“Bodybuilding shows are won from the back,” is a common saying in physique sports, meaning that no matter how good the rest of your upper body looks, you can’t make up for an underdeveloped back.
Even for those not interested in stepping on stage, building a strong back is crucial for posture, performance, and activities of daily living. The back is often underdeveloped compared to the chest, shoulders, triceps, and biceps because it’s not a muscle group you can easily see in the mirror.
So people don’t focus on building the back as much as the rest of the upper body. Not to mention, there are several back muscles that perform different movements, making it challenging to address the whole back. It’s important to target each of them to build an impressive back.
Fortunately, there’s a variety of training tactics you can implement to improve an underdeveloped back. Below you will find the optimal training volume, frequency, intensity, exercises, rep ranges, and more for back hypertrophy.
Keep reading to discover what you can do to develop stage-worthy back muscles!
Table of Contents
- 1 What is an undeveloped back?
- 2 The 8 best ways to improve an underdeveloped back
- 2.1 Train with an appropriate amount of volume
- 2.2 Increase your training frequency as needed
- 2.3 Implement a proper training intensity
- 2.4 Improve your exercise form and technique
- 2.5 Change your exercise selection periodically
- 2.6 Use a full range of motion
- 2.7 Implement an exercise tempo
- 2.8 Work in various rep ranges
- 3 The 10 Best Back Exercises
- 4 Back Anatomy
- 5 Back Hypertrophy FAQs
- 6 Key Takeaways
- 7 Grow Underdeveloped Muscle Groups
- 7.1 The 8 Best Ways To Grow An Underdeveloped Upper Chest
- 7.2 The 8 Best Ways to Improve Underdeveloped Traps
- 7.3 The 8 Best Ways to Build an Underdeveloped Core
- 7.4 The 7 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Obliques
- 7.5 The 8 Best Ways to Improve Underdeveloped Upper Abs
- 7.6 The 8 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Abs
- 7.7 The 8 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Front Delts
- 7.8 The 8 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Shoulders
- 7.9 The 8 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Hamstrings
- 7.10 The 7 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Rear Delt Muscles
- 7.11 The 8 Best Ways to Grow an Underdeveloped Lower Chest
- 7.12 The 5 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Triceps
- 7.13 The 8 Best Ways to Grow Underdeveloped Biceps
What is an undeveloped back?
An underdeveloped back occurs when the back muscles are substantially weaker and/or smaller than the other upper body muscles. Beyond aesthetics, weak back muscles can lead to poor posture, limit your activities of daily living, and increase your risk for injury.
The back includes several big muscles with slightly different actions, such as the lats, rhomboids, trapezius, and erectors. The back muscles play an important role in stabilizing and moving the shoulder blades. The best way to build and strengthen your back is by doing the appropriate amount of training volume, frequency, and intensity.
However, you can also modify your exercises, rep ranges, tempo, and technique to get the most out of every back workout. Each of these tactics is covered in depth below, so keep reaching out to find out more!
The 8 best ways to improve an underdeveloped back
- Train with an appropriate amount of volume
- Increase your training frequency as needed
- Implement the proper training intensity
- Improve your exercise form and technique
- Change your exercise selection periodically
- Use a full range of motion
- Implement an exercise tempo
- Work in various rep ranges
Here are the 8 best ways you can improve underdeveloped back muscles:
Train with an appropriate amount of volume
One of the most important elements of hypertrophy is a sufficient weekly training volume. Most muscle groups respond best to somewhere between 10 and 20 sets per week. The productive training volume depends on the individual and how many times they train the muscle group per week.
In terms of a single session, research suggests that 8-10 sets are the proper volume to perform. If you do more, it’s classified as junk volume because it’s not stimulating muscle growth. Junk volume should be avoided because it increases your fatigue without providing any benefit.
Renaissance Periodization suggests starting a mesocycle (4-6 week training block) with the minimum effective volume, which is around 8-10 sets per week. To drive progressive overload, they recommend adding sets as needed until you hit a plateau and/or can no longer recover.
Here’s what that would look like:
- Week 1 – 8 sets divided between 2-3 back exercises
- Week 2 – 10 sets divided between 2-3 back exercises
- Week 3 – 12 sets divided between 3-4 back exercises
- Week 4 – 14 sets divided between 4 back exercises
- Week 5 – 6 sets divided between 2-3 back exercises
Based on this example, once you hit week 3, if you’re not already training your back two times per week, you should start. By the end, you may even be hitting your back up to 3 times per week, which is why training volume and frequency are so closely connected.
