The Ultimate Back and Biceps Workout for Every Lifter From Beginner to Advanced

Pairing your back and biceps in one workout has been a classic muscle-building session for decades. It’s a time-tested approach that’s reliable, effective, and it simply makes sense — the majority of rowing and pulling-type movements that target your back also recruit your biceps.

Muscular man performing dumbbell row exercise in gym
Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Even when your biceps aren’t getting a major stimulus from some back exercises, they’re getting warmed up and slightly pre-fatigued for the latter part of the workout, when you can finish them off with some direct biceps training.

It’s a match made in heaven and many body part split programs would be incomplete without a solid back and biceps day. Here are some of the best back and biceps workouts to add size and strength whether you’re new to the gym or think you’ve tried it all.

Back and Biceps Workouts

Beginner Back and Biceps Workout

The goal with beginner-level training is to get strong and do so with a low barrier of entry, using exercises that can be relatively easily mastered. Many lifters who are new to the gym gravitate toward training their back using barbell rows. While the barbell can be a great tool for back training, it’s often skill-intensive and highly fatiguing, especially for beginners.

Base-Building Back and Biceps

This back and biceps workout routine uses exercises that are relatively simple to learn and more appropriate for establishing a base of strength and muscle. When you focus on the target muscles and apply strict technique, you’ll also give your  pulling muscles a gnarly pump by the end of the session. Technically, if you had to label your workout in detail, it could be considered a “back, biceps, and shoulders workout” because you’re also giving some direct attention to the rear head of the shoulder muscle.

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

The bent-over dumbbell row delivers a strong back-building stimulus without taxing your spinal erectors (lower back) like a barbell row often can. Avoid swinging your torso to move the weight.

How to Do it: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms straight down by your sides. Bend your legs slightly and hinge forward at your hips while keeping your back neutral, not rounded. Let the weights reach toward your toes with your hands facing each other. Drive your elbow back past your ribs and try to feel a contraction in your back muscles. Return the weights to the stretched position before repeating. Maintain the same hip angle throughout the exercise.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: 60 to 90 seconds between sets

Close-Grip Lat Pulldown

The close-grip lat pulldown will help stretch your lats and hit them in a way the row didn’t. Mixing vertical pulling (like the lat pulldown) with horizontal pulling (like rows) is a very effective way to target the multiple muscles of your back.

How to Do it: Attach a neutral-grip (palms facing each other) to the pulldown cable. Grab the handles and sit, allowing your arms to straighten and stretch overhead. Plant your feet flat and secure your knees under any available pad. Keep your upper body nearly vertical, with a slight backward lean. Drive your elbows down until the bar is generally near your face or chin. Control the stretch as you return to the arms-overhead position.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: 60 to 90 seconds between sets

Machine Reverse Flye

The machine reverse flye will torch your rear deltoids. Although the rear delts are technically part of your shoulder muscle, the rear muscle head is involved in many back exercises. Training them directly as part of a back and biceps routine makes sense because your rear delts, like your biceps, are pre-fatigued after training your back.

How to Do it: Sit with your chest braced against the pad in a reverse flye (or “reverse pec-deck”) machine. Grab the handles with a thumbs-up grip with your hands at shoulder-level in front of you. Keep a slight bend in your elbows. Pull your hands back until they’re in line with your shoulders to the side. Don’t “overpull” to reach your hands behind your body. Return your hands to the forward position without letting the weights slam onto the stack.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: One minute between sets

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

The alternating dumbbell curl lets you focus on each arm individually, so you get some serious bang for your biceps training buck. The slight supination (turning of the wrist) helps to recruit more overall biceps muscle, including your brachioradialis, making the exercise a top notch biceps-builder.

How to Do it: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging down at your sides. Bring your left hand up in a thumbs-up position. As your hand passes your hips, turn your hand palm up and continue curling until the weight is near shoulder-level. Reverse the motion to return the weight to your side. Repeat the movement with your right hand. Alternate arms with each repetition.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-20 per arm

Rest Time: 45 to 60 seconds between sets

How to Progress

As a beginner, your goal is to learn proper form with simple movements while getting stronger. As long as your compound (multi-joint) exercises get stronger while using good technique, you should be building muscle in all the right places.

