The Best Back & Shoulder Workout Plan (Complete Breakdown)

best back and shoulder workout plan

Building a bigger, stronger back and set of shoulders doesn’t happen by accident, it takes a thorough understanding of how to attack all the muscle fibers properly. 

As a strength coach, it’s my job to teach my clients which back and shoulder exercises will give them the best results and how to include them in a workout to maximize their efforts.

The 13 best back and shoulder exercises you should be doing to build strength and mass are:

  • Incline Dumbbell Rows
  • Cable Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Lat Pulldowns
  • Machine Assisted Pull-Ups
  • Reverse Grip Pulldowns
  • Straight Arm Pulldowns
  • Dumbbell Pullovers
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
  • Seated Barbell Shoulder Presses
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raises
  • Cable Lateral Raises
  • Cable Face Pulls

In this article, I’ll explain how to do each of these exercises properly and I’ll also share with you a workout program to help you gain back and shoulder mass in as little as 6 weeks!

If you want to build bigger shoulders and a more defined back, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.

Back & Shoulder Anatomy

The below section will break down the muscle groups that make up both the back and the shoulders. 

The first four muscle groups make up the back, whereas the last two muscle groups make up the shoulders.

Latissimus Dorsi

latissimus dorsi

The lats span the entirety of the upper backside of the torso and are responsible for helping to pull loads toward the body at a variety of angles. 

This is why it is key to perform back exercises that pull downwards toward the body from an overhead position (vertical pulling) and pulling movements with the hands in front of you and pulling towards your body (horizontal pulling).



The rhomboids are muscles that run between the shoulder blades and work to stabilize the shoulder girdle during most pressing and pulling movements. They also assist the back in pulling loads towards the body, as they retract (pull together) the shoulder blades.

The rhomboids are recruited in most pulling movements, especially when you focus on taking the shoulder blades through a full range of motion from protraction (letting the shoulder blades pull apart) to retraction (squeezing the shoulder blades together).



The traps are split into three sections: upper, middle, and lower traps. 

Most people are only aware of the upper traps which rest along the upper back and neck and are responsible for raising the shoulders in a shrugging motion and assisting during pulling exercises.

The mid traps work to assist the upper traps and are found in the middle of the back. 

The lower traps work to keep the shoulder blades pulled down and help to activate the lats because when your shoulders are shrugged and your shoulder blades are elevated, it is harder to feel the contraction in your lat.

Related Article: Isolate Your Mid-Back Better With These Exercises and Workout Plan

Serratus Anterior

serratus anterior

The serratus anterior muscles run along the underside of the arms along the upper rib cage and work to assist the lats in pulling. 

They also work to protract (spread apart) the shoulder blades, which is key when reaching forward in rows and pull-ups, as you want to expand the upper back muscles and then retract them (bring back together) back together every rep.



The deltoids are the shoulder muscles, and there are three deltoid muscle groups. The first is the front deltoids, which are in the front of the shoulders. 

These are targets by front raises and as well as most pressing movements. The front delts generally don’t need a lot of isolation work as they are often trained enough in workouts that include shoulder and bench pressing.

The lateral deltoids, or side delts, are the muscles that are trained during most shoulder pressing exercises and side raises. These muscles help to contribute to the overall size and shape of the shoulders.

Lastly, the rear deltoids are the muscles on the backside of the shoulders and work to pull the shoulders back. This muscle group is working during most pulling movements, however, isolation exercises (like face pulls) should also be incorporated to help develop balanced shoulders and improve posture.

Rotator Cuff Muscle Group

rotator cuff muscle group

This muscle group is made up of many smaller muscles that help to stabilize the shoulder joint when it is in motion. 

Muscles of the rotator cuff are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles are trained during most movements involving the upper body, as they assist in the stability of the joint during pressing and pulling exercises.

Related Article: Isolate Your Mid-Back Better With These Exercises and Workout Plan

Need a workout program? Try Fitbod for Free.

Best Back Exercises

Below are some of the best back exercises you can do to build a more muscular and stronger back. There are three types of back movements (horizontal, vertical, and isolation), each important for developing a well-developed and balanced back.

Horizontal Pulling Exercises

Here are the top three horizontal pulling movements you should be doing:

Incline Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell incline row is a supported row exercise that is great for all rep ranges and ability levels. Unlike the bent-over row, you do not need to control your torso or position your body in space, which minimizes the risk of your form breaking down. 

