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, well-balanced and optmized training and nutrition plan for your specific goals (which if you're reading this is likely building muscle mass as a hardgainer/skinny guy).
To do that there's essentially 3 paths you can take, each with their pros and cons:
Path A: Design Your Own Mass Gain Program (cheapest)
Learn all the crucial basics, principles and over-arching strategies you need to know about planning the best well-balanced, science-based, all-natural mass building program for your specific goal and workout/diet preferences with our pillar 7-step comprehensive guide for beginner lifters and future heros. If you don't want to spend any money at all, this is how you do it, but be sure to thoroughly research all aspects of your DIY muscle gain program as an unbalanced/bro-science/straight-up-bad program can mean little to no gains at best, and bad posture, injuries and a whole lot of having to backtrack later at worst.
Path B: Follow A Proven Mass Gain Program ($)
To save time having to research and plan the best muscle building program for your specific goals as a hardgainer/skinny-guy/skinny-fat-dad-bod/whatever, there are indeed some excellent pre-made online programs out there that have stood the test of time in getting guys great results. It can give you a great head-on your transformation journey, and will make things simpler for you as it's simply a matter of executing a specific eating and workout program and not having to worry about getting all the little important details of your program on-point.
Sean Nal's hardgainer transformation program (you can see my full review and before/after pics using the program here) is the complete all-in-one online program I'd recommend to most people and especially beginners, and is the one I personally got the most out of when I first started.
Ignore any slick marketing, this guy's the real deal and easily one of the smartest hardgainers-turned-fitness-models I've come across online. Vince Delmonte's Mass Gain program comes in at a close second, who's another smart guy with the real-world results to back it up, who has another effective and proven step by step online program that's helped thousands of guys transform over a few months (rather than years).
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer ($$$)
The most expensive option to achieve your dream physique, but if you have the money to spend (1 on 1 coaching can quickly add up in costs) then ensure you pick a trainer who understands the science behind muscle gain, fat burning, supplementation, nutrition, etc, and most importantly choose one who practices what they preach and has similar results to what you want. If you're a hardgainer, ideally you'll want a trainer who has been in your shoes before and started out as a skinny hardgainer themselves and managed to build muscle successfully, otherwise they may not understand the best course of action for you and give you unhelpful generic advice.
Whichever path you choose - stick with it for long enough, don't give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but you understand that last sentence I said you won't need it ;)
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)