A Complete Road Map to Building a Thick Muscular Back

Josh England
Written By: Josh England
October 23rd, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
22.9K Reads
A Complete Road Map to Building a Thick Muscular Back
Look no further for guidelines on building a big and thick back. Our road map to building a well defined & complete back covers everything you need to know!

You’re never a true pilot until you’ve earned your wings.

And you’re not a serious weight lifter until you’ve built yours.

Of course, we’re talking about your back here, because let’s be real, a lot of us claim to value back training but still train the anterior muscles of the body twice as much.

Why? I have a few guesses:

  1. Most anterior muscles (front side of your body) are mirror muscles.
  2. You’ve likely been doing push ups and bicep curls since day 1, so now you're so out of tune with your back muscles you have difficulty getting a solid pump.
  3. Body-part specific splits tend to be most popular in our realm, resulting in more push exercises than pull.

I’m sure the list could go on and on (if you have any you’d like to contribute, feel free to do so in the comments below), but I digress.

Today I’m going to provide you with a complete roadmap to build a big and thick back.

By the end of this article, you should have a solid understanding of the anatomy that makes up the back musculature, exercises that target each of those muscles, and workouts you can start performing today to build your back.

The Anatomy of the Back

Before we get too carried away with workouts that target the back, let’s discuss the muscles that it consists of and their primary functions.

Related: Top 10 Mass Building Movements of All Time

Since you cannot see your back actually working as you train (barring an excessive amount of mirror space hogging) it is important to understand how each muscle functions.

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That way, you’ll be better in-tune with the muscle and able to feel it working through the range of motion of each exercise.

The major muscle groups of the back consist of the latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, teres major, rhomboids, and trapezius.

1. Latissimus Dorsi

Remember that wings reference I made earlier? Those, for the most part, are going to become visible through having large lats.

The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle group of the back and what can be seen as a “V” shape from behind, or “fanned wings” from the front.

Their main function is to pull the arms down toward the pelvis or your body towards your arms if they are in a fixed overhead position.

You can train your lats by performing a number of pull up variations and pull down variations including: wide grip pull ups, chin ups, close grip lat pull down, wide grip lat pull down, reverse grip lat pull downs, and straight arm pull downs.

2. Erector Spinae

The erector spinae is made up of 3 groups of muscles that provide support and stabilize the spinal column. The groups making up the erector spinae are the spinalis group, the longissimus group, and the iliocostalis group. The erector spinae is also used for extending the spine.

Personally, I believe in targeting the erector spinae indirectly through exercises which predominantly target the hamstrings and glutes. These exercises include deadlift variations and hyperextension variations.

Build a Big and Thick Back Performing Deadlifts

You’ll see a lot of folks actually try to directly target the erector spinae by performing these exercises. It certainly can work, especially if you are advanced enough in your training to keep a flat back and stable spine.

However, most people tend to overemphasize the need to feel a contraction at the top of the exercise and overextend while performing the movement. Obviously this jeopardizes your spinal health, even more so under heavy load, so be sure to avoid doing this at all cost by keeping your back flat, head neutral, and trunk stable.

3. Teres Major

The teres major is a thick round muscle of the upper back. It attaches to the scapula and humerus, with the main functionality of moving the humerus posteriorly.

You’re more than welcome to search for exercises that isolate the teres major (and minor for that matter). Most will come in the form of adding rotation or abduction to movements.

Personally, I think you’ll get the best bang for your buck focusing on targeting the larger muscles of the back through more compound movements that will still take care of these muscles indirectly.

4. Rhomboids

The rhomboids are rhombus-shaped muscles which attach to the middle of the scapula. The rhomboids main function is to bring the scapula towards the spinal column.

In other words, you use your rhomboids to squeeze your shoulder blades together. The most common way to target these muscles is by performing dumbbell, barbell, machine, and cable row variations.

However, if you’re the average meathead, your rows are jerky and involve much more lat and/or bicep activation than rhomboid activation. A quick fix to this is dropping the weight and/or performing them in a chest supported fashion.

You could also add in the inverted row to your workout program. Even though it is only a bodyweight movement, the inverted row is a true test of strength. If you’re performing them consistently and with perfect form, you’re bound to get a big, thick back.

Build a Big and Thick Back Performing Rows

5. Trapezius

Named for its resemblance of a trapezium, the trapezius muscles (aka traps) are the final muscle of the back we’ll touch on today. The traps are used for three main functions: Scapular elevation, adduction, and depression.

When most people think trap training, they automatically think of shrug variations. And while shrug variations are a fine way to isolate your traps, they may not be the best exercises to actually build them.

Related: Training Talk - Training Traps with Shoulders or Back?

Why? Because it’s usually the static holding of the weight and time under tension that make performing shrugs beneficial for trap development. The tension and heavy weight do the work here, not the contraction.

So instead, go for exercises that replicate both such as farmer’s walks or deadlifts. Farmer’s walks will give you the time under tension needed to develop thick traps while also adding a conditioning element to your workouts. Deadlifts will give you a compound movement to build the entire posterior chain, while creating tension on the traps with a heavy load at lock out.

Workouts to Get a Big, Thick Back

Below are a couple of workouts you should try out if you’re looking to build a bigger back. They are comprised of some of my personal favorite back movements and will be performed in rep ranges that encourage hypertrophy.

I’ve broken them up into two separate workouts. Add them into your workout routine in a way that allows for complete recovery, taking all of your workouts into consideration.

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For instance, you probably don’t want to do both workouts on back to back days and it’d probably be smart to avoid deadlifting after a serious leg day.

For your first lift, you’ll be performing a big compound movement for 3-5 repetitions. This will allow you to move some heavy weight right off the bat and get all of the muscles involved.

From there, you’ll be performing 2 more compound movements in the 6-8 rep range to encourage muscle growth from the entire back. Lastly, the final movement will be an isolation movement used to target a specific muscle group of the back. Perform these in the 10-12 rep range.

Back Workout 1

Exercise Sets Reps
1. Deadlift 3 5
2. Dumbbell Row 3 6-8
3. Close Grip Pull Down 3 6-8
4. Face Pulls 3 10-12
5. Dumbbell Pullover 3 10-12

Back Workout 2

Exercise Sets Reps
1. Bent Over Row 3 5
2. Weighted Pull Up 3 6-8
3. Farmer's Walk 3 20 yards
4. Inverted Row 3 10-12
5. Chest Supported Row 3 10-12

Final Thoughts on Building a Big Back

If you want to have a big and thick back, you’ve got to understand what you’re working with back there. And since you don’t have mirrors to see the muscles working, you’ve got to know how each muscle of the back functions.

By performing each workout presented above once a week in conjunction with your other workouts, you’ll notice a great deal of muscle growth over time.

Do you have any back building tips that you’d like to share? Be sure to drop us a comment in the comments section below!

Michael Travis
Posted on: Tue, 10/31/2017 - 06:43

Unfortunately, the RA I have now fought for a couple decades had now eastern away at my upper body strength to the point where I am unable to compete even one Hanging Scap Raise, much less a Pull-up. Appreciate recommendations for a substitute movement.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 10/31/2017 - 13:33

Hi Michael,

Sorry to hear that. This is a difficult question to answer. And I wouldn't want to blindy suggest something over the internet that might result in further injury/pain. That's not fair to you.

I'd recommend working with a professional in person. They'll be able to see your current movement patterns and work with you around your condition to get in the best workout suitable for yourself.

Hope this helps and best of luck!