A wide and thick back is the backbone of any impressive physique. The v-taper is one of the surest signs of a dedicated and strong individual. However, building a solid back takes a lot of time and hard work. There are several muscles that make up the back that you will have to target if you want to get the complete look. Due to the number of muscles at work, back barbell exercises are the most efficient way to great back musculature.
In this guide, we will break down the mechanics of back training and the best barbell back exercises you can use to get a thick, wide, and v-tapered back.
Anatomy Of Your Back
When people refer to the back in a gym, they generally refer to the latissimus dorsi (lats) muscle. This makes sense since the lats are the largest muscle in your back and contribute the most to a thick and wide look.
However, the lats are not the only muscle in your back. Here are all of them broken down:
The erector spinae muscles also referred to as the spinal erectors are the two thick bands of muscle that run up through the center of your back. These muscles are what people generally refer to when they mention the lower back. They do lots of stabilization and are directly targeted when you are doing any sort of back extension.
The lats are commonly referred to as the “wings” of your back as they tend to bulge out to your sides with enough development. They are large muscles involved in many movements but they are generally used to bring your arms to your side.
Your traps are located on your upper back and run down towards your mid back. These are the muscles that can give you the “strong” look since they tend to bulge out around your neck. The traps can are generally associated with shrugging movements. But they are also secondary muscles in many back exercises.
The rhomboid is a small muscle that originates at the spin and inserts at the border of the scapula at a downward angle. These small muscles are in charge of elevating, retracting, and elevating the scapula. From a visual point of view, they play a role in giving you a thick upper back.
Best Back Exercises With Barbell
1. Pendlay Row
Start with the bar on the ground. Take an overhand grip with your hands around shoulder width apart.
Let your shoulders hang forward and your scapula widen. You want your lats to start from a stretched position.
Pull the bar towards your upper stomach or lower ribs. Make sure to squeeze your shoulder blades at the very top and keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle.
Control the weight on the way back down. Once again let your shoulders hang forward and your scapula widen.
This exercise targets your entire back much like a regular barbell row. The main difference here is that since you do not have to keep the bar suspended in the air, there is less strain on your lower back
Strong carryover to Romanian deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and other rows
Builds explosive power since you are starting from a dead stop
Need proper mobility in your lower back and hamstring to bend over without risking a lower a back injury
Can be very difficult for taller lifters. Bent over position makes the lift comfortable.
Hard to get a “mind-muscle” connection since the movement is so explosive off the floor
If you are taller or new to the exercise, I recommend elevating the bar off the floor using other weight plates or blocks. The higher position will make it easier if you have poor mobility or just learning the movement.
2. Bent Over Barbell Row
Get the bar into a locked-out deadlift position so that your back is fully extended.
Lean your torso forward so you are at about a 45-degree angle.
Pull the bar from your elbow until the bar reaches your hip.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the rep. Then slowly lower the bar back down. Let your arms fully extend and your back fully widen out.
Works your entire back from top to bottom. This is the classic back-builder exercise.
Decreases the need for lower body mobility
The lack of a defined torso position makes it very easy to cheat especially once you start going into the higher reps
Your lower back or grip could give out before your back muscles do. Meaning that you cannot work your back to its full capacity.
I can easily add 50 pounds to my regular barbell weight and swing it up and down with decent form. This does not mean that I should though. For this movement, I would start off light and only progress when you can do every rep with proper form.
3. Conventional Barbell Deadlift
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the bar over your midfoot
Grip the bar tightly just outside your ankles
Keep your back straight and your tight. You want to keep your chest/face pointing forward as much as you can.
Drive the bar up by extending your back and legs
At the top of the rep, squeeze your glutes and back muscles
Slowly lower the bar back down to the floor
This works a lot more than just your back. It heavily works your legs and core as well.
Directly targets and strengthens your posterior chain
This exercise is very taxing on your body. May have to take leg days into consideration when choosing when to do this exercise.
Very easy to get injured if you do not use the proper form
Make sure your back is staying neutral. While you are lifting the barbell think of driving your hips forward like a hip thrust.
4. Barbell Pullover
Set up the bench in a flat position. Grip the barbell so your hands are shoulder width apart.
Let your elbows bend slightly. Your elbows should have around a 70-degree bend
Keep your arms and elbows rigid. They should not move from this point forward. Only your shoulders should be moving.
Slowly bring the bar back over your head. You should feel your lats being stretched.
Bring the bar back over your head by driving from your elbows.
At the top of the rep squeeze your lats.
Many people find that this movement helps them build a connection with their lats. This means that can more actively engage their lats in other exercises.
This movement also targets the serratus. The serratus is that “gill” looking muscle next to your abs that gives you that shredded look.
