A big, thick, muscular back often suggests a lifter has spent a lot of time performing upper body pulling movements. However, when looking for the best bulking workouts for your back, we must expand our exercise list as much as possible, and also consider other variables like training volume, frequencies, and recovery.
So what does the best bulking back workout look like?
When looking to gain back size during a bulking process, it is recommended to include a variety of compound movements spanning across rep ranges to maximize muscle growth. Exercises should include pull ups and rows in both the vertical (up and down) and horizontal (side to side) planes.
As well, the addition of higher rep training using machines is also helpful as they allow you to train the back more frequently and at higher intensities without being limited by other muscle groups (lower back, grip, etc).
In short, the more you can train your back (up to 2-3 times per week for most people), and recover from that training properly (smart programming and eating enough food), the more you can repeat this muscle-building process.
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8 Must-Do Back Exercises for Building a Bigger,Thicker Back
Below are the best back exercises to build a bigger and thicker back for any level of lifter.
Half of the exercises are vertical pulling movements (pull ups and pulldowns), whereas the other half are horizontal pulling movements (rows).
For best back development, both movement classes should be done within the same training program.
The 8 best bulking back exercises are:
- Pull Ups
- Lat Pulldowns
- Underhand Reverse Grip Lat Pulldowns
- Straight Arm Pulldowns
- Bent Over Rows
- Bench Supported Incline Rows
- 1-Arm Rows
- Machine or Cable Rows
1. Pull Ups
The pull up is an excellent way to build significant muscle mass and strength in the back, biceps, and forearm.
This exercise is one of the most iconic methods used to build strong backs, and can be done with added weight, bodyweight, or assistance.
I prefer to train the pull up using heavy to moderate loads, as higher rep pull up work often taxes the grip and arm muscles prior to back fatigue.
I like to start out with pull ups first, and attack the big back muscles with this compound movement.
Related Article: The Best Bulking Chest Workouts: 7 Must-Do Exercises
2. Lat Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns are a great way to take the pull up movement and train it in a higher repetition or more isolated manner.
This seated pull up version is not depending on one’s ability to do the pull up, and allows a lifter to push muscle fatigue.
This is also a great way to add some variety to your pulldown training using various handles or reverse grips (see below).
Related Article: The Best Bulking Arm Workouts: 13 Must-Do Exercises
3. Underhand Reverse Grip Lat Pulldowns
The underhand pulldown can help to attack the back at a different angle, offering new stimulus to the lats and serratus muscles.
I find it helpful to mix these in as you can often get a good muscle contraction of the lat in a slightly different location that the standard pulldown or pull up.
Related Article: The Best V-Taper Dumbbell Workout (Step By Step Guide)
4. Straight Arm Pulldowns
The straight arm pulldown is a lat focused exercise that can help increase muscle growth of the serratus as well as hit the back muscles at a slightly different angle than pulldowns and rows.
The key here is to focus on a large range of motion, and a forceful muscle contraction.
5. Bent Over Rows
This is a premiere back strengthening exercise that can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or any other free weight. The key here is to get the back as close to parallel as possible, and to keep the back arched.
This is commonly performed by most lifters, however it is also notoriously done incorrectly, so be sure to watch this video on how to correctly perform the bent over row.
I personally prefer doing this off a raised platform, stepper, or plates OR loading the barbell with a smaller plate instead of big ones (still getting the loading I want on the bar); as both methods allow for a greater stretch and range of motion which can aid in muscle growth.
6. Bench Supported Incline Rows
Bench supported rows are a great way to add rowing volume without having to worry about controlling the positioning yourself.
This is helpful for beginners who may struggle to achieve proper positions in the bent over row, or more advanced lifters who want to attack their back without having to worry about their lower back and hamstrings.
This can be done with dumbbells, a barbell (seal row), or the T-bar row.
7. 1-Arm Rows
The single arm row is a popular rowing movement that is also done incorrectly by most lifters.