Keep pushing each set until you eventually reach the end of the rep range. Once you reach that ceiling, increase the load and repeat the process, but only do so if your form remains strict. Don’t develop a habit of cheating just to move the weight. Once your loads have increased significantly, roughly 30% or more, you can jump into the next program.

Once you’ve reached the intermediate stage — you’re feeling more skilled in the gym and your shirts have filled out with a bit of muscle — it can be tempting to start “ego lifting,” especially if you start to notice the bigger lifters in the gym swinging around weights when they row. Don’t do that. It can get you injured and, actually, doesn’t stimulate your back well as using crisp, strict technique.

Keep your form dialed in and you should feel your back working deeply across the targeted muscle fibers, allowing you to trigger growth. The same principle applies to your biceps — no swinging. Let your biceps do the work, not your ego. Elbow flexion, not momentum, will grow arms.

Back and Biceps Workout with New Angles

As you transition to an intermediate lifter, you can likely handle some more volume as long as you’re eating enough nutrients to recover and grow. It’s also a good time to introduce some variety to prevent overuse injuries while also stimulating muscle regions in different ways. (1) This back and biceps gym workout uses a few different movements to target your muscles.

The chest-supported row is a great first exercise of the day. It’s stable and doesn’t require as much warming up as a free-standing row. The stability helps you focus on your back. The single-arm rows allow you to take advantage of unilateral (single-arm) strength-building, because you can lift more with one arm than trying to lift two dumbbells together. This unilateral focus also helps to correct any imbalances you may have.

The incline dumbbell curl stretches your biceps more than the standing movement, which elicits a large growth response. (2) The stretched movement may also impose more soreness due to the increased range of motion, but you should be able to handle that now that you’ve got more experience under your belt.

Chest-Supported Row

This movement fully supports your upper body and essentially removes your lower back from the equation, making it a strict back-building exercise with few limitations. The chest-supported row is an excellent way to begin a back-focused training day because your lats and larger back muscles are doing the work without fatiguing your low back.

How to Do it: Lay chest-down on a supported bench and grab the handles with a palm-down grip. Unrack the weight before pulling the bar up as high as possible. Pause briefly in the contracted position before lowering the weight to a full stretch.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: 60 to 90 seconds between sets

Wide-Grip Pulldown

This movement is one of the most fundamental pulldown variations. The emphasis on a long overhead stretch with a strong contraction makes the wide-grip pulldown an essential player is many back workouts.

How to Do it: Attach a long bar to a pulldown station. Take a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width and sit down. Secure your knees under any pads and allow your arms to extend straight overhead. Keep your torso mostly upright and drive your elbows down, pulling the bar to nearly chin level. Pause briefly before returning to an overhead position.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: 60 to 90 seconds between sets

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

The single-arm dumbbell row is a classic back-training exercise. Mastering this movement is an essential for long-term back development. It allows you to target your back muscles, one side at at time, while drastically reducing lower back stress.

How to Do it: Grab a dumbbell in one hand, with your palm facing in toward your body. Brace your non-working hand on a flat bench or on the same side knee. Drive your arm up and back until the dumbbell is near your ribs. Pause briefly for a maximum contraction before lowering to a full stretch. Perform all reps with one arm before switching sides.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: No rest between arms, one minute between sets

Cable Rear Delt Flye

Targeting your rear delts with cables instead of a machine increases the time under tension, which can improve the muscle-building stimulus. (3) This unique movement lets you get more benefit from relatively less weight.

How to Do it: Stand in the middle of a double cable station with a high pulley with each hand grabbing the cable from the opposite side. Flex your abs and bend your knees slightly. Keep a slight bend in your arms as you draw your elbows down and back. In the full contraction, your arms should be slightly behind your torso. Return to the stretched position, with your arms crossed in front of your body.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15

Rest Time: 45 to 60 seconds between sets

Incline Dumbbell Curl

The incline dumbbell curl is a powerful choice for a biceps exercise. The intense stretch and focused contraction creates a major trigger for muscle growth. Be sure to prioritize technique over heavy loads — if done properly, relatively light weights can feel extremely heavy. Resist the urge to cheat.

