Movements vs. Muscles
When it comes to weight training, there are basically just two paradigms: training movements and training muscles.
Strength coaches would point out that the body doesn’t “think” about doing a movement (a.k.a. exercise) in order to stimulate a particular muscle. Instead, the body simply recruits the muscles needed to elicit a certain movement.
On the other hand, bodybuilding coaches see training as a way to stimulate a particular muscle. Therefore they select movements that target a particular muscle.
Which viewpoint is correct?
The answer is actually rather simple. For someone who’s an athlete whose performance depends on executing certain movements and movement patterns, their training should be based upon quickly and efficiently executing movements, particularly the movements involved in their particular sport. After all, it doesn’t matter which muscles do the movement, as long as the movement gets done.
For example, let’s say you find yourself in the octagon fighting Anderson Silva. As he throws a straight right toward your face, you couldn’t care less whether you use your abs, obliques, multifidus, or any other muscles… as long as you’re able to duck his rapidly-approaching fist before it smashes your pretty face.
If, after some combination of ducking and leaning, you could then manage to come up and counter with your own right hook to his left temple, who cares if your biceps, anterior delt, or core produced most of the power? Simply landing a shot on “The Spider” would be reason enough to be ecstatic!
On the other hand, if you’re someone who trains to look a certain way, then your progress is measured by the stimulation and adaptation of muscles, not movement execution. For that reason, the focus of your training should be on properly stimulating the appropriate muscles with the appropriate exercises.
To illustrate, pretend you’re onstage battling for the overall Mr. USA with eventual winner Mark Alvisi, among others. As the judges evaluate your physiques, they realize that your lats are rather thin and underdeveloped as compared to Mark’s.
Sure, you may have done identical amounts of vertical pulling and rowing as the new Mr. USA, but it doesn’t matter, because your lats simply aren’t up to snuff. Try again next year, buddy. Thanks for playing.
As you can see, both strength coaches and bodybuilding coaches are right. There’s a time to focus on movements, and there’s a time to focus on muscles.
But this article isn’t about uniting coaches and their methods; it’s about building a bad-ass back! One that’s not only big, but also symmetrical and aesthetic.
Let me preface by saying that this article is about an advanced approach to back training – one that’s arguably unnecessary for most trainees.
For the vast majority of people, even physique athletes, back training with a movement-based approach is fine, even if you do train for looks more so than function. In fact, it’s far superior to the way most gym goers haphazardly train their backs.
However, once you’ve reached a certain level of development, it becomes a must to approach training – especially back training – with a muscle-oriented approach. For most, it’s the only way to build a big back that’s visually appealing and symmetrical from top to bottom and from left to right.
Sure, some genetically gifted individuals can basically just lift heavy stuff and develop a balanced, symmetrical back (those bastards!). But the vast majority of us need a far more finely tuned approach – one that addresses each individual region of the back, not just the back as a whole.
Regions of the Back
Considering “the back” as one body part like we work with chest is a misguided approach that doesn’t take into account the complexity of the back musculature.
Think about it. Referring to the entire posterior aspect of your torso as “my back” is analogous to calling your anterior torso “my front,” even though it includes your pectorals, anterior deltoids, and abdominals.
To more finely tune the description of the muscles of the back, let’s compartmentalize them into three basic regions: upper back, lats, and low back.
The upper back includes the upper, middle, and lower traps as well as the rhomboids, which are “deep to” the middle traps.
Although not the focus of this article, let’s move from the midline and go laterally a bit. The upper back also includes the rear delts, infraspinatus, and its little friend the teres minor, all of which lie on the lateral aspect of the upper back.
As a brief review, the middle traps and the rhomboids work primarily to retract the scapulae or bring the shoulder blades closer together toward the midline. The upper traps elevate the shoulders (as in shrugging), while the lower traps depress (or lower) the scapulae and bring the bottom part of the scapulae closer together.