Increase your training frequency as needed
Training frequency is defined as the number of times you train a single body part. Most people think of training frequency in terms of their workout split. Some of the most popular workout splits are upper/lower, push/pull/legs, full body, and the bro split.
Each split has pros and cons, but some are better than others, especially the ones that have you train each body part more than once per week. When determining your training frequency, assess your schedule and pick the number of days you can realistically train. A full body split is the best option if you can only make it to the gym 3 days per week. Whereas if you can train 6 days per week, a push/pull/legs split is ideal.
As we alluded to in the training volume section, the training frequency should increase to a certain extent as the training volume increases. It’s not a good idea to train a body part every single day, but 2-3 times per week is better than just once.
The more often you train a body part, the more important it becomes to adjust your training intensity!
Implement a proper training intensity
Regarding strength and hypertrophy, training intensity is either measured by a percentage of your 1 rep max or how many reps you are away from failure, which is referred to as RPE (rating of perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve).
Performance-based athletes, such as powerlifters and strongmen, utilize percentage-based training more often than not. Whereas those who are in pursuit of building muscle utilize RIR or RPE scales.
Many old-school bodybuilders believed that you had to train for absolute muscular failure to drive growth. However, research has shown that training to failure isn’t necessary and may actually do more harm than good.
As long as you are training close enough to failure (leaving 1-3 reps in the tank), you provide enough of a stimulus for hypertrophy. Stopping a set 1-3 reps from failure allows your body to do more work throughout the entire training session. If you stop the set more than 4 reps from failure, increase your training intensity.
Some define failure as not being able to do another rep, which is classified as muscular failure. Others define failure as the inability to do another rep with proper form. Most people should base their training intensity on technical failure, not muscular failure.
Improve your exercise form and technique
If your back muscles aren’t responding well to training, even if you’re doing the right amount of volume, frequency, and intensity, you may want to assess your exercise technique. Performing the exercise properly is key to facilitating muscle growth.
With many back exercises, it’s common for the biceps and forearms to take over the movement since they work closely with the back to perform a pulling movement. If you experience this, you most likely feel the exercise in your arms rather than your back. When performing any horizontal rowing exercise, such as a seated cable row, pull your shoulder blades down and back instead of curling the weight with your arms.
You should find ways to limit forearm and bicep involvement by using different grips, lifting straps, and/or adjusting your form. Oftentimes to improve your exercise form and technique, you will have to lower the weight, slow down your tempo, and build up from there.
A good way to assess your form is by filming yourself to see how you can tweak things to optimize your form/technique. And if you have a coach, ask them what you can do to get the most out of every exercise.
Change your exercise selection periodically
Changing your exercise selection every 4-6 weeks is a great way to spark new muscle growth. With that said, you shouldn’t do it too often, especially with compound exercises, because it takes some time for your body to learn the exercise.
Depending on your training volume and frequency, you can pick anywhere from 2-4 back exercises. Stick with those exercises for 1-2 months, then switch to new ones for the next 1-2 months. It’s easy to modify a back exercise by changing your grip, body position, or attachment.
Since some back muscles perform vertical pulling and others perform horizontal pulling, you should always incorporate both variations into a training block. For example, you could do a lat pulldown and a bent-over barbell row. You could do pull-ups and a chest-supported dumbbell row in the next training block. Find the exercises that work best for you and rotate through them as needed.
Use a full range of motion
One way to get your back to grow is by using a full range of motion. It’s common for people to lift too much weight, resulting in a shortened range of motion. Another factor that prevents people from lifting with a full range of motion is poor mobility.
The shoulder is a very complex joint, so you may have to work on your mobility to access a full range of motion. With any back exercise, selecting a weight that you can move with control and through a full range of motion is important.
As we will discuss next, time under tension (TUT) is crucial for hypertrophy, so make sure you aren’t just going through the motions. Utilizing a full range of motion will also help improve your mind-to-muscle connection.
Implement an exercise tempo
Exercise tempo is not considered as much as training volume, frequency, or intensity. However, it plays a critical role in muscle building. If you’ve never trained using a specific exercise tempo, that may be something to consider.
An exercise tempo is usually provided as a 3 or 4-digit number, such as 3-1-2-0. The first number represents the exercise’s eccentric (lowering) portion, the second number represents the bottom of the exercise, the third number represents the exercise’s concentric (lifting) portion, and the fourth number represents the top of the movement.
