SuppVersity EMG Series - Latissimus, Trapezius & More: The Very Best Exercises for Back Width & Thickness

Image 1: The major muscle groups
of the back - trapezius (red)
and latissimus dorsi (green)
In this issue of the SuppVersity EMG Series, we are going to tackle three instead of one muscle groups, ...
  • the trapezius (image 1, red) and the rhomboidei (image 1, blue), of which the former, i.e. the "traps", which covers the rhomboids that connect the scapula with the vertebrae of the spinal column, is often erroneously associated with the musculature of the neck; in effect, the m. trapezius extends longitudinally from the occipital bone to the lower thoracic vertebrae and laterally to the spine of the scapula and is thus responsible for what pro-bodybuilders often refer to as back thickness and ...
  • the latissimus dorsi (image 1, green), which literally is the 'broadest muscle of the back' and thus responsible for back width.
The reasons we will be addressing back width and thickness in a single issue are twofold: Firstly, you need to train all muscle groups of the upper/mid back if you want to develop a strong and visually impressive frame*.
*Note: In fact you have to train your lower back, particularly the erector spinae, as well, but since tackling all the four of them would have gone beyond the scope of one installment of the SuppVersity EMG Series, I decided to address abs and lower back together in an upcoming "core training" issue of this series.
And secondly, you cannot really isolate one from the other, because your body was not designed to look aesthetically appealing (whatever your interpretation of this may be), but it was made for optimal functional strength and agility and thus ultimately for survival. Consequently, the muscles of your back (even more so than it is the case with other body parts) will always work in concert, when you climb, pull, snatch or just carry heavy objects around your house or garden. Keep that in mind, when you read about training for "width" vs. training for "size" (even in this summary)... synergy is the name of the game and you would not want huge "wings" (meaning a broad back) on a frame that is as flat as a pancake, anyway - would you?
Navigate the SuppVersity EMG Series - Click on the desired body part to see the optimal exercises.
But enough of that, let's get to the meat and potatoes of EMG optimized back-training. Here they are, the most effective exercises for m. trapezius and m. latissimus dorsi, as measured by electromyography (10 male resistance-trained subjects, mean age 22y, mean body-fat 13%; data from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)...