Visually, it’s the upper back that’s primarily responsible for giving the back that thick, three-dimensional look needed to look great in a rear double biceps pose.
As you probably know, the lats are situated primarily on the lateral part of the posterior torso, just below what we’re calling the upper back. For sake of completion, the teres major would also fit into the lat grouping.
The general function of the lats is to adduct or abduct the humerus. In other words, the lats move the upper arm either closer to the body, or away from the body, whether in the frontal or a sagital plane.
Great lat development obviously makes your back appear wider, especially when executing a rear lat spread. But great lats also complete the look of a rear double biceps pose. After all, it just doesn’t look right to have a thick upper back with paper-thin lats that don’t jut out from the sides.
The lats are also largely responsible for the overall shape of your physique. Whether facing the front or the rear, your lats enhance your appearance by giving width to your torso while visually narrowing your waist.
When referring to the lower back, we’re primarily talking about the lumbar spinal erectors. However, we’re also including the lesser-known multifidus and quadratus lumborum (QL).
As a chiropractor you probably expect me to make a big deal about the lower back. However, as an NPC judge I’ll say this: Development of the lower back isn’t really that important. In fact, the coveted “Christmas tree” appearance that’s often seen in the lower back has far more to do with lat thickness and lack of body fat than development of the spinal erectors.
As a general rule, doing deadlift variations, barbell squats, and some barbell rowing will take care of your lower back in terms of strength and development. However, if pain and/or lack of lower back strength prohibit you from doing any of the aforementioned movements, then you have a low back issue that should be addressed.
Are You Upper Back Dominant or Lat Dominant?
The vast majority of us tend to either be upper back dominant or lat dominant. In order to balance out your back development, you first have to know in which category you fit. Since I’m unable to personally watch you execute a rear double biceps pose and a rear lat spread, let me give you a simple but accurate way to assess your back dominance.
Do a moderately heavy set of neutral grip cable rows on a low pulley. As fatigue starts to set in, do you feel it more in your lats or in your upper back, mostly between your shoulder blades?
If you feel the movement more in your lats and tend to have a hard time getting a really good contraction or “squeeze” in your scapular retractors, then consider yourself lat dominant. And I bet your back lacks that really impressive three-dimensional “pop” to it, although you can probably develop width relatively easily.
On the other hand, if you tend to feel low-pulley cable rows in your upper back yet have a hard time isolating and squeezing your lats, then you’re upper back dominant. If this is the case, you probably have some decent thickness to your upper back, yet have a hard time getting the width that corresponds with your thickness.
As they say, knowledge is power. Now that you know at least one of the visual (and neurological) strengths and weaknesses of your back, you can begin to train in such a way to correct this discrepancy.
Training for a Big Beautiful Back
As a general rule of thumb, your back training routine (assuming it’s part of a body part split) should be comprised of 3 to 4 exercises – not including any direct rear delt or upper trap work.
For those of you who tend to be lat dominant, make sure that the majority of your back exercises target your upper back or scapular retractors. Keep in mind there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy training in this manner because it forces you to do exercises that you’re “not good at” or don’t “feel” very well.
However, the same neuromuscular inefficiency of your upper back that causes you to not feel certain exercises very well is the precise reason why you should be doing these exercises! You can’t fix a problem if you don’t address it.
Likewise, those of you who have a hard time activating your lats should spend the majority of your back training time targeting your lats.
As for maintaining the strong point of your back, the combination of one direct exercise and the spillover stimulation that it’ll get from other exercises will be ample stimulus to maintain and even slowly improve its development.
Back Training Routine: Upper Back Emphasis
- A. Rack Deadlifts
- B. Medium-grip Pulldowns
- C. One-arm Dumbbell Rows
- D. Reverse Flyes
Rack deadlifts are a great option for those looking to thicken their upper back without putting too much stress or emphasis on the lower back.
