It’s for a good reason that we often say that bodybuilding competitions are won from the back: nothing looks more impressive than a thick, wide and detailed back. Getting there requires know-how and hard work.

On top of looking good a strong back is also the best insurance policy against shoulder injuries, especially if you built it the smart way. Here are 10 back training tips that will help you just do that. Thanks to my friend Dr. John Rusin for contributing some material to this article.


If you aren’t rowing two or three times as much as you are pulling up you are leaving your shoulder health to chance.

Dr. John Rusin (”

Back training tip no 1

The rear delt is one of the most important muscles for pain free and safe bench pressing

While I always “knew this”, it became even clearer during one of my workouts last week. After my main bench pressing work I concluded with 15 singles with about 70% on the bar but with an additional 45lbs per side on weight releasers (allowing you to overload the eccentric, then the releasers un-hook from the bar and you only lift the barbell). So the eccentric portion was done with 100% of my max or more. And I lowered the weight in 5-6 seconds.

I only took 30 seconds of rest between reps.

The first 8 “sets” were fairly easy; I had no trouble lowering the weight in 6 seconds and even considered adding more weight.

But on that 9th set I had a huge performance drop. I had trouble lowering the weight in 4 seconds. I didn’t feel fatigued but one muscle simply could do its job: the rear delt! Everything felt fine, but my rear deltoids had a ton of local fatigue, felt pumped and weak. As a result, the bar felt almost twice as heavy and it was hard to control it on the way down and reverse the direction.

My training partner Nick has better rear delts than I do. I am traps-dominant and my traps tend to take over when training rear delts. Nick started out and wanted to take some weight off. But he maintained the same strength right up until the last set. My sets were much easier than his from 1 to 8 and his were a lot easier than mine from 9 to 15.

This really taught me the importance of strong and resilient rear delts. As such they are a significant part of my training. At least 25% of the volume on pulling days is devoted specifically to the rear delts and I also include work for them on pressing days, in-between pressing sets. I also rear delts activation with pull aparts is part of my preparation routine for every session.

Back training tip no 2

To properly recruit and stimulate the rear delt, remember the law of first tension and try to reduce rhomboid involvement

The law of first tension means that the muscle firing first during an exercise will be the one that will be recruited the most and receive the greatest growth stimulus.

When talking about the typical “rear delts” exercises like bent over lateral raises, chest-supported lateral raises, rear delts machine (reverse pec deck) and cable reverse flies most people are actually doing working their rhomboids because they focus mostly on bringing the shoulder blades together (“squeeze the upper back”… “try to squeeze a pencil between both shoulder blades”, etc.).

Doing “rear delts” exercises like that is a great way to NOT to stimulate the rear delts!

If you want to isolate the rear deltoids you need to keep the scapula (shoulder blades) as neutral as possible throughout the range of motion. The best cue to do this is to try to push the weight (dumbbell, machine or pulley handle) away instead of back. Your arms are moving away and back but your shoulder blades should stay as stable as possible.

In the following video the first two reps are done to focus on the rear delts, the lasy three to involve the rhomboids more.

This is why I really like lying dual cable reverse flies. By lying down on the bench you can “trap” your shoulder blades and prevent them from being squeezed in, forcing the rear delts to do most of the work.

Back training tip no 3

When doing band pull aparts, perform a slight external rotation of the shoulder, especially if you are traps-dominant

When you set up for a traditional band pull apart you are in a slightly internally rotated position at the shoulder joint. This is not a big issue in itself, but if you are using it to counter tons of heavy horizontal pressing (which overloads the internal rotators), you actually want to perform the antagonistic action when doing pull aparts.

Look at the following video. The first two reps I segment both actions so that you can understand what I mean, and then I demonstrate how to do your reps.

The added external rotation helps increase rear deltoid activation (the rear deltoid is an external rotator) while also stimulating the infraspinatus and teres minor, all of which make the pull apart a much more effective preventive exercise. It is especially good if you are traps dominant, because if you stay internally rotated the traps and rhomboids will continue to take over the movement.

Back training tip no 4

The band pull apart can be done different ways whether you want to focus on the rear delts, rhomboids or upper traps

The band pull apart is a very versatile exercise. You already know my point of view when it comes to using it as a preventive/corrective exercise (see previous point), but the technique can also be modified to hit a specific muscle more efficiently.

