Before going into specific back workouts I want to review the muscles of the back. This page may seem like it is focused on men, I also have a link to back workouts for women. Please see that link if you're not interested in the bodybuilding talk.
The latissimus dorsi are large triangular muscles that extend from under the shoulders down to the small of the back on both sides. These are the largest muscles of the upper body.
The spinal erectors, several muscles in the lower back that guard the nerve channels and help keep the spine erect. They are also the slowest muscles in the body to recuperate from heavy exercise.
The trapezius, the flat, triangular muscle that extends out and down from the neck and down between the shoulder blades.
Developing a broad, thick, massive back is absolutely necessary in the creation of a quality bodybuilding physique. Strong back muscles are essential for lifting and carrying heavy weight, and a highly muscular back has always been considered a measure of a man's strength.
Mr. Franco Columbu said that his back is a weapon is uses to destroy opponents, Mr. Columbu is a two-time Mr. Olympia winner. "I place my thumbs in the small of my back and begin to spread my lats. It doesn't all come on at once. First I flex them a few times and then begin to let them extend their widest. Each time the audience and the judges think that is all, I flex harder and they come out farther. And just when everyone is gasping with surprise that a human being could achieve such development, I lift my arms into a powerful double-biceps shot, displaying enormous muscularity, thickness, and separation. Only the very best of bodybuilders can stand beside me when I do this without being blown offstage by the shock wave."
Bodybuilding judges look at three things when they evaluate a competitors back: 1) The thickness and muscularity of the back; 2) the sweep and width of the lats; and 3) the definition and development of the lower back and lower lats.
Upper back development involves more than just the back muscles themselves. When you hit a rear double-biceps pose, the traps and the muscles of the upper and middle back are dominant, but all the muscles from elbow to elbow play their part, including the biceps and the rear delts.
The central muscle of the upper back is the trapezius, an angular muscle that extends down to the shoulders from either side of the neck, then comes together over the spine about halfway down the back. In a highly developed back the traps will be full and massive, balancing off the lats on either side and clearly separated from them in back poses. Exercises that specifically work the traps include anything which involves lifting the Shoulders-Shrugs and Upright Rows, primarily, but also rowing in certain positions and some kinds of presses.
The most impressive area of a fully developed back is the sweep of the lats. It is the muscular width that declares to the world that you are really a bodybuilder. And it is the lats that are likely to first attract judges' attention, even when standing relaxed in the first round. The traditional V shape of the bodybuilder-wide shoulders descending to a firm, tight waistline-is dependent on the right kind of lat development. A friend of mine once told me that when he did a lat shot onstage, he imagined his lats were so wide that the audience would think the curtains were closing!
The width of the lats is developed by any kind of pulldown movement, such as Cable Pulldowns or Chins. The precise way that the pulldown movement affects that lats is determined by the angle you are working at, how wide apart your arms are, and whether you are pulling down in front or to the rear.
The lats are also evident from the front view, complementing the chest by widening the torso, with the line of the back muscles acting as a frame for the pectorals. The lats contribute to any number of poses, including front and rear double-biceps and a variety of twisting shots.
When you see Franco Columbu or a Frank Zane do a twisting back shot you can't help being impressed by the way their lower lats sweep all the way down and insert into the waistline. This gives the lats a terrifically aesthetic look.
To develop the lower lats you need to do your back exercises with a very narrow grip-close grip chins and close-grip pulldowns, for example, as well as One-Arm Cable Rows and One-Arm Dumbbell Rows. It is also important to do stretches between sets, grabbing hold of something with one hand at a time and really pulling until you can feel the lower lat almost down to the hip.
Well developed lower lats will also help you in rear back poses because they come down at an angle and form a kind of frame that shows off a well-striated lower back.
Many top bodybuilders have a great upper back but have never developed the lower back to the degree they should. A really greater lower back has two columns of muscle that stand out on either side of the spine, an indication of years of heavy Deadlifts, Bent-Over Rows, and other power exercises. When you see Boyer Coe onstage you notice the enormous sweep of his lats, but when he stands next to someone like Danny Padilla, with his thick and powerful lower back, you can see he is weak in this particular area.
A truly Herculean physique needs that lower back development and thickness. Look at Sergio Oliva, Franco Columbu, Dorian Yates, or Nasser El Sonbaty and you will see magnificent lower back development. Frank Zane at one time was very weak in the lower back. Schwarzenegger recommended that he start doing Bent-Over-Rows, starting out relatively low weight and gradually increasing his poundages as his back developed. Zane is such a dedicated bodybuilder that within a relatively short time his lower back development increased enormously, and within a year you could see striations across the lower back.
Shawn Ray, although he had already won pro titles, eventually found himself threatened by the extreme back development of a number of increasingly bigger bodybuilder against whom he was competing. Instead of giving up, or mindlessly just trying to gain additional overall mass, Shawn instead concentrated on back development, particularly on back width, to the point where competitors who were often fifty pounds bigger than he was couldn't blow him off the stage in rear late spread comparisons.
Because we tend to store a disproportionate amount of fat around the waistline, leanness and definition in the lower back are visible proof that a bodybuilder has worked hard to get in shape. When he hits a back double-biceps shot and the judges see a clearly defined, sculpted lower back they know instantly that he has done an enormous amount of work, not just for the lats but for the entire back.
Lower Back Exercises - Quite a few exercises for development of the lower back (spinal erectors and lower lats)
Exercises for upper back - Several exercises for developing the upper back.
Back exercises for women - A few exercises for women to develop a sexy back