Back to Basics

Pumped up pecs and “ripped abz” may look great in a cheesy cell phone
self-portrait, but a big, beefy back gets noticed from all angles.

As someone who spends 50-plus hours a week in the gym, my fashion choices don’t extend much past T-shirts, shorts, and track pants and maybe the odd pair of Sunday afternoon blue jeans. Yet even meatheads like me occasionally get invited to non-fitness social gatherings, meaning that once or twice a year I find myself fumbling around in “normal people” stores trying to find clothes that don’t make me look like a reject from a Jersey Shore episode.

You guys know the drill: you finally find something that’s a fit in the shoulders and it’s swimming around the stomach yet still too tight in the arms. As for the back — especially when trying on jackets off the rack — forget about it! As much as it annoys me that I can’t just grab-and-go like a normal shopper, I admit to feeling a touch of pride when I try on a jacket or shirt and the seams almost burst at the lats. Sure, it might mean an extra trip to the tailor, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The back is the true measuring stick for the bodybuilder. Though 19-inch arms and heroic pecs may look great in a tank top, a wide and thick back is the ultimate symbol of time spent toiling under heavy iron. You can’t hide a big back even if you wanted to. On stage, it’s the obvious focus in all poses from the rear, but the lats, traps, and posterior delts also contribute to varying degrees in both front and side poses. On the street, it’s equally conspicuous. Calves, arms, and abs can be easily hidden by clothes, but stand behind a well-developed bodybuilder in line at the grocery store and the width of his back says one thing: I move iron.

A well-designed back program doesn’t just make you look good, it also helps to prevent injury. Most rookie trainees are so mirror-focused that their programs often consist of 75% pushing and curling exercises with the odd set of fist-pumps thrown in for good measure. Not only will such haphazard programming build an aesthetically challenged physique, it can result in shoulder problems, strength imbalances, and a posture resembling a Neanderthal scouring the ground for a lost Paleo-Puff.

Massive lats and traps provide the visual “pop” of a huge back.

Building the back takes work. A few sets of lat pulldowns before calling it a day won’t cut it – the back is a complex group of muscles that requires intelligent programming, significant volume, and gut-busting intensity. If you don’t feel smashed after a back workout, then either something is wrong with the program or you left your intestinal fortitude at the dinner table. This article will help you with the programming part; as for the guts, you’re on your own.

In my esteemed opinion, the following are the top back-building exercises that should appear frequently in every bodybuilder’s training journal:

Chin-ups and Pull-ups – Just so we’re on the same page, a chin-up is performed with a supinated grip (palms facing you) while pull-ups refer to use of a pronated grip (palms facing away from you). There’s also a semi-supinated or neutral grip in which the palms face one another, such as V-handle chins. For further variety, you can also vary the distance between the hands (wide, medium, narrow) as well as the grip-width (fat-grip chins).

Chin-ups are the king of back exercises, provided they’re performed correctly. A full range of motion is key: reps should start from a dead hang at the bottom (full stretch) and not stop until the chin clears the bar and/or the chest touches the bar. Coming up 90% of the way and then hyper-extending the neck so the head clears the bar will only lead to sub-par results and a trip to the chiropractor. If you can’t even do one chin-up with perfect form, don’t ditch them in favor of lat pulldowns; bio-mechanically, they’re not the same thing. Instead, perform single-rep sets of negative-only (eccentric) chins, focusing on using the lats and not the biceps to lower your body under control. Once you can do 30-second negative reps, you should be able to bang out a few bodyweight chin-ups with perfect form.

Coaches like Poliquin have long prescribed weighted chins for gaining upper body mass and for good reason. The lats seem to respond to heavy loads, so once bodyweight reps are a breeze, then it’s time to start attaching additional resistance. As a bonus, your biceps will also grow from this stimulation.

Rack Pulls and Deadlift Variations – Many athletes will put deadlifts into their leg days and for good reason — deadlifts thoroughly trash the entire posterior chain, from the hamstrings to the trapezius. But deadlifts are often absent from novice gym rats’ programs, for a number of reasons. First, deadlifts are “scary,” especially to nervous gym owners concerned about bars being bent or seeing their posh “fitness rooms” being overrun by large, hairy men in singlets.
Next, deadlifting is just plain hard work. A standard “five sets of five” can leave trainees gassed for days and sore in muscles that they didn’t know they had. Subsequently, lazy bodybuilders often try to program their way around deadlifts by performing a combination of pulldowns, rows, shrugs, and back extensions.

Nice try.

The German psychologist Gestalt wasn’t a bodybuilder, but if he were, he’d say that an effective exercise is more than just the sum of the parts. There’s just something about squatting down and picking up a gut-splitting weight from the floor. The trunk suddenly begins to grow “thicker,” often at an alarming rate, and the entire physique takes on a more “3-D” look. All deadlift variations work the back to a degree, though lifters seeking to add thickness to the mid-back and erectors often choose partial range deadlifts or rack-pulls. Set the pins in the power rack to just above knee height and be sure to come to a complete stop at the bottom position to minimize momentum.