This movement also works your chest muscles which makes it a great movement for those that do full-body or upper-lower splits. You will really feel your entire upper body during this movement.
If you have injury-ridden shoulders or poor shoulder mobility, this exercise may be painful for you
Often hard to set up at most gyms unless you use a straight bar with a set weight
If you have wrist pain, consider using an EZ bar as it is also great for this exercise.
5. Barbell Back Extension
Set the bar up on the floor in front of a back extension pad/station
Once you are in the back extension, grab the barbell using a shoulder width grip
Your lower back and core should be slightly flexed
Slowly extend your lower back while flexing your glutes. Do not explosively extend your back even if you can easily handle the weight.
Slowly the lower back down to the starting position
Great way to target your lower back without exhausting the rest of your body
Stronger lower back will translate to virtually every other exercise such as deadlift, row, squat, and bench
Can be hard to set up on your own at the gym, especially if your gym does not have a back extension pad
I would stick to the 8-15 rep range for this exercise. Getting a really heavy weight set up for this exercise can be cumbersome to set up and execute properly.
6. Meadows Row
Stick the bar into a landmine attachment or in the corner of a room. Stand at the end of your so your body is perpendicular to the bar.
Take a staggered stance with the foot opposite to the arm you are rowing with stepped forward. So if you are rowing with your right arm, make sure your left is forward.
Bend your torso forward so that it is parallel to the ground. Your back should be neutral and core tight. Grab the bar with one hand at the very end of the sleeve.
Make sure that your scapula is allowed to be protracted so that your lat is getting stretched at the bottom of the movement. Make sure your elbows stay slightly towards your body. When you pull the bar, pull from your elbow and squeeze your lat at the top of the rep.
Slowly lower the weight back so that your arm if fully extended and so that your lat is fully stretched.
The large range of motion on this movement is great for developing a mind-muscle connection and triggering hypertrophy in your lats.
Many people have muscular imbalances that would benefit from isolating their lats one at a time. You may notice that when you start these, one side is stronger than the other. Over time, this should even out.
The form on this can be a bit tricky for beginners that are not used to controlling their body with weight through space. The unsupported, staggered stance of this exercise can make it feel a bit unstable if you are not used to it.
Try using smaller plates like the 25lb plates on this movement. The smaller plates will allow you to get a deeper stretch at the bottom of the movement.
7. Landmine T-Bar Row
Stick the barbell into the landmine attachment or the corner of a room. You are going to want to get a t-bar attachment or any neutral grip cable attachment that can hold the bar.
Lean forward about 45 degrees with your knees bent slightly forward. Let your scapula fully protract so that your lats are fully stretched at the starting position.
Pull from your elbows towards your lower chest/upper rib cage. Pinch your shoulder blades together at the top of the rep and squeeze your back.
The number of grips available means that you can use a neutral grip. Many people find that the neutral grip helps with wrist pain.
Since the bar is fixed in position by the landmine, this movement is easier on your lower back since there is less stabilization involved. Overall, it is easier than a barbell row since less technique is involved.
This is one of the common exercises where I see people botch the form, like all rows you should be with a neutral spine, chest up, and core engaged. More weight is not always better.
You can lift more weight, the more upright you stand. However, if you want to really target your lats and back, your torso should be between 45 degrees and 90 degrees from the floor.
Sample Back Routines
Here are some ways, I would choose to incorporate these days based on your split
Pure Back Day
Barbell Rows (3×12)
Weighted Pull Ups or Lat Pulldown (3X10)
Meadows Row (3×15)
Low to High Cable Row (3×15)
Pull Day (Back and Biceps)
Pendlay Rows (3×8)
T-Bar Rows (3×15)
Hammer Curls (3×15)
Preacher Curls (3×15)
Upper Body Day
Barbell Rows (3×12)
Bench Press (3×10)
Barbell Pullovers (3×15)
Tricep Pushdown (3×15)
Barbell Curl (3×15)
These are just sample workouts that I think would work well for most routines. That being said, you should try all of these exercises and see which ones you like the best. Everyone’s body is different so you may find that for whatever reason you feel a great connection on meadows rows but now pendlay rows.
The only caution, I would give when constructing your routine is to be wary of the fatigue and total load caused by some of these exercises. For example, the deadlift or pendlay row can be very taxing on your overall body and nervous system. I would personally not do them for high reps or the day before I squat.
Barbell back exercises are great due to their weight capacity. With that added weight capacity comes other factors you have to consider as well.
There are a number of variations, but to train your back with a bar you will be doing some type of row. This means you will pull the bar towards your body in some way.
The best way to hit lats with a barbell is to do rows with an underhand grip.