Based on the title of this article, I can already guess exactly what you’re expecting to see here…
The Most Amazing Workouts!
You’re expecting to see back workouts. Not just any back workouts, but the “BEST” ones ever created. You’re expecting to see a breakdown of the perfect exercises to do with the perfect amount of sets and reps for each along with the most effective advanced training methods to use along with it.
Basically, you’re expecting to see the ultimate “back day” for your training program.
Sorry to disappoint… but you’re not gonna see that here.
The truth is, if you’re reading this, there’s about a 100% chance that you shouldn’t actually have a “back day” in the first place. It’s unnecessary at best, counterproductive at worst.
This of course is a reference to the stereotypical once-per-week “back day” bodybuilding nonsense you typically see in articles about building a bigger [insert some body part here]… the ones comprised of 100 sets of 100 exercises and other assorted over-hyped crap that mostly only works for steroid users.
What you probably should have instead is an “upper body day” (as part of an upper/lower split) or a “pull day” (as part of a push/pull/legs split) or some kind of “day” that allows your back to be trained intelligently with an optimal amount of frequency (about twice per week for everyone past the beginner stage), volume (around 3-8 sets for your back per workout) and intensity (ideally a combination of the 5-8 rep range and the 8-12 rep range).
Which is all just another way of saying that everything I’ve recommended as being the best way to train for muscle growth in general would apply just the same to back training.
The Most Effective Exercises!
So if it’s not about fancy, over-hyped, steroid-friendly back workouts, then it has to at least be about the specific back exercises being done… right?
You know, like a list of the ones that are the “best” and will work better/faster than all of the others. The ones that are much more capable of building the muscular back you want. The ones you can insert right into your aforementioned intelligently designed “upper body days” or “pull days” in place of the less effective exercises you’re currently doing.
Guess what? You’re not gonna see that here either.
You see, only a couple of aspects of your back exercise selection are of any degree of significant importance. For example, hitting your back from both the vertical plane (pull-ups, lat pull-downs) and the horizontal plane (various rows) rather than just one or the other is a good idea.
Beyond that, the rest is mostly just minor details that barely matter.
The truth is, you can build a bigger back just the same whether you’re doing pull-ups/chin-ups or using the lat pull-down machine. With all else being equal, they’ll be equally effective for muscle growth no matter what anyone else tells you.
The same goes for rows. Be it bent over barbell rows, dumbbell rows, t-bar rows, seated cable rows, chest supported rows, Hammer Strength machine rows, inverted rows or whatever else… it’s all equally effective.
No back exercise is legitimately any better or more effective than any other similar back exercise.
So while the type of exercise can matter (are you in the vertical or horizontal plane?), and stuff like the type of grip (overhand, underhand or neutral?) and line of pull (pulling to your hips, lower/mid stomach, upper stomach, chest?) can matter, the specific exercises you do are just a minor detail that’s unlikely to make any meaningful difference in your results (with all else being equal, of course).
What’s MUCH more important here is that you select exercises based on:
- Your personal preferences (the ones you like doing the most).
- Your injury history (the ones that are safest and most “right” for your body).
- Your progression (the ones that you can most efficiently get stronger on over time).
- Your ability to use proper form.
That’s what really matters.
So Then What The Hell Is This Article About?
If it’s not about the back workouts you’re doing, and it’s not about the back exercises being done in those workouts… what exactly is the point of this article?
What could possibly be left for me to tell you?
I’m so glad I pretended you asked.
My two tips for you today are all about what you’re doing WHILE training your back. And in my experience, they may be the two most important aspects of building a bigger back.
Tip 1: Actually Use Your Back
The problem most people have with training the muscles of the mid and upper back (lats, rhomboids, traps, etc.) is that they fail to actually train those muscles.
Sure, they do plenty of exercises that should train those muscles, but for one reason or another, those muscles aren’t actually being trained during those exercises.
How can this be, you ask? It’s usually because:
- Their form is terrible, and other muscle groups (most often biceps and/or lower back) are doing the work to move the weight where it needs to go. Or, it’s just good old jerky, swinging, heave-ho style full body momentum that’s moving the weight from point A to point B. Either way… the muscles that should be making this happen aren’t.
- They’re using too much weight, which causes the same outcome mentioned above. Plus injuries, too.
- There’s a lack of mind-muscle connection, and they just don’t know how to “pull with their back.”
