Smart Back Training for Maximal Muscle Growth

By Ian Padron

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

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Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. The muscles that make up the back are complex to say the least, which is why knowing your movement anatomy and fiber orientation is an absolute must if maximum hypertrophy is your goal.

2. Determining your available active range of motion, or the range in which the target muscle is the prime mover, will increase the amount of total tension you subject your back muscles to. And yes, the upper back muscles respond extremely well to tension and metabolic stress.

3. The muscles of the back are some of the largest and most powerful in the human body. Accordingly, they respond favorably to high volume and heavy loads, and of course, these two training variables rest on great form and movement execution.

4. Here are the top back hypertrophy training tips to build your lats, traps and other upper back muscles to improve your big lifts, and add some functional muscle armor to that back side!


Thanks for joining me back at for the second part of the Maximum Hypertrophy series. I’m psyched that Part I of this series was so well received and am sure you all will continue to gain a ton of actionable knowledge throughout the next few articles that will focus on getting you yolked through the science of regional muscle hypertrophy.

Check out Part I “Leg Training for Maximal Muscle Growth”

In this next article in the series, we are talking about my favorite muscle group to train, the back. By back, I mean lats/teres major, mid/low traps, and to a lesser degree the rhomboids. We will talk about the rotator cuff musculature and upper fibers of the traps in the shoulder training article scheduled to be released in a couple weeks, so just hold your horses on that front.

Before I get started, I want you to be completely honest in answering the following question. If I were to ask you to draw the musculature of the back, including the correct orientation of the constituent fibers, and superficial to deep organization would you be able to do so?

If the answer is yes, you are a badass and way ahead of the curve. If the answer is no, take some time to study the image below, as it will help with the visualization component required in the subsections for training each muscle optimally. You know what they say… You have to know the muscles exist before you can target and train them properly.


Now that we have the basics of what superficial muscles we are training and their approximate location, lets get started with one of the broadest muscles in the human body the spans the vast majority of the back, the latissimus dorsi.

The Lats

lat training

The latissimus dorsi, or lats, are two enormous sheaths of muscle that originate from the spinous processes of vertebrae T7-L5, the iliac crest , and thoracolumbar fascia and insert on the intertubercular groove of the humerus.

From that information alone, it is obvious that the lats are enormous muscles, as such they are capable of enormous growth and force production. The lats are unique in that they do just about everything, and then a little bit more. They adduct (think opposite of a lateral raise), extend (think opposite of a frontal raise), and internally rotate the upper arm (think funny bone facing out) and act as a synergist in trunk rotation.

I have found that for the lats, it is best to utilize compound movements that combine these actions. Staples such as T-Bar rows, Pull-Ups, and Straight Arm Pullovers have had a place in every bodybuilder’s arsenal since day one, and for good reason; they flat out work. When training the lats, it is crucial to build a connection with the working muscle.

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Every lat movement can be turned into an elbow flexor movement if you focus on moving the weight and not the muscle. This is a very important point as many lifters neglect the intricate detail of some staple back exercises or write them off for good due to poor execution.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of each individual action, but rather provide some cues to keep in mind that will engage the lats to a greater degree when compared to simply going through the motions. Here are three of the most helpful tips that have worked extremely well to improve the targeting and activation of the back muscles, because yes, we are training back, not biceps.

Tip #1: Initiate Pulls with your Lats, NOT your Biceps

That means ZERO elbow flexion until you literally cannot contract your lats any further. Use Tip #2 below to maximally contract your lats. See the videos below on proper pulldown and seated row execution where I implement this tip.

Check out this V-Bar Lat Pulldown variation from Dr. John and his wife Lindsay getting after it:

Tip #2: Tuck Your Scaps Into Your Back Pockets

For example, using the cue left scap/elbow into right back pocket. This simple pointer introduces both scapular retraction AND depression, which amplifies the tension created by the shoulder extension and adduction components of all pulling movements.

Tip #3: Establish your Active Range of Motion

The name of the game here is tension. If you lose tension in your lats during a movement, you have gone beyond your active range of motion. So even though you could theoretically “stretch” your lats a few inches further at the end of a row or lat pull-down, you should learn the difference between stretching your lats and stretching your shoulder girdle.

If maximum tension is the goal of your lat training (which it absolutely should be) only perform the eccentric portion of a lift until you are unable to maintain scapular retraction and depression.

Now take these tips and get after it with this lat specific training routine (which pairs very nicely with the trap/rhomboid) routine found later in this article. Note that the Teres Major can be thought of as a miniature lat, and will benefit from the same movements and cues.