I. The Latissmus Dorsi - Grow Yourself a Pair of Wings Exercises with standard equipment for the m. latissimus dorsi
  1. Lat pulldown to sternum (PS1), narrow underhand grip, bend back
  2. Lat pulldown to neck (PN), shoulder-wide overhand grip, upright
  3. DB row, bend over (DB1), underhand grip, arms close to torso, palms to the front
  4. Lat pulldown to sternum (PS2), shoulder-wide overhand grip, bend back
  5. DB row, bend over (DB2), neutral grip, palms facing torso
  6. Lat pulldown to sternum (PS3), shoulder-wide overhand grip, upright
  7. Seated cable row (CR), V-Bar, arms close to torso
Figure 1: EMG activity of exercises with standard equipment expressed relative to lat pulldowns to the neck (PN); the abbreviations can be found in the ranking above (data calculated based on Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
The visual representation of the EMG activity relative to what was long considered the "meat and potatoes" of machine-based lat-training, the pulldown to the neck (PN), shows that the classic exercises, Joe Weider already recommended, i.e. the lat pulldown to the chest/sternum (PS1) and to the neck (PN) actually result in the greatest activation of the dorso-lateral muscle on the trunk, but other than the Canadian co-founder of the International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB) thought, Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies found no significant difference in the activation of the upper, middle and lower part of the latissimus dorsi between the different pulldown varieties. In other words, it is not possible to train the upper, middle or lower part of the broad back muscle (latissimus dorsi) in isolation.
Always remember! The m. latissimus dorsi is no exception to the rule that you cannot isolate individual muscle fibers from a single muscle group. The same is true for the "upper and lower abs" and the "upper lower and middle parts of the chest", which will always work in conjunction, whenever you do your situps, leg raises, push ups and bench presses. In this context it is also worth mentioning that, at least to a certain degree, all pulling movements activate the m. biceps brachialis (biceps), the m. deltoideus, pars spinalis (rear delts) and the m. trapezius, pars transversa (middle part of the traps), as well.
Image 2: Leaning back slightly
(135° vs. 180°) increases the activation
of the m. latissimus dorsi by 11%!
Another interesting conclusion you can draw from the data in figure 1 is that, other than many gurus would have it, leaning back or as some may call it "cheating" on lat pulldowns is actually beneficial as far as the activation of the broad back muscle is concerned (as long as it is done without momentum!). Compared to the textbook version of the lat-pull (PS3), which would be executed sitting 100% straight, so that your arms and your torso are and remain perpendicular to the floor, bending slightly back (PS1; 135° vs. 180°, cf. image 1) increases the muscular activation of the m. latissimus dorsi by 11%. In a similar vein, the derided underhand grip dumbbell row (DB1), which is supposed to turn the bend over dumbbell row into a biceps exercise effectively increases the activation of the lats by 6%, as long as it is executed with appropriate form, i.e. with the arm tucked into the side of your body (don't let your arms flare to handle bigger weights, guys!).
Note: Although the angle between your arms and your torso (tucked in vs. flared out) does affect the intensity of the exercise, it is not as crucial as you may have thought. Flairing your arms to a 45° angle during a V-bar cable row, for example decreases the activation of the lats by less than -1%! A 90° abduction, on the other hand, decreases the EMG activity by -49% and would thus effectively turn a 'lat' into a 'rear delt' exercise.
Image 3: Wide grip pull up to
the neck, still the number one
body weight exercise for lat
development (
Bodyweight exercises for the m. latissimus dorsi
  1. Pull up to neck, wide overhand grip
  2. Pull up to sternum, wide underhand grip
  3. Pull up to sternum, wide overhand grip
  4. Pull up to sternum, narrow overhand grip
As you can see the good old, but for some painful wide grip pull up to the neck (if you asked me a very unnatural movement) does still provide the greatest lat activation.
    Figure 2: EMG activity of variations of the pull up to the sternum expressed relative to wide grip pull ups to the neck (data calculated based on Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
    Moreover, it is interesting that pull ups done using a wide underhand grip and not pull ups with an overhand grip, as most trainees probably think, come in second (-13% and -19% less EMG activity vs. pull ups to the neck). A narrow grip, on the other hand takes away much of the activity in the lat muscle, if nothing else, then due to the lower weight that can be used.
    Training tip! If you cannot do the "classical" pull up to the neck, because your shoulder, neck or whatever starts hurting, find yourself one of those pull-up-towers, which usually have handles without a bar in between. If you are lucky you can push down the weight that would usually assist you, so that you do can to regular pull ups, but will not have to bend your head forward, as your head travels freely, where usually the bar would block your way (make sure, though, not to lean back too much, because otherwise you would be doing a pull up to the sternum, anyway).

    I. The Trapezius & the Rhomboidei - Adding a Thick Roadmad to Your Backside

    A note on the rhomboid muscles: All exercises that activate the m trapezius will inevitable target the underlying m. rhomboidei, as well. This circumstance and the impracticality of measuring muscle activity in a muscle that cannot be accessed without surgical intervention (remember the m. rhomboidei are covered by the m. trapezius) prompted Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies decision not to measure the EMG activity of the rhomboid muscles individually.

    Exercises with standard equipment for ... * indicates a reference exercise to which the others were compared in figure 3  ^ indicates that the exact EMG value for this exercise has not been measured / not measured with the same subject group ° if not stated otherwise the given angles denote the angle between arm and torso

