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)
- 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.
*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.
I. The Latissmus Dorsi - Grow Yourself a Pair of Wings Exercises with standard equipment for the m. latissimus dorsi
- Lat pulldown to sternum (PS1), narrow underhand grip, bend back
- Lat pulldown to neck (PN), shoulder-wide overhand grip, upright
- DB row, bend over (DB1), underhand grip, arms close to torso, palms to the front
- Lat pulldown to sternum (PS2), shoulder-wide overhand grip, bend back
- DB row, bend over (DB2), neutral grip, palms facing torso
- Lat pulldown to sternum (PS3), shoulder-wide overhand grip, upright
- 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)
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%!
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
the neck, still the number one
body weight exercise for lat
- Pull up to neck, wide overhand grip
- Pull up to sternum, wide underhand grip
- Pull up to sternum, wide overhand grip
- Pull up to sternum, narrow overhand grip
|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)
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
|...the lower part of the m. trapezius
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
Body weight exercises for the lower part of the m. trapezius
- Pull up to sternum, wide overhand grip
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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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
- Reverse fly 90° (preferably on a machine like the one in image 4) - for mid trap development (10-12 reps)
- 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+)