If you’re really after size and a whole lot more strength, the truth is, you’ve got to take your focus off the "mirror muscles".
Having well developed chest and shoulders is moderately impressive, but what really fills out an imposing upper body is solid back development.
It makes shoulders broader, it makes a waistline appear smaller, and it adds to plenty of strength in the pressing movements due to stable scapulae.
The problem: Most people drop the ball by either avoiding proper back training altogether or by doing it with poor form. In both cases, the net result is a pair of chicken wing shoulder blades, a weak bench press, and an overall unjacked physique.
Luckily, I came prepared. No doubt you’ve seen and possibly even practice the 3 back exercises I’m about to list as they’re pretty common. But chances are you don’t know the tricks of the trade to make sure you’re doing them well, and encouraging true back strength and size from their use.
1. Conventional Deadlifts
It still surprises me that many people view this movement as a leg exercise. Sure, the hamstrings and glutes are important players in hip drive, learning proper hinging, and finishing hip extension, but the time under tension the muscles of both the lower and upper back have to endure (especially in sets of an appreciable amount of reps) isn’t to be taken for granted.
As well, 90% of the time the deadlift is a trained individual’s heaviest lift. There are no other exercises where a lifter will be able to expose himself to time under tension using that much weight in a safe environment. That means testosterone and HGH production goes through the roof and as far as gains are concerned, you’ve got a go-to.
It’s a given that you have a flat back when performing deadlifts, since pulling with a rounded spine could eventually be the demise of your lumbar vertebrae. It all comes from your setup:
- Make sure you’re pulling in a way that encourages the bar to travel in a straight vertical line from start to finish. That means you should set up with the bar right over your feet (no more than an inch away from the shins).
- Your shoulder blades will be positioned above the bar for correct force transfer and distribution.
- Once you reach down and grab hold of the bar, squeeze the chest out so the back is flat and no longer rounded. Tightness is key, so attempt to squeeze the flex out of the bar (bend the bar) before pulling it off the ground.
- Dig in with the feet, flex the glutes, and stand up with the weight.
Check out the video below to make sure you’re assuming the right position in your setup for a proper vertical pull.
So your technique is fine and you’re deadlifting every week. Good on you – but you’re still not seeing much development.
Maybe you’re dropping the ball. Don’t make one of these mistakes:
A. You’re Only Powerlifting the Deadlift
When I make this subheading, I mean to say you’re using the deadlift as an exercise that’s only to be performed for low reps, all the time. Lifting really heavy with good form feels great and it’s also beneficial – especially where big lifts like squats and deads are concerned. But if you’re after total development, you need to incorporate some more volume and higher reps into the mix.
Earlier, I listed that time under tension endured by the back during a set of deadlifts is great for adding thickness and isometric strength. A set of 3 deadlifts (around 10 seconds of TUT) creates a few benefits in this department, but pales when compared to a set of 8-10 deadlifts (around 30 seconds of TUT).
There’s nothing wrong with lowering the weight and repping out while you’re fresh, in a controlled environment, especially since it’s good for your conditioning.
I rarely see videos on the net where lifters are performing much more than a single or double with a challenging deadlift load. 8-10 rep deadlifts need to be brought back into the game. Watch me rep out with 400 here to get the idea.
B. You’re using Dumbbells or a Trap Bar
Just for the record: Both of these deadlift variations are fine. The problem comes when you look at how they change the geometry of the body.
In both cases, there’s no straight bar blocking your shins or knees from travelling forward over the toes. That subtle change can lower the hip position and allow for more drive from the quadriceps.
It’s a good thing if you want to avoid back injuries or use more of your legs to perform the lift, but it’s not the greatest choice if you’re looking to optimize back strength and size. In that department, nothing beats the conventional deadlift.
2. Pull Ups
Along with the strict press, I believe the pull up is the hardest upper body exercise in the gym when performed correctly. It’s a real testament to true absolute strength, and a staple for development of the back. Like the deadlift, it’s one of those exercises you just plain need to get good at.
It’s also among the most commonly botched movements I see on a regular basis by ego-driven people who can’t admit they’re actually weak. Don’t be one of those people and learn how to do a proper pull up.
The general rules for a pull up can be summed up as simply as “start at a dead hang and pull yourself upwards until your eyes go above the bar”. But that’s introductory. To develop the back, more needs to be considered. It’s just like anything – you’ll make novice gains with novice technique, and then you’ll plateau if you don’t refine it.