This is why I love these rows: you can focus 100% on moving weight and training to failure, which is exactly what is needed to grow the most muscle.  

Could you still do bent-over rows without the bench? Yes, but your hips, hamstrings, or lower back could tire out before your lats, which would negatively impact your results.

How To Do It

  • Set a bench at a 30-45 degree angle, and lie face down with your lower chest hitting the top of the bench pad (so that your upper torso hangs off the bench).
  • Place your feet firmly on the ground to secure a stable position, and grab two dumbbells, one in each hand.
  • As the weights are hanging below your shoulders, pull the elbows backward to your hips, keeping the chest up.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the pull, pause for 1-2 seconds with the weights by your ribcage, then slowly lower them back to the starting position.

Pro Tip

When pulling the weights towards you, think about pulling through the pinkies. By squeezing the pinkies hard, you help to ensure you are not only using the forearms and biceps.

Cable Row

The cable row allows you to train the back at various angles while also helping you to keep constant tension on the back muscles.

Unlike other rowing movements where your back gets unloaded at the bottom of the movement (such as when the weights touch the ground), the cable row places a huge stretch on the lats and forces them to work throughout the entire range of motion.

You can also use a variety of grip handles to train your back muscles with an overhead grip, underhand grip, or neutral grip. I suggest switching your grip every month to challenge your muscles in a slightly different way.

How To Do It

  • Grab the attachment handle and sit down, facing the cable stack.
  • With your feet on the platform in front of you, scoot your hips back and sit upright, ensuring your arms are straight and the weight is off the stack.
  • Without letting your hips slide forward or your torso leaning back, pull the elbows back towards your hips so that the hands are by the sides of your ribcage.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pause for 1-2 seconds, then slowly lower and straighten the arms, making sure not to let the weights hit the stack between reps.

Pro Tip

Your knees can be softly bent to make it less intense on your hamstrings. However, you should not allow the legs to re-bend or move during the pull because your body needs to stay stable to isolate the back fully.

T-Bar Row

The T-bar row is a bent-over row movement that allows you to train the back more heavily without needing to support yourself in a fully bent-over position. This is ideal for everyone (beginner-to-advanced lifters) who wants to train the back with heavy weight and/or high reps.

Although you are still bent over, you are only bent over about 45 degrees, so it’s not as challenging to maintain this bent-over position as it would be when performing other types of bent-over rows (i.e. barbell or dumbbell).

With the T-Bar Row, the bar itself is at an angle that allows for the same range of motion you would get if you were fully bent over, but without actually needing to do that.

How To Do It

  • Load a T-bar row machine up with weight and lie chest down on the pad. If there is no pad, simply grab the handles and stand up, and then push your hips back to assume a 45-degree bent-over position.
  • With your chest on the pad (upper chest hanging off the front), pull the elbows back towards your hips. If you do not have a chest pad, pull the handles back towards your hips while staying bent over (do not let your hips drop at all).
  • Flex your back at the top for 1-2 seconds, slowly lower and straighten the arms to the starting position, and then repeat.

Pro Tip

If you don’t have a T-Bar machine available to you, you can set this up yourself by placing a barbell in a landmine attachment and using a cable handle attachment as they do in this tutorial.

Vertical Pulling Exercises

Here are the top three vertical pulling movements you should be doing:

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is a vertical pulling movement for all levels. Unlike the pull-up, it allows you to use a load that matches your ability levels and is not limited by grip strength or body control. 

It also allows you to reinforce good form, as sometimes people doing pull-ups can start to use their arms or round the shoulders to pull themselves up to the bar.

How To Do It

  • Attach a bar handle to a high cable pulley, and sit down on the seat with your knees under the pad.
  • With a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, grab the bar with your palms facing away from you and sit up tall with a straight back.
  • Pull the bar down to your upper chest, making sure not to lean backward. Think about pulling the shoulder blades down the back as you pull the weight down.
  • Squeeze your lats at the bottom of the rep for 1-2 seconds, and then slowly straighten the elbows and repeat.

Pro Tip

I find it helpful to think about pulling the shoulders down away from the ears as you pull the handles towards you. Creating space between the top of the shoulders and the ears means that you are depressing the scapula (shoulder blades) and are better able to use your lats.

