The cornerstone of a high-performance body is a thick upper back paired with well-developed lats to accentuate a lean waist. Is your back workout doing that for you? Here are ten proven tactics to build your back better than ever.
Pre-set isometrics dramatically improve your mind-muscle connection, optimize technique, and create metabolic stress to improve the muscle-building ability of an exercise. This type is a "yielding isometric" where you hold a weight in place.
This makes it less demanding than an "overcoming isometric" where you're trying to overcome resistance. Pre-set iso's teach you to maximally hold a peak contraction without significantly altering your exercise performance.
- Pick one or two exercises to test this out. I prefer cable rows, pulldowns, or chest-supported rows.
- Select a weight you can do for 8-10 reps.
- Do one rep, then hold the weight in place for 10-15 seconds at the transition point of the eccentric and concentric contraction.
- Actively squeeze your muscles. Try to make them cramp.
- Then do 8-10 regular reps.
Isometrics boost your mind-muscle connection and help you recruit more muscle fibers. The more muscle fibers you can fatigue in a workout, the greater the growth potential. Plus, they create an occlusion effect. This leads to increased lactate within the muscle and causes additional hypertrophy-inducing tension.
To build pain-free muscle, own every inch of every rep. Most lifters heave themselves up the bar before crashing down on unprepared elbows and shoulders. That's no way to build muscle.
Instead, use paused reps at the top of the movement with your chest near the bar, then again at the bottom to kill the stretch reflex.
Building muscle isn't as much about lifting ultra-heavy as it is making the most of each rep with a quality contraction. Making small changes like a one-second pause at either end of your exercises can create a huge shift in the muscle-building response.
If you can't feel your lats, you're going to struggle to make them grow. And if you can't create tension with your lats on major movements like deadlifts, your strength gains will plateau. Luckily, the straight-arm cable pulldown fixes both problems.
- Lock your elbows and hold the position throughout the entire movement. Bending your elbows only turns straight-arm pulldowns into glorified triceps pushdowns, taking attention away from your lats.
- Brace your core. Hold a neutral spine position and tense your abs. This is crucial for maintaining optimal technique. The eccentric (lowering) portion of the pulldown hammers your anterior core through anti-extension stress.
- Squeeze at the peak contraction. Imagine squeezing oranges in your armpits and flaring your lats before transitioning to the eccentric or lifting portion of the exercise.
When most lifters adjust their workouts, they think about manipulating sets and reps. Well, your muscles don't know sets and reps; they only understand time and tension. The sweet spot for muscle growth tends to be sets that last 40-60 seconds.
But instead of racing through your reps without focus (like performing a 10-rep set in 30 seconds), consider slowing the f*ck down. Doing the same exercise with a three-second eccentric and two-second pause at peak contraction turns that same ten reps into an exponentially better muscle builder.
Try keeping your weight and reps the same from week to week, but adjust your tempo to vary the training stimulus. Here's a sample weekly tempo progression:
- Week One: 4111
- Week Two: 5111
- Week Three: 3211
- Week Four: 3310
- The first number is the eccentric or lowering portion of the lift.
- The second is the pause at the bottom of the eccentric.
- The third is the lifting phase or the "up" phase.
- The fourth is the squeeze in the contracted position.
One of the biggest problems lifters face with dumbbell and barbell rows is managing lower back pain and stiffness.
The chest-supported row eliminates the need for additional support and stability. The support of the bench makes it damn-near impossible to cheat. This combination makes chest-supported rows a staple for building thick lats, traps, and rhomboids.
Use chest-supported rows at least twice per week. Pick one workout where you hit 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps to involve more type-II fibers. Use a slightly more lat-dominant elbow angle, like 15-45 degrees.
Pick a secondary day to add 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps and hit more slow-twitch muscle fibers. Use a more mid-back-dominant arm angle, like 45-60 degrees.
This combo two hits a plethora of muscle fibers through a range of muscle-building rep ranges.
Pull-ups are great when you have healthy elbows and shoulders, plenty of relative strength, and excellent overhead mobility. Unfortunately, only about 5% of lifters meet those qualifications.
Without optimal form, most lifters cheat on pull-ups and chin-ups and turn this vertical pull into a glorified arm movement (or – gulp – a kip). They may race through their pull-ups to hit the right numbers but never even feel their muscles contract. This is terrible for muscle growth.
The jackknife pull-up solves these problems. It's a vertical pull that supports your feet. This reduces the load and gives you a ton of control over the movement. If you struggle with shoulder or elbow pain or can't do 10-12 controlled reps for chin-ups or pull-ups, this variation will be better for hypertrophy.
