Training your back and biceps together is a popular way to build upper body strength. Suitable for beginner and advanced lifters, the back and biceps workout will build a thick back and strong arms, whether your goal is to simply improve strength or achieve the V-shaped back.
- Structure of a back and biceps workout
- Beginner Back and Biceps Workout
- Advanced Back and Biceps Workout
- Popular back exercises
- Popular bicep exercises
Back and biceps muscles
This workout targets both your back and bicep muscle groups. Your upper and lower back muscles are important for overall strength and for providing stability and balance to your torso. The biceps part of this workout improves your lifting and pulling performance, as well as helping with everyday tasks.
Upper back muscles
When we talk about back training, we are normally referring to training the upper back muscles. Your upper back consists of several key muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezius (traps) and rhomboids muscles. Together, these muscles help stabilize your body, and are key in any lifting or pulling motion. They also help you maintain good posture.
Strengthening your upper back muscles using targeted workouts can improve your workout performance and reduce the risk of injury in other exercises.
Latissimus dorsi (lats)
Your latissimus dorsi (lats) are large muscles that run along the sides of your middle-to-lower back. They play a key role in pulling your arms down when extended above your head. Strong lats help with everyday activities and exercises like swimming and pull ups.
The rhomboids are made up of two muscles – the rhomboids major and rhomboids minor. They are both located between your spinal column and your shoulder blades. Strong rhomboids help you maintain good shoulder posture, and help you elevate, retract and rotate your shoulder blades.
Your trapezius (traps) muscles are the large triangular-shaped muscles that extend all the way over the back of your neck and deltoids, extending right down to the upper middle part of the back. It is divided into three parts called the upper, middle and lower traps. They move your shoulders and assist in moving your arms out to the side. Your middle and lower traps also help to retract and depress your shoulder blades.
Because your rhomboids and traps make up a significant proportion of your upper back muscles, training them is key to building a thicker and more defined back.
The rear deltoids, also known as posterior deltoids, are located at the back of your shoulders. They assist in pulling back your shoulders. Developing your rear deltoids can help you achieve a balanced and rounded shoulder appearance. Stronger rear deltoids can also help with posture and reduce the risk of shoulder injuries in other exercises.
Finally, your teres major is one of the smaller back muscles that is located under your shoulder. Despite its size, it plays a key role in upper body function, including drawing your arms down and pulling them back, alongside your lats.
Lower back muscles
Your erector spinae are a group of muscles and tendons that run along each side of your spine. This group of muscles is essential to maintaining good upright posture when standing, and also helps with the extension of the spine.
It’s a good idea to add lower back exercises into a back and biceps workout to achieve overall muscle balance and improved posture. Targeting all muscle groups in a comprehensive workout routine is essential, but you should be cautious about overworking your lower back muscles in particular.
Working your lower back muscles too hard or often can cause fatigue, muscle strain and even severe injuries. As always, don’t overwork any muscle group and incorporate enough rest days into your routine.
Your biceps are the large muscles on the front of your upper arms. Although your biceps is a single muscle, it is made up of two heads – called the long and short heads. Together, they play a key role in forearm flexion and rotation and strong biceps are beneficial for everyday activities and exercises.
Any pulling or carrying motion recruits your bicep muscles. Stronger biceps makes these tasks easier and reduces muscle strain during these types of movement.
Reasons to use a back and biceps workout
Working your back and biceps together is a popular and proven strategy for muscle growth. Many compound exercises that work your back (including rows and pull-ups) also engage your biceps as secondary muscles, making it logical to combine these two muscle groups into the same workout.
It makes sense to hit your biceps using the compound lifts that primarily work your back muscles. Combing these compound lifts with some isolation bicep curls increases stimulation of your biceps, and saves time by working both muscle groups in a single workout.
Exercises like pull-ups and rows primarily target your back muscles, but also actively engage your biceps. These types of exercises combined can provide a comprehensive upper body workout, making the most of your time in the gym.
If you follow a push-pull-legs split, it’s easy to add a back and biceps workout into your routine. Keeping a day dedicated to back and biceps simplifies your workout routine.
Frequency and recovery time
In any workout routine, you need to plan for and include enough time for recovery. Recovery time allows for muscle growth to occur. Studies show that the protein synthesis process peaks 24 hours after you exercise and returns to normal after about 36 hours.
Your back muscles are a group of larger muscles and can therefore handle a high volume and frequency in your workout routine. Your biceps, on the other hand, cannot endure the same level of strain. Overworking the biceps is a common source of injury, so you should tailor your workout routine to include the appropriate volume and frequency.
A good rule of thumb is to include back and bicep exercises in a 2:1 ratio. For every two exercises targeting your back muscles, include one exercise that isolates and works your biceps.
Training your back and biceps together simplifies your routine and makes it easier to plan recovery time. Because the back exercises typically work the biceps too, combining them gives you the maximum amount of recovery time between workouts, and allows you to include other workouts that avoid the recently trained groups.
Structure of a back and biceps workout
The structure of a back and biceps workout ultimately depends on your personal fitness level and goals, as well as what the rest of your workout routine looks like.
