The key to the visual impression of a V-shaped back comes from mid- to upper-back width combined with a narrow waist. Creating this impression requires development of specific parts of the back’s muscularity in addition to a reduction in fat around the waist.
Back width is dominated by the latissimus dorsi as they have a pronounced position on the upper and outer regions of the human torso. The lats sweep up from their first attachment point towards the center of the lower back to their second at the back of the armpits.
A wide back coming from well-developed lats also lends itself to the strength for hanging by the hands, leg-free vertical climbs, and pulling or swinging like an ape or a monkey; this muscle is responsible for downward pulling movements of the upper body. Two shoulder articulations have to be trained in order to work the lats directly: adduction and extension.
Shoulder adduction is medial movement of the upper arm toward the midline of the body; in other words, drawing the elbows down along one’s sides in an arc. Of interest to those desiring a wide back, this movement utilizes primarily the latissimus dorsi and secondarily the teres major.
Pull-ups and pull-downs are excellent exercises for shoulder adduction. These are principal, compound, pulling movements traditionally thought of and categorized as back exercises. It’s very important to do these with your thumbs facing inwards in order to keep the muscular demand on the lats. When the thumbs are facing out, it’s called a chin-up, and that shifts the muscular demand to the biceps.
Pull-ups are calisthenics but can cross the line and become designated “free weight” exercises if you add resistance, such as wearing a weighted vest or backpack or suspending a plate from a chain around the waist. Start each pull-up from a full hang, allowing the lats to stretch out, and attempt to raise your chin above the bar.
Shoulder extension is the second important articulation. Extension is straightening the shoulder joint resulting in an increase of angle (at the front of the shoulder). Think of having your hands held high like you’re surrendering, then moving your upper arm downward to the hips. This movement utilizes primarily the latissimus dorsi and secondarily employs the teres major
Flexion of the shoulder can be exercised via the pullover. This is an auxiliary, isolated, pulling and pushing movement sometimes thought of as a chest exercise; but, the effect of pullovers on the lats is undeniable.
Don’t Discount the Teres Major
The teres major is muscle of the upper and outer back that, if well developed in its position above the lats, contributes to the “V” back. Working the lats through pull-ups and pull-downs will also work the teres major; but, we can target it via scapula and clavicle adduction.
Scapula and clavicle adduction is backward movement (i.e., retraction) of the scapula (i.e., shoulder blades) toward the spine during retraction of the shoulder girdle. Adduction of the scapula and clavicle is activated by rowing movements – like the seated cable row or the bent-over row. The bent-over row is a principal, compound, pulling movement traditionally thought of and categorized as a back exercises intended to enhance the depth and thickness of the back; but, it will add to width as well.
Narrow Waist to Create Distinction
The “V” will not be as prominent unless a wide back is matched to a narrow waist. So, if you have one, lose the proverbial spare tire and stay lean.