If you were to implement a 3-1-2-0 tempo with a lat pulldown, here’s what that would look like:
- It should take you ~2 seconds to pull the bar from the starting position to the top of your chest.
- You should pause at the top of your chest and squeeze your lats for 1 second.
- It should take you ~3 seconds to return the lat pulldown bar to the starting position.
- Do not pause at the top of the lift; move directly to the next rep.
Using an exercise tempo is another way to optimize your training and spark new muscle growth.
Work in various rep ranges
The last training tactic we recommend implementing is working in various rep ranges. Muscular hypertrophy can be achieved by performing anywhere from 5-30 reps. Since the back has so many different muscles, working in various rep ranges is a good idea. Some common rep ranges include 4-6 reps, 8-10 reps, 8-12 reps, 10-12 reps, 12-15 reps, 15-20 reps, and 20-30 reps.
The higher the rep range, the less weight you will be able to lift, and vice versa. As long as you are training close enough to failure, performing 20 reps will result in as much muscle growth as performing 8 reps. With that said, doing 1-5 reps isn’t ideal for hypertrophy but is ideal for increasing strength.
Working through the full spectrum of rep ranges ensures that your fast and slow twitch muscle fibers get an adequate stimulus for growth. Like exercise selection, stick with a specific rep range for at least 4 weeks before changing to a new one. This will give your body enough time to adapt to that rep range.
The 10 Best Back Exercises
Here are some of the best back exercises you can do for hypertrophy and strength:
- Bent Over Barbell Rows
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Lat Pulldowns
- Chest Supported Row
- Cable Row
- Cable Pullovers
- Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
- T-Bar Row
- Machine Row
The primary muscle that makes up the back include the lats (latissmus Dorsi), rhomboids, trapezius (upper, middle, and lower traps), teres minor, teres major, and rear delts, and erectors.
To target every muscle of the back, perform a combination of vertical pulling exercises, such as a lat pulldown, pull-up, lat pullover, and chin-up, as well as horizontal pulling exercises, such as a barbell row, seated cable row, machine row, or dumbbell row.
More often than not, a trainee will either have a strong upper back and weak lats or vice versa. If one section of your back is weak compared to the rest, consider doing more exercises targeting that area.
For example, if you lack back width, you must do more pull-ups and/or pulldown variations to improve the lats. If you lack back thickness, do more wide-grip rows to target your middle and upper back.
Back Hypertrophy FAQs
How often should you train your back?
Most people benefit from training their back muscles 1-3 times per week. Working them more than 3 times per week may not give you enough time to recover between sessions. Training your back only once weekly isn’t ideal if you want to increase your volume. Regardless of what’s considered to be optimal, you should pick a training frequency that’s realistic and sustainable for your schedule.
What training intensity is ideal for back training?
The ideal training intensity for back hypertrophy is somewhere between 1-3 reps in reserve. This means that you stop the set when you can only do 1-3 reps with good technique. It’s fine to train to failure every once in a while, but stimulating growth is unnecessary. The more volume and frequency you perform for a muscle group, the more closely you will need to monitor your training intensity.
What’s the best rep range for back hypertrophy?
Back hypertrophy can be achieved by performing anywhere between 5-30 reps. Most of your training should fall in the 10-20 rep range. Switching up your rep ranges periodically is a good idea for optimal hypertrophy.
You may want to consider moving into a different rep range when you notice that you’ve plateaued in your training. Regardless of what rep range you choose, ensure adequate training intensity. If you’re not training hard enough, your rep range will not matter.
What type of exercise targets the back muscles?
The back muscles are targeted through horizontal and vertical pulling exercises; for example, pull-ups, barbell rows, chest-supported rows, seated cable rows, chin-ups, straight arm pulldowns, and more. To grow the entire back, perform a variety of exercises.
An underdeveloped back is very common since the chest, shoulders, and arms get most of the attention. However, having a strong and muscular back will pay dividends in the long term regarding performance, aesthetics, and activities of daily living.
Doing various horizontal and vertical pulling exercises with different elbow and grip positions is important to target all of the back muscles. As long as you have the proper exercise technique, the training volume, intensity, and frequency will be the main drivers for growth.
Grow Underdeveloped Muscle Groups
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other guides on how to grow lagging muscle groups.