Medium-grip pulldowns are a perfect example of how, at least for bodybuilders, a movement-based approach to training isn’t very precise. Sure, it’s a vertical pulling movement, but it targets the upper back (i.e. middle and lower traps) far more than the standard wide-grip pulldown, which emphasizes the lats more.
One-arm dumbbell rows are one of the single best compound movements for the lats, assuming you keep your humerus along the side of your torso as you approach the contracted position.
Reverse flyes (or “T raises” as many non-bodybuilders call them) are a great exercise for isolating the upper back. Just make sure to forcefully squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement as opposed to focusing on squeezing the rear delts as you would if you were doing this movement specifically as a rear delt exercise.
Note: You may have noticed that I didn’t include any set or rep schemes. That’s because the main purpose of this article is to get you to think about back training in a different way, not to spoon-feed you an exact routine.
Back Training Routine: Lat Emphasis
- A. Underhand Barbell Rows
- B. Wide-grip Pulldowns
- C. Rack Deadlifts
- D. Decline Dumbbell Pullovers
Underhand barbell rows are great for those who are upper-back dominant as they place the humerus in a position that’s more mechanically advantageous for the lats as opposed to the upper back. Just make sure to avoid raising your torso more than 45° above horizontal or you’ll end up doing more of a shrugging movement, thereby shifting the emphasis away from the lats and/or the upper middle back (upper/middle traps and rhomboids).
Wide-grip pulldowns are, at first glance, very similar to medium-grip pulldowns. However, their affect on the back is much different as they emphasize the lats as opposed to the scapular retractors. To maximize the stimulus placed on the lats, keep your torso practically vertical while keeping your elbows in vertical alignment under your wrists.
Rack deadlifts are perfect for this lat-emphasizing routine as they will serve to more-than-maintain upper back musculature while providing a good overall growth stimulus.
Decline dumbbell pullovers are one of the single best exercises for stimulating the lats, especially for individuals who typically have a hard time doing so. The movement is essentially adduction of the humerus in the sagittal plane, which is one of the purest functions of the lats. Make sure to avoid the temptation to bend your elbows too much as you near the stretched position of the movement.
Back Training Routine: Balanced Development
- A. Pull-Ups
- B. Rack Deadlifts
- C. One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
- D. Overhand Barbell Rows
Pull-ups tend to be a fairly balanced exercise in terms of how they spread the stress over the back musculature. I suspect this is the case because, for most people, it’s simply too difficult to do in a manner that emphasizes one part of the back over the other. Instead, you’ll naturally fall into a position that enables the upper back and the lats to contribute their fair share of the workload.
Rack deadlifts are, as mentioned previously, an incredible overall back exercise. Likewise, most people will find that doing these will give more than adequate stimulation to the spinal erectors and the upper traps.
One-arm dumbbell rows are simply one of the best (and safest) back exercises around. But again, due to the position of the humerus, they tend to not stimulate the scapular retractors enough to cause growth.
Overhand barbell rows are definitely one of the single best compound movements for the upper back. Even though they closely resemble their sibling, the underhand barbell row, they’re a very different animal indeed. Since these are done to stimulate the upper back as opposed to the lats, make sure your humerus is abducted (away from your side) at least 45° if not 60°. This places the lats in a position that’s less mechanically advantageous, thus shifting the stress to the upper back.
Intelligent Back Training
If you’re nutritionally advanced at all, then you know there’s more to food than just calories. I bet you think of a meal in terms of protein, carbs, and fat. From now on you should think of back training in a similar light.
No longer is an exercise just “a back exercise.” And if you’re a physique athlete, you should think beyond vertical pulling and rowing. Instead, a back exercise is an upper back exercise, a lat exercise, a low back exercise, or a combination thereof, depending on the predominate muscle(s) stimulated, not the movement used to do the stimulating.
Approaching your back training with this paradigm will really allow you to optimize and fine-tune your back development. And who knows, one day it may be pictures of your back that will be used to illustrate perfect back development.