The Back is Where It’s At!
By Nick McKinless
AUTHOR NOTE: I first wrote this article in 2007. Now some 8 years later and hundreds of blogs later I felt it needed some updating even though much of the content was still relevant.
Of all the muscle groups in the human body the back is without a doubt my favourite. Over the years I have put more time and effort into my back development and I know from experience that it’s a big factor in being a a good athlete. There is no such thing as a great athlete in any sport from rowing to boxing to strongman that doesn’t have good back development.
Back development is not about simply performing pulls and rows. I honestly believe that to get the best out of your back musculature you must really pay attention to how exercises feel and not just the weight on the bar. Although I am predominantly a strength athlete, I think we can learn a lot from bodybuilders in the area of back development.
Here’s run down of back exercises and how they will get you that thick, wide, lumpy, muscled back we all want.
My wings are like a shield of steel – Batfink
For thick, meaty lats, bodybuilders especially love heavy, wide grip Lat Pulldowns. I think it’s a fine movement and should definitely be on the menu. My only problem with recommending them comes with performance. No one seems to do them strictly. As with all form and technique issues this is down to ego. It’s a shame because the pulldown is a different beast to pull-ups. You get a better squeeze at the bottom of the movement and I find it easier to take the biceps out of the pull as well. You also get a safer stretch at the top. Trying to stretch the lats with chins can be damaging to the shoulder joint but if you’re careful it can be done with pulldowns. If you can stop swinging the weight down, try to take the biceps out of the pull, squeeze at the bottom to get a full contraction and get a safe stretch at the top, Lat Pulldowns are a great exercise. However, it is not the king of Lat building, that title belongs to…
If you can’t do chin-ups/pull-ups I am not talking to you! I don’t care how heavy you are chins will make you stronger than you are now. Weak men don’t do chins. Just because you weigh 280lbs doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do chins and say ‘They are for skinny people. Chins make you more athletic and they may save your life if you ever need to climb a tree fast because a tiger is chasing you in the jungle (you never know!). Also I don’t mean those daft kipping chins that Crossfit does for their competitions. I mean proper, full range of motion, pull-ups and chin-ups. Chins work a lot of muscle not just in the back but also the biceps and serratus muscles, the rhomboids and teres major, and the middle traps and forearms.
So which chins should you do? Simple. Do them all! Pronated (palms facing forwards), supinated (palms facing towards you), neutral (palms facing each other) and even alternate grip (palms facing each other) and any other grip you can use. All chins are good but not all chins are the same.
Wide chins with an overhand grip and pushing the chest up towards the chest will get your lats working hard whilst also putting some much needed stress on the smaller rhomboids and teres major. These muscles need work too and will help keep your delts healthy. Healthy delts equals stronger presses which we all want. I like to do wide chins for medium reps in the 8-10 range. We’re talking development here so get some blood in there. If you’re using the BEYOND STRONG Program then you know all about chins!
Check out Jesse Marunde (280lbs) pumping out 20 good reps here… (NOTE: Jesse was an awesome athlete who sadly passed way too young)
Underhand chins are one of the best bicep and lat blasters I know of. A total power movement. I personally prefer a closer grip to take the stress off my wrists. At the start of the movement it’s mainly lats and at the end it’s biceps.
A similar movement is the hammer curl or palms facing neutral grip. I find I can use the most weight with this exercise so pile on some weight around your waist get to work. Even you fatties can chin like this. Remember that Tiger?
Alternate grip chins are a great change of pace. They are good in a circuit as you can change the hands around and do more work as different muscles come into play. I have done them where you do 3-5 reps and then whilst still on the bar change the hands around and do 3-5 more reps. Keep going till you drop! They are also good for the starting phase of learning how to do One Arm Chins but that’s a whole other article.
There are a ton of other things you can do from negative chins (good for heavyweights) to band assisted chins, one arm lock offs, clapping chins and the daddy of them all, rope climbing.
However this isn’t just a chin article. Just make sure you’re doing them for three reasons…shoulder health, I will still talk to you and that Tiger!
Thick as Brick
Former World’s Strongest man Gary Taylor was one thick, muscular man. It’s like some one cut off a chunk of the Great Wall of China and glued it onto Gary. He reminds me of The Thing from the Fantastic Four only Welsh and probably stronger!
There’s only one way to get thickness in the back. You have to row. Gary could row. In an old MILO magazine I read that Gary was doing bent over rows with 245kg/540lbs and one arm rows with 95kg/210lbs dumbbells for sets of 8-10! That is strength people.
Here’s a tip for getting more out of your back training. For a long time I felt like I could use reasonable weights in my rows but I never felt it in the back muscles. The answer believe it or not was to study bodybuilding. Now I a have never been a bodybuilder even though I admire their commitment. I’ve never seen a bodybuilding contest and I haven’t bought Flex or anything like that for probably 20 years. However, you have to admit that top pro bodybuilders have awesome back development.
Here’s what I discovered. Use less weight. At least initially anyway. If you use less weight you can really start using the hands and arms as hooks like you are meant to and you can begin to really hone your technique. There’s a million articles on this type of thing for the bench or squats. We know that we have to train lighter sometimes on these exercises to create better form, so why not do the same thing for rows. Go lighter for a few weeks. Choose a few exercises and work on squeezing the shoulder blades together. I found you can actually change which muscles you hit by how you pull back. This sounds obvious but I can tell you within weeks I was noticing a change in my middle back area. Try it and don’t sweat that the weights light for while.
