Last Updated: Dec 23, 2018
Including an effective back workout routine in your overall muscle building efforts is critical to achieving a well-balanced, strong, and muscular physique.
But there are so many lifters out there who don't realize this and they overly focus on certain muscle groups whilst neglecting others. A common example I see is lifters slaving away at the gym doing countless sets of bench press and barbell curls in order to build up their chest and arms because they are the most "showy" muscles, yet they neglect their back muscles and their legs. Doing this will only lead to an unbalanced physique with poor posture.
Of course, building your chest and arms is important, but you need to train ALL of your major muscle groups in order to build an overall great physique. And the group of muscles in your back are perhaps some of the largest and most important in overall upper body strength.
Ok, I do understand why it's easy for people to avoid a good back workout routine. Firstly, the back muscles aren't as "showy" as the arms or chest for example. And secondly, they simply don't understand the importance of building a strong back. Let me tell you, developing your back with a solid back muscle workout week in and week out will help you to achieve a thick and powerful upper body. Your back muscles contribute to roughly 70% of your total muscle mass in your upper body.
Let's take a look at what weight lifting exercises you should perform for the best back workout routines possible. The muscles in your back include the lats, traps, lower back, rhomboids, and spinal erectors.
The king of back exercises
The benefits of performing heavy deadlifts are simply outstanding, both specifically for your back muscles and your overall muscle gains as heavy compound lifts like deads help to stimulate growth hormone and therefore gains all over your body.
They work your body from head to toe and are therefore great bang for your buck (ie return on effort). You can't really replace deadlifts with any other exercise (apart from an alternative form of deadlift such as stiff-legged deadlifts) and they are an absolute must in any good back workout routine.
You should be careful though and make sure to do them with proper form as you can quite easily injure yourself if you're not careful and if you load up the weight too quickly (I'm talking from personal experience here).
If you really can't incorporate them due to an injury or other reason, make sure to make up for it be absolutely including other taxing compound back exercise such as barbell rows or pull ups as explained below.
A vertical pulling exercise
These types of exercises target your lats and are also a must for your back muscle workout. Some examples are overhand pull-ups, underhand chin-ups, and lateral pulldowns. I would recommend basic wide-grip overhand pull-ups as the most effective out of these exercises for building your lats, as they also work other muscles in your back. If you're new, start with underhand closer-grip pull-ups/chin-ups instead as wide-grip ones will probably be too hard. But try to work your way towards wide-grip style pull-ups as they will work your lats more (underhand/close-grip pull ups target your biceps more).
A horizontal pulling exercise
Some examples of horizontal pulling exercises (also known as rows) include the following: bent-over barbell rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows, and seated machine rows. They target the upper and middle area of the back and also the lats. For the best back workout routine to stimulate the most muscle growth, I would recommend performing a free-weight rowing movement, and avoiding the cable and machine exercises. Bent over barbell rows or dumbbell rows would be excellent picks. However, seated rows can be very effective too.
A shrugging exercise (optional)
At the end of your back workout routine you may want to include a shrugging exercise like barbell or dumbbell shrugs to target the upper traps. You can perform slightly higher reps for this exercise if you want to. Personally, I don't do shrugs anymore because they're just not needed as other exercises will work them enough. But if you have trouble stimulating growth in this area, and you want to have larger traps, you may want to include some targeted shrug exercises to induce more growth. Unlike when burning fat, where it's not physically possible to spot-reduce fat from certain areas, when it comes to building muscle it's the opposite and you absolutely can target certain muscular groups for more growth.
Blueprint for the best back workout routine
Let's take these four exercise types and put them together to form a solid back workout routine that will build muscle mass effectively. This sort of routine has worked great for myself and many others. Feel free to substitute one exercise for another of the same type, but the following will create the most stress on the body and therefore induce the most muscular gains across your whole back area (besides also stimulating many other muscle groups as most of these are compound exercises which are key to maximum gains).
Remember to use a challenging weight so that you can only perform 5-8 reps on each set, except for very targeted exercises like shrugs which you can do slightly higher reps for. If you need to increase the load for pull ups then you can either hold a dumbbell with your feet, or you could wear a weighted belt. Following this back muscle routine properly and focusing on either increasing the amount of reps or amount of weight slowly over time will help you on your way to building a much thicker, wide and powerful back that forms a good base for a great, well-balanced, strong physique.
Hopefully this article has helped, but always remember to never get stuck in research land. Information is great, but what's infinitely more important and the only thing that actually matters to get results and change your life is to be hitting the gym week in week out, with a properly-structured, intelligently-crafted (based on science-backed principles) and overall well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan to effetcively build muscle as a skinny guy (AKA a lifting hardgainer). When you have a great program used by other successful hardgainers that have gone before you, you can't go wrong if you simply stick with it.
But here's the thing:
You don't just randomly stumble upon a highly-effective program that's designed specifically for hardgainers by simply browsing a popular fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill personal trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in the classroom). No, instead, to create the best weight training and nutrition program for maximum results, you must be a little more selective in the program you choose to follow.
So, here are the 3 different paths you can take to guarantee you follow a finely-tuned, effective program that will leave nothing to chance and give you the best muscle building and strength gains of your life (again, if you simply execute and don't quit after a mere week 'cause you don't notice a change...).
See our flagship 7-step introductory guide to building muscle for beginners which covers all the basics you need to know, and guides you through designing and creating an effective program for muscle gain without getting fat. If you don't want to spend any money buying a pre-made program or finding a (good) personal trainer, and/or you're the DIY type who enjoys researching every little detail and knowing about how everything works and fits together, this is probably the path for you if you have the patience.
If you don't want to take the time to plan your own natural bodybuilding plan from scratch, following an already made, high-quality, credible program from a true expert in this field can save you a ton of time.
It can give you a great head start on your transformation journey and makes things a whole lot simpler as it's simply a matter of understanding what the program involves, how to do perform all the exercises, how to execute on the included meal plans (taking into account your own perferences as you'll want to tweak any pre-made diet plan for your own needs), and then simply executing week in and week out.
Sean Nal's popular hardgainer program is the one I currently recommend most, as it's the most complete, easy to follow program for beginners that I've seen (and I've experimented with many over the years). It's also the exact program that initially changed everything for me and I owe a fair part of my overall hardgainer success (going from 132lbs/60kg to 220lbs/100kg - mostly muscle) to being fortunate enough to having stumbled upon this program when I was struggling with gaining weight and building muscle. See my full review of Sean Nal's program here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't for everyone though as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing, and most importantly has got great results themselves (ideally starting out in similar shoes to you) can be quite costly. This is the path you should probably really consider if you have any type of serious injury though.
Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and self-confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but if you really understand that last sentence, you're not gonna need it, friend. I wish you nothing but success.
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)