One of the best deadlifters in the world (930 lbs+ raw pull), Konstantin Konstantinovs knows what a big, strong back can do for you.

Performing rack pulls on back day would likely lead to over-training the lower back if deadlifts or stiff-legged deadlifts are already a part of your leg day, so save these for rotations when leg days consist of one of many squatting variations.

Dumbbell Rows – When performed properly, the dumbbell row is a fantastic exercise for the lats, rhomboids, scapular retractors, and grip. It’s too bad that proviso regarding proper form is a big problem for most lifters. On a good day, I see dumbbell rows performed with too much weight, too much body English, and an incomplete range of motion. Again, that’s on a good day. Typically, overzealous trainees try to outdo one another by using absolutely ridiculous amounts of weight in a piss-poor attempt to be the next dumbbell-rowing YouTube sensation. While there is merit to performing the occasional set of ultra-heavy DB Kroc rows as a finisher, trainees with the lat and upper back development of Larry King need to focus on performing dumbbell rows properly.

The trick is to lengthen the range of motion and pause at the top and bottom. Starting with the dumbbell positioned in front of the head and rowing it up in an arc towards the hip extends the ROM. As for the one-second pauses at the top and bottom, trainees who suck it up and do this will finally feel what it’s like to experience next-day lat soreness!

The finished product should look like a smooth and precise movement, with a flat back and virtually no upper body movement save for the working arm. If you’re still unsure, have a friend film you performing a set; if your form looks anything like trying to start a stubborn lawn mower, then you need to reassess your technique.

Chest-Supported Rows – The barbell row is a real conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic old-school back exercise that can add size and thickness to the back. On the other hand, most bodybuilders use way too much weight and leg drive, turning this once sound movement into a rounded-back travesty.

Big lats show from the front or back (Phil Heath posing).

Fortunately, there’s chest-supported rows. This variation virtually eliminates all leg drive while supporting the lower back throughout the movement, making them an option even for fatigued or injured lifters. This exercise is a favorite of elite powerlifters who know that a thick upper back can beef up a bench press. Using a wide grip and pausing at the top emphasizes the scapular retractors, posterior delts, and rhomboids.

Seated Rows to Neck with Rope – Building a balanced physique requires training the muscles you can’t see in the mirror, making even those less-flashy muscles a priority. Seated cable rows to the neck are a great way to compensate for too much beach-driven bench pressing.

Set the pulley so that it’s in line with the top of the chest and grasp the ends of the rope attachment, palms down. With the shoulders protracted, begin the exercise by retracting the shoulder blades, then immediately row the rope towards the neck by bending the elbows. Keep the elbows up at all times. The trunk should remain stable in order to minimize lower back involvement, and be sure to pause at the top and bottom position. For variety, a straight bar attachment can also be used (use a wide grip).
Note: when using a rope, rotating the wrists at the top so the forearms are perpendicular to the floor will recruit the external rotators.

Shrugs – To be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of shrugs. Most nondorks can develop a beastly set of traps just by performing heavy deadlift variations and, ideally, learning to perform the Olympic lifts. But because every dude does shrugs anyway, they might as well do them properly.

For a full range of motion, use dumbbells (not a barbell) and pause at the top and bottom positions for a full one-second. Performing the exercise while seated can help mitigate lower back problems, and please don’t use straps; your grip will catch up. Finally, for the love of God, please don’t roll the shoulders back at the top position. Not only does this stress the shoulder joint, it’s completely illogical and only serves to identify you as a Gym Moron and worthy of ridicule and disdain.

Putting It All Together
To add some much-needed back mass, these exercises can be combined into two effective routines. Perform these routines every 6-7 days. Repeat Routine A five or six times before moving onto Routine B.

Routine A

Order Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo/ Rest

A. Rack pull 4 x 4-6 3211* 240
B. Weighted chin-up 4 x 6-8 41X1 180
C. Chest supported row 3 x 8-10 3211 90
D. Rope row to neck 3 x 10-12 3111 75

*Note the two-second pause in the dead-stop (bottom) position.

Routine B

Order Exercise Sets/Reps Tempo/ Rest

A. Wide-grip pull-up 4 x 6-8 41X1 120
B. DB row 4 x 8-10 4111 120
C. Wide S. row to neck 3 x 10-12 3112* 90
D. DB shrugs 3 x 15-20 2112 75

*Note the two-second pause in the top position.

A note on tempo:
I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coach Charles Poliquin. I highly recommend his excellent PICP courses for learning more about proper program design and exercise methodology.

Here’s how the four numbers work, using 3211 as an example:

  • The first number is the eccentric tempo or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take three full seconds to lower the weight.
  • The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for two full seconds (a zero indicates no pause is taken).
  • The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a one-second concentric; an X would indicate an explosive return or pulling the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.
  • The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase or before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause one full second before lowering the weight again.

Get Back To It!
Everybody loves to train the glamour muscles, but it’s the ones that you can’t see that pay the richest dividends. Give these routines an honest go and you too will soon find yourself struggling to find a jacket that fits.

Just please don’t send me your tailoring bills!

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