Once done with your light stuff then which exercises should you use for rows? My personal choices would be seated cable rows, bent over rows, supported rows with a machine or a barbell, machine rows (Hammer Strength for example), one arm rows both supported and unsupported, upside down rows and Meadows rows. Something I discovered a few years back are one arm cable rows in two positions.
For both versions you need to crouch down in a squat position using a low cable with a single handle attachment. Turn side on to the machine and grab the handle. Now walk away from the machine to pre stretch the lat. Row from this position. This really hits those little upper back muscles and pulls the lat into an unusual position to row from.
The second version is the same but you stand face onto the machine. You should be able to use more weight in this version. I like the fact that you have to brace the abs really hard to maintain good posture for this exercise. (Remind me to do a video of these someone!)
All rows are good and all athletes need rows. Just ask Dorian…
As Rick Walker said in his superb deadlift article HERE…traps are cool. Not many have built the kind of trap development seen by Olympic Weightlifting Champion from the ’70’s David Rigert.
David got his traps from Olympic pulls like snatches and cleans. If you know how to do the Olympic lifts and to do them well you can build tremendous traps and overall back muscles. However, they are not the easiest exercises to learn and I have found that other exercises can and will get the job done just as well.
Power shrugs are the daddy of shrugs and will allow you to move some serious poundage’s. Set the bar up in a rack just below lockout position for your deadlift. Use straps and forget trying to hang onto the bar with grip alone. We’re building monster traps here and you need to use big weights that your hands just can’t handle. Use a double overhand grip. The power shrug requires you to shrug and also use some body momentum coming up onto your toes a little. The problem is that most people will not shrug and they think that because the bar is moving then they must be doing it right. The trick is to shrug first, then use your body a LITTLE and then shrug AGAIN at the end. Shrug, toes, shrug. This has to be done quickly though and should feel like one movement. At least 400lbs for sets of 5-8 please.
Next up is seated shrugs with dumbbells. This one you can’t cheat on at all. Make sure you are shrugging high and don’t force the head forward to create more range of motion. This can cause damage to the neck, so shrug to try and touch your delts to your ears. Work in the high rep range here, 8’s to 20’s or more work really well.
Finally try cable shrugs from a cable crossover or double low pulley set up. The cable shrug provides constant tension and you can change the angle of the shrug midway through the exercise or between each set. Again high reps.
DO sweat the small stuff
Here’s my top auxiliary and supplementary exercises for the back. Face down incline raises, Superman’s, lat shrugs, kelso or bench shrugs, band pull aparts and hypers.
I first read about superman’s from reading Steve MacDonald. Steve is a great strongman from the USA and doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge.
Superman’s are basically hyper extensions but you hold a plate or dumbbells in your arms. As you raise up you keep your arms straight out in front of you thus the name superman’s. This exercise is awesome! You have to make sure you don’t swing the weight up. I try to raise the weight first and then use my back to raise myself straight. You’ll feel this from top to toe. Not only is this a great back exercises but it’s a great assistance exercise for overhead presses too.
If you’re like most people including myself you are probably lacking middle back thickness. This is perhaps the hardest area of the back to build. The solution is to use some of Paul Kelso’s masterful shrug variations.
Kelso’s Shrug Book is a very underrated. My personal favourites are lat shrugs and kelso or low incline supported shrugs. Lat shrugs are done on a lat pulldown machine. Grab the bar but instead of pulling with the arms shrug downwards using the lats and middle back. Bend the arms a little but don’t pull with the arms. Start light! This is the key. Do at least sets of 8-15 and you should feel exactly where this is hitting. Don’t be put off by the short range of motion and lack of weight being used.
I also like face down incline shrugs on a bench. I use dumbbells rather than a barbell. Again go light and work into the ‘feel’ of the movement. Shrug to the rear and squeeze the shoulder blades together.
If you want to tie in the traps with all those other muscles back there then add in some of Kelso’s variations. They will top off the back perfectly and help your posture at the same time.
Face down incline raises obviously work the rear delts hard and in a strict manner. Band pull aparts are the same exercise but done standing using a band such as those sold by Iron Woody or Jump Stretch. Hypers you should all know how to do. Literally adding a set of these into your workouts now and again is all you need. Of course hypers are a whole other article really but I included them here because they are an often underused exercise for lower back development.
I also like to do this shrug/row combo. I call them Angled Rows and although a normal bar or dumbbells can be used, they are best performed on a smith machine as you can simple think about your back muscles and pull against the machine rather than worry about a barbell. (someone remind me to do a video of this as well)
This exercise work the hard to hit middle portion of the traps. (See that lump on Dorian’s middle back that’s where this hits).
Grab the bar on the machine and bend over somewhere between an upright row and a high row or a Yates row. Now squeeze the bar up with as much back and trap as you can and then pull with the arms to get the final contraction. You should be concentrating the whole time on that diamond shaped area of the back. This exercises has finally started to build that area on my own back, although I’ve got a long way to go.
The authors back from November 2014
To improve any muscle group you have to specialise and put extra time and attention into building it. The back will reward you with gains in strength, better posture and muscles that make you look as strong as you should be.
Always include a chin, a shrug and a row in your back workouts and then add in a smaller exercise like superman’s. Remember those key points about STARTING LIGHT and FEELING the back working. Shrug HIGH. Be very STRICT and so on.
Damn, I so enjoyed putting this together that I want to do just back training myself! Add this with Rick’s excellent Deadlift training and you will build a back to be admired. (The Deadlift needed it’s own article and Rick’s is one of the finest I have ever read)
Here’s a final look at one of the greatest backs in history. I give you, Mr. Franco Columbu…
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