Machine Assisted Pull-Up 

The machine-assisted pull-up machine is generally a better option than regular pull-ups because the assistance it provides allows you to slow the reps down, perform them with good technique, and progress them more readily.

If you can do 10-15 reps of slow (1-2 seconds up, 1-2 seconds lowering phases) reps of pull-ups for a few sets, then bodyweight pull-ups could also be a great option. However, most people are unable to do that.

How To Do It

  • Place your knees on the pad and grab hold of the pull-up handlebars with palms away grip, with the hands slightly wider than shoulder width (2-3 inches outside shoulder width).
  • Bend your elbows and pull them to your sides as your head lifts above the handles, all while keeping your torso vertical.
  • Pause at the top for 1-2 seconds, then slowly straighten your elbows and repeat.

Pro Tip

Keep your shoulders back as you near the top of the movement, as this is when they may start to round forward to help you finish the pull. The goal is to keep your shoulders back so that your lats can do their job.

Reverse Grip Pulldown

The reverse grip lat pulldown is a variation that mimics the chin-up but is performed on the same machine as regular lat pulldowns. It helps to develop the lats muscles and the biceps and serratus anterior.

I encourage you to train this movement as well as regular lat pulldowns, as each helps to target different fibers of the back.

How To Do It

  • Sit upright on a pulldown machine with your thighs under the pad. 
  • Grab the handlebar above you with an underhand grip, with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • With your chest up, arms straight, and shoulders pulled away from your ears, pull the elbows down towards the hips and bring the bar to your upper chest.
  • Squeeze the back for 1-2 seconds, then slowly straighten the elbows and repeat.

Pro Tip

When doing this, make sure that your elbows are under your wrists. Allowing them to flare outwards will decrease the emphasis on your lats and biceps.

Isolation Exercises

Isolation back exercises involve only one joint moving at a time and are great for targeting lagging muscle groups.

Unlike rows and pulldowns, which have you bending and straightening the elbow and shoulder joints throughout the movement, these two exercises only require movement at the shoulder joint.

Straight Arm Pulldown

The straight arm pulldown targets the lats and is often done with lighter loads than pulldowns or rows. 

When doing these, you want to focus on getting a big stretch as you reach the hands out, and then pull the handles down toward you using only your lats (rather than using your shoulders and arms).

You can also do these one arm at a time, which can help you reinforce better technique and address any muscle imbalances.

How To Do It

  • Place a pulley to the highest point, and position yourself with a straight bar handle on the pulley.
  • Grab a hold of the bar with your arms shoulder-width apart and palms facing the ground, and step back 1-2’ with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • With your chest slightly leaned forward, reach your hands out and above your head, keeping your arms extended.
  • Pull the bar to your hips, keeping the arms straight throughout the movement. The bar should be pulling in an arcing motion toward your hips.
  • Pause at the bottom for 1-2 seconds and flex the back, keeping the chest up. Then, slowly bring your arms back up in the same arcing motion and repeat.

Pro Tip

If you find it uncomfortable to keep your arms completely straight, then you can allow for a slight bend in your elbows but focus on maintaining this bend throughout the movement rather than bending further.

Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover is similar to the straight arm lat pulldown because it isolates the lats, but rather than using a cable machine, it uses a dumbbell. 

This may be a more convenient exercise if you don’t have access to a cable machine, but it is also slightly more difficult to maintain proper form.

How To Do It

  • Lie perpendicular on a bench with your upper back across the pad and your head hanging off. Your feet should be planted on the ground with your hips raised.
  • Grab a dumbbell and hold it vertically in both hands (one dumbbell), with the arms extended above your head.
  • Place a soft bend in your elbows, then reach your hands back in an arcing motion, lowering the dumbbell towards the floor behind you.
  • Lower the dumbbell as low as you can while still feeling a stretch on the lats, and then lift the weight back above you to the starting position.

Pro Tip

This can be tricky for some people, so the best way to do this is to actively seek out a stretch on the lats as you lower. You do not want to drop into the stretch quickly, as this can create extra stress on the shoulders. Think slow, big stretch, and then lift the weight back above you.