To build a balanced back and biceps workout, start with compound pulling movements, like deadlifts or bent-over rows, followed by less intense exercises like pull ups. Finally, include some isolation bicep exercises like bicep curls or hammer curls.
How many exercises
We recommend including 4-6 total exercises into a back and biceps workout. This makes the workout balanced, and supports the 2:1 ratio of back to bicep exercises. Because your back is a larger and more complex muscle group than your biceps, the workout places more focus on your back muscles. Your bicep muscles are targeted by fewer isolation exercises since it’s a smaller muscle group.
When planning your workout, aim for a maximum of 4 back exercises and 2 isolation bicep movements. Think about including deadlifts into your back exercises, and do this exercise first in your workout.
Gym Geek’s beginner back and biceps routine features 5 exercises, each with 3 sets. We choose easier exercises that allow you to focus on proper form. For example, we include Romanian deadlifts over traditional deadlifts since they are less demanding and easier to execute for beginner lifters. They also place less strain of your lower back. As you progress, it’s a good idea to consider the more advanced exercises.
Our advanced routine has 6 exercises, each with 3-4 sets. It’s a more comprehensive workout, challenging your progression and strength. Because it includes more exercises and sets, it’s a higher volume workout which makes it useful if your goal is to build a stronger back and biceps.
Start with back exercises
In your back and biceps workout, it’s important to start with the back exercises first. Your back muscles are larger and stronger, so they need your full amount of focus and energy. Working your biceps before your back could limit the weight you are able to lift when performing rows and pulldowns due to fatigue.
The back and biceps workout can be included into your regular push-pull-legs routine. Ideally, you would place the workout between your push and leg days.
Some people prefer to follow a pull-push-legs routine instead, where the pull and push days are swapped. For example, you could start with back and biceps on your pull day, followed by chest, shoulders and triceps on push day, finally ending with your leg day. We talk more about this approach later in the article.
Beginner Back and Biceps Workout
- Romanian deadlifts – 3 sets of 2-6 reps
- Single-arm dumbbell rows – 3 sets of 6-10 reps
- Single-arm cable rows – 3 sets of 6-10 reps
- Preacher curls – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell hammer curls – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Advanced Back and Biceps Workout
- Deadlifts – 3 sets of 2-6 reps
- Bent-over barbell rows – 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Lat pulldowns – 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Chin-ups – 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
- Preacher curls – 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell hammer curls – 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Popular back exercises
Why: The deadlift is a classic compound exercise that works your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads and traps. The deadlift movement mimics everyday lifting and carrying motions. Deadlifts are one of the most effective exercises for building full body strength, enhancing trunk stability and improving your overall coordination and agility.
How to do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forwards. Position the barbell with your toes underneath the bar, with your shins almost touching the bar. With proper form, squat down towards the barbell. With your knees slightly bent, hinge at your hips and sit back. Bend forward at your wait, reach forward and grip the barbell. Lift by pushing upwards with your legs, keeping the bar close to your body and your chest up. Straighten up to complete the lift, lockout, then lower the bar back to the floor, pushing your hips back, bending your knees and keeping them inline with your feet.
Read more: How to Do a Deadlift
Why: Romanian deadlifts start from a standing position, whereas traditional deadlifts start lifting from the floor. This means that Romanian deadlifts have a reduced range of motion, and engage more of your hamstrings and glutes, whereas traditional deadlifts work more of your quads.
How to do: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. With an overhand grip, hold the barbell at hip level. Keep your shoulders back and maintain a straight spine. Pushing your hips back, lower the barbell towards your feet. As the barbell reaches shin level, press your hips forward to return to the standing position.
Read more: How to Do a Romanian Deadlift
Bent-over barbell rows
Why: Bent-over barbell rows primarily target the upper and middle back, biceps and shoulders. Doing this exercise can strengthen your upper body and improve your postural stability. This makes them a great choice for a back and biceps routine.
How to do: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell at hip level with an overhand grip. Bending at your knees, hinge at your wait to push your hips back until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Pull the barbell towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked close to your body. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Bent-over Barbell Rows
Why: T-bar rows target similar muscle groups to bent-over barbell rows. It uses a landmine setup with a V-grip handle and allows a more upright posture compared to bent-over rows.
How to do: Position yourself over the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend at your hips and knees and grab the V-grip handle. Pull the weight towards your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do T-bar Rows
Single-arm dumbbell rows
Why: Single-arm dumbbell rows focus on one side your body at a time. This makes it a great option for addressing bilateral muscular imbalances, while still being a beneficial exercise for targeting the lats, rhomboids and lower traps.
How to do: Stand to the side of a flat bench. Place one knee on the bench for support, holding a dumbbell in your other hand. Use an overhand grip (palms facing towards your body). Pull the dumbbell up to your chest. Squeeze at the top, then lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Single-arm Dumbbell Rows
Single-arm cable rows
Why: Single-arm cable rows provide a constant tension through the entire range of motion. This can lead to greater activation of your muscles compared to free weight rows.
