The 4 Rules of a Big Back

by Gareth Sapstead

Upgrade Your Back Workouts

Want a big back? Or an even bigger, even stronger back? Follow these four rules, target the right muscles, and try these unique exercises.

Big Back, Guaranteed

If I asked you to contract your biceps, you wouldn’t have a problem. That’s because you can see your elbows flexing and visualize your biceps contracting. You’ve also been flexing your biceps in the mirror ever since you can remember. (Don’t lie.)

But what if I asked you to contract the muscles between your shoulder blades? Some of you might have a great connection with your back musculature. Others may attempt to pull their shoulders back and pinch their scapula together with very little muscle sensation.

If you can’t “find” a muscle, how are you supposed to load it effectively? How are you supposed to build it if you can’t load it?

Here are four tips to help you find and build your back better.

1. Find The Muscles To Feel Them Working

Certain exercises can enhance your awareness of the muscles working in a particular area. For your middle and upper back – the traps and rhomboids – isometrics in the peak contracted (maximally shortened) position tend to work best.

Plate row iso-holds are one option. Start your back workout with a few sets of 20-30 second holds.

2. Pre-Fatigue the Mid-Back Muscles

The iso-dynamic method is an intensity technique used to pre-fatigue a muscle group and increase time under tension.

You’ll always fatigue first in the shortened range of motion, so by starting each set holding for 10-20 seconds, you’ll feel your dynamic reps a whole lot more when you start doing them. Give iso-dynamic chest-supported rows a try to help build your upper back while minimizing fatigue through your low back and hips.

Bonus Tip: Note the bar placed at my feet in the video. This helps keep you locked in position and focused on the area you’re trying to target.

3. Use Different Grips and Angles

If you can’t feel an exercise working the intended area or feel pain doing it, why are you still using it? For building muscle, particularly in an area where you lack awareness, internal cues that help you focus on sensation will be important.


  • Drive your elbows behind you.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades together and focus here.

In an ideal world, a coach would place a hand between your shoulder blades to feel the mid-back.

If your focus and intention are in the right place, but you’re still not feeling it, the problem could be your exercise selection. Different exercises are suited to different individuals, and some will allow you to feel your back working harder than others.

If you don’t feel it, try playing around with your grip. Try another angle. Try slowing it down and focusing on the squeeze.

Inverted rows are often done using an overhand grip, a lack of controlled tempo, and no regard for creating whole-body tension. Try switching to an underhand grip. (See video.) If you want to increase your range of motion, use a bar pad and try to tap it every time. You could even add a brief pause at the top to ensure you’re getting the most from every rep.

4. Keep Your Reps Honest

If you have a good reason for using a partial range of motion, then go for it. But most of the time, you’ll want to be using a full range – your maximum available and active range of motion.

If you’re doing T-bar rows and the 45-pound plates are hitting your chest early, your upper back won’t get as much out of it. Try bent-over row variations where the load is kept close to your hips to target the upper back. Modified T-bar rows (see video) are nothing like the jerky versions you’re used to using or seeing.

Swap your big 45-pound plates for some with a smaller diameter. Go a little lighter, and focus on keeping your forearms as close to your inner thighs as possible when you row. You’ll have more range of motion, a more intense contraction through your upper back, and your lower back will remain intact afterward.

If you’re experiencing fatigue through the lower back and hips, go with chest-supported rowvariations.

10 Little Tips That’ll Make a Big Difference

  1. Make it a goal to hit at least 18 reps on the standard inverted row (12 reps for women). If you can’t, your relative strength needs work.
  2. Pull with more volume than you push.
  3. The more you train your chest like a powerlifter, the more you should train your back like a bodybuilder.
  4. Aim to do a dead-hang chin-up with 75% of your bench press weight (that weight should include your body weight).
  5. For healthy shoulders, train more horizontal pulling patterns than vertical ones. You have four options in the videos above.
  6. To overcome a back plateau, try switching angles and arm paths to those you neglect the most.
  7. Weighted pull-ups are the upper body squat. A neutral grip or rings will give you the greatest return for the lowest investment.
  8. Upper traps might look badass, but don’t forget about your lower traps.
  9. If you have trouble feeling your lats working, try straight-arm pulldowns or pullovers BEFORE your “big” back lifts. Here’s Christian Thibaudeau coaching it:
  10. There are better options than band-assisted pull-ups for improving the “real” thing. Eccentric variations (focusing on the negative or lowering portion of the rep) and isometric holds in varying positions work best if you’re weak at pull-ups.