If you are doing these rows and do not feel the insane back pump, then odds are you are doing them improperly. Be sure to watch this 1-arm row video demo to make sure you are not doing the most common faults with the 1-arm row.
You can do this with dumbbells, kettlebells, or even a barbell landmine (Meadows row).
8. Machine or Cable Rows
Using machines or cable to do rows allows you to train the back muscles to complete failure without burning out the lower back if you were to do higher rep bent over rows, etc.
Using machines is also a great way to extend sets with drop sets, giant sets, or rest pause sets to further stimulate new muscle and bust through muscle growth plateaus.
Are you training from home with limited equipment? Try these at-home upper body workouts to build muscle now!
4 Training Techniques to Maximize Back Growth
Below are four training tips and techniques you can use with the above exercises to maximize your muscle growth during your bulk and minimize injury
Train in a Variety of Rep Ranges
Training in the rep ranges of 8-12 is most likely your best opportunity to work with enough loading to offer great stimulus, yet be able to still train in high enough volumes to stimulate a response.
That said, training in a variety of rep ranges can further help you customize your training program to more closely match your most optimal range (which are based on genetics and muscle fiber types).
In the back growth program below, you will be training back multiple times per week, using a variety of rep ranges(5-10, 10-20, and 20-30 reps) to increase back strength and size.
Emphasize the Full Range of Motion
When looking to maximize muscle growth, you can also focus on training in the fullest range of motion to place high amounts of tension on the muscle fiber (muscle is lengthened under load).
By training in the full range of motion, you can also increase muscle activation of the muscle itself, and often can have similar growth responses with lighter weights (and without a lot of the joint stress) when compared to heavier, partial rep training.
When doing pull ups be sure to go into a deep stretch by fully straightening your arms. You can also increase the range of motion in movements like the bent over row by doing deficit rows (standing on a platform or plates) or using smaller plates instead of large ones to further increase the ROM.
Control the Eccentric Phase
Controlling the lowering phase (eccentric) is a great way to increase tension on the muscle. The eccentric phase of the muscle contraction is where most of the muscle damage is done, so making sure to control this phase and maintain tension is key for muscle growth.
Additionally, you can focus on controlling the load and movement, which is important to prevent injuries (which, when injured you cannot train as effectively, and therefore negatively impact you abilities to maximize muscle growth).
You can do this by taking your time lowering the weight stack during lat pulldowns or feeling the active stretch on the lats during bent over rows.
Pause at Full Range of Motion
Adding pauses at the bottom of the range of motion, or at any phase in the movement, can help to address sticking point and/or place more emphasis on a muscle.
One great way to do this is to pause briefly when doing pull ups, rows, or pulldowns in the fully contracted position.
3 Back Workouts to Build a Bigger, Thicker Back While Bulking
Below are three back workouts you can do while bulking to build strength, size, and set the groundwork for a successful strength cycle to come.
The below workouts can be done in the same week if you are looking for a complete back routine to do during your bulk.
The total training volume per week is roughly 16 total work sets, which falls within the normal effective training volume ranges for most individuals looking to maximize muscle growth while still being able to recover properly.
Note: that the movements may not change as frequently as people may think, as the key variable here is to select a few compound movements and do them using a variety of rep ranges to stimulate back growth (since the back muscles respond well to most rep ranges).
Bulking Back Workout #1: “Heavy” Back Day Workout
- Strict Pull Up: 4 sets of 5-10 sets. Use weight if you can. If you cannot perform bodyweight or weighted pull ups, use an assisted pull up machine or resistance bands for assistance. The key here is to be very strict with your form, and use your back muscles.
- Bent Over Row: 4 sets of 5-10 reps. Do this with an extremely flat lower back, and be sure to go all the way down to the floor. As you row, do NOT let your hips move up and down. I like to do this standing on a plate or platform to increase the range of motion. You can also use small 10lb or 25lb metal plates rather than larger 45lb plates as this will have the barbell closer to the floor and increase the range of motion.
