A Back Workout to Build a Sculpted and Muscular Back

Back Workout

With an intense and effective back workout, you can build one of the most impressive physical features found in any gym.

What is this impressive feat of resistance training? Think Bruce Lee – it is the V-shaped back (more commonly referred to as lats). He was incredibly lean and small, but his back was very impressive. And you don’t have to be a 350 pound muscle head to achieve an impressive look.

Actually it’s the opposite. Most people, men and women alike, will tell you that the most attractive physique is a lean, muscular look, without being overbuilt and bulked up.

It can be a sad sight. The guy in the gym who looks lean and cut. Then he keeps pouring it on day in and day out. Next thing you know, he goes from lean and angular, to a bulky, muscle head look. Not a good look.

Aside from this super bulk look, the back is one of two or three muscle groups that when built correctly with a superior back workout, it will make you stand out from the crowd. This goes for men and women alike.

Table of Contents

Main Takeaways

  • There are two main muscles in the back: lats which are responsible for width, traps which are responsible for thickness.

  • These back exercises require equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, cables, and a pull-up bar.

  • Always warm up (3 to 5 minutes of cardio) before doing resistance training to avoid back injuries.

  • Always use proper form and lift a weight that you can handle to avoid lower back injuries.

Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Latissimus dorsi (Lats) – largest muscle in your upper body and responsible for back width.
  • Trapezius (traps) – V-shaped muscle in the upper back.
  • Rhomboids (2 muscles – rhomboid major, rhomboid minor) – located under the traps.

Secondary Muscles Worked 💪

  • Biceps
  • Forearms
  • Shoulders (Deltoid Muscles)
Back Muscle Anatomy

Lats Muscle

Rhomboid Back Muscle for Back Workouts

Traps Muscle

V-Shaped Back

V-shaped BackA great look for a man is the V-shaped back but without bulges of muscle everywhere. A lean look with a broad upper back and thin waist.

And women may not need the V to achieve an impressive back, but a nice, toned back looks great on a woman as well.

The exercises below are the Top 5 Best Back exercises to complete a well-rounded back workout. 

The exercises below require gym equipment, dumbbells, or a pull-up bar depending on the exercise. For a simpler back workout that you can do at home, click for a home back workout.

Building lean muscle is very important to achieving an overall lean, muscular look, the first priority for back training is width (think V). The V-shaped back looks great on the beach, but that same tapered V looks great in clothes or a button-down or even a suit.

Let’s first understand the basics of the back, and where the muscles fit in on your back.

Back Structure and Function

Back Workout for V-ShapeThere are two main muscles in your back that will be worked in your back workout – the trapezius muscle and the latissimus dorsi. (1)

The trapezius muscles (or “traps”) extend from the neck across to the shoulder blade, then halfway down the back to the thoracic vertebrae.  

The traps form a diamond shape on the upper half of your back, and their function is to move the arms and shoulder blades.

The latissimus dorsi (or “lats”) covers the lower half of your back, starting at the waistline and extends up on the outer edges of the back inserting to the humerus (upper arm bone).

Latissimus dorsi is Latin for “broadest of the back.” It is a large, flat muscle, and it is what creates the width…the lats create the V. Its primary function is movement of the shoulder joint.

 Top 5 Back Exercises to Build Lean Muscle

First, remember these basics for back workout routines:

  • Before you lift, do some light cardio (jog in place, jumping jacks) and dynamic stretching to warm and loosen your muscles.
  • Breathe out on the exertion half of the exercise
  • Feel the intensity of your lift – to build muscle you must have strong resistance

#1  Lat Pulldown for Back Width

Lat Pulldown for Back Workout

The lat pulldown is a great exercise to increase the width of the back – the V shape – and should be a staple in any back workout program.

  • Start Position:  Requires gym equipment. Sit on the seat with arms extended up, and grip the pull down bar slightly wider than shoulder width.  You want your grip wide, but if it’s too wide you just don’t have any pulling power.
  • Technique:  Pull the bar down until it slightly touches the back of your neck, then return the bar to the start position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  Make sure your entire back (upper, middle, lower) is very warm and loose prior to this exercise. The lower back is always very susceptible to strain during an intense back workout. 

#2  Wide grip Pull-ups for Your Back Workout

Back Workout Pull Ups
Wide grip pull-ups also increase the width of the back, and are a great back workout. This is what creates the tapered V which is a great look, with or without a shirt.

  • Start Position:  Hang from the pull-up bar with arms extended, hands slightly wider than shoulder width, palms facing forward. Keep your legs slightly bent.
  • Technique:  Looking to the sky, pull your body up until your chin is even with the pull-up bar.  As you pull up, feel your lats contract.  Slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Variations:  Chin-ups – similar motion just reverse your hands so palms are now facing you, and narrow your grip to shoulder width. Close grip pull-ups – Once chin-ups are easy, start progressing from a close grip until you can do a wide pull-up. On the pull-ups, you can also add weight to your body to increase the resistance.

