Back-Building for Babes
Back work among females is underrated. As enthusiastic as I used to be about glutes, back training has become a bigger deal to me. Why? Tons of reasons. Here are three:
There's so much potential for muscular definition there. A lot of athletic females have naturally lean upper bodies. So the cool thing about developing your back as a female, is that it doesn't take much time to see major muscle development. The visible gains come quickly.
A built back is a functional back. It's one that can allow you to move a sofa across the living room without asking for help from your husband, who'd otherwise sigh and say, "You're moving the furniture around AGAIN?" But if you've got a strong back, you don't ask for help, you move it yourself.
Plus, while we're talking about strength, you'd be surprised how gaining it in one exercise can transfer to another. You may find that getting stronger with rows will make it easier to pop out more strict pull-ups, for instance.
This is especially important for physique-focused women and bikini competitors. And I've gotta say something controversial here if you're one of them: Take your back training as seriously as you take your glute training.
Why? Think about it like this – a lot of us females naturally tend to have an itty-bitty upper body and a voluptuous lower body. Magazines used to refer to us as "pear" shaped... before women got offended about being compared to fruit. The point is, building a thicker back can help us look proportional. If you slap a little more size onto your upper body it'll match the athleticism and power in your legs and glutes.
There are a ton of ways to do this and your exercise options are endless. So for funsies I'll share my favorite back exercises with you.
The Workout: Exercises and Methods
Standard seated pulldowns are fine, but if you have access to an iso-lateral pulldown machine that allows you to turn the handles, use it. What's the advantage? Aside from being able to train one arm at a time, you can adjust your technique and grip easily mid-set if you're not feeling the tension in the right place. In fact, you'll notice in the video that I twist the handles from a pronated grip to a supinated one.
The first exercise of the day is generally where I go heaviest. Start with a couple ramp-up sets of 10 reps just to help you get your form down and put the tension in the right places, then move to the heavier sets.
Once you find a nice challenging weight, knock out 5 sets of 5 reps. Go heavy enough that your fifth rep is a challenge. If you underestimate your strength, no biggie, just add more weight on the next set of 5. Then after that 5 x 5, finish up with a light back-off set of 10 reps.
- Ramp-up set 1: 10 reps with a 45-pound plate on each side = 90 pounds total.
- Ramp-up set 2: 10 reps with a 45 and 25 on each side = 140 pounds total.
- Work sets: 5 x 5 with a 45, 25, and 10 on each side = 160 pounds total.
- Back-off set: 10 reps with a 45-pound plate on each side.
If you're using a standard pulldown machine, ignore the weights above because everything will be different. The load will also FEEL different because standard pulldowns use a cable system. So select a weight that's challenging but doesn't make you lose your form. This is your "heavier" work for the day, so treat it as such.
Seated rows can't be beaten for back hypertrophy. Whether you go light or heavy, you can use it to build all the right places: mid-back, upper back, lats, and even rear delts to some extent.
And just like with pulldowns, if you can find an iso-lateral row machine, use it. It's cool how much variety you can get out of one machine just by changing your rep scheme, grip, load, or extending the time under tension.
Here are two of my favorite ways to use this machine. Don't do both in one workout:
I call this the 10-10-10 method, and not only has it built my mid-back, it's also helped me put a little more size on my rear delts. First, pick a weight heavy enough that you can't row it bilaterally (both arms) for more than 12 reps.
Note: When you row with both arms instead of one, you fatigue faster because you're doing double the work. So choose the appropriate weight. If you go too light, no biggie, just increase the challenge by upping the time under tension (TUT), so pause at the hardest point in the rep and lower slowly. Then add weight on your next set.
Using the grip you prefer (I like a neutral grip for these) work through the following:
- Do 10 reps with both arms. Set both handles down and immediately...
- Do 10 reps with one arm. Set that handle down and immediately...
- Do 10 reps with the other arm.
Aim for 3-4 sets of this. Ramp up in weight after each set if you can. Go heavy enough that it's a challenge, but not so heavy that you can't feel the target muscles working. Rest long enough to catch your breath, then go again.
I call it the 120-rep method. And this way, although lighter, will guarantee you get a sick back pump.
