If you want a simple but effective workout designed to give you a defined back and bigger biceps, this page will show you what to do.
This workout hits all the major muscle groups in your back, and is designed to form part of a push/pull/legs split, done 4-5 days a week.
With this type of training schedule, you train the back and biceps on pull day, chest, shoulders and triceps on push day, and the quads, hamstrings and calves on legs day.
Ideally you’ll have access to a commercial gym, but a well-equipped home gym set up in your garage, basement or spare room will do the job almost as well.
Why Train Back And Biceps Together?
Training your back and biceps together is an efficient way to train, in part because upper body muscle groups that work together are trained together in the same workout.
Take the example of a pulling movement like the lat pulldown or barbell bent-over row. Both exercises work not just the muscles in your back, such as latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids and trapezius, but the biceps as well.
A major benefit of training this way is that if you run out of time, you have the option of skipping the last 2-3 exercises. That’s because those exercises are hitting arm muscles that have been worked already.
In other words, a back and biceps workout routine will normally start off with a compound lift like seated cable rows or lat pull-downs, before moving on to some isolation work for the arms, such as dumbbell or barbell curls.
However, those same compound exercises will have delivered a muscle building stimulus to the biceps, albeit not as much had you trained them directly.
So if you’re pushed for time, you can always leave out some of the isolation work and stick with the compound movements.
Starting a workout with dumbbell curls can also fatigue your biceps to the extent that they become the limiting factor when you’re training your back.
That is, your biceps end up failing before your back, which means the upper back muscles receive less of a growth stimulus than they otherwise would do.
That’s another reason why it makes sense to leave the biceps exercises until after you’ve trained your back.
Back and Biceps Anatomy
These are the major muscles being worked in a back and biceps workout:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Trapezius (middle and lower fibers)
- Posterior deltoid
Latissimus dorsi. Also known as the lats, this is a large, flat triangular muscle in the back, running from the mid and lower regions of the spine, underneath the armpit, all the way to your humerus. Well-developed lats are sometimes referred to as wings or a cobra back.
Teres major. This runs from the shoulder blade to the humerus, and is often referred to as latissimus dross’s “little helper.” Teres major is worked during exercises like pull-ups and pulldowns.
Trapezius. Also known as the traps, this muscle is divided into upper, middle and lower compartments. A back and biceps workout will typically focus on the middle and lower fibers of the traps, which retract (pull back) and depress (pull down) your shoulder blades. The upper traps are usually worked alongside the chest and shoulders, using exercises like upright rows or shrugs.
Rhomboids. There are two rhomboid muscles on each side of the upper back, rhomboid major and rhomboid minor, which retract, elevate and rotate the shoulder blade. You can’t see the rhomboids, as they’re located underneath your traps.
Posterior deltoid. One of the three main heads of the deltoid, the posterior deltoid (also known as the rear delts) extend, externally rotate and horizontally abduct the humerus. The other heads of the deltoid, the lateral and anterior head, are typically worked alongside the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Biceps. The biceps is made up of two heads, the short and long head. If you look down at your biceps with your palms facing up, the short head is found on the inside of your arm, near your body. The long head is found on the outside of the arm. The biceps flexes the elbow, supinates the forearm and also assists with shoulder flexion.
Brachialis. This muscle sits in the upper arm between your biceps and triceps. Just like the biceps, it’s responsible for flexing the elbow. Unlike the biceps, however, brachialis is a pure elbow flexor, and doesn’t act on the shoulder or forearm.
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There are other muscle groups found in the back, most notably erector spinae. Erector spinae is not just one muscle, but a group of muscles running more or less the length of the spine, all the way from your hips to your neck.
Some trainers do like to work the spinal erectors when they work back and biceps.
Personally, I prefer to program exercises that work erector spinae as part of a lower body workout. That’s because it’s heavily involved in exercises like squats and deadlifts.
If you’re doing exercises that hit the spinal erectors on both leg days and pull days, it’s easy to end up overworking the area if you’re not careful.
Depending on how the rest of your training program is set up, exercises like rack pulls can be performed as part of a back and biceps workout. But you need to be mindful of the amount of work your lower back is doing over the course of a training week.
Back Exercises: Vertical vs Horizontal Pulling
Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories:
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Pull
A vertical pulling movement describes exercises like pull ups, chin ups or lat pulldowns. In the case of the pull up, you’re pulling the weight of your body up in a straight line.
With pulldowns, your body stays in the same place while you pull an external load down in a straight line.
Horizontal pull exercises, on the other hand, includes any movement that moves the weight toward your body horizontally. The seated cable row is a good example.
But even when you’re in a bent over position with your torso roughly parallel to the floor, and the weight is moving straight up and down, it’s still a horizontal pull.
Pulling in both horizontal and vertical planes helps to ensure complete development of all the back muscles, which is why it’s a good idea to include both types of back exercise in your training schedule.
Back and Biceps Workout
- Wide Grip Front Lat Pulldown 3 sets x 8-15
- Pull-Ups 3 sets x 5-10 reps
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown 2 sets x 12-15
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 sets x 5-8
- Bent-Over Barbell Row 2 sets x 10-12
- Incline Dumbbell Curl 2 sets x 10-12
- Dumbbell Preacher Curl 2 sets x 12-15
- Hammer Curl 2 sets x 12-15
Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
Sets 2-3 Reps 8-15
The first exercise is the lat pulldown, which serves as a warm-up. Your hands should be positioned slightly wider than shoulder width apart, with your palms facing forward.