If you want to maximize rear deltoid recruitment your arms should be slightly below perpendicular to the floor, especially if you are traps dominant. As discussed previously, you should perform a slight external rotation and try to keep your shoulder blades as neutral (not squeeze them) as possible.

If you want to focus more on infraspinatus and teres minor, your arms should be angled at a 45 to 60-degree angle from parallel (toward the floor) and you should perform a slightly more pronounced external rotation. Here too you should try to keep your shoulder blades neutral (think push away, not squeeze back).

If you want to focus on the rhomboids, you can be anywhere between slightly below parallel to the floor to slightly above. Do not externally rotate and focus on squeezing both shoulder blades together.

If you want to use the pull apart to train the traps, your arms should be above parallel so that the band is about eye or forehead level. Focus on squeezing the upper part of the shoulder blades together.

In the following video you have 3 reps for rear delts, 3 reps for infraspinatus/teres minor, 3 reps for rhomboids, 3 reps for traps.

Back training tip no 5

“The back” can handle more volume than all the other regions in your body

Well not really, but yes.

Individually, the muscles of the back can probably handle the same volume as other muscles. But “the back” is not one muscle. In fact, calling it “the back” is like calling the pecs, deltoids and abdominals “the front”.

“The back” really is:

– Posterior deltoids
– Rhomboids/mid traps
– Lats/Teres major/lower traps
– Upper traps
– Erector spinea

While many of these muscles are synergistic in most pulling movements, so are the deltoids, triceps and pectorals in most pressing movements. That doesn’t prevent us from doing 12-15 sets for pectorals, 12-15 sets of deltoids, 10-12 sets for triceps. Take out the triceps (they are to “the front” what the biceps are to “the back”) and you have 25-30 sets.

In my opinion you need more pulling than pushing work for the “back” muscles both for performance and injury prevention reasons.

With that in mind doing 30-40 sets for “the back” is actually fairly conservative. Of course, that volume would have to be divided into the regions mentioned above. That’s also why I like to divide my back volume into several workouts (and sometimes using some as antagonists in pressing workouts).

But the moral of the story is that on a weekly basis your “back” volume should be slightly higher than the volume for your pectorals and deltoids combined.

Back training tip no 6

Rowing heavy (horizontal pull) is more important than doing vertical pulling heavy

Nobody says it best than my good friend and all-around training genius Dr. John Rusin (used with permission):

“While the pull up and its many hand setup variations place a stretch on the lats and train in an overhead position, we often forget that this pattern places the shoulder into internal rotation under loading. While this is not inherently bad, this position, the volume placed upon it and the load should be monitored.

On the opposite side of pulling is the row pattern that allows the shoulder to stay in a more neutral position throughout a full range of motion while improving a synergistic lat and upper back targeted activation for better transferable training effects. This movement pattern also has the ability to extend the t-spine and shoulder posturing while being able to be programmed with heavy loads and higher volumes in a more pain-free way.”


Back training tip no 7

With vertical pulling, “mind muscle connection” is more important than the load used

To echo the preceding point by Dr.Rusin, I find it much smarter to think “mind-muscle connection” when it comes to vertical pulling (pull up variations, lat pulldown variations). I think that pretty much every strong coach will agree that a proper pull up is a great exercise. However, I don’t make it the foundation of mine or my clients’ workouts.

I only use the pull up and its variations if:

A. If the individual can feel the lats doing most of the work.

B. If the individual can do at least 8 dead hang pull ups with a 2 second hold at the top of the movement.

C. The individual has to have a need to become better at pull ups (army, law enforcement or fireman tests, Crossfit competitor)

Most people can’t feel their lats working properly when they do a pull up, mostly because they initiate the pull with the arms (remember the principle of first tension) instead of the lats.

Here is what starting with your lats looks like:

That is an active hang, but you should start your pull ups like that and as soon as the lats are engaged you start to pull with your arms. It is one fluid motion but the lats have to fire first.

If you don’t get a lat pump from doing pull ups, you need to work on improving your mind muscle connection before pursuing them.

When I program vertical pulling, I prefer to use lighter weights, a slower tempo and a squeeze at the peak contraction to really focus on having the lats do the work.  I find that you can get a great back training effect that way while also preserving the shoulders.

As you will see in the next point I also really like to use pre-fatigue when training vertical pulling.

