The back (along with legs) is often neglected by trainees because they’re not glamour muscles (i.e. arms, chest, abs), and simply put, it is hard work to train these muscle groups! However, not only does a thick wide back fill out a t-shirt nicely giving you the “powerful” look, but if you decide to compete, it is well known that “shows are won from the back”! Even if bodybuilding is not your thing and you’re aiming for the men’s physique look, you need to display muscle when you turn around. A thin back with your spinal column protruding won’t get you very far!
How many times have you heard someone say they “can’t do deadlifts or heavy back exercises because they hurt my back”? To this statement, I usually point out that I broke my spine from T7-T12, lost two disks and still can train my back hard and heavy! The reason most people end up hurting their backs is due to two things: using poor form while performing the exercises and not warming up correctly. Here’s a surefire approach to back training that will get you results if you’re willing to put in the work.
Warming Up: Take a foam roller and lay on it length wise so that the roller runs along your spine. Allow the very bottom of your head to be supported by the end of the roller. Cross your arms and rock from side to side five times; this opens the muscularity up for the work to come. Reach down towards your toes with outstretched arms. Once you feel a stretch through your back hold that position for two seconds. Repeat this ten times. Perform a snow angel movement where your palms face up. Your elbows should touch the side of your torso at the bottom of each rep and your hands should nearly touch at the top. Keep a slight bend in your arms during the movement and perform this ten times. Now do a double arm back stroke. Hands start at your side with your fingers pointing towards your toes and then with straight arms bring them up and back so that the fingers point away from your head. Perform this ten times. Finally, do the back stroke movement one arm at a time while rotating your head in the opposite direction (just like you would when performing a back stroke while swimming); do this ten times. After this, stand up and take a resistance band and with straight arms held out in front of the body and pull the band apart until it touches the chest. You need to use a band that allows for 20-30 perfect reps before you reach failure. Perform 3-5 sets to failure. You will know you have done enough once your upper back has a tight pump from rear delt to rear delt.
Widening the Back: I start my workouts with an exercise for width. Width basically refers to training the latissimus dorsi, but in reality your entire back will receive some stimulation. I usually opt for weighted pull ups or reverse grip pull downs (especially if I have a Hammer Strength pulldown available). In order to fully activate your back, maintain a slight arch in your low back at all times. While pulling up or pulling down focus on pushing your chest up towards the bar. If you allow your chest to collapse downwards your arms will do the brunt of the work; you don’t want this! A good mental cue is to think about pulling your elbows down and back instead of pulling from your hands. This helps activate the back and limit arm involvement. It’s OK to lean back slightly during each rep, but don’t start swinging back and forth. I will normally perform 2-4 warm up sets of 10 reps just to engage my muscles for the work to come. Then I look to achieve failure for the following 3-5 sets in the 12-20 repetition range. Yes, this may seem like a lot of repetitions per set, but I have found this is the best way to engorge the back with blood and that is important. Adding a drop set in for your final set is often a good idea. In this case, I like to drop the repetitions down to 5-8 per drop and perform 2 drops in total so that the entire set has 15-24 reps. This drop set allows for heavier weights to be used, but makes sure the back receives enough time under tension which is very important for hypertrophy!
Thickening the Back: The second exercise will be a deadlift variation. I rotate through the following variations: pulling from the floor, pulling while standing on a 2-4 inch block, pulling from inside the power rack setting the bar 2 inches beneath the knee, constant tension deadlifts (lower the bar until it’s 6 inches above the floor then drive back up) and snatch grip deadlifts (always use straps when performing these). Using the correct form is imperative because if you use poor form you will not only fail to stimulate the muscle but you also risk injury! For all variations except the snatch grip, let your arms hang straight down. This is where you grab the bar. Many people imagine they’re much wider than they actually are which results in too wide a hand spacing. Position your legs exactly inside your arms (note: high rep sets will often result with friction burns on your forearm where your arm drags closely along your legs). Positioning of your back can vary, but if you’re not used to round backed deadlifting you should just stick to what I advise here! Keep a flat, low back at all times (a slight arch is fine; just don’t exaggerate it). Your head stays neutral throughout the lift; don’t go from looking up to looking down when you switch from lifting to lowering the weight or you will get hurt! Keep your arms straight as they’re only hooks; you are not pulling with your arm muscles! Build tension against the bar with your entire body and then squeeze (not jerk) the weight off the floor. Drive with determination up to lockout, hold it briefly at the top with a straight back (do not lean back at the lockout!), lower and repeat. Perform 3-5 progressively heavier warm up sets keeping your repetitions low (3-5 will be ample) until you’re prepared for the working sets. Do 2-3 heavy sets in the 6-10 rep range and then one back down set (reduce the weight sufficiently) for 15-20 repetitions. It’s important that you push every set hard, but you should stop each one rep short of failure. Achieving failure is very important for many exercises, but it’s asking for an injury where deadlifts are concerned! So rep away until you realize that the next rep will become a grinder (slow moving with a high chance of your form breaking down) and stop there.
Completing the Back: I always include a horizontal rowing movement in my back workouts. Pick an exercise where you get a full range of motion. I generally opt for a palms facing, narrow grip cable row or a single arm hammer row. You want a slight arch in your back at all times; focus on driving your chest up and your elbows back behind your body. Prior to initiating the pull, shrug your scapula back then, while holding your scapula together, row the weight. Once you have lowered the weight back down, release the scapula and repeat on every rep. Be forewarned: you won’t use as much weight as you did previously on your rows, but your back will grow fast! Doing 2-3 warm up sets of 10 repetitions should suffice at this stage. Then perform 3-5 working sets achieving failure in the 8-12 repetition range. Some people find they achieve the best stretch and contraction if they use a true rowing motion (leaning forward at the bottom of the rep and then straightening back up at the contraction). Personally I don’t do this as I find it unneeded, but if you find you get better activation please feel free to use a looser form. Just always make sure not to lean back at the contraction of each rep as this is a clear sign you’re using a weight that is too heavy to handle!
You should strive to get stronger on all exercises, but remember, adding weight is only one method of progression! If you perform 11 reps to failure when last time you only hit 10 reps, that is getting stronger! If you make the negatives slower (i.e. the entire set now lasts 45 seconds before you reach failure at 10 reps when last time you reached failure at 40 seconds and 10 reps) you got stronger! If you reduced the rest periods between sets, but otherwise hit the exact same number of reps using the same tempo and form, you got stronger! The take home point here is that you have to do better than you did on the previous workout!
Of course, this is just a basic blue print to develop your back, but trust me, this will take you a long way! Here at DECON, we have so many methods and tricks to force your lagging back (or any other stubborn body part) to grow. All you need is the COMMITMENT, DISIPLINE and DEDICATION to put in the work to get you there.
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