How to Do it: Set an adjustable bench to roughly 45-degrees. Lay back while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Rest your head, shoulders, and back on the bench pad. Allow your arms to hang straight with your palms facing forward. Curl the weight up while moving only your hand and the dumbbell — don’t let your elbow, upper arm, or head move. When you’ve reach the highest position possible without moving your elbow or upper arm, slower lower the weight to a full stretch.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15

Rest Time: 45 to 60 seconds between sets

How to Progress 

Once you are able to hit the end of the rep range for an exercise, increase the load in the next workout. It’s basic, bread and butter progression. There’s no need to overcomplicate things. You keep form strict and, as long as you eat enough while getting stronger, your arms will expand and your back will eventually get its own zip code.

Advanced Back and Biceps Workout

Now that you are even stronger, you need to periodize to new variations along with adding lifting straps. What often happens with advanced lifters is that their grip and forearms can become a limiting factor during back exercises, leaving progress-building reps untapped in each set.

At this stage of development, your back should be significantly stronger than your smaller forearm muscles. Strategically using lifting straps can prevent your forearms from fatiguing while allowing you to impose more stimulating reps to your back and biceps.

Back and Bi’s for Experienced Lifters

As an advanced lifter, you need to be more specific about hitting all regions of your back. The barbell row is extremely comprehensive and skill-intensive, so it becomes the first exercise in the workout. Vertical pulling is next to more thoroughly target your lats. At this point, you should be strong enough to do at least five strict pull-ups. If not, stick to lat pulldowns and figure out whether it’s a lack of strength or an excess of body weight hindering your pull-up progress.

The Jefferson curl is a unique movement added to train your spinal erectors from top to bottom. This unconventional exercise sometimes gets a bad rap because it requires a rounded back, which is usually warned against, but your spine was designed to move and these types of controlled, dynamic contractions grow your muscles best.

If you want a thick, back-dominant look in both your upper and lower back, Jefferson curls can be a secret weapon. It should go without saying, do them with control and don’t load your ego. The workout wraps up with the addition of the barbell wrist curl. Since you’ll be using straps, which supplements your gripping strength, your forearms will benefit from some isolation to keep them growing.

Barbell Row

Sometimes considered the definitive back exercise, the bent-over barbell row can be a key player in building size and strength. Don’t let the ability to move heavy weight tempt you into cheating the technique. Keep your form strict and don’t bounce or swing weight.

How to Do it: Stand in front of a loaded barbell with a stable shoulder-width stance. Hinge at your hips and grab the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width. Brace your core and explode the weight up toward your lower ab region, below your belly button. Try to pause very briefly before lowering the weight with control.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: Two minutes between sets

Pull-Up

The pull-up is a classic bodyweight exercise. In many training circles, your pull-up performance is second only to your bench press ability as a measure of your true experience and aptitude in the gym.

How to Do it: Grab an overhead pull-up bar using a shoulder-width grip, with your palms facing away from your body. Flex your abs and keep your body in a generally straight line — resist the urge to “kick” your legs up as you lift. Pull your chest toward the bar and lean slightly back. When your mouth or chin is near bar-level, lower yourself to full extension (a straight-arm stretched position) with control. Don’t free fall into the bottom.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 5-10

Rest Time: Two minutes between sets

Jefferson Curl

The Jeferson curl is performed contrary to one overriding weight training rule — here, you’re supposed to allow your back to round during the exercise. During most other movements like squats, deadlifts, and rows, proper technique usually involves keeping a stiff and neutral spine. During the Jefferson curl, the goal is to deliberately round your spine (under full control, of course).

How to Do it: Stand with a light barbell in your hands, with straight arms resting in front of your body. Lean forward at the waist and imagine curling each individual vertebrae down as you reach toward your feet. Keep your arms straight and keep the bar close to your legs. When you’ve reached the end of your flexibility, “uncurl” slowly to return to a standing position.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 5-10

Rest Time: One minute between sets

Cable Rear Delt Flye

The cable rear delt flye remains a reliable, high-intensity way to finish off your rear deltoids at the end of your workout for back and biceps. Keep your form strict and focus on feeling your delts doing the work.

