Building An “Anatomy Book” Back

I was walking around my gym today, scoping out the other occupants (as always), and I wondered to myself “How do all these people remain upright?”  Upright, you ask.  Indeed.  For my fellow gym members tend to be so imbalanced front to back, I can’t imagine how they keep from toppling forward onto their relatively overdeveloped front halves.  Where are the posteriors?  Where are the backs?

There’s nothing that says “athlete” quite like a jacked back, but in most cases the back is neglected in favor of the showier “mirror muscles” – chest, biceps, abz… – which is unfortunate.  I’d take a well-developed back over mirror muscles any day of the week.

So what makes a back “like an anatomy book?”  Well, first, let’s look at the anatomy book.

Back Muscles Anatomy Diagram

Yeah, the back is mad complicated.  Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.  The point though, is that you should pretty much be able to give an anatomy lesson on a well developed back.

Something like this:

John Romaniello Back

Building An “Anatomy Book” Back

Before we get started building you back, it should be made clear that if your body fat is too high to see definition, no amount of muscle building is going to get you an anatomy book back.  So get your diet in order.

OK, now on to the fun stuff.  As you can see from the above diagram, there are a lot of muscles in the back.  There are also a lot of actions happening back there.  It’s all very complicated and rather boring.  If you want the details, read Tortora.  I did.

For the rest, we’re going to focus on three major movement patterns that revolve around the back, not muscles (per se):

  • Horizontal pulling – like rowing a boat
  • Vertical pulling – like a chin-up
  • Deadlifting – picking something up off the floor

There’s a lot of overlap in what muscles these movements involve, but each has a bit of a different emphasis.  For truly textbook-worthy back development, you probably need some form of all three.

Horizontal Pulling

bent over barbell row

The Action: Pulling towards your torso with the line of force perpendicular to your torso (or nearly so).  Think rowing a boat.  Or pulling your significant other in for a kiss.

The Exercises: Rows, rows, and more rows.  Lucky I already wrote an article about them.

The Instructions: Actively think about pulling your scapulae (shoulder blades) together and down when you row.  Pretend you’re trying to put them in your back pockets at the peak of every rep.  Otherwise you’re just doing glorified bicep curls.

The Payoff: Massive engagement of the mid-back muscles (rhomboids, middle trapezius, etc) mostly those which retract the scapulae (Remember what I said about pulling them together?  That’s what I’m talking about).  These are thickness muscles; they make your back thicker from front to back when they grow.

back muscles

Find the rhomboids & middle part of the trapezius

Vertical Pulling

Girl with great back doing pullup

Girls look hot with anatomy book backs too.

The Action: Pulling towards your torso with the line of force parallel to your torso (or nearly so).  Generally used to pull yourself up to something.

The Exercises: Pull-ups, chin-ups, pull-downs, etc.  Yep, got that one covered too.  Article.

The Instructions: Again, think about pulling your scapulae (shoulder blades) together and down on every rep.  Put them in your back pockets.

The Payoff: These pulls focus more on your latissimus dorsi, large fan-shaped muscles which run down the sides of your back.  These are width muscles, which make your back look wider from side to side.  Lats are one of the biggest contributors to the sought-after “V-Shaped” upper body.   Siince you’re still focusing on your scapular retraction and depression, you’re going to get some activation of the rhomboids and mid/lower-traps as well.

back muscles

Latissimus dorsi - hard to miss. They're big.


girl deadlifting

The Action: Lifting something straight arm, generally from the floor, using the hips and back.

The Exercises: Deadlifts, rack pulls, Olympic lifts (cleans, snatches).  Full article on deadlifts.

The Instructions: There’s less movement at the back during this one, just forced stability.  Before each pull, think about locking your scapulae in the retracted, depressed position, and keeping them there through each rep.

The Payoff: These pulls require massive use of the upper trapezius (top of your back – where you would generally get a back rub) in addition to requiring the entire rest of the back musculature (everything previously discussed as well as the lower back).  This is truly a full back builder.  Anyone who says you need shrugs to build your traps isn’t deadlifting enough.

back muscles

Upper part of the trapezius, along with everything else


Start Giving Anatomy Lessons

Cause your back is now textbook worthy.  Well, give it some time.  And lots of workouts.  You’ll get there!

Up next, bringing up the rest of your posterior, starting with the butt!  Anyone interested?

frank zane back

Just like Frank Zane! Right?