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 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 and well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan that's based on actual scientific principles of building muscle mass (not bro science like you'll see practically everywhere you look online).
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 mainstream bodybuilding/fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in a classroom).
To truly build that strong, ripped, lean muscular body that you want - and to not just leave it to chance and hope/pray that you'll get results - your training and eating program needs to be solid. Otherwise, you'll be wasting a ton of time in the gym for little return, which is unfortunately what happens to most guys who start hitting the gym as they eventually start spinning their wheels and getting nowhere due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of what actually works most effectively.
So the question remains, how do you ensure you're implementing an effective bulking program that will 100% get you the results you seek? You basically have three paths to take here, so choose whichever fits your situation best.
Path A: Design Your Own Effective Bulking Program (Recommended for Some Beginners & Intermediates)
If you're the patient type who also likes to know how every little detail works, and are willing to spend the time and effort necessary to study the most effective muscle building training and nutrition strategies out there right now to strategically piece together the best information that you find from credible sources to sculpt your own custom bulking program, consider the DIY path of creating your own program from scratch.
However, if you're a beginner, or intermediate lifter who hasn't been getting the results you want, you'll want to make sure that you get your advice from sources and people who understand what it's like to gain muscle starting out as a skinny hardgainer, which is a different beast compared to building muscle as a more naturally bigger guy with more favourable genetics. You also ideally want someone more experienced to look over your program just in case, because there are various things you could miss or do wrong, such as creating an imbalanced program that will lead to posture issues, muscular imbalances, or worse (injuries).
Up for the challenge? To get started planning your own muscle building program from scratch check out our full introduction to building muscle mass as a hardgainer which covers some important basic principles, strategies, and tips.
Path B: Follow A Proven Time-Tested Bulking Program (Recommended for Most Beginners)
If instead of creating your own program from scratch you'd rather follow an already-made complete program that has been proven to work for others in your shoes (ie skinny hardgainers) this is the path for you. Spending the few bucks to get your hands on a well-crafted, respected program that's specifically been designed with hardgainers in mind can really save you time and effort having to design your own program, and it ensures you don't miss out on the various important details that makes a good program.
This is what I'd recommend if you're just starting out or quite inexperienced in the gym, as you'll get off on the right foot to kick-start great results. Although this is also a smart path for intermediates, because if you've been training for a while and not getting great results, getting your hands on a fresh new program created by a natural bodybuilding expert could be the game-changer you need to spark the best results of your life. Sean Nal's Body Transformation Blueprint Program is currently the most comprehensive, polished bulking program for beginners on the market, and is the program that actually helped me the most when I first started out as a newbie so I can't recommend it highly enough if you're new and wanting to all but guarantee great results over the next few months and beyond.
There are other good premade mass gain programs out there that were created specifically (and scientifically) for hardgainers, but there's also a lot of overpriced, overly-marketed and low-quality programs that you should avoid out there so be on your toes when looking for the right program to follow to avoid wasting your money. I've personally used a ton of different programs and I compiled the best, highest-quality ones that I can comfortably recommend in my list of the best comprehensive bulking programs for hardgainers here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't going to be for everyone 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 consider if you have any type of injury or health problem, or obviously if you have the money to burn and want someone to carefully monitor what you're doing in the gym and be able to give you specific feedback.
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)