Best Shoulder Exercises

To target your shoulders effectively, you’ll need both compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises allow you to build strength and mass, and isolation exercises allow you to build muscle and minimize the involvement of other muscle groups.

Below are some of the best shoulder exercises you can do to build more muscular and stronger shoulders. 

Related Article: Boulders for Shoulders Workout Program for BIGGER DELTS

Compound Shoulder Exercises

Here are the best compound shoulder exercises:

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is a great exercise to build stronger shoulders and add muscle size. Dumbbells allow you to train both sides independently, which can also help to address any muscle imbalances.

Lastly, dumbbells allow you to rotate your palm and find the best wrist positioning based on what feels most comfortable. In contrast, barbell overhead pressing can be uncomfortable on your wrists and shoulders as you are locked into a fixed position.

How To Do It

  • Sit on a bench with your back straight against the pad and grab two dumbbells, one in each hand.
  • With your palms facing forward, press the dumbbells overhead and straighten your arms, while keeping your wrist and forearms vertical to the ground.
  • Lower the weights back down and touch the shoulders, and repeat.

Pro Tip

If you feel any shoulder discomfort, try turning your palms towards your face (neutral grip) as this can take some pressure off the front of the shoulders.

Seated Barbell Shoulder Press

The seated barbell shoulder press is a shoulder pressing exercise that is ideal for using heavier weights and building shoulder strength and size.

When lifting very heavy weights, dumbbells can feel impossible because it’s challenging to get them up into the pressing position. A barbell is preferred as it can be loaded in the rack and unracked more easily than dumbbells when pressing heavy weights.

How To Do It

  • Sit upright on a bench with your knees bent and feet directly underneath the knees.
  • Grab a barbell with a slightly wider than (1-3” outside) shoulder-width grip and extend your arms so the barbell is overhead.
  • Lower the barbell to the top of the shoulders, and then press back up.

Pro Tip

It is easiest to set yourself up in a squat rack so that you can easily unrack the weight at shoulder level. I also recommend that you do these seated instead of standing, as this will allow you to place all of the loading on the upper body.

Isolation Shoulder Exercises

Here are the best shoulder isolation exercises:

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise targets the deltoids and is a good way to add more training volume and total work to the deltoids without needing to lift very heavy weights. This isolation exercise will place all the loading on the shoulders (not letting the triceps assist at all).

These are great for lifters who struggle to feel their shoulders in the overhead press due to the triceps giving out first. This is also a great way to train shoulders if a lifter cannot press loads overhead due to limited shoulder mobility and/or injury.

How To Do It

  • Stand upright, holding dumbbells, one in each hand, with your palms facing you and your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • With slightly bent elbows, lift your arms out the sides, making sure your elbows are not bending more than they are at the starting point.
  • Lift the dumbbells to around shoulder height, and then lower the weights down slowly.

Pro Tip

It is easy to do these wrong, which is why I suggest you think about lifting the elbows up to initiate the movement and to keep your wrists relaxed as you lift the weights. This will ensure you aren’t using your forearms and biceps too much.

Cable Face Pull

The cable face pull is a rear delt and upper back exercise that can be done to help improve shoulder strength and scapular stability. 

Both of those will help you improve your posture, overhead strength, and upper back muscularity.

How To Do It

  • Place a pulley at just above chin level, and attach a rope or neutral grip handle.
  • Grab the rope with an overhead grip (or grab the neutral handle with palms in the grip), and step back 2-3’ or until the weight is off the stack and the arms are fully extended.
  • While keeping your arms parallel to the ground, pull the handles apart and pull your elbows backward past the sides of the face. The center of the rope or bar attachment should be in front of the nose/chin area.
  • Slowly straighten your arms towards the pulley, and repeat.

Pro Tip

Do not let the elbows drop as you pull back and always keep the wrists in line with the shoulders. Many people will let their elbows drop and end up using their forearms and biceps, rather than isolating the rear delt and upper back muscles.

Cable Lateral Raise

The cable lateral raise is the cable version of the dumbbell lateral raise. These are great because they allow you to see the angle at which you are lifting the weights, as the cable itself provides visual feedback. 

Additionally, the cables keep constant tension on the muscles throughout the full range of motion, which increases the difficulty of the movement.

