Some guys have “2D” bodies. They have decent back width and look built from the front, but turn them sideways and they nearly disappear. To achieve front-to-back thickness you have to train for it by hitting the mid-back intentionally for serious volume. And this is where a lot of people say, “Just do pull-ups!” Well, not so fast.
The Problem with Pull-Ups
When done correctly, pull-ups are great. But many lifters learn the pull-up from coaches who teach it in a way that makes it more of an arm exercise than a true back exercise. And while they may use reasonably “safe” technique, they neglect key components, like putting the scapulae in the depressed, retracted position through the top of each lift.
So it’s not that the exercise isn’t effective, it’s that it creates too many opportunities to be botched. That said, if you’re a pull-up wizard and it actually does hit your back, include it with these exercises for mid-back development.
1. J Rope Pulls
Bodybuilders often use the pullover as a lat developer, but I’m not a fan of the movement for targeting the lats. For one, the force angle doesn’t mimic the direction of contraction of the lats for the majority of the exercise.
The J rope pull is a kneeling exercise that takes better advantage of the lats. Remember, the lat fibers don’t run completely vertical, nor do they run completely horizontal. They actually run on a bit of a slanted pattern, and targeting them for isolation will require the arms to follow suit to effectively tap into this fibrous pattern.
The J rope pull combines scapular depression and scapular retraction in a beautiful way by mixing a stiff-arm pulldown with a row motion in a graceful transition. These are cool as a finisher to really hit the upper lats and provide a finishing pump that many other exercises can miss.
2. Paused-Rep Pulldowns
For bodybuilding, the lat pulldown is important for back development, especially in light of the problem with pull-ups. It creates a safer and more controlled stage for technically sound reps which hit key muscles.
Though the pulldown and pull-up are less focused on the true mid-back, adding a pause at the peak of contraction (when the handle is at its lowest) can be a humbling experience. The amount of mid-back activation that’s added by a simple one-second pause can create deep muscle soreness that lasts days after your workout.
Traditional pull-ups and pulldowns simply pass through this region with limited regard for controlling speed. It’s a true testament to your mid-back strength when you can control weight at your point of max contraction. I like using the wide reverse grip because the external rotation brings the rear delts into the mix as a bonus.
You can try these with pull-ups, but there’s a high chance that your technique will be less than stellar. In the video, I had to drop the weight by more than 50 percent to maintain good form for all 8 reps. Even if someone only has to drop the weight by 10 percent, that’s still significantly less weight than their total bodyweight. Hanging off a bar and trying to do the same thing with your pull-ups or chins will be even harder if you’re a big dude. When it comes to isolating the muscles of the mid-back, less is usually more.
3. Trap-3 Raise
The lower traps are often overpowered by the upper traps. The horizontal position you use during this exercise, along with the swinging action of the arm, make the leverage work in favor of the lower traps.
The shoulder set position engages the back muscles and the movement itself covers the rest. Making the lower traps active can also help change thoracic spine posture by helping to elevate the ribcage. Note: It doesn’t take much weight for this exercise to be effective. I’ve never done a set with more than 10 pounds.
4. Kettlebell Angled Press
Making a low-trap dominant movement bilateral creates a world of difference. You no longer have a place to rest your trunk, which can refer plenty of engagement through the entire back, including the multifidi and erector spinae.
Though it’s a bit easier to slip out of perfect form due to more demand on the muscles holding the isometric for positioning, the use of a kettlebell balances out these demands. The force curve is drastically different when comparing a kettlebell angled press to that of a trap-3 raise.
To start, hold the bell close to the body. Your shoulder blades start in a retracted position. That’s a good thing if you have activation issues and problems setting the shoulders (more on that below). It’s also more difficult to let the delts enter the movement and take over the lift because of how hard the thoracic spine extensors are working to slide the arms to a full extension.
The weight distribution of the kettlebell will help promote greater overhead range of motion and create the perception of the weight being heavier than it is. As a bonus, it gives you a use for those 15 and 20 pound kettlebells other than for doorstops and paperweights.
Bonus: Setting the Shoulders
Setting the shoulders is a problem for many lifters. Being able to have full control of the shoulder blades will not only help your performance and activation, it’ll improve long-term shoulder health.
To master the technique of engaging the lower traps, it’s better to compartmentalize an overhead pulling movement into the smallest segments you can to zero in on the key component and max contraction of the lower traps. Coach yourself. To initiate overhead pulling movements, think “long neck,” “low shoulders,” and “high ribcage.” Use the scap pull-up as a prehab exercise before your back workout starts to light up and activate the muscles without fully fatiguing them.
One of the biggest mistakes when it comes to back exercises is the lack of “reset” of the shoulder blades between reps. Setting the shoulders only at the beginning of a set causes them to gradually slip out of position as the set continues. That means the exercise stops hitting the target muscle groups (lats, lower traps, rhomboids) by the end.
To add to this, the mid and lower traps are holding an isometric position rather than promoting more blood flow via a contraction and relaxation pattern like most isotonic training.
How to Set the Shoulders for Back Work