Adding some of the best back exercises for mass into your weekly routine is one way to significantly add both size and strength in this area. However, while the right lifts play a crucial role, achieving substantial muscle growth isn't solely about what you do in the gym; it's also about what you provide your body outside of it.
To be able to handle the breakdown and repair cycle of muscle-building, you need to make sure you optimise and deal with your diet, sleep, and stress. Adding some of the best foods for protein to your diet, for example, is one way to ensure you're giving your body the fuel it needs to grow and build size.
On the sleep side, a study by Brotherton et al. found sleep deprivation significantly decreased one rep max. performance during bench press, leg press, and reduced grip, thus demonstrating the importance sleep has on performance and strength.
With that in mind, make sure you check out our guides on the best EAA, BCAAs, and even sleep supplements as well if you're looking to nail your nutrient intake to help you achieve your fitness goals. Once you're on top of all these factors, then these killer back exercises will help you add mass in no time.
Barbell bent over row
Demonstrated by Jeff Cavaliere, the bent-over row is arguably one of the most technically challenging exercises to perform correctly. However, when done right, the lift is perhaps one of the best back-builders around.
This heavy-duty compound movement requires your spinal erectors to stay flexed throughout, giving you a complete stretch in your back to help you build overall size.
Being a barbell exercise, the sky is the limit when it comes to weight progression too. So say goodbye to plateaus and hello to those gains by adding the barbell row into your workout routine.
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Lat pull down
Not everyone can or wants to do pull-ups, but fortunately, you don't really need to thanks to the lat pull-down machine.
Lat pull-downs are incredibly effective at taking your lats through a full range of motion with an excellent stretch to help grow the size of your back which, in turn, should give you a bigger and better base to perform chest exercises as well.
The machine is also designed so you can easily drop the weight down to complete drop-sets too. However, you can go heavy if you want to thanks to the pad over your legs to keep you locked in, thus stopping you from going anywhere.
Check out how to do it courtesy of legendary 6x Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, whose back is still famed as one of the best of all time.
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If you're going after total back development, a deadlift should be in your workout in some capacity.
This is near enough complete body workout, but over time it can help add thickness to the lats and inner back.
You can load up the weight massively here, but we'd recommend getting your form down first before diving in too heavy.
Eugene Teo does an excellent job at explaining this, and he's well worth checking out if you're interested in optimising your workouts.
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Cable rows provide the convenience of easily adjusting the weight by simply pulling a pin, making them ideal for the likes of drop sets and time-saving workouts.
Similar to bent-over rows, cable rows target many of the same muscles, but they tend to place less strain on the spinal erectors and lower back, resulting in a lower risk of injury.
This difference shouldn't be viewed negatively, though. In fact, we'd incorporate this exercise in the middle of your workout routine rather than leading with it to match your energy and power levels. Scott Herman demonstrates this well, as usual, in the video above.
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Banded dumbbell pull-over
A somewhat awkward movement for many, but one we'd say is worth doing if you're comfortable loading up the weight on some of the best adjustable dumbbells around.
If you put your hands straight up in the air and then move them down in front of you till they go behind your body (drawing a sort of D-shape) you'll get an idea of how your lats work in isolation...for the most part.
A dumbbell pullover provides tension to the first half of that D-shape, but when you introduce bands it can help to keep the tension even when you move the dumbbell past the chest.
The inspirational John Meadows explains it very well above. If you have access to the legendary Nautilus Pull-over machine, you can of course use that instead.
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One-arm dumbbell row
However you want to set up for this, it's a seriously effective exercise that brings your obliques into play also. You can get a deep stretch here and go very heavy if needed.
But be warned, this is a tough exercise and can gas you out if you don't manage your energy effectively.
The tutorial above is a very 'standard' variation and a good starting point, but there are other positions that allow for heavier weight and more secure supporting hand positions as your progress.
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An exercise popularised (and heavily memed) thanks to Jeff Cavaliere, this exercise isn't necessarily a 'mass builder' but it is a must-have in your back routine, especially for the upper back.