#3  Seated Cable Rows

Seated Rows for Back Workout

  • Start Position:  Requires gym equipment.  Sit on the machine and place your feet on the front cross bar. Keep your legs bent as you grab the handles, then sit up so your torso is at a 90 degree angle and your legs are slightly bent. Your back should be straight.
  • Technique:  Keeping your torso stable, pull the handles to your abs feeling the lats contract during the movement. Hold the handles at your abs for a second, then return the handles to the start position. Breathe out during the pulling motion.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  You will often see seated cable rows performed improperly in the gym. Do not swing your body forward in a jerking motion – it needs to be smooth and deliberate, or don’t lean forward at all. This is very safe – just remain in the up position.

#4  Barbell Shrugs for Traps in a Back Workout

Barbell Shrugs for Traps
This exercise works only the traps.  It’s good to have developed, lean traps, just don’t overdo it. You can build your traps too big and it starts to have the muscle head look, which is not good. But still a great exercise to have in your back workout wheelhouse.

  • Start Position:  Stand straight holding a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended, and palms facing your body.
  • Technique:  Raise the dumbbells by lifting your shoulders up. Keep your arms extended, and do not use your biceps. Return the dumbbells to the starting position.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds

#5  Deadlifts

Back Deadlifts Back Workout
Deadlifts are a great back workout, but will also work your whole body. It will bulk you up quickly, so be cautious of the overbuilt look.

  • Start Position:  With your barbell on the floor in front of you, bend your knees and grip the barbell with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder width.  Head up looking forward, and back straight.
  • Technique:  Lift the barbell by straightening your legs.
  • Sets / Reps / Rest:
    Mass and Size: 4-5 / 6 to 12 / 30 seconds
    Hardness and Density:  3-4 / 3 to 6 / 90 seconds
  • Caution:  Make sure you are lifting an appropriate weight so you don’t strain your lower back.

Honorable Mention for Back Workouts

These are some additional exercises that are also very good for building lean muscle in your back workout:

One-arm Dumbbell Rows

One hand and one knee on a bench, with your torso horizontal and your other hand holding a dumbbell straight down, perform a one handed row with the dumbbell. It is good for variety in your back workout.

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows

Hyperextensions to Workout Your Back and Prevent Injury

These are great to stretch the lower back and to strengthen the lower back in order to prevent injury.  The key is to hold the position at the top and bottom of the exercise for 3 seconds. Click to see more detail on hyperextensions.

Back Workout Hyperextensions

Avoiding Injury With a Consistent Back Workout

No injury is more notorious, or more prevalent, than the dreaded “lower back injury.” It is not an injury that you every want to have. Couple of tips to avoid injury:

  • First, make sure you stretch your lower back daily – this makes all the difference.  See this page for lower back stretching routines.
  • Before you exercise the back, make sure your back is loose and your muscles warmed up. This is best done with some light cardio for a few minutes and also some dynamic stretching.
  • Always keep your workout motions steady and controlled – never jerky.
  • Do not overlift with too much weight.
  • If you are lifting things around the house, only lift with your legs, never your back. And never use “jerking” actions.
  • Hyperextensions are a great exercise to do for back rehabilitation (if injured), and to strengthen the lower back for injury prevention…what’s the ole’ saying…”an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. (2)

More Ideas On Protecting Your Lower Back

As you hit middle-age and beyond, it becomes super important to do this resistance training to build strength in your back muscles. Otherwise, muscle atrophy can creep into your life.

The seated cable row, on the exercise list above, can be a very risky exercise if not performed correctly. I have injured my lower back two times over the years by getting sloppy performing this exercise.

And you might see this exercise being done in the gym by a 20-year-old and think they have good form, but when performing this exercise, but make certain that you do not bend too far forward at the waist in the down position! This is the danger zone, especially if you are lifting heavy. You have to be careful with the seated row!

The Row Puts the Back in a Dicey Position

This puts you in a very vulnerable position for lower back injury. Again, it has happened to me twice performing this exercise. So when doing a seated cable row, I lean forward, but only slightly. I keep my upper body and spine in a much more vertical position. So keep this in mind when performing this exercise in order to fortify your back muscles.

And it’s always a good idea to do lower back exercises and stretches to strengthen your lower back, like hyperextensions and back extensions on a machine. It will protect your back when performing a seated row. These movements also strengthen your glutes and spine.

I try to do hypers each time I am in the gym. I have injured my lower back several times over the years, and two different ortho docs have told me that hyperextensions are one of the best exercises that you can do to improve your lower back, and help prevent injury. They not only keep your lower back loose and supple, but also build and strengthen your lower back muscles, which helps prevent injury.

If you’re still not seeing the results you want, or you’ve hit a plateau, then consider adding a protein powder to bridge the gap. Check our Tri-Protein review, which has become a powerhouse protein shake trusted by fitness buffs at every level.

Click to learn more about workouts to build lean muscle, and see our back workout videos.

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David Williams

A diet and fitness enthusiast, David is an ex-Army Airborne Ranger and Infantry soldier with decades of fitness and wellness experience. A West Point graduate with a degree in engineering, he focuses on technical research related to fitness, nutrition, and wellness. He loves the beach and working out, and spending time with his wife and daughters.

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  1. Sears, B. (2021). Back Muscles: Anatomy, Function, and Rehab Considerations. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/back-muscles-anatomy-5100984.
  2. Camp, M. (2018). Back Strength and Injury Prevention Workout. Men’s Journal.

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