*Note that the exercise prescriptions below read SETSxREPS

Priming/Finishing Compound Set

1A. Wide Grip Pull-Ups (Band Assist if Necessary)

4xAMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible)

1B. Dumbbell Pullovers on Flat Bench


Working Sets

1. T-Bar Rows with V-Bar Attachment

5 Sets: 15, 12, 10, 8, 8 Reps + Drop Set Rep Scheme Last Set

**Check out the second movement in this super set video

2. Underhand Grip Single Arm Lat Pulldown

3×12 (2 Second Iso-Hold On Bottom) 

**Check out the second movement in this super set video

3. Hanging Lat Shrugs

3×6 (3 Second Iso-Hold On Bottom)

The Rhomboids and Trapezius 

Moving medial and superior to the lats, we find the traps and rhomboids. The traps are superficial (on top) and are shaped like a pair of triangles arranged bottom to bottom, while the rhomboids lie beneath. The mid traps originate on the spinous processes of T1 to T5 and insert on the medial edge of the acromion (part of the scapula). The lower traps originate on T6 to T12 and insert on top of the scapular spine. The rhomboids originate on the spinous processes of T2 to T5 and insert on the medial edge of the scapula, from scapular spine to the inferior angle.

upper back muscles

Right now, take another quick look at the muscle map above and note the direction in which the fibers of these muscles are oriented. Got it? Good. This is crucial for optimizing your pulling mechanics when it comes to trap/rhomboid stimulation and ultimately, adaptation.

To isolate a muscle, we are essentially attempting to contract our muscles in a manner consistent with their fiber orientation, thus relying less on synergistic action from extraneous muscle groups. The rhomboids act to retract the scapula and rotate it downwards. The mid traps also function in scapular retraction, while the lower fibers cause scapular depression. Knowing the above, here are some pointers for training the rhomboids and traps.

Tip #1: Squeeze Your Shoulder Blades Together

When training the rhomboids and middle traps, begin every set by squeezing your shoulder blades together as closely as possible. You should then focus protracting them on the eccentric portion of the lift. Just like every movement I coach, I want to you think to yourself, “STREEETCH, SQUEEEEZE” on every single rep.

Check out Dr. John again on the Chest Supported Seated Row in this video:

Tip #2: Drive Your Shoulder Blades Down by Arching

When targeting the lower traps, simply add scapular depression by accentuating your lumbar arch during rowing and vertical pulling movments. The same rule that we use to engage the lats, where we aim to tuck our scaps and elbows in our back pockets should be used in this instance. Note that accentuated lumbar arch does not mean leaning back.

Using the above tips, go ahead and give this mid and upper back routine a try!

Priming/Finishing Compound

1A. Incline 2-Way DB Trap Raises

3×5 of Each Variation

1B. Incline DB Shrug to Row

3×12 (3 Second Iso-Hold On Top)

Working Sets

1. Seated Cable Rows

4 Sets: 15, 12, 10, 8 Reps

2. V-Bar Pulldowns

4×10 (2 Second Iso-Hold On Bottom)

3. Incline DB Shrug to Row

2×12, 1×8 + Triple Drop Set (1 Second Squeeze On Top During Drop)

What We Learned in Part II

  • The musculature of the back is complex to say the least, knowing fiber orientation is an absolute must if maximum hypertrophy is your goal.
  • Determining your active Range of Motion, or the range in which the target muscle is the prime mover, will increase the amount of total tension you subject your back muscles to. Tension=growth.
  • The muscles of the back are large and powerful. Accordingly, they respond favorably to high volume and heavy loads. (remember our definition of heavy still calls for good form)

So there we have it! As always, thanks for tuning in everyone. I hope that this helps blow the top off of your future back specific training sessions. Be sure to hit me up with any questions or comments, and stay tuned for the next edition on training… the Chest!

About The Author

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Ian Padron is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise Science Program and an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Ian’s mission is to revolutionize the health and fitness industry by combining science and education to evoke sustainable change in his clients and readers. He preaches the importance of a holistic approach to training, taking into account the mind AND the body.  Ian also walks the walk as a natural competitive bodybuilder.

Stay current with Ian on his website: Padron Performance    

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  1. Juan Lugo February 20, 2017 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Great stuff Ian. I really like the full range of motion you use in the neutral grip lat pulldown. I also think it feels great too.

  2. Angel January 21, 2018 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    Hi as I was reading the article on how to maximize back training I was confused on the priming\ finishing compound set. So are these like pre- axtivaion exercises Before going into the working sets or exercises? Or what are those exercises for? Just hope you can clarify. I’m also new to your page. Thanks for the awesome content. Helps a lot.

  3. Stephen Wallace January 22, 2018 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    You wrote to always have shoulder blades retracted and depressed fully and I was just wondering if that’s for all back exercises? I’ve seen a lot of conflicting information on the topic and see a lot of people let there scapula protract a little for extra range of motion even in some of the videos on the article. If you could clear that up that would be helpful.

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