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6 Old School Back Workouts (From Classic Bodybuilders)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Last updated: April 18, 2023

Your back muscles are crucial for your posture, spine stability, and overall physical performance.

I’ve reviewed photos of classic bodybuilders and watched a dozen of interviews to examine their training methods.

Here, I will guide you through the best back workouts inspired by some golden-age bodybuilding legends.

I will also provide factors to help you step up your back workout.

Quick Summary

  • The best old-school back exercises include barbell deadlifts, wide grip pull-ups, seated cable rows, bent-over barbell rows, and wide grip pull-downs.
  • Factors to consider to build a strong back include low body fat percentage and good muscle development of the back’s superficial muscles.
  • Old-school bodybuilders trained their back twice per week, leaving enough time between the two training sessions for proper recovery.

6 Best Old School Back Workouts

Lifting barbell for back muscles

1. Seated Cable Row

The seated cable rows target the lats, rhomboids between your shoulder blades, and traps [1].

The cables put your back muscles under immense tension, stimulating and maintaining muscle mass [2].

How to do it:

  1. Put the weight on your preferred setting.
  2. Sit on the bench of the cable machine with knees bent and grasp the cable attachment. Keep your arms straight.
  3. Place your feet on the pads with knees slightly bent so you reach to grab the handle.
  4. Straighten the back and pull the cable toward your torso.
  5. Pause for three seconds while squeezing your shoulder blades together, then extend your arms to return to your starting position, keeping your back straight.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

2. Barbell Deadlifts

Deadlifts are intended to develop the strength and size of the erector spinae and lower back muscles.

How to do barbell deadlifts:

  1. Grab a loaded barbell with an overhand grip.
  2. Stand with your feet a few inches wider than your hips.
  3. Lift the bar by driving hips forward.
  4. Slowly squat down, maintaining a neutral spine throughout this movement.
  5. Repeat until you reach the desired amount of reps.

“When starting out, practice with a light weight until ​your form is satisfactory. A personal trainer or gym trainer can check you for the correct form. Practice in a mirror if necessary. You can add weight as your fitness increases, but it's better to do so modestly so you don't strain your muscles.”

- Paul Rogers, Editor at

3. Bent-Over Rows

Bent over row exercises

This is another upper body exercise that can efficiently work your upper back, lats, traps, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids.

Using barbell rows has been shown to work the core better than machine rows [3].

How to do this exercise:

  1. Stand with a barbell in front, feet shoulder-width apart, and your toes pointed slightly outwards.
  2. Lean forward by hanging your hips back with knees slightly bent to grab the barbell with an overhand grip.
  3. Lift the weight toward your torso, keeping your back straight and at a 45-degree angle to the ground.
  4. Pause briefly before lowering the barbell to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat until you reach the desired amount of reps.

4. Wide Grip Pull-Downs

This exercise primarily works the back’s largest muscle group: the latissimus dorsi, also known as the lats.

They are essential for all pulling workouts and provide support for the spine.

How to do it:

  1. Adjust the pull-down machine to your preferred weight.
  2. Adjust the knee pad so it sits on your thighs and minimizes movement.
  3. Hold the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip and the palms of your hands facing forward.
  4. Bring the bar down until it reaches your upper chest level.
  5. Pause for three seconds at the bottom contracted position, and slowly raise the bar to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat until you reach the desired amount of reps.

5. Wide Grip Pull-Ups

Performing wide grip pull ups

This pull-up bar exercise activates the upper traps, arms, chest, and shoulder muscles.

Some of the biggest names in the bodybuilding industry use this exercise without putting on extra weight, as the goal is to improve blood flow.

How to do it:

  1. Approach the pull-up bar and grab it with an overhand grip.
  2. Allow your legs to hang, elevate the chest to engage your lower lats, and keep your chin tucked throughout the movement.
  3. Pull yourself up using your arms and back. Your elbows should be pointed out to the sides.
  4. Once your collarbone reaches the pull-up bar, pause for one to three seconds, then slowly lower your body back to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat until you reach the desired repetitions, maintaining a straight line from your head to your hips.

“The wide-grip pullup is an effective exercise to strengthen the back and shoulders, since the motion contracts the latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle of the upper body.”

- Allen Conrad, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

6. Dumbbell Rows

The Dumbbell Row is another effective strength training exercise for building strong arms and back muscles.

How to do them: 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, engage the core, bend at the waist until your chest is nearly parallel to the floor.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in one hand while resting on the opposite knee for support.
  3. Bring the weight up to your hip, keeping the elbow close to your body.
  4. Lower it back to the starting position – repeating as desired.

What Are Important Factors for Back Muscle Gains? 

Back muscle exercise for muscle gains

The most important factors for back muscle gains are feeling the muscle/mind connection and incorporating various exercises, a healthy diet, and adequate rest periods.

  • Focus on Muscle/Mind Connection - The connection between your mind and body allows you to focus on your muscle group. It ensures that you are performing exercises with proper form.
  • Time Under Tension (TUT) - Old-school bodybuilders focus on TUT to increase the overall stress their muscles experience during a workout, boosting muscle hypertrophy.
  • Incorporating Various Exercises - Single and multi-joint exercises multiple times weekly are critical for continued muscle growth. Switching grips during workouts can help target different muscles from various angles, which prevents plateaus.
  • Adding Supersets with Lighter Weights - Old school male bodybuilders incorporated them into their workouts to increase their metabolism, maintain their muscles, and burn excess fat.
  • Including Rest Periods - There should be adequate rest periods between workouts so that your muscles can recover and become stronger than before [4]. It is also essential to prioritize sleep for muscle recovery and growth.
  • Protein-rich Diet - Proper nutrition is essential for long-term gains in back muscle strength. Eating lean proteins such as chicken, fish, lean beef, or plant proteins will help your body repair after strenuous workouts and build the strong muscles you aim for [5].
  • Consume More Calories - To prioritize muscle gains, you must eat enough calories to gain and maintain muscle mass, whether lean meats, whole grains, or healthy fats.
  • Add Supplements - The best supplements for muscle gain are protein powders, quality creatine, and top amino acid supplements.


What Are the Best Old School Back Exercises?

The best old-school back exercises are barbell deadlifts, wide grip pull-ups, seated cable rows, bent-over barbell rows, and wide grip pull-downs.

How Many Times Did Old-School Bodybuilders Train Their Back?

Old school bodybuilders trained their backs twice weekly as a six-day split routine allowed them to recover and not overtrain their muscles.

Build and Maintain Your Back Muscles

You can achieve noticeable gains by adding 3-5 of the exercises above into your workout routine by training your back with at least one or two weekly workouts.

To get the best results, incorporate a healthy diet including sufficient protein, or consider trying one of our top picks of protein powders below:

We determined through our tests that these supplements can improve muscle recovery and strength when paired with an effective workout routine.


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