You'll do 4 sets of 30 reps, which sounds like a lot, but don't panic. During each set you'll use 3 different grips (underhand, neutral, and overhand) which will help you tap into a variety of musculature in the back. You'll do 10 reps for each grip.
For this, about 25-35 pounds per side is where I get the best mind-muscle connection. That's very light, but you're going for time under tension with this exercise. That light weight should start to feel excruciatingly heavy if you do this right.
Do 10 underhand-grip reps. Then with no rest, do 10 neutral-grip reps. Then with no rest, do 10 reps with an overhand grip.
Focus on feeling the muscles work. This means pausing at the top and squeezing, then lowering slowly until you feel the muscles you're targeting (mid-back musculature).
Now work backwards as far as grip. Start with 10 overhand grip reps, 10 neutral grip reps, and 10 underhand grip reps.
Try to feel a stretch in the back when lowering. Play with rep speed. You shouldn't need any more pauses in order to feel it working, but if you lose that mind-muscle connection, use isometric work as needed.
Now do 10 underhand, 10 neutral, 10 overhand.
Everything should be starting to burn. So aim for a consistent rep speed and try to get them in without having to stop mid-set. You'll notice secondary muscles kicking in like rear delts and traps. This is awesome. Let them help; your pump will be even better.
Finally, do 10 overhand, 10 neutral, 10 underhand.
Aim for even reps and no rest. If you have to set the handles down briefly, do so, but try to get as many reps in as possible first.
If 120 reps is just too many, try 6-8 per grip, which would mean you'd do 18-24 per set, which is still a lot. Increase the load as needed.
The first two exercises of this workout are fairly complete. You do a vertical pull and a horizontal pull. You go heavy with one exercise and lighter using higher reps on another. At two exercises in, your back should feel extremely pumped and fairly fatigued... that is, if you worked with effort.
Even so, I like to throw in two more exercises for good measure, but if your back is absolutely exhausted at this point, you could go do some abs, cardio, or any other work that you want.
T-bar row rigs aren't the same at every gym. Some of them can put more stress on the wrists than others. Yes, even when you use a different grip. So err on the side of caution and go lighter if you have easily irritated wrists, or get creative with a barbell T-bar row setup.
And if you're not feeling it, try some TUT-extending techniques. Lower slowly, pause at the top, or both. You can make the rep scheme more complicated if you want, but 3 sets of 8-10 reps usually does the job.
The kneeling pulldown will hit your back in a different way than the standard (not-from-the-floor) pulldown. Try this exercise with both an upright torso and a diagonal one, and use the one that gives you the best mind-muscle connection.
These are at the end of the workout for two reasons:
First, if you load it with too much more than your own bodyweight, you'll need to fight gravity as your body tries to rise off the floor. (That's why I keep one leg bent out in front. It helps me stay down.)
Also, there's actually not enough weight in the stack. I use almost the whole stack, probably because there's an advantage by being on the floor instead of seated the way you are with traditional pulldowns.
Do 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Yes, I likely did. This workout is full of machines. Not one free weight.
The thing is, tons of stuff can build your back: Deadlifts, Olympic lifts, rack pulls, and any barbell or dumbbell row variation. All are great. But what I like about machines is that you can isolate and feel the musculature of the back almost instantaneously. Plus, aside from loading plates on, it takes no time to set up. So add or subtract what works for you.
Now there are a couple exercises I didn't mention because I use them randomly...
Yeah this is a lower-body exercise, but the weight you can use is limited by your strength in the isometric overhead position. So I don't really think of them as leg work; I think of them as a conditioning move that taxes your back and gives you a nice leg pump. Sometimes I superset these with the seated rows.
Pull-Up or Chin-Up
If you're a fan of these, do them. I would give you a set and rep scheme, but as far as these go, err on the side of caution. Be aware of when your form starts going to hell because your joint health will go along with it if you're not careful. I don't usually do more than one or two sets because my form will break down depending on how tired I am from the workout. Improvise, mindfully.
- Pulldowns: 5 x 5
- Seated Rows: 10-10-10 for 3-4 sets, or the 120-rep method
- T-Bar Rows: 3 x 10
- Kneeling Pulldowns: 3 x 8-10
And any addition that tickles your fancy, like overhead lunges or pull-ups.