21 Days to a Bigger Back

If You Want a Bigger, Stronger Back You Have to Specialize

No More Wimpy Backs

To beef up a wimpy back, the first thing you have to do is get serious about fixing it. A machine-based routine won't do, nor will any of the standard "chin-ups and rows once a week" programs.

What you need is a plan that builds strength in both rowing and pull-up variations while gradually increasing the total volume through multiple training exposures per week. Start with a 3-week specialization block. It will deliver marked improvements in size and strength, provided you back off in week 4 and allow supercompensation to occur.

1 Focus on big and basic.

This isn't the time to work on corrective drills to restore function – that should've already been taken care of. Instead, focus on big compound movements and weight-bearing rows.

2 Share the load.

Instead of having one day devoted to doing every row variation under the sun, try rotating horizontal and vertical pulls and rows throughout the week. Use a heavy weight for every variation rather than going balls-out for the first two exercises and then having to settle for less load during the subsequent exercises.

So if you lift four times a week with two upper-body emphasis days and two lower-body, you could divide the variations over all four days to ensure that heavier loads can be used.

Here's an example:

Workout Back Emphasis Exercise Suggestions

  Workout Back Emphasis Exercise Suggestions
Day 1 Lower-Body Horizontal Weighted Inverted Horizontal Row
Day 2 Upper-Body Vertical
Pull Down
Heavy Face-Pull
Day 3 Lower-Body Horizontal Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Day 4 Upper-Body Vertical Weighted Chin-Up

Note: While the weight should always be challenging, the overall difficulty of the exercise for both vertical and horizontal movements can be rotated in a given week to prevent burn out.

3 Don't go through the motions. Get stronger.

Get stronger in rowing and pull-up movements. Too many lifters use the same weight and rep/set scheme every week for their assistance exercises just to get a pump in their muscles without ever trying to get stronger. Then they wonder why they're not building muscle. It's a good idea when specializing to record the weights you're using on all your back exercises to ensure you're actually getting stronger.

Weighted and Inverted Row with Back-Off Sets

Inverted rows are a great horizontal pull variation for building a thicker back. Work up to a really heavy set of 5 reps and then take 85-90% of that weight and do 3-5 more sets of 5 reps.

For example, say you hit 5 reps with 110 pounds of additional weight – two 45-pound plates and one 20-pound chain – for your heaviest set. For the next set, drop the weight down to 90-95 pounds and continue doing sets of 5 reps. If that gets too hard too soon, take 85% of that and get in more volume. This ensures that you don't take off too much weight and cheat yourself of getting the most tension.

The 5-Rep Max Chin-Up Workout

First do 5 reps with bodyweight and then progressively add weight every set until you reach the heaviest load you can do for 5 reps. The goal is to get 5 or more quality sets in, so don't load too much weight too soon. Rest 45-60 seconds between each set and try not to cheat much on your heaviest set, but still really challenge yourself.

Max weight pull-up workouts are usually reserved for testing scenarios, but they're also a great workout on their own that can be repeated for at least 3 weeks, usually resulting in phenomenal gains in both back strength and size.

6 Minutes of Rowing

These are great to use on heavy squat day because they're a little more low-back friendly than conventional bent-over barbell rows. Better still, if done correctly, there's no need to perform any other row variation on the day they're used.

Pick two dumbbells that you feel like you could do 7 reps with and do a set of 5 reps. Then rest 30 seconds and do another set. Keep doing a set every 30 seconds for 6 straight minutes.

As you go through the sets, you'll inevitably have to drop the reps down to maintain the pace without dropping weight. By the end, you may only be doing 1 or 2 reps per set. The load and total volume is your priority, not the number of reps per set. A little cheating is permissible by the end but don't get carried away.

Day 1 – Lower Body: Strength Emphasis

  Exercise Sets Reps Load
A Front Squat 6 3 85-90% 1RM
B Reverse Lunge 3 6-8  
C Split-Stance Romanian Deadlift 3 6-10  
D1 Weighted Inverted Row 1 5 Max
D2 Weighted Inverted Row (back-off sets) 3-5 5 85-90% of Max

Day 2 – Upper Body: Volume Emphasis

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Incline Bench Press 4 5
B Dumbbell Press 4 6-8
C Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press 3 6-10
D1 Pulldown (Heavy) 5 6
D2 Facepull (Challenging) 6 6

Day 3 – Lower Body: Volume Emphasis

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Snatch Grip Deadlift 4 5
B Hip-Thruster 4 6-8
C Split Squat 4 6-10
D Max Weight Chin-Up 5 5
Minimum of 5 sets. Add weight each set until you reach max weight for 5 reps. Rest 45-60 seconds between sets.

Day 4 – Upper Body: Volume Emphasis

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Push-Press 4 5
B Dumbbell Incline Press 3 6-8
C Dumbbell Floor Press 4 6-10
D Bilateral Bent-Over Dumbbell Row Max 2-5
Max sets for 6 minutes. Start with weight you can do for 7 reps, but only perform 5 reps. Do sets of 5 for as long as you can. You may drop the number of reps all the way down to 1 or 2, but don't reduce the weight. Be sure to do a set every 30 seconds with the same weight.
Jesse Irizarry is a former Division I strength and conditioning coach. For multiple years, he worked as the head strength coach for three conference-champion teams. Jesse is now the owner and head coach of JDI Barbell, one of New York City's only dedicated strength facilities, specializing in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and general strength and conditioning. Follow Jesse Irizarry on Facebook