Back when I started training I didn’t know much about anatomy. People would talk about lats and I would be like: “Is that a car brake?
Luckily for me, over the years I was able to educate myself on the subject. I think it is particularly important to understand basic back anatomy in order not to be confused by terms such as back thickness and back width.
WHAT MAKES A BACK THICK?
Back thickness is essentially a synonym for back density. The main muscles that need to be developed to acquire a thicker back are the trapezius and the spinal erectors. Those are the muscle groups which create the dense back look.
The trapezius is a big and very rigid muscle that runs from the upper base of the neck down to the middle of the back. Many people, who have wasted way too much time watching stupid stuff like fake wrestling, are convinced that the trapezius is hit completely when you do shrugs. This is not the case and shrugs primarily focus on the upper portion around the neck area.
The more complete exercises for traps, which work the middle and the lower parts of the muscle to a higher degree, are rowing variations.
Rows done with flared elbows focus completely on the traps and the upper back area. When you row with a wide grip, while also keeping your elbows high, the role of the latissimus dorsi is diminished and the upper back gets an opportunity to shine. A good and very accessible exercise that hits the traps more evenly are the so-called Bulgarian ring rows, which you can see in the video below.
The key points are to flare your elbows and try to retract your shoulders as much as possible. You will feel this exercise in the traps, rear deltoids and obviously the biceps and forearms. You can mimic this movement by using a pair of dumbbells, a barbell or even a machine.
The next muscle group that is crucial to back thickness are the spinal erectors which run from your neck down to your lower back. They are one of the main muscle groups controlling the spine.
The best exercises for the spinal erectors are deadlifts, rack pull, squats, weighted back hyperextensions and barbell or dumbbell rows done without support. Bodyweight stuff like superman hold on the floor sucks very hard for many reasons. During the superman, for example, the range of motion is small and people tend to over-arch their backs which is not needed. It’s also not really practical to add weight to the exercise which limits it as a strength and muscle builder. Weighted hyperextension destroy the floor superman. It’s like comparing a cheap skateboard to a mountain bike.
There are also other small muscle groups such as the rhomboids that contribute to back thickness, but they are hit hard during complete trapezius and spinal erector training.
WHAT IS BACK WIDTH?
Back width is determined by the size of your latissimus dorsi (lats) and the teres muscles, which are essentially lat helpers. The go-to exercises for lats are:
1. Weighted chin-ups done with narrow grip for larger range of motion;
I have found for myself that I have much easier time engaging the lats if I do chin-ups rather than pull-ups. I often use rings of some sort for this exercise because the straight bar could cause elbow and wrist issues. The rings allow you to find a more forgiving joint position and eliminate this risk.
The reason to use a narrow grip is to have a larger range of motion. Contrary to popular belief, the narrow pull-up works the lats way more than the wide grip variations.
2. One arm dumbbell rows for “lower lats”;
Technically, you either have lower lats or you don’t. Some people just have high insertions. That cannot be changed through exercises. However, the one arm dumbbell row hits the lower part of the muscle pretty well as long you let the dumbbell stretch you completely at the bottom and keep it close to your body when you row.
3. Close grip lat pull downs;
The closer the grip, the more stretched the lats are at the top. The close grip pull down is one of the better lat focused movements.
4. Complete front lever or easier variations
The front lever is a pretty intense lat exercise, although I don’t think it will promote more growth that the other movements. Nevertheless, it’s a cool way to train your lats if you are into bodyweight training.
5. Deadlifts/Rack pulls
It may surprise some of you, but the deadlift is a damn fine lat exercise, if you have good mind muscle connection and know how to “down shrug” and use your lats to keep the bar close to you. The lats are also involved in back extension.
Don’t be surprised if you have sore lats from deadlifts. It’s all fine and expected, especially if you have lats with really low insertions. Usually the soreness affects the part of the lats closer to spine and sometimes you will feel it even when you breath.