How To Do It

  • Place the cable at the lowest setting and grab the right handle with your left hand and the left handle with your right hand. You should be facing the cable stack.
  • Step back 1-2’, and with the cables crossed in front of you, lift the arms upwards in an arcing motion until the hands are around shoulder height.
  • Pause at the top for 1-2 seconds, and then slowly lower the hands back down while keeping your elbows softly bent, and repeat.

Pro Tip

Try to find the point at the bottom of every rep where you feel the muscles relax and lose tension. Then, force yourself not to lower the arms all the way to that point, as this will help you maintain more tension on the delts throughout the workout and get better muscle growth.

Related Article: Best Barbell Back Exercises for Strength and Muscle Growth

How To Plan The Best Back & Shoulder Workout

Below are all the factors you need to consider when planning your back and shoulder workouts.

If you want to eliminate all the guesswork from your training, then let the Fitbod app help you. With the Fitbod app, you can easily design a workout program custom to your goals and gym setup. The Fitbod app will then progress your workouts every week based on your weekly performance to ensure you are progressing towards your goals.

Exercise Selection

When training back and shoulders in the same session, I suggest you choose 2-3 exercises for each muscle group. Of the 2-3 exercises that you choose for each muscle group, make sure at least one is a compound exercise, and one is an isolation movement. 

If you want added muscle mass, adding an extra compound lift would be a good suggestion as this will allow you to use more muscle tissue and get more muscle growth throughout the entire upper body.


You will want to train the back and shoulders twice per week, with each workout delivering 8-12 total work sets per session per muscle group, spread out across two to three exercises. 

I suggest that you train no more than 5 sets per exercise unless you are more advanced or only able to do one main movement per session (maybe due to limited equipment or time).


You will want to train the back and shoulders with low (5-10), moderate (10-15), and high (15-20) rep ranges. 

When doing compound movements, stick to lower to moderate rep ranges as this will let you build strength and muscle mass with heavier weights. 

You can then do more isolation and machine movements in the moderate to higher rep ranges.

If you want to gain mass, aim to have 50% of your reps occur in the 8-15 rep range. You can then aim to split the remaining 50% of your reps in the 5-8 (25%) and 15-20 (25%) rep ranges.


When training the back and shoulders, you should be training with as much weight as you can while still maintaining proper form and control. You should be ending every set with only 1-2 reps left in the tank. 

More advanced lifters who can train hard and still maintain good control can train closer to or to failure (to technical failure, not complete failure).

Technique failure is when your technique breaks down, which typically occurs before systemic failure (you simply cannot do any more reps, even with bad form). Never reach systemic failure, as this means you are doing reps with bad form. 

Exercise Order

Always start your workouts by training the muscle group that is the key emphasis for that day. 

If you want to target your back and shoulders, but the first day of the week is more back-focused with some shoulders, then train back first (or vice versa). 

This is why training both muscle groups together twice per week is suggested, as you can train each muscle group first one day a week.

Training Frequency

Train the back and shoulders twice per week if you want muscle growth and size. Training them only once a week will not be enough overall training volume to get you the best results you could get. 

Some lifters can train three times a week, especially if they are taking 6-8 weeks to really emphasize back and shoulder growth in their training; however, if you are training them hard three times a week, you may run into recovery issues. 

If you find you are overly sore and it is impacting your next workout, bump it back to two days. Twice per week is ideal as you can train the back and shoulders harder and still recover properly between sessions.

Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.

Sample Back & Shoulder Workouts For Strength & Mass

sample back and shoulder workouts

Below are two workouts you can use to help increase the strength and mass of the back and shoulders. 

The first workout prioritizes back strength and shoulder size training, whereas the second workout prioritizes shoulder strength and back size training. 

Both of these workouts can be done in the same week and would suffice as your back and shoulders days in your workout program.

Note, that all the exercises used in the same workout can be found in the Fitbod app, however, the exact workout below is not. You can use the workout below as a template to create your own workouts in the Fitbod app. Once you do this, the app will help you record and progress your workouts every week to keep your progress going and help you maximize your results.

Day 1: Back Strength + Shoulder Size

  • Machine Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • T-Bar Row: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Straight Arm Pulldown: 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets

Day 2: Shoulder Strength + Back Size

  • Seated Barbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Cable Face Pull: 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Cable Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Reverse Grip Pulldown: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Pullover: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets

About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.