by Jim Cordova

The back is arguably the most intricate of all muscle groups, but that doesn’t mean a complex training approach will be required to develop it. With the right models, enhancing the strength and muscularity of your back can be simplified to the extreme. Sculpting that highly coveted V-taper you’ve always desired is not out of reach and this article will provide you with all of the tools you need to get it!

Designing a sound routine will necessitate that you first become familiar with the anatomy and function of the major muscles that are most responsible for an aesthetically pleasing back. They include the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi, and the spinal erectors (aka traps, lats, and lower back). The lats originate on the lower ribs and on quite a few areas of the vertebrae around the middle to lower back, fanning out from these locations and inserting onto the humerus. Basically, the lats pull the arms from the overhead position down toward the pelvis region.

The traps are the kite-shaped muscles that run down the middle of your back. The upper region originates near the base of the skull and attaches to the clavicle. The middle and lower regions originate at the top of your spine by the neck and at the middle vertebrae, attaching to the scapula. They pull the shoulders up, down, and allow you to retract them backward. Lastly, the spinal erectors consist of a group of smaller muscles that support and extend the spine. They are worked thoroughly when performing any core extension movement.

A few of the basic and most natural movements are all you will need to hammer the major muscle groups and develop the muscularity of the back. Then again, you can be more strategic and sculpt your back into a work of art by viewing each exercise as a tool, designed to help you accomplish a specific purpose. Clarification of your goal-specific objectives will therefore further your ability to tailor your routine accordingly and rapidly accelerate your progress!

If you desire to enhance your V-Taper, you need to be made aware that the lats (particularly the upper and middle region of fiber) are one of the primary muscle groups responsible for creating the illusion of width. Any movement that involves pulling the upper arms from the overhead position to the waist will target this region. Along these lines, the lat pulldown neutral (palms facing) grip will deliver the biggest bang for your buck! Even so, you should keep in mind that the lats possess a vast amount of fiber. To avoid stagnation and accentuate flare of your lats, you must incorporate multiple versions of this exercise. This means making use of various handles, frequently changing grip styles, and making slight adjustments to your grip width.

Even if you do construct an astounding V-Taper, it will not be aesthetically pleasing if you lack front-to-back thickness! To avoid building a “pancake back,” it is imperative that you incorporate rowing exercises into your routine. There is a broad assortment of rowing movements from which to choose and you will find it expedient to vary your selection from one workout to the next for optimal development.

Rowing movements are a highly versatile exercise that can be used to shift the focus from the lower portion of lat fiber all the way up to the mid-region of the traps. For this reason, it is important that you become aware of how arm movement affects the back muscles so that you can adapt your form relative to your goals. This will also provide more insight as to which handle is best suited for the target muscle when performing any cable rowing variation, as each was designed to assist in making positioning tactics more natural.

You will find that taking a grip variation anywhere between the supinated (underhand) and neutral position will trigger a distinctive contraction in the mid-to-lower lat area. A key tip when working this region is to make a conscious effort to pull toward the pelvis, as this will significantly increase stimulation. When rowing for the traps, you will recruit more fiber in the middle to lower region by pulling toward the upper abdominal area, most effectively when using a pronated (overhand) or neutral grip. This will cause the elbows to flare out so that you can retract the shoulders back and enhance emphasis. Finally, you can top off trap stimulation by performing standard shrugs.

Making an effort to extend your body on a low row will allow you to take much more from the exercise. Doing so will recruit muscles in the lower back region and strengthen this area quite well. However, you won’t find a better movement for lower back than the standard deadlift. And if you are at the beginning or intermediate level of resistance training, this exercise is a must, as it will considerably advance overall back development! Of course, if you are just beginning, you need to ease into this exercise to ensure proper conditioning, and if one is available at your gym, utilization of a chambered or “diamond” bar will be your best bet in terms of maximizing safety!

It is very efficient to prioritize a particular region of the back and work it thoroughly before moving on to the next major muscle group. For example, if you begin with widening exercises to expand the flare of the lats, continue doing so until you exhaust them. In this fashion, you can make your final lat exercise a “transitional” movement that brings the traps into play (i.e. barbell row) before moving onto those that prioritize the traps. An advisable exception involves using a major back building exercise, such as barbell rows, at the beginning of a workout.

When structuring exercise order, you will find it worthwhile to abide by one or more models such as width verses thickness, a focus on upper, middle, and lower back, or by muscle group. This provides an orderly tracking system to ensure that every area of your back is stimulated during a workout, in addition to alternating what region you target from workout to the next. It is wise to interchange target regions mainly due to the fact that the major muscles of the upper and middle back region are very dense in fiber and if you focus on one of these areas initially, you won’t have the energy to thoroughly work the other as you would being fresh.

Below are a few of my favorite exercises ordered using two models. Of course, “thickening” and “widening” are generic terms, as widening the lats will involve hypertrophy. With regard to the major muscle group model, in most cases you cannot completely eliminate the traps when working lats, and vice versa. As a result, there will be an occasional overlap between exercises that I list to best target various regions of the two muscle groups. The list is not all-inclusive, but is comprised of those that I feel best stimulate the specified region.

Targeting by Major Muscle Group

Upper Traps Region: Primarily Shrugs; Partial Deadlift.

Middle Traps Region: Partial Deadlifts; Barbell, Dumbbell, and T-bar Rows while keeping upper body bent at higher angle; Cable Rows using shoulder-width handles or wider; Hammer Strength Low Row. A pronated or neutral grip will further activate the middle fibers of the trapezius muscle, as will flaring the elbows outward so that the hands end up aligned near the mid-trunk to top of sternum upon full contraction.

Lower Traps Region: This region is effectively targeted by taking a wide grip and pulling toward the upper chest on a lat pulldown, enhancing concentration by remaining within the last one-half to three-quarters of the range-of-motion (ROM).

Upper to Middle Lat Region: Pull-Ups; Pronated, Neutral, and Supinated Grip Lat Pulldown; Pullovers.

Middle to Lower Lat Region: Dumbbell, Barbell, Cable, and T-bar Rows; Pullovers. A neutral/supinated grip will enhance stimulation of this region, as will flaring the elbows down toward the waist so that the hands end up aligned near the mid-trunk to pelvis upon full contraction.

Lower Back: Deadlifts; Good Mornings; Hyperextensions.

Widening Verses Thickening

Widening: Neutral, Supinated, and Pronated-grip Pull-Ups, and Lat Pulldowns; Pullovers; (Supinated) Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable, and T-Bar Rows with a supinated or neutral grip while flaring the elbows down toward the waist so that the hands end up aligned near the mid-trunk to pelvis.

Thickening: Shrugs; Partial Deadlift; Every variation of Barbell, Dumbbell, and T-bar Row; Cable Rows using shoulder-width handles or wider; Hammer Strength Low Row.