How to do: Configure the cable machine with a handle attachment. Stand sideways to the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. Holding the handle in your hand farthest away from the machine, pull it towards you. Squeeze at the end of the movement, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Single-arm Cable Rows
Cable face pulls
Why: Cable face pulls target your rear delts and traps more than other back exercises. Rear delts are often neglected, making cable face pulls a great choice to strengthen these muscles and round out your shoulders.
How to do: Attach a rope handle to a cable machine. Standing back from the machine, hold the rope with both hands with your palms facing each other. Pull the rope towards your face, keeping your elbows raised and flared our during the movement. Squeeze at the end of the motion, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Cable Face Pulls
Why: Lat pulldowns primarily work your latissimus dorsi (lats). This makes it a great choice to strengthen your lats as part of a back and biceps workout. Well-developed lats contributed to the often desired V-shaped back.
How to do: Sit at a lat pulldown machine. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, with your hands at shoulder-width apart on the bar. Pull the bar down towards your chest, keeping your back straight and your elbows close to your body throughout the movement. Squeeze at the end of the motion, then slowly return the bar back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Lat Pulldowns
Wide-grip lat pulldowns
Why: By gripping the bar at more than shoulder-width apart, this variation of the lat pulldown emphasizes your outer lats more. This can help you build thickness in your back and contribute towards the V-shaped back.
How to do: Sit at a lat pulldown machine. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, with your hands more than shoulder-width apart on the bar. Pull the bar down towards your chest, keeping your back straight and your elbows close to your body throughout the movement. Squeeze at the end of the motion, then slowly return the bar back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Wide-grip Lat Pulldowns
Why: In a chin-up, you are lifting your own bodyweight, and this exercises engages your back and biceps, as well as your core and shoulders. Chin-ups are a compound exercise and a great way to improve upper body strength. They are particularly effective for engaging your lats, as well as your biceps.
How to do: Grab a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing towards you. Start by handing from the bar, with your arms fully extended and feet elevated from the ground. Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. Squeeze at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Chin-ups
Why: The main difference with pull-ups is the grip. In a pull-up, your palms are facing away from your body. This simple tweak places greater emphasis on your back muscles (lats) and less emphasis on your biceps.
How to do: Grab a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Start by handing from the bar, with your arms fully extended and feet elevated from the ground. Pull yourself up towards the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. Squeeze at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Pull-ups
Popular bicep exercises
For your bicep exercises, you can include any type of bicep curl. Different variations of bicep curls hit the short and long heads of your biceps differently. They also work your brachialis muscles, which lies beneath your bicep muscles.
Adding the back and biceps workout to your routine
Adding the back and biceps workout between a push and legs day is a great choice for a balanced upper body workout. It ensures the muscles from your push day get enough rest before being worked again.
A typical workout schedule might look like this:
- Day 1 – Push: Chest, shoulders and triceps.
- Day 2 – Pull: Back and biceps
- Day 3 – Legs
Another popular option is the 4 day split, where you work back and biceps on day 2, and move shoulders and abs to day 4. For example:
- Day 1 – Push: Chest and triceps
- Day 2 – Pull: Back and biceps
- Day 3 – Legs
- Day 4 – Shoulders, traps and forearms
Push-pull-legs vs pull-push-legs
The push-pull-legs is the traditional PPL routine that is popular with both beginners and advanced weightlifters. It divides your workout into three parts, each targeting different muscle groups: push day (chest, shoulders and triceps), pull day (back and biceps) and leg day.
Push-pull-legs is the most popular ordering, and allows for adequate recovery between hitting the same muscle groups. Including enough rest and recovery time between exercises is important for progression and reducing the risk of injury.
Some people, however, advocate for swapping the push and pull days. Starting with a back and biceps workout helps to warm up the shoulder muscles (which are worked in both push and pull movements) with less stress. You also benefit from starting with a rested central nervous system (CNS) if you start with back and biceps after a rest day.
Ultimately, choosing between push-pull-legs and pull-push-legs is a personal choice based on your fitness level and goals, as well as your body’s response to your workout. If you are a beginner, you may want to start with the traditional push-pull-legs split. More advanced lifters may want to consider pull-push-legs to prioritize their shoulder health.
Tips for a back and biceps workout routine
Warming up before lifting weight is critical, since it prepares your muscles for strain and enhances blood flow to your muscles. Warming up reduces injury risk, and also improves the flexibility of your muscles and joints.
Avoid excessive fatigue
To avoid excessive central nervous system (CNS) fatigue, prioritize quality of your exercise and workouts rather than their frequency or volume. CNS fatigue can diminish your performance and slow the time it takes for your muscles to recover.
One way to prevent CNS is to start with priming exercises that warm up your muscles and prepares your body for the more vigorous workout.
MacDougall, J. D., Gibala, M. J., Tarnopolsky, M. A., MacDonald, J. R., Interisano, S. A., & Yarasheski, K. E. (1995). The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Canadian journal of applied physiology= Revue canadienne de physiologie appliquee, 20(4), 480-486.