You can always tell if a trainee is serious about their training based on how they appear from the back.
Trainees who avoid true back work always tend to have what is called cardboard back. Cardboard back is a condition in which your back has the thickness and density of a cheap cardboard box (which is zero).
Another condition of avoiding real back work is air lats. You have seen the meatheads who walk around with their arms out to their sides to try to manufacture lats as they walk around the gym.
The only thing that resides under their arms is pure air. And sometimes a horrific funk.
Even though not training your back is pure fake hustle, many men still subscribe to the theory that all you need to train is chest and biceps.
The back is a fundamental part of your physique development. Without back development, you are leaving an absurd amount of meat on the bone.
This also applies to women. I have seen women lose all the color in their face when you mention the word "pull-up" to them.
The lame theories and thought processes out here that insinuate women cannot do pull-ups are totally bogus. I've had clients ranging from young female athletes to older female trainees bang out sets of pull-ups with no assistance bands and with weight added to the chinning belt.
Ladies, when you want to wear those string tank tops, y-back tanks, or the dresses with the back out with confidence, it starts and ends with great back development.
The Man With No Lats
At my first bodybuilding competition, I had no lats. When I went to my front and rear lat poses there was zero evidence of any signs of lat development under those arms.
I knew I had to change the way I trained my back or I would never achieve the thickness and width that my genetics would allow.
At my second competition in 2012, there was a vast improvement. At the time of my final competitions in 2014, I had developed the elusive V-taper.
With that said, many trainees in the iron game struggle to build a respectable back because they waste time with movements and techniques like:
- Lean back lat pulldowns
- Alligator arm chin-ups
- Poorly executed deadlifts
Top 3 Exercises For Building Your Back
When it comes to building your back we want to build the ideal blend of width and thickness. There are 3 movements that will guarantee you get the correct blend:
1. Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups
Pull-ups use a pronated grip and demand more effort from the back and less from the arms. Chin-ups use a supinated grip and demand more effort from the arms especially the biceps. Both movements will target your back like no other movement can.
Chin-ups are typically easier to perform because you have more help from the biceps during the movement, but you can still become dangerously strong in both variations.
Pull-ups are the main movement that will allow you to build the width that you need to achieve a V-taper physique. This is why if there was only one movement that you could do for your back for the rest of your life, the pull-up or chin-up would be it.
Outside of aesthetics, it is also extremely impressive when you slap 30-50lbs on a chinning belt and start to pump out reps.
You would think that with all of the benefits that pull-ups bring to the table, more trainees would be performing them.
To execute proper pull-ups follow these steps:
- Grab the chinning bars and get into a flexed hang to get to the start position.
- You can use a pronated (overhand), supinated (underhand), or neutral grip (hands facing each other) based on the type of chinning bar you use.
- Initiate the movement by drawing your elbows into your body.
- As you ascend up, think about pulling the bar to your chest as mentally this will make you feel stronger.
- Your chin must clear the bar for the rep to count. If your chin does not clear the bar, the repetition does not count and you are officially an alligator.
Check out how to perform proper chin-ups below:
2. Rows (Barbell or Dumbbell)
While pull-ups take the title of the greatest back exercise, you cannot build a complete back without rowing.
Barbell and dumbbell rows will allow you to build thickness in your back. This will allow you to sport a frame that looks 3-D versus one that looks as if it has been ironed flat.
Barbell bent over rows have a been a staple in the bodybuilding game for decades. Many championship backs (Schwarzenegger, Haney, Yates, and Coleman) have been built and developed with the barbell bent over row and the T-Bar row.
Modern gyms have tried to replace both moves with rowing machines, but the machines always fall way short like an undersized point guard.
Dumbbell bent over rows will not be performed with as much weight as barbell bent over rows, but they offer you the ability to get a bigger range of motion.
The neutral grip is the standard grip but having the ability to rotate your wrist at the bottom of the movement makes the exercise harder and therefore able to stimulate the muscles even more.
You can also perform dumbbell rows with one-arm at a time which allows you to use much more weight than you would with standard two-arm rows.
Regardless of if you are using a barbell or dumbbells to perform bent over rows if you are consistent with the rows you will build a bigger and thicker back.
Check out how to perform barbell bent over rows below:
No article for training the back is complete without the deadlift.
When we think about some of the greatest backs in bodybuilding history we can attribute their success to the deadlift.
Can you build a legendary back without the deadlift? Ask Lee Haney, Serge Nubret, or any gymnast.
But unless you are them, I would advise that the deadlift be a consistent part of your training program. If your goal is to develop a muscular, dense back, nothing is better than pulling heavy weights.
While conventional deadlifting is great, I feel that the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is just as good if not better for great back development.
Conventional deadlifts allow you to pull more weight, but RDL's allow you more time under tension which also leads to amazing gains in muscle growth.
When it comes to placement, I have always trained my deadlifts and RDL's on my lower body days. Because the legs are involved to such a large degree, training them on lower body days always felt more natural.
The bonus of doing this is that you get an extra day to get some back work in on your lower body days. Don't worry about any muscular overtraining as your back is very resilient and will adapt with more growth.
Both deadlifts rotated through multiple mesocycles will allow you to look fearsome from the back. Check out how to perform RDL's below.
Sample Workouts To Build An Incredible Back
The key to building a phenomenal physique is balance.
For that reason, we will train our upper body as its own day instead of using a full body split. This will allow us to train the muscles with a higher focus during the session.
I have provided a sample 3 week mesocycle below. If you want a longer program than that, then you will have to show me the money like Jerry Maguire. It’s a joke but I’m serious!
Refer to my RP-21 Training System article to learn about how to properly execute RP-21.
Monday: Upper A
|A1. Chin Ups||7||3|
|B1. Chin Ups||6||5|
|C1. Chin Ups||1||Failure|
Note: You will need to purchase a dip belt to make the proper progressions.
Once you can get through the sets and reps with bodyweight, it is time to add weight to the belt.
Small increments over time lead to big time results.
Tuesday: Lower A
|A2. Glute Ham Raise||7||3|
|B1. Romanian Deadlift||6||5|
|B2. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge||6||5 Each|
|Standing Calf Raise||3||12|
Thursday: Upper B
|A1. Pull Ups||7||3|
|A2. Incline Barbell Press||7||3|
|B1. Flat Dumbbell Press||4||8|
|B2. Dumbbell Rows||4||8|
|Neutral Grip Chin Up Ladder||*||*|
- For the chin-up ladder, start with 1 rep and add 1 rep each set until you reach 10 reps or until you can no longer hit the number of reps.
- The pyramid ends when you can no longer advance. You also have the option to bowl a spare (fail at a number, rest 15-20 seconds and then try to complete the set)
- If you cannot get to at least 3 reps on the chinning ladder, you need to use a band to assist you. Even strong lifters might need the band, as chin-ups are one the fastest dying moves in the game.
- Rest 15-90 seconds between sets.
Saturday: Lower B
|A1. Heels Elevated Squat||7||3|
|A2. Glute Ham Raise||7||3|
|B1. Barbell Hip Thrust||4||8|
|B2. Barbell Hip Extension||4||8|
|Seated Calf Raise||3||12|
Note: You can perform your conditioning on Thursday and Saturday. Options would include brief, intense, and to the point sessions like sprinting or bodyweight conditioning. Don’t waste your time in the “cardio” section of some commercial gym.
Stay consistent with the program and you will wear tank tops during the summer that will not resemble an XXL smock.