    ...the upper part of the m. trapezius
    1. DB shrug*
    2. BB front raise, narrow grip
    3. Deadlift ^
      ...the middle part of the m. trapezius
    1. Machine rev. fly (int. rotation, 90°)
    2. DB reverse fly (90°)*
    3. BB bend over row (90°)
    4. Straight bar cable rows
    5. Face pulls 
    6. DB row (90°)*
    ...the lower part of the m. trapezius
    1. Machine rev. fly (ext. rotation 120°)
    2. DB reverse fly (120°)*^
    3. Machine rev. fly (ext. rotation 90°)
    4. Shoulder pulls, on lat pull down
    5. DB reverse fly (90°)
    6. Machine reverse fly (int. rotation 90°)
    Image 4: This is the machine the subjects in the study used to perform the internally rotated reverse fly on; notice the 90° angle of arms and torso (photo
    Figure 2: EMG activity of various back exercises for the upper, lower and middle part of the m. trapezius; values are expressed relative to exercises tagged with an asterisk (*) for the respective part of m (data calculated based on Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
    Although they did not explicitly measure the EMG activity for the deadlift, the authors speculate that "in view of the anatomical function of the muscle and the huge leverages, the [deadlift] is likely to be highly effective". That being said, neither the names nor the ranking of the top 3 exercises for the upper part of the m. trapezius should surprise you. These exercises are and have always been the meat and potatoes of back training regimens, although they are sometimes mislabeled as neck or shoulder exercises. Isolating the individial parts of the m. trapezius With regard to the superior activation of the middle part of the m. trapezius by the machine based reverse fly vs. its free weight equivalent, the reverse dumbbell fly, I would like to draw your attention to image 4, which shows a similar piece of equipment as the one that was used in the study. Other than the free-weight variety the machine based reverse fly takes both, the momentum, as well as the contribution of triceps / arm out of the equation and is thus an ideal isolation movement.
    Note: Although, Boeckh-Behrens and Buskies did not measure that explicitly, it is very likely that the activation of the m. trapezius would be lower on one of those machines, where you pull with your hands instead of pushing the pads back with the back of your upper arms.
    Image 4: Shoulder pulls,
    an exercise that is often
    used as part of rehabilitation
    A simple change in the angle between your arms and your torso from 90° to 110° switches the focus of both the free weight, as well as the machine based exercise towards the lower part of the traps. An ideal isolation exercise that will also help with posture and the prevention of the dreaded "impingement syndrome", where the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles become irritated and inflamed as they pass through the subacromial space, the passage beneath the acromion, is the shoulder pull on a standard lat pulldown machine, where, instead of pulling with your lats (and arms) your arms stay extended throughout the movement and you move the weight exclusively with the muscles you would use if someone asked you to pull your shoulder-blades back and downwards (cf. figure 4). While it is no common exercise in a bodybuilding regimen, incorporation of effective rehab exercises like this can help injury prevention and - who knows - help you draw the last "roads" of the roadmap onto an otherwise perfectly built back.  

    Body weight exercises for the lower part of the m. trapezius
    1. Dips
    2. Pull up to sternum, wide overhand grip
    You probably will be surprised to see the dips as the top body weight exercise to develop the lower part of your m. trapezius. If you don't believe the EMG data, try doing some diips after an exhaustive back workout with heavy trap-involvement, but watch out, you could easily get hurt, when your traps cannot stabilize your body anymore...
    Training tip: Although many trainees fail to realize it, the back is probably the muscle group that is most difficult to train, or I should say, to stimulate adequately. Make sure you use a weight that is so heavy that you really struggle lifting it off the ground / pulling it up, but always make sure it is not so heavy that you cannot control it on its way back down. If your muscles cannot stop the weight on its way down before your tendons do, the weight is too heavy. Leave your ego at the door, grab a lighter weight and work the muscle, not the cartilage. Pulling, squeezing and struggling synergistically pave the way to injury free back development.
    In summary, while almost all back exercises will activate both, the m. latissimus dorsi (back width) and the m. trapezius and the subjacent rhomboidei to some degree, only a combination of the most effective lat exercises, which are the wide grip overhand pull up to the neck and the wide grip underhand pull down to the sternum with the best exercises for the upper, middle and lower traps, which are heavy dumbbell shrugs and reverse flies using both a 90° and a 110° angle will maximally stimulate all muscle groups of your back.  

    An EMG-optimized routine There is of course a myriad of ways of combining the individual exercises, my personal recommendation for impressive back development (based on EMG data) would yet be as follows:

    Image 5: There are exercises that would
    have to bee invented, if they had not been
    there sincethe early days of physical culture.
    The DB shrug, as the one and only "Governator",
    Mr Universe & Olympia, Mr.  IFBB International,
    ... you name it,  Arnold Schwarzenegger performs
    them on this photo, certainly is one of them.
    1. Pull ups to the neck - for lat development + all those hidden stabilizing muscles a full body movement such as the pull up activates (5-10 reps / use additional weight or rest-pause if you can do more / less)
    2. Narrow underhand grip pull-down to the sternum (in contracted position pull elbows back as much as possible) - to fully exhaust the lats (8-12 reps)
    3. DB shrugs (use peak contractions) - for upper trap development (10-12 reps) Super Set = go from 4 to 5 without rest, rest after 5, repeat
    4. Reverse fly 90° (preferably on a machine like the one in image 4) - for mid trap development (10-12 reps)
    5. DB reverse fly 110° (use light weights, feel the burn!) - for lower trap development (do to failure, up the weight if you can do 15+)
    You may notice that I do not make volume (i.e. set) recommendations. This is due to the fact that I found that everyone has to find what works best for him / her in terms of optimal volume and training frequency. This may also change over time / according to lifestyle factors / nutrition and supplementation.
    Disclaimer:The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. It is by no means intended as professional medical advice. Do not use any of the agents or freely available dietary supplements mentioned on this website without further consultation with your medical practitioner.