It places a lot of tension on the entire shoulder complex, from rear delts to the rotatory cuff, which, in turn, should improve your ability to perform some of the best shoulder exercises as well.
Finish your workout with this to drive as much blood flow as possible into your upper back, and you won't be disappointed. An alternative way to perform this exercise is by securing a resistance band to a ballast.
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Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
There are usually a ton of questions that arise when you're trying to figure out the best exercises for mass, particularly for your back.
Don't worry though, because we've answered some of the most common queries right here.
Why are back exercises important?
Training your back can help strengthen and grow the muscles within that area which is key if you're looking to build mass.
Regularly training your back also helps to avoid any muscular imbalances. For instance, solely focusing on your legs will lead you to obtain a disproportionally strong lower body.
It's also worth noting that training your back can help improve your strength during other lifts.
For example, having a strong back can help improve your stability during chest press exercises, plus aid your ability to retract your shoulders and scapula to maintain a good pressing arch.
How can you bulk up your back?
Both an effective in their own ways and both have some drawbacks too.
Progressive overload, adequate rest, and understanding how hard you're working are all important factors, so start with that and the rest will come.
How many reps should you do to build muscle?
The number of reps needed to build muscle depends on various factors such as the individual's fitness goals, current fitness level, and training program. That said, building muscle is more about time under tension, which for muscle growth is seen as anything between 40 - 120 seconds per set. If you want to put that into reps, you're looking at around 8 - 12 reps per set.
However, higher or lower rep ranges can also be effective for building muscle. For example, lifting weights with a heavier load and lower reps (e.g., 1-5 reps per set) can stimulate muscle growth by recruiting more muscle fibres, while lifting with lighter loads and higher reps (e.g., 15-20 reps per set) can promote muscle endurance and hypertrophy.
How often should you train your back?
If you're looking to increase mass, we'd recommend training your back at least two or even three times a week.
We wouldn't recommend training your back on consecutive days though because rest is essential to avoid overtraining and minimise back fatigue which, in turn, may increase your chance of injury.
Should you arch your back during back exercises?
With most exercises, yes, you should arch 'up' (not hunch) as it will generally allow your back muscles to fully contract. However, pinching the shoulder blades together doesn't always mean you're getting a full contraction on your lats, as Coach Eugene demonstrates in many of his videos.
There are some exercises that can benefit from a hollow body position, such as a front lever. These place tremendous demands on your lats and have a steep learning curve.
As a rule of thumb, aim to retract your shoulders when pulling and try not to slump forward.
Which back exercises should you do first?
There's not really a definitive answer to this question as it will vary depending on how you train and the type of weightlifting you partake in.
Generally speaking though, you may find it easier to perform some of the heavier compound movements like deadlifts and barbell rows first as they typically activate more muscles in the movement, so it's helpful to be completely fresh going into them.
Once you start to fatigue, it may then be time to look at performing some of the lighter accessory lifts for a complete, well-rounded back workout.
Can you build back mass with bodyweight exercises alone?
Yes, it is possible to build back mass with bodyweight exercises alone, although the results may vary compared to using weights or equipment. Bodyweight exercises can effectively target and stimulate the muscles in your back, promoting muscle growth and strength. Exercises such as pull-ups, chin-ups, and variations of push-ups can engage the back muscles, particularly the lats.
To maximise back mass gains with bodyweight exercises, it's important to progressively increase the difficulty and intensity of your workouts. This can be achieved by adjusting the angle, leverage, reps, or range of motion of the exercises.
Additionally, emphasising proper form and technique, along with adequate rest and recovery, will help optimise your back muscle development. While weights and equipment can provide additional resistance and load, bodyweight exercises can still play a significant role in building back mass, especially for those who prefer or have limited access to traditional gym equipment.
However, once you start to build your back and increase your strength, you may find you struggle to progress as quickly if at all without adding weight. If you can do 20 pull-ups, for example, then great, but there's an argument to be made that bodyweight pull-ups have become too easy for you. Therefore, it's worth considering attaching a weight plate to you if possible, to ensure you're progressing and making your training challenging enough to continue to build mass.