“I’ve seen guys with big arms and big pecs that weren’t that strong. But I’ve never seen a guy with a big back that wasn’t strong.”
Recently I was reading an article on back training by Paul Carter in which he referenced the famous quote listed above.
Now obviously that saying has been around for a number of years but yet the facts still remain – big legs and a wide back are body parts you can’t fake.
Truth be told, nothing in the fitness industry is ever really new and unique.
Things get rebranded, renamed, and repackaged. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but odds are someone else has already thought of it.
However, my main goal with this article was to piece together suggestions from some of the best coaches in the industry.
You might know some of them or you may be completely unfamiliar with all of them. Either way, you should give each option a fair shot, you won’t be disappointed.
Row ‘til You Grow
Back training is typically divided up into two categories – horizontal and vertical pulls. However, keep in mind that due to the wide variety of musculature, the back can exert multiple lines of pull outside of a linear plane.
As such, many of the variations which are listed below will incorporate slight angular tweaks in order to enhance the length-tension relationship.
You’ll likely also notice that most of the supersets begin with some sort of isolated movement that heightens the mind muscle connection (MMC) followed by a compound strength movement. There’s a method to the madness, it’s called the law of first tension.
Christian Thibaudeau describes it like so:
“The law of first tension means that the muscle firing first during an exercise will be the one that will be recruited most and receive the largest growth stimulus.”
|A1. High to Low Cable Row||5||15|
|A2. Seated Face Pull||5||20|
Prime example numero uno - by changing the height of the cable and your positioning relative to the force vector, it becomes easier to recruit the upper back effectively. Focus on pulling the shoulder blades down and back rather than really driving the elbows aggressively behind the torso.
Facepulls are pretty standard but unfortunately many compensate by extending through their lumbar spine while in a standing position. Sure, you can drop to a half kneeling position and that takes some of the extension bias out of the equation.
However, if you take it to a seated position and keep one knee bent with a foot flat on the floor, you can really crank on your upper back and not worry about the overextension.
Why can’t you keep both legs straight? Well, you could and when I’ve taught this exercise before, some individuals prefer that option.
But, if you keep one knee bent, it makes it even tougher to extend as one hip is flexed higher than another, thus contributing to additional posterior pelvic tilt. Set yourself up in an advantageous starting position and then you won’t have to worry about overcompensations.
|A1. Incline Rear Delt Fly||4||12|
|A2. Seated Cable Row||4||12|
Take rear delt flies for example – most people just lie down on a bench and crank them out. However, rear delts can be trained in two primary ways: with stable shoulder blades or with scapular retraction (aka shoulder blades coming together).
For this superset, we’re going to focus on the scapular retraction version since that will complement our seated cable rows nicely. Utilize a neutral grip and try to keep momentum out of the equation.
Squeeze hard at the top and focus on your rhomboids (muscles in between your shoulder blades) rather than your traps. Immediately move into the seated rows and focus on the same area with each contraction.
|A1. Decline Cable Pullover||3||8|
|A2. 5 Sec Eccentric Pullup||3||6-10|
In a standard dumbbell pullover the lats are placed under the most tension and stress when the arms are completely overhead. However, when the dumbbell is at eye or chest level, the lats aren’t having to work very hard as gravity is exerting a vertical force on a weight that is moving in a horizontal fashion.
But, if you incorporate a cable version and a decline bench, you can keep tension on the lats throughout the duration of the movement. Simple tweaks make all the difference.
Now that you’ve got some blood pumped into the lats, it’s time to use accentuated eccentrics to really lengthen the lats under load and place an enormous stretch upon them. Simply use a box or jump to get into place at the top and focus on extending the eccentric component.
If you can pull yourself back to the top, that’s fine but most will likely find that fatigue limits their concentric abilities after a few reps or sets. These will make you brutally sore so be careful not to overdo volume if your preworkout has you feeling like Superman…
It’s a Trap…
|A1. Snatch Grip High Pull||4||6|
|A2. Seated DB Shrug (3 Second Iso Hold)||4||15|
Who did I get it from? I’ve seen Chad Waterbury, Jason Ferruggia, and Christian Thibaudeau espouse the benefits of snatch grip high pulls for a number of years. However, I’m sure the Bulgarians were using them well before anyone else because that seems to be the case for everything.
Regardless of who came up with them, they work exceedingly well. My forearms and traps have never been sorer than the first time I tried high pulls.
Seated shrugs are nothing new, they merely take all lower body momentum out of the equation. However, (as far as I know) the 3 second isometric hold is something which has been popularized by John Meadows and Paul Carter.
With any sort of Olympic lifting derivation, the goal should be “shrug first, pull second.” Be explosive and focus on bar speed. Pull to your nipple line and don’t sacrifice bar height for weight.
For shrugs, if you find you have a tough time with MMC, consider your head position. Some may find that the contraction is heightened looking up while others get the best sensation looking down. This is much easier to coach in person rather than describe via text so your best bet is personal experimentation.
|A1. Incline DB Shrug||4||12|
|A2. Incline DB Rear Delt Fly||4||10|
Standard horizontal and vertical rowing can sometimes make it tough to truly target your upper back. Sure, standard shrugs can help but remember, given the multiple degrees of freedom at the shoulder, there are countless angles which are needed to maximize back development. That’s where incline chest supported movements can really help.
Adding incline shrugs will hit your middle traps much harder than standard shrugs. As I discussed above, there are truly two different ways to accomplish rear delt flies but with this superset we’re going to use the same variation as above but with a slight shrug to start the movement.
So in essence, you will use the same incline bench for both movements and each will begin with an incline shrug. However, for the rear delt flies the load will increase on the upper back as the arms move outward and the lever arm increases.
Back to Back…
All of the exercise above are pretty standard but with a slight tweak to positioning and order you may just find your back sessions improve seemingly overnight. Sometimes it’s not about completely overhauling your program, it’s about the fine adjustments that really bring everything online.
At the end of the day, I must always give credit where credit is due. Many of these ideas are from the best coaches in the worlds and as Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”