Start off with a relatively light weight, and do 15 reps, making sure to use a full range of motion. Once that first warm-up set is done, stretch out the lats for 10 seconds or so.
Because you’re warming up, you don’t need to rest too long between each set – 45-60 seconds is plenty.
Add a little more weight, and do another 10 reps. Stretch the lats again. Then add more weight, and do a final warm-up set of 8 reps.
Remember, these are warm-up sets. Don’t go anywhere near muscular failure, and just focus on contracting the lats.
Pull-up OR Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
Sets 3 Reps 5-10 OR 8-12
The first exercise is the pull-up, done for sets of 5-10 reps. Many people lack the strength to do multiple sets of pull-ups with their own body weight. If you’re one of those people, do lat pulldowns on a cable machine instead, using a wide, overhand grip and a slightly higher rep range (8-12).
Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown
Sets 2 Reps 12-15
Next up is the reverse grip lat pulldown, done for sets of 12-15 reps. Unlike the wide grip front lat pulldown, the reverse grip pulldown is done using an underhand close grip, with the hands positioned slightly narrower than shoulder width.
If you’ve already done pulldowns earlier in the workout, why do them again?
There are lots of muscles in the back, and using different grip widths (wide and close grip) and hand positions helps to ensure complete development of those muscles.
It can also help to reduce the risk of any repetitive stress injuries to the elbows, wrists or shoulders, which can happen if you do the same exercises all the time.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can also use a pull-up bar to do chin-ups or TRX pull-ups.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Sets 3 Reps 5-8
Next, it’s time for a rowing exercise, in this case the single-arm dumbbell row. To emphasise the lats, keep your elbows close to your side. Rather than straight up and straight down, the dumbbell should come up and slightly back.
Suitable alternatives include other rowing movements like the seated cable row, inverted row, or chest-supported row done on an incline bench.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
Sets 2 Reps 10-12
The target muscles here are latissimus dorsi (the lats), trapezius, rhomboids along with the biceps. The bent-over barbell row also works erector spinae, a group of muscles running up both sides of your spine which have to work very hard to stop your back rounding.
Rather than using a narrow grip with your elbows tucked into your side, do this exercise with a wide(wish) grip, flare the elbows out to the side and row the bar closer to your chest. This helps to emphasise the upper back muscles.
Make sure to focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together as you row the bar up towards your sternum.
If you find that lower back fatigue causes you to cut the set short, you can replace this exercise with some kind of chest-supported row (e.g. chest-supported T-bar row, machine row).
Incline Dumbbell Curl
Sets 2 Reps 10-12
Next, we have incline curls. When you sit on the bench, which should be set at roughly a 45-degree angle, your elbows should be positioned behind your back.
Putting the biceps muscle in this stretched position will involve the long head to a greater extent than a dumbbell curl done with your arms at your side.
Make sure to use a full range of motion, straightening your arms fully at the bottom of the movement before you return to the starting position.
Dumbbell Preacher Curl
Sets 2 Reps 12-15
With the preacher curl, your elbows are positioned in front of your body, rather than behind as they were on the incline curl. This shifts the emphasis of the exercise to the short head of the bicep muscle.
If you don’t have access to a preacher bench, you can also do preacher curls using an incline bench.
Sets 2 Reps 12-15
Using a neutral grip, where your palms face you, tends to involve more of the brachialis muscle, a muscle that sits between the triceps and biceps.
Neutral-grip curls also build strength and size in a forearm muscle known as brachioradialis, which helps to flex, or bend, the elbow.
Suitable alternatives to the dumbbell hammer curl include the cable hammer curl (with rope attachment), cross body hammer curl, or reverse curl (which works brachioradialis even harder).
1. In terms of training volume, you’re doing 2-3 work sets per exercise, for a total of 10 work sets for the back (excluding warm-up sets) and 6 for the biceps, which get some stimulation from the back exercises done earlier in the workout.
2. You’ll notice that most of the exercises are done in the 5-15 rep range, which works well for muscle growth. While using a very heavy weight in the 3-5 rep range will help when it comes to building strength, gains in muscle size are often best achieved with a higher rep range.
3. The addition of some lower body exercises will turn the routine into a push-pull split. That is, you’d add some hamstring work to a pull workout and quad work to a push workout. This way, you’ll train your entire body in two rather than three training sessions.
4. If you want to include some work for your upper traps, such as barbell or dumbbell shrugs, you can do them towards the end of the workout once the main compound lifts for the back are out of the way. Alternatively, the upper traps can be paired with the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many exercises should I do on back and biceps day?
On back and biceps day, aim for 3-10 exercises in total. Depending on your training status (beginner, intermediate or advanced), do 2-5 exercises for your back, and 1-3 exercises for biceps and brachialis.
Is it best to do back or biceps first?
Do your back first, biceps second. The biceps and brachialis do assist in various back exercises like rows, pulldowns and pull-ups, so you don’t want to fatigue them before training your back.
How many back exercises should I do?
You want to do at least 2 back exercises. The first is a vertical pulling exercise, like lat pulldowns, pull-ups or chin-ups. The second is a horizontal pulling exercise, like barbell rows, seated cable rows or single-arm dumbbell rows.
How many biceps exercises should I do?
To build muscle, aim for 1-3 biceps exercises, doing 2-3 work sets of 10-15 reps per exercise.
How many times a week should I do back and biceps?
For best results, train your back and biceps 2-3 times per week. You can certainly gain muscle with a training frequency of once per week, but most people will make faster progress hitting a muscle group more often.
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