How to Do it: Stand in the middle of a double cable station with a high pulley with each hand grabbing the cable from the opposite side. Flex your abs and bend your knees slightly. Keep a slight bend in your arms as you draw your elbows down and back. In the full contraction, your arms should be slightly behind your torso. Return to the stretched position, with your arms crossed in front of your body.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: One minute between sets

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Blast your biceps with the incline dumbbell curl. The intense stretch and hard contraction make it an excellent choice for zeroing in on your arms.

How to Do it: Set an adjustable bench to roughly 45-degrees. Lay back while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Rest your head, shoulders, and back on the bench pad. Allow your arms to hang straight with your palms facing forward. Curl the weight up while moving only your hand and the dumbbell — don’t let your elbow, upper arm, or head move. When you’ve reach the highest position possible without moving your elbow or upper arm, slower lower the weight to a full stretch.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 8-12

Rest Time: One minute between sets

Barbell Wrist Curl

Work your forearms (specifically, your wrist flexors) with the barbell wrist curl. The targeted movement will give some attention to your forearm muscles, which could potentially be understimulated when using lifting straps during heavier back exercises.

How to Do it: Set up on a flat bench with an underhand (palm-up) grip on a barbell. Support your forearms across the bench. Extend your wrists down to lower the weight, allowing the bar to roll toward your fingertips. Curl your hand closed and bring your wrists up without lifting your forearms from the bench. It’s a relatively short range of motion, so focus on applying tension without swinging.

Sets and Reps: 3 x 10-15

Rest Time: 45 to 60 seconds between sets

How to Progress 

Progression is the same as before — Train hard, don’t swing any weights, and add reps or load each week.

If you can match or beat your rep performance, that’s great. Once you get to the highest end of the rep range, add load the following week. If you’re lifting heavy, but find yourself getting fatigued and losing performance, you may need to deload at some point.

But for the most part, continual growth comes down to continual strength increase with constant nutrient intake. Just be cautious when it comes to progressing pull-ups. It’s tempting to justify reps that swing around, which can end up adding load hastily.

Focus on your form most weeks and only count reps that are performed under controlled. Once you get to 10 strict pull-up reps, add five to 10 pounds, reduce the reps back to five, and keep going.

Benefits of a Back and Biceps Workout

While each type of body part split or potential workout setup can have its own benefits, there are a few distinct reasons to consider planning a back and biceps day in your weekly training split.

Happier Joints and Better Posture

People with strong backs who do more pulling exercises have happier, healthier joints. When you bench or overhead press excessively and don’t balance your musculature with rows, pulldowns, or pull-ups, your shoulders can get cranky. (4)

muscular person outdoors doing pull-ups
Credit: Natalie magic / Shutterstock

Your joints and connective tissues begin to beg for more rowing and a stronger back. This can create a healthier spine, improve joint function, and promote better posture.

You Get Good at Moving Stuff

Sure, nobody wants to be “that friend” everyone in the group hits up when they need help moving, but the alternative is worse — being the friend nobody contacts to help them move because they’re scared you’ll snap in half.

That’s where a consistent back and biceps day comes in. You’ll simply be more capable through everyday life, and moving furniture will feel like child’s play. Beyond the practical benefits, building strength in your back, biceps, and grip can carry over to boost performance in the gym — everything from more obvious exercises like farmer’s walks and deadlifts to overhead pressing, where a stronger back helps to provide upper body stability.

Build Some Eye-Catching Muscle

Many people rightly associate biceps training as being essential for a more aesthetic physique. While the chest, abs, and even shoulders are often considered other contenders for attention-grabbing body parts, a well-muscled back can take your muscularity to the next level and create an undeniably athletic and powerful look.

By training your back and arms, you fill out any T-shirt better, as opposed to looking like a malnourished college freshman swimming in baggy clothes. A big back can also make your waist look relatively smaller in comparison, in case you’re still working to shed a bit of extra fluff.

Back and Biceps Basic Anatomy

Here’s a brief rundown of all the muscles you’ll be hitting with each back and biceps workout. Yes, you’re training “the back” and “the biceps,” but there’s a bit more detail to consider.

