Back development often eludes the average lifter. You can’t see it in the mirror, making it hard to develop a mind-muscle connection. But if you’ve dreamed of having to shuffle through doorways sideways, then I’ve got six secrets for you so you can get a wider back.
Before I share those with you, we must understand the anatomy of the back and what muscles need to be developed to have a wide back.
Anatomy Of The Back
The back consists of many muscles due to its large surface area and movement capabilities. But when looking to get a wider back, there is only one crucial muscle. That is the latissimus dorsi or lats for short.
The lats are the large muscles under your armpits that run down the side of your body. Bodybuilders often call them “wings,” as when performing the lat spread, large lats resemble wings similar to that of a wingsuit.
However, building a bigger, wider back involves more than just the back muscles. The other important muscle is the side delts and having a small waist. This will create that V taper where a wide base of the upper back tapers into a smaller base of the waist.
Essentially, have well-developed lats, side delts, and be lean. So here are six secrets to building a wide back the size of barn doors.
6 Secrets For A Wider Back
Activate The Lats
Many lifters fail to achieve a broad back because they can’t feel their lats working. There are several ways to enhance lat activation to feel them working when training your back. Firstly, you can perform an exercise that allows you to feel the lats with light loads before your pulldowns or rows.
The perfect exercise is the straight arm pulldown. The lats are heavily involved in shoulder extension, and performing the straight arm pulldown will allow you to squeeze the lats every rep. 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps at the end of your warm-up will have you ready to attack your back training.
Once starting your wide back workout, you should focus on the lats by thinking, “squeeze the lats” with every rep instead of thinking about moving the weight. This has been shown to drastically increase muscle size by two-fold !
Another trick is to have a training partner instruct you during your pulldown and rowing movements using these elements:
- Palpate the lats (lightly touch the lats during the exercise).
- Instruct you to target the lats only.
- Instruct you to pull with your back and not your arms.
Just doing this is enough to increase lat activation by 17%  without increasing biceps activation. So, the holy trifecta of lat development is to use the straight arm pulldown to activate the lats when warming up, squeezing the lats throughout the exercises, and having a training partner instruct you during the lift.
Stop With Wide Grips
A medium grip width allows you to lift heavier loads than a wide grip width . Heavier loads mean greater mechanical tension and, therefore, more significant muscle growth. How wide is too wide? Here’s a picture of a wide grip width.
Further, a wide grip shortens the range of motion of the lats, and therefore, less work is performed when lifting with less time under tension. Stick with a medium grip width.
Use Pronated Grips
Pronated grips (palms away) during pull-ups and pulldowns elicit greater lat activation compared to supinated (palms toward) hand positions [4,5]. Supinated grips increase biceps activation as they are in an advantageous position to contribute to the exercise.
Pull Your Way To A Wide Back
Compared to any other back exercise, the pull-up shows the most significant lat activation [6,7]. The lat pulldown is not far behind either. Rows are great. But when targeting the lats for back width, pulldowns and pull-ups are your go-to.
High Reps With Heavy Weight
The lats (and back musculature in general) are one of the only muscle groups that can handle both high reps with heavy weights. Most notable is the Kroc row made famous by Matt Kroczaleski. The story goes that he maxed out his dumbbells when performing 1-arm dumbbell rows.
As he couldn’t add more load, he decided to set personal rep records instead of weight records. Since then, it has been transformed into its own exercise where sets of 20+ reps are performed with very heavy dumbbells.
This exercise will add muscle slabs to your lats and build a wide back.
Train Your Side Delts
But wait… the side delts aren’t back muscles? You’d be correct. But a wide physique is more than just having large back muscles. The side delts will round out the width of your back. It will help widen the top of the V taper, so your waist does not need to be as thin.
Best Exercises For A Wider Back (V Taper)
I’ve already detailed the best back exercises for mass. This article will instead describe the best exercises for a wider back. Some exercises will be similar but
Straight Arm Pulldown
This is our lat activation exercise. Set up a cable attachment at the top of the column to perform this correctly. Alternatively, you can use bands if training at home that can give you an even stronger contraction as the resistance increases as you pull down.
Bend over to approximately a 45° back angle. With your arms relaxed, pull toward your hip without bending your elbows any further. The trick here is to keep your hand open, so you reduce the involvement of the forearms.
As mentioned, the pull-up is the best back exercise to activate the lats. Therefore, it is likely the best exercise for a wider back. Opt for a medium pronated grip for maximum lat activation and control the concentric and eccentric so you can squeeze and feel the lats working. The goal isn’t to get your head over the bar. It is to feel your lats working throughout the entire exercise.
The Kroc row is performed similarly to a 1-arm dumbbell row. However, it needs to be 20+ reps and heavy enough to use some body English. By heavy enough, I mean a weight you can barely do 20 reps with.
This is the one exercise you can ignore the “feeling” of the lats. It’s all about performing as many rows as you can. You will feel your lats burning regardless.
If you struggle to do pull-ups or can’t get enough pull-up volume, then use the lat pulldown to make up the volume. On a traditional pulldown attachment, I prefer to have my pinky fingers slightly outside the edge, as you can see in the video.
This medium grip will give you an outstanding balance between lat activation, range of motion, and comfort.
While vertical pulling movements are best for back width, rowing movements will round out your back development. Further, some of you may suffer from lower back pain, so Kroc rows may not be an option.
The bench pull is a chest-supported row variation that will take the stress of your lower back. So, you can use a barbell and perform high rep rows.
To target the side delts, lateral raises are the staple exercise. They heavily target the side delts to fill out your shirt.
Wide Back Workout
Here is an example workout to build a wider back using the above exercises and principles.
A1) Straight Arm Pulldown 3 x 15
B1) Pull-Ups 4 x 1 From Failure (i.e., as many reps as possible until you can only perform one more rep)
C1) Lat Pulldown 4 x 10 @ 9 RPE
D1) Kroc Row 1 x 20-30 reps @ 10 RPE
E1) Dumbbell Lateral Raise 5 x 10-15 @ 9 RPE
1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., … & Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European journal of sport science, 18(5), 705-712.
2. Snyder, B. J., & Leech, J. R. (2009). Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pulldown following expert instruction. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(8), 2204-2209.
3. Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pulldown. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1135-1142.
4. Leslie, K. L., & Comfort, P. (2013). The effect of grip width and hand orientation on muscle activity during pull-ups and the lat pulldown. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 35(1), 75-78.
5. Lusk, S. J., Hale, B. D., & Russell, D. M. (2010). Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pulldown. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1895-1900.
6. Holly Edelburg, B.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Clayton Camic, Ph.D., Attila Kovacs, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D., with Daniel J. Green. ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH: What Is the Best Back Exercise?
7. Hewit, J. K., Jaffe, D. A., & Crowder, T. (2018). A comparison of muscle activation during the pull-up and three alternative pulling exercises. J. Phys. Fitness, Med. Treat. Sport, 5(4), 1-7.