Program it like you would any vertical pull. Here's how to do them:
- Use a secured barbell in a rack, Smith machine, or rings.
- Elevate your feet on a bench or box.
- Bend your knees to 90 degrees.
- Engage the shoulders first by depressing them. This will make the pull-up a back-dominant movement.
- Pull yourself up while driving your elbows down.
Jackknife pull-ups give you an infinite number of options in adjusting your technique for optimal form. You can control the tempo and make slight changes in body angle to customize the exercise to you.
The isometric portion of the exercise creates constant tension while boosting your mind-muscle connection. One of the best ways to program isodynamic rows is by going with a chest-supported 5-4-3-2 ladder (via Nick Tumminello).
Here's how to do it:
- Do 5 reps on your right side while your left side does the isometric hold.
- Switch and do 5 dynamic reps on your left side while your right side does a hold.
- Repeat the process, doing 4 dynamic reps on each side, then 3 reps.
- To finish, do 2 reps using both arms simultaneously.
The descending rep scheme adjusts as you lift to account for the accumulating fatigue and provide a novel shock to your muscles.
Increasing training frequency is one of the fastest ways to bring up a lagging body part. Here's why:
- Increased training volume triggers increased muscle protein synthesis within a target muscle group more often. More protein synthesis can drive faster gains in size.
- You get improved motor learning. The more you train a muscular function, the more ingrained it becomes. People spend an ungodly amount of time in front of screens in an internally rotated position. The result is banged-up shoulders, the shoulder mobility of a fork, and terrible posture. By training back more often, especially horizontal pulling movements, you can improve posture.
- It creates a muscle-building shock treatment. If you've been training a muscle once per week, shifting your frequency to 2-4 sessions per week shocks your system. You'll experience muscle growth even if training volume stays the same.
How do you increase training frequency? The easiest way is just to "pull" (using any kind of row or pulldown) between every push. Between your sets of pressing exercises, start doing 20-25 face-pulls or band pull-aparts during your rest periods. Test for a month.
If you want to ratchet up the intensity, repeat the same process with a band row or inverted row (below) the following month.
You can also adjust your training split to a push/pull or primary-mover plus synergist style split. Do the push/pull training split and get 4-6 times per week. The movements on the posterior side of the body are predominantly responsible for pulling actions, while the front/anterior side of the body is responsible for pushing actions. Legs are often paired on "pull" days.
- Monday: Push
- Tuesday: Pull
- Wednesday: Push
- Thursday: Pull
- Friday: Push
- Saturday: Pull
The second training split would be a primary-mover plus synergist split. Back/biceps or chest/triceps splits are examples. In this case, you'd use a simple program with at least two back days per week:
- Monday: Back/Biceps
- Tuesday: Chest/Triceps
- Wednesday: Legs/Shoulders
- Thursday: Back/Biceps
- Friday: Chest/Triceps
- Saturday/Sunday: Off
If you need a closer look at training splits, here are the 8 most effective ones you could do.
Your traps are a big muscle with a short active range of motion. Because of the short range of motion, traps thrive with a longer time under tension and/or more reps. Enter the two-minute farmer's walk.
At the end of your back or pull days, add three sets of two-minute farmer's walks with 90 seconds of rest between. Use a timer.
This will challenge your grip, force you to breathe under control while holding optimal posture, improve stability from head to toe, and put a ton of stress on your traps.
Farmer's walks can differ significantly based on load and time under tension. Use this volume-based approach for a month, then switch to heavier, 30-second farmer's walk sets for a second month.
John Meadows believed training your back is all about elbows and angles. What does this mean?
The muscle fibers in your lats have various orientations that require different angles to maximally train. By adjusting the angle of your elbows, you can shift the attention to any muscle or even part of a muscle.
You don't want to spend too much time overly flared out where your arms make a "T" shape with your torso. This may hit your traps and rhomboids harder, but it's not always the best position for your shoulders.
Arms that are overly tucked with your elbows pinned to your sides isn't ideal either. Over-tucking can lead to anterior humeral glide and shoulder pain as your humerus "crashes" into your shoulder socket from over-pulling.
The sweet spot for elbow angles is anywhere between 15-75 degrees. Generally speaking, the smaller the angle, the more you'll hit your lats. With a 15-degree elbow angle on the one-arm row, you can wrap your elbow around your rib cage to have incredible peak contraction on every rep.
About 45 degrees is the sweet spot for optimal shoulder health and training your lats, rhomboids, and traps. The 60-75 degree arm angles will emphasize your traps and rhomboids much more than your lats.
By manipulating elbow angles, you can adjust your focus to hit weak points. Modify rows with these micro progressions to keep growth coming without dramatically altering your programming.