezius

In training the Trapezius, we recommend 12-18 sets weekly in the 10-20 rep range. Usually trapezius development occurs from heavy deadlifts and farmer’s walks for the beginning and intermediate lifter. For the more advanced lifter, we recommend choosing the best exercises that keep you motivated to training this muscle group.

Spinal Erectors

When it comes to isolating the spinal erectors, you might not need to do so. If you deadlift and/or squat 2x weekly, you should be good! Instead, we recommend utilizing spinal mobility work and strengthening the core. 

Our abdominal training chapter will help you improve mobility for the spinal erector and the spine itself.

To Conclude: The Muscle Compendium

It's a long blog post, but we really hope it helped you strategize your back workouts more effectively.

Until next time legion, go crush it!

Tony Gjokaj
Tony Gjokaj

Tony is the Owner of Reforged Performance Nutrition. He has been in the fitness space for over a decade, previously coaching individuals in body recomposition and strength training. His goal is to connect others with the knowledge they need to reach their greatest potential.


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