Trapezius

The traps are a diamond-shaped muscle that takes up a large part of your upper back. It spans from your mid-neck to just below your shoulder blades. The trapezius has many muscle fibers and several “sections” — the upper traps, mid-traps and lower traps — but a variety of horizontal and vertical pulling will hit the muscle in its entirety. The main function is scapular retraction (pulling your shoulder blades together), so rowing exercises will be particularly useful.

Lats

The latissimus dorsi, or lats, are another big muscle group. It takes up the outer parts of your mid-back, spanning up to your armpits and down toward the start of your lower back. The lats are often notorious for giving you that wide look.

Muscular man performing lat pulldown in gym
Credit: martvisionlk / Shutterstock

Some lifters regard the lats as the wingspan muscle because people can see your back gains from the front thanks to your lats. Not to mention, it makes your waist look smaller as well. Any vertical pulling exercises, like all pulldown exercises, hit the lats with a strong contraction and long stretch.

Spinal Erectors

These are two long, thick beams that run from the top of your back to the bottom, including what’s typically referred to as your “lower back”. Similar to the traps, your spinal erectors get stimulated with nearly every back exercise because they’re involved in controlling posture near the hips. They’re trained directly as the primary focus during Jefferson curls or any pulling or hip hinging exercise where you are actively arching your back.

Rhomboids

Your rhomboids are relatively smaller back muscles that attach at your mid-spine and sit partially under your scapula, creating part of your upper back musculature. The rhomboids aid in scapular retraction, in a similar role to the traps, and they help your posture look better. All horizontal rowing will hit the rhomboids well, especially if you focus on pulling your elbows back to allow your scapulae to squeeze together.

Rear Deltoids 

The rear deltoids are the back head of your shoulders. Developing this relatively smaller muscle can makes your overall back look more complete, along with “rounding out” the appearance of your shoulders.

People who often ignore or underappreciate back training usually have lagging shoulders, as well. All pulling exercises where your elbow travels behind your body, like many types of rows, will hit the rear delts.

Some lifters argue that the rear delts don’t really need direct training as long as you have enough back volume each week, but well-planned isolation work never hurts, especially if you want to focus on building a specific body part.

Biceps

Your “biceps” actually consists of three related muscles: the biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis.

The biceps brachii is the spotlight “biceps” muscle consisting of two heads, a long head and short head. Both are visible and create what most people consider the biceps on their upper arm. You can’t see any distinct separation between the two heads unless you’re incredibly lean or incredibly muscled.

The brachialis is a smaller muscle that sits between your biceps and triceps. It’s rarely ever visible due to its anatomical location, but it creates arm size by “lifting” your biceps. Unless you’re very heavily muscles or as lean as a competitive bodybuilder, you’re not likely to see the muscle itself.

The last big player in the biceps game is the brachioradialis. It sits at the top of your upper forearms and rotates your wrists to a neutral (thumbs up) position, along with helping to flex your elbows. It’s more visible than the brachialis and, when developed, can help to fill out your sleeves, especially near the forearm area.

All of the aforementioned biceps muscles primarily work at elbow flexion (bending your arms), so these muscles get trained with every row and pulldown, as well as with any type of curl. This is why, if you’re getting stronger on a variety of back exercises and adding some hard curls, you don’t need many sets of biceps training to see big results.

Time For Some Back and Biceps

Time to start applying these workouts for back and biceps. Take an honest assessment of your experience level and get working on your rows, pulldowns, and curls. You’ve seen the most efficient ways to plan these back and biceps exercises, so get into the gym and get growing. Your back will widen and your arms will expand. Your upper body will look more impressive, and you might even notice that your physique is getting a few you extra admirers as a side effect.

References 

  1. Kassiano, Witalo1; Nunes, João Pedro1; Costa, Bruna1; Ribeiro, Alex S.1,2; Schoenfeld, Brad J.3; Cyrino, Edilson S.1. Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 36(6):p 1753-1762, June 2022. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000004258
  2. Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13375
  3. Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J., Hector, A. J., Cashaback, J. G., Gibala, M. J., Potvin, J. R., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of physiology590(2), 351–362. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200
  4. Cools, A. M., Witvrouw, E. E., Mahieu, N. N., & Danneels, L. A. (2005). Isokinetic Scapular Muscle Performance in Overhead Athletes With and Without Impingement Symptoms. Journal of athletic training40(2), 104–110.

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