Pull ups depend largely on how well you can move your scapulae - if they stay immobile during the lift, you can guarantee you’ll end up using your arms for most of your reps.
- You need to develop the strength to pull the shoulders down while baring the load of your bodyweight as you hang from the bar. This is the first step before pulling yourself up.
- Next, keeping your legs down (or bent backwards), drag your body upwards over the bar.
- Control your descent to a full hang, and repeat.
If you can’t do what I’ve written above, I’ll go ahead and assume your problem is originating in your scapular control. Here’s a pull up-specific drill that will improve your technique and help with this problem:
And, for reference as to how this looks in action, check this video out to see a full set of pull ups:
Though the proper form is well explained above, it’s worth pointing out some critical errors I see basically every time I go to the gym to train.
A. You’re Trying to Stay Pencil-Straight
If you were taught that keeping a flat back and straight-as-an-arrow body during pull ups is the right way to go, ditch that thinking immediately. Instead of attempting to put this into words, I’ll show this video made specifically on the topic.
B. You’re not Using Full ROM
If you’re stopping short of a full extension on your way down in your pull up reps, it’s basically the same as doing quarter-squats with 300 pounds on your back on leg day. You’re not admitting to yourself that you have an area of weakness that desperately needs to be addressed, and you’d rather do what you can, using partial ranges of motion.
Not only does this look bad but it sells yourself short, since at this point your arms are undoubtedly doing all of the work. It’s tough to hold on to your back activation by going through partial ranges – especially if you have trouble setting your shoulders on your first rep.
Stop cheating and just do fewer reps with full ROM. If you can’t do one full rep, use the scap pull up tip above, in conjunction with negative rep pull ups. Use whatever assistance you can to help yourself up to the very top position of the pull up (with your eyes over the bar).
I like to step up using a bench, or the sides of the pull up machine. Keep the shoulders packed tightly hang on tight, and “fall” towards the floor.
The catch: You have to resist the fall as much as possible. Aim for a 15 second descent to a full hang from top to bottom. Be sure not to stop short of a full hang. Let your elbows completely extend. Perform reps until you can no longer control your descent.
C. You’re Kipping
Thanks to Cross Training, kipping pull ups have become much more popularized and entered the programs of many to increase the number of reps performed in the presence of fatigue.
Other than it doing absolutely nothing to improve your actual pull up strength, this momentum-filled debacle wreaks havoc on the structures of the shoulder, especially the labrum. Especially if you’re a lifter that doesn’t have the most optimal shoulder mobility, this is an exercise to stay far away from.
3. Bent Over Rows
The good thing about starting this article with deadlifts and pull ups is that it leaves the least to say about bent over rows, since many of its technical cues are derived from the other two lifts.
I count this exercise as a horizontal pull due to the bar path and its perpendicular angle to the torso. For that reason, it trains the scapular muscles of the upper back (like the rhomboids, teres, rear deltoids and lower traps).
You basically want to look like you do in the deadlift at the moment you’ve moved the bar about 6 inches off the ground (pause my above deadlift videos at that point if you need a visual).
- In this position, the back is still flat and has control of the pelvis.
- The bar is still situated under the shoulder blades, and the knees are still bent.
- The only difference comes in the fact that the hands are held slightly wider on the bar when performing bent over rows.
- Maintain this position and keep the elbows out wide, in line with the barbell, and row the weight to the mid-ribcage.
There’s only one major mistake I’ve noticed with bent over rows that is worth discussion.
It’s often coupled with using too much weight in the lift.
A. You’re Not Timing your Top Rock Right
As long as you’re maintaining a flat back, I believe a little hip-dominance (I said a little) is OK. The problem comes when someone doesn’t understand its appropriate use and timing. If you view the video above once more, you’ll see that on every rep my chest is actually moving towards the barbell at the actual moment of contact.
Not understanding this (and doing the opposite) encourages the body to move away from the barbell, and slowly slip out of a tight upper back position, without shoulder retraction.
When learning the bent over row, start light, and use a fixed torso. Once you’ve ingrained the pattern into your muscle memory, practice the timing of a proper top rock.
There it is – the big 3 bang-for-your-buck back exercises for both strength and development.
It doesn’t take much more than the correct application of the basics to see gains. The typical issue is that people don’t want to work hard or stop what they’re currently doing.
But you’re not one of those people, and that’s why you read this article. Get your gains from the ground up, and start with developing a good foundation.