Back training tip no 8

Pre-fatigue is one of the most effective ways to train the back

The back is a complex area and it has a lot of synergistic muscles (biceps, forearms, brachialis, coracobrachialis, traps, etc.) that can compensate for the muscles you are actually trying to build.

The pre-fatigue method (supersetting one isolation exercise with one multi-joint exercise) is one of the best to build a mind-muscle connection.

For more on pre-fatigue come watch my video on it!

For example, if I want to focus on my lats, I like to do a superset of straight-arms pulldown and lat pulldown. It would look like this:

A1. Straight-arms pulldown

4 sets
8-10 reps
4021 tempo
No rest

A2. Lat pulldown supinated

4 sets
6-8 reps
4012 tempo
2 minutes rest

If I want to focus on my rear delts I might do:

A1. Lying dual pulley reverse flies

4 sets
8-10 reps
3022 tempo
No rest

A2. Dual pulley seated row (elbows high and out)

4 sets
6-8 reps
3022 tempo
2 minutes rest

And if I want to focus on my rhomboids I might use something like this:

A1. Bent over lateral raise neutral grip (focus on squeezing shoulder blades together)

4 sets
10-12 reps
No rest

A2. Seated rowing, elbows close to body

4 sets
8-10 reps
2 minutes rest

This approach really helps you learn to feel and integrate your back muscles, which is the first step toward insuring maximum growth and maximizing your back training

Back training tip no 9

If you are having problems making your back grow, do the heavy pulling in the middle of your back workout

If you are training a muscle group hard and it is not responding as well as other muscle groups, it’s likely that you are not good at recruiting that muscle properly. This likely means that your mind muscle connection sucks or that you are compensating by utilizing other muscle groups.

The traditional training approach is to do the “big lift” first in a workout. In the case of the back, this could mean starting the back training session with bent over rows or even deadlifts.

The logic is sound: you want to train the more neurally demanding exercises early in the session rather than later when you are starting to become tired. If all you care about is moving the most weight from point A to point B there might be some logic to that, but if you are not good at recruiting a muscle, you will actually get better muscle-growth results if you start with more isolated work. This will increase peripheral activation of the muscles you want to build. In other words, doing isolation work first will sensitize your muscles to be recruited, enhancing the effect of the big lift.

By creating a local pump, you also increase the awareness of the target muscle when doing the big lift. This form of enhanced feedback will allow you to better involve that muscle in the main exercise.

My friend Paul Carter likes to do his biggest lift at the end of the workout. Paul is a beast who is as strong as an ox. So that works well for him since he can still pull big weights even after 20+ sets of back work.

But for most people this will only lead to poor performance. I prefer the middle ground approach of putting the biggest back lift (either a heavy row or deadlift) in the middle of the back session, after two isolation exercises. The order of exercise could look like this:

        1. Straight-arm pulldown
        2. Dual pulley lying reverse flies
        3. Bent over barbell row
        4. Seated dual cable row
        5. DB pullover with added band resistance

Back training tip no 10

Use the “Roy neural potentiation” trick to make rowing more effective

Pierre Roy is one of the smartest men in strength training. His bad luck was having his peak before the internet and social media (also before Olympic lifting became popular thanks to Crossfit). He was the national coach for Canada in weightlifting and trained the last Canadian male to win an Olympic medal (Jacques Demers silver medal 1984) and has trained many international male and female lifters.

One thing I always liked about him is he would have his female lifters do all their lighter sets on snatches and clean with a man’s bar and do the heavier sets with a women’s bar (a man’s bar is 28mm, a woman’s 25mm). Lifting on the larger (so more challenging) bar activated their nervous system more so that when they switched to the lighter bar they had better results (not to mention that the thicker bar increases their grip strength).

You might not be a female Olympic lifter but you can take advantage of the same phenomenon when rowing. To do so, use Fat Gripz

Do a few moderate sets on your rowing (bent over row, DB row, seated row), pulling movements (pull ups, lat pulldowns) and even shrugs (gradually increasing the weight on all sets, so that the last one is a challenge) with the Fat Gripz, then remove them and do your work sets without them (using a bit more weight). This will greatly enhance muscle recruitment, especially if you have smallish hands.

It also works great on curls.

Building a complete back is the sign not only of somebody who trains hard but also who trains smart. So, it is likely the best sign of somebody who knows what he is doing in the gym. Are you part of that group? How is your back training? Do you want to be?

— CT


Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…