Solving #1 and #2 = Being Less Of A Dumbass
Now #1 and #2 are things you see all the time. ALL. THE. TIME.
Bent over rows that look more like deadlifts or shrugs. Lat pull-downs that somehow turn into triceps pushdowns at the bottom of every rep or damn near yank the person off the seat at the top of every rep. Seated cable rows that look more like an actual cardio rowing machine is being used. Pull-ups with varying degrees of kipping/flopping to get above the bar (sup Crossfit, you mad bro?). Shortened ranges of motion (not going all the way down, or all the way up, or both). Using a ton of momentum to pull/swing/jerk/throw the weight, and then letting gravity take full control of the negative instead of, you know, the muscles you’re supposed to be training.
Highly entertaining to watch, but completely useless for building a bigger back.
Fortunately, there are simple solutions here. #1 can be solved by being less of a dumbass and learning how to properly do each exercise with proper form.
And #2? That can also be solved by being less of a dumbass… in this case learning to leave your ego at the door (cliche as hell, but it’s the truth) and stop trying to impress people (or yourself) by using more weight than you’re actually capable of lifting with proper form.
Solving #3 = It’s All In The Elbows (And The Chest/Lower Back/Shoulders)
But #3 is a bit different. Because even when these other problems are solved, many people still can’t get themselves to actually use their back during back exercises. They pull primarily with their biceps instead.
Now it’s perfectly normal for your biceps to do quite a bit of work during various “pulling” exercises like rows and pull-ups/pull-downs. It’s impossible to avoid this. What you do want to avoid however is allowing your biceps to do MOST (if not ALL) of the work instead of your back.
This is an extremely common problem that definitely takes some practice to correct. Here’s how.
The first step is to master the position your upper body should be in during virtually every back exercise. That is, your chest should be up, your shoulders should be back, and there should be a small but tight arch in your lower back. This is the ideal “back-muscle-recruiting” position.
From there, the mental cue that seems to help people the most is to ignore what the hands are doing, and ignore what the weight itself is doing, and stop thinking about pulling the weight/bar/handles/whatever towards your body (or in the case of pull-ups/chin-ups, pulling yourself to the bar).
Instead, put all of your focus on what your elbows are doing. Think of your hands as nothing more than hooks, and imagine that you’re pulling with your elbows (something I explain in more detail here: How To Use Back Muscles During Back Exercises).
Or, a cue that some people do better with… imagine the weight is behind your elbows.
So instead of thinking of it as pulling the weight with your hands, imagine the weight is behind your elbows and you’re actually using your elbows to push the weight back behind you. Or in the case of pull-ups and lat pull-downs, imagine the weight is under your elbows and you’re using your elbows to push it down.
And like magic, your back will suddenly begin to feel like it’s actually doing something.
Tip 2: Hold And Squeeze
Concerned that your form might suck? Wondering if you’re using more weight than you should be? Unable to pull with your back and actually “feel” the right muscles working?
Allow me to introduce the ultimate problem solving tip that I feel has played a huge positive role in my own back development.
Simply put, hold and squeeze.
At the end of every single rep of every single back exercise, hold that end position for 1 second and squeeze. Squeeze hard. Squeeze the crap out of the muscles of your mid and upper back and/or lats. Think of the them, imagine them, contract them and squeeze them.
Then use those same muscles during the negative to control the weight as it returns back to the starting position.
Then repeat that same 1 second “hold and squeeze” on the next rep. And the rep after that. And the rep after that. Of all of your sets. Of all of the exercises you’re doing for your back.
If you’ve rarely (if ever) experienced any sort of “pump” in your back during your workouts or any soreness in those muscles the following day, don’t be surprised if that suddenly changes.
Oh, and if you find that you’re unable to hold that end position and squeeze for that second, guess what? You’re probably using too much weight.
So How Do You Build A Bigger Back?
It’s a two step process really:
- Make sure you’ve chosen (or created) an intelligently designed overall workout routine. This means one that allows everything (including your back) to be trained with an ideal amount of frequency, volume and intensity, is comprised of the exercises that are most ideal for you, and is focused on creating progressive overload. And of course, make sure you combine it with a diet that’s designed to support it.
- Make sure you’re actually using your back while training your back (if you’re not, nothing in the previous step will help), and implement that “hold and squeeze” tip.
And then watch your back improve.