This workout primarily focuses on training in the 5-10 rep range to develop back strength and stress that overload the muscles with heavier loads. This workout is first in the training week to allow for the lifter to attack loads in the recovered state (assuming they are doing this early in the training week).
This is best paired with the “medium” and/or “light” back day workouts, as adding those in later during the week can really diversify training and stimulate new muscle growth, not just increase strength (but also increase muscle size, correct asymmetries, and increase back activation).
This workout is 8 total work sets. While it may not be a full on back day that some people are used to, these 8 sets should be done with perfect form and intensity. Paired with another workout from below (or both), and you have a complete back growth program you can do for weeks, if not months.
Bulkin Back Workout #2: “Medium” Back Day Workout
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 10-20 reps. Reverse grip pulldowns are a great way to hit the back muscle fibers differently and work on developing the width of the back. Work on a big stretch and contraction, making sure to use your lats and not your biceps in the pulldown.
- Bench Supported Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 10-20 reps. You can substitute the T-Bar row or plate loaded seated row if you like as well. The main emphasis here should be to perform a rowing movement in a supported position (either lying down or seated) so that you do not have to worry about supporting yourself with your hamstrings or lower back (such as in the bent over row). That said, you can certainly do bent over rows, however if you find your lower back or hamstrings are burning up or not allowing you to maintain proper positioning (due to tiredness or fatigue), then I would recommend swapping it out for one of the above rowing options.
This workout primary focuses on training in the 10-20 rep range to develop back growth. This workout should be done after the heavier back day as it can create a good amount of soreness and muscle fatigue.
The focus here should always be on feeling the muscle, the stretch, and the contraction.
At the end of every set, the muscle should feel beat up and weak, maybe even already sore. I find it best to perform the first set with a weight I can get close to 20 reps.
As the sets go on and fatigue sets in, I often will struggle to perform 10-12 good reps with the same starting weight. That is an effective way to add rep diversity to your overall training program.
You will notice that this workout incorporates some machine work. Using machines or supported variations allow a lifter to attack the back muscles without having to worry about form breakdown or fatigue in other muscles that will impact training.
For example, high rep bent over rows may be difficult to do mid week after the heavy back day and a lower body session the day before. Performing a bench supported row (or T-bar row) allows the lifter to not have to worry about lower back stamina and simply attack the back.
Bulking Back Workout #3: “Light” Back Day Workout
- Machine or Cable Row: 2 sets of 20-30 reps. I prefer using a machine or something that does not allow me to move around too much (momentum). Whichever you choose, make sure to keep your form strict and focus on building up as much immediate fatigue within the muscle as possible.
- Cable Straight Arm Pulldown: 2 sets of 20-30 reps. This is a good way to target the serratus and lats, without having to go heavy. Be sure to keep a soft bend in your elbows, but only move at the shoulder joint.
This workout is only 4 total work sets, however each set takes the muscle to true muscle fatigue, and quickly, so make the sets count. The emphasis should be on accumulating as many metabolites as you can within the muscle and get a huge muscle pump.
Machines are one of the best ways to do this as you are not limited by your ability to maintain proper positioning (such as doing bent over rows for 30 reps) or cheating with momentum. You can even use wrist straps to assist in your grip if you need.
This is best done at the end of the week or at least after the main heavy back day workout is completed.
Check Out Our Other Bulking Workout Guides
- The Best Bulking Leg Workouts: 10 Must-Do Exercises
- How To Bulk Up Fast: 10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth
- One Hour Muscle Building Routines For Maximum Results
- Can You Build Muscle With Resistance Bands? (Yes, Here’s How)
Building a bigger back takes hard training, smart programming, and a lot of eating. Once you have your bulking meal plan down pat, be sure to maximize back growth with the above workouts and exercises. Make sure you eat enough calories to support your training, recovery, and muscle growth needs, and stay consistent in the gym!
About The Author
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.