Big arms are impressive and a thick chest is cool but let’s be clear.
There are two ways to tell if someone truly is dedicated to the iron…or rather two areas. Those are the legs and back.
When it comes to the back, the wider the better and for most of the dudes out there, having those thick knots that show detail and separation is awesome too.
Before you go crazy with rows and pull ups, keep reading because building a big back takes more than raw power banging out reps.
There are some pointers you should be aware of when you go into your back training.
You might find that many of these tips apply to training in general, but they are definitely neglected when it comes to training this important area.
1. Establish Mind-Muscle Connection Early
There is one distinct difference when it comes to the back as opposed to the arms or chest. You can’t see the muscles working unless you’re using mirrors and are at just the right angle.
So if your goal is to develop your back, then you need to feel the muscles working so you know you’re doing the job properly. Establishing that all-important mind-muscle connection early on in your session means your whole session will be more productive.
So once you've chugged your preworkout and start to warm up, make sure you feel the back muscles contracting with each rep and feel a stretch when you perform the negative.
2. Warm Up Everything
Speaking of warming up, this needs to be a priority. Even though your back is what you’re focusing on, your arms, shoulders, and even legs will be involved in most of the back exercises you perform.
For example, if you’re going to perform a bent over barbell row, your legs will be supporting you while you’re standing with the weight, your core will be engaged so you can stabilize yourself while being bent over, and your arms will serve as hooks or extensions when you pull the weight in.
Wouldn’t it suck if you couldn’t execute the movement because of an issue with something unrelated to your back? Commit a few minutes to preparing everything so when it's time to get serious, you can place your attention where it matters, on your back.
3. Pull Ups Are Better
I’ll be waiting patiently at the comments section after this because I know some folks will disagree with this one. While pull downs of any variety serve a purpose and you can benefit from them, the fact is when it comes to getting bigger and stronger, pull ups are simply superior.
They are more difficult but pulling up is more natural than locking yourself into a seat and pulling something down. Pull downs involve a machine that is in a fixed path of travel. Pull ups force you to stabilize your body and control how you move.
You can certainly do a pull down movement along with a pull up but I wouldn’t recommend substituting them for pull ups.
So what should you do if you can’t do pull ups? Use an assistant if your gym has one. If not, buy a power band and place it on the pull up handles. Place your foot on the part of the band that hangs. The elasticity of the band can serve as an assistant to help you pull when your muscles reach failure.
Now there is an exception and it’s for those of you who may be starting out overweight and may not feel comfortable placing yourself in a position like this. Yes, you should start with pull downs until you improve and are able to start doing pull ups. While I think pull ups are better overall, I also don’t want you risking injury for the sake of one exercise.
4. Work One Side at a Time
There are two sides to the body and while the entire body works as a unit, individual parts can benefit from some special attention. Back training is no different. Working one side at a time can help with overall strength, injury prevention, and overall symmetry.
So when you create your plan, devote time to a movement or two where you train one side at a time. A safe approach is to work in a single row and a single pull movement.
Remember earlier when I said pull downs can serve a purpose? This is a great example. Single arm cable pull downs are a great option.
As for rowing, dumbbells are the most popular version but if your gym has a rowing machine that allows you to work one side at a time and you can feel the muscles working, go for it.
5. Full Range of Motion
Partial reps have their place and can increase the intensity of a set but they shouldn’t be your normal execution. This is especially true for muscles that have a long range of motion like the back.
Feeling that stretch in the area before performing that next rep can help you make room for blood to get to the area. Pulling the weight all the way so it can contract will not only help it work harder but can help you improve detail in the look of the back.
Don’t shortchange your range of motion for the sake of getting more reps all the time. Focus on making each rep meaningful and productive. Your results will be greater taking this approach.
6. Squeeze the Muscle
This is something that should be applied to all muscle groups but once again, it’s more meaningful for the back. Don’t simply lift the weight and lower it back down. When that weight gets pulled in, squeeze everything in the back for a second before performing the negative.
This applies to both rows and pulls. Most athletes starting out think that there is a big secret to developing the back and there really isn’t. Watch some of the champion bodybuilders train and you’ll see it for yourself.
Every movement they do involves contracting and squeezing the muscle. If you can’t do this with the weight you’re using, reduce the weight. It will be worth it when you take a photo and see your back for yourself.
7. Use a Wide Variety of Exercises
Here is what a lot of back workouts look like: Bent over rows, dumbbell rows, pullups, T-bar, a pulldown, and maybe seated row. Yes, basics can be best but variety is the spice of life and training.
If you’re stalling on results and need to shake things up, don’t be afraid to throw out the usual suspects and try new movements. Pullovers are awesome for the lats, wide seated rows can serve the teres major and rhomboids well. Shrugs on the incline bench can blast the mid and lower traps.
You can also simply change grips. Go with a rope for pulldowns instead of a normal handle. Analyze your weaknesses in the back and design a new workout with new exercises to turn these weaknesses into strengths.
8. Don’t Forget the Lower Back
“I train lower back. I deadlift every week.” Let’s be clear. I’m not about to talk bad about deadlifts. I bow to the king but what I mean here is isolating the lower back. Focusing on this area on its own would be great for your results and long term health.
Hyperextensions are a great exercise that can help you target this area on its own. If you need extra resistance, simply grab a plate.
Good mornings are another excellent choice that powerlifters and strongmen opt for to improve their lower backs. You know why? Because it works.
Yes I know the standing version can also target the hamstrings but definitely give them a shot. If you want to have a complete and healthy back, you must give the lower portion some focus.