Whether you’re an aspiring bodybuilder hoping to see his back from the front or just a guy looking to add some intimidating muscle, a strong, dense back is the hallmark of a great body.
Aesthetically, the back has the most potential for impact. Seen bare, its many muscles can move individually or in concert with one another, creating an effect that is part artistic tapestry, part topographical map. Seen clothed, a big back shows through any shirt, jacket, or parka.
And for guys just looking to get laid occasionally, a well developed back is the key to achieving the V-taper associated with a good-lookin’ body.
What follows is a six-week back specialization program designed with you in mind. Nearly every facet of both back training and specialization training was considered, and the program provides a combination of varying volume and interesting new exercises all designed to bring you to the next level of development.
Specialization Training Refresher
As I mentioned in my recent specialization article, I believe there are a few principles to follow for any program intended to rapidly increase the size of a single muscle group:
- High frequency – At least three workouts per week, preferably every other day.
- High weekly volume – Around 50 sets per week in various rep ranges.
- Moderately high intensity – 90 percent of max weight in any rep range.
- Large variety of exercises – Workouts should include compound, explosive, isolation, unilateral, and ‘wacky’ or unfamiliar exercises.
When writing a program specializing a body part, I stick with the above and normally assign three individual training days, rotated as frequently as possible. I prescribe the programs for short durations (three to six weeks) and maintain other body parts with a full-body circuit performed once per week.
When prioritizing back, though, I take it a step further. With so many variables, it becomes necessary to be more exact. To that end, I insist on four separate back workouts, each with its own intended goal.
“Back” Training Is Inadequate
Why so specific? Fellow T NATION contributor Dr. Clay Hyght put it best when he said, “Saying you’re going to train your back is like saying you’re going to train your front.”
Dr. Hyght’s comment addresses the uber-complicated musculature of the area itself. What he meant, and what I believe, is “the back” is simply made up of too many muscles attached in too many places doing too many things to be considered a single muscle group or to be targeted with a single session.
The upper back is made up of a myriad of different muscles, most of which have multiple functions, and various fiber make-ups. And, as if many different fiber types weren’t annoying enough, things are further complicated by the fact that our multi-layered posterior chain is composed of muscles whose fibers run in all different directions.
While I have no desire to turn this into a lecture on posterior anatomy, a quick overview of the area is in order.
- Latissimus Dorsi: Translating literally to “big back muscle,” the primary role of the lats is to make you look hyooge in tight t-shirts. Aside from that, the muscle serves to conduct functions such as extension, adduction, and medial rotation of the shoulder.
- Teres Major: Originating on the outer (lateral) edge of the scapula and attaching to the humerus, the teres muscles work with the rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint and works with the lats to move the humerus posteriorly. The teres major is heavily involved in everything from high-fives to Wii Tennis.
- Rhomboids (major and minor): The rhomboids are a muscle group located deep to the lats that lie in between the shoulder blades. Their main role is to adduct or retract the scapulae, bringing them together towards the spinal column.
- Trapezius *: This is a long, trapezoid-shaped muscle that runs down the upper section of the spinal cord, originates at the base of the skull, and attaches down in the middle to lower back. With fibers running in many directions, the traps perform several actions including scapular (and clavicular) elevation, scapular adduction, and scapular depression. Interestingly, the traps are probably the most often complimented body part by other dudes. “Yo, your traps are huge!”
* For our purposes, we’re mainly going to be concerned with mid and lower traps.
This is not, of course, a complete list, and I beg the forgiveness of the anatomy geeks among you for these quite basic descriptions, but I want to keep the focus on training. Moving on.
Training Considerations for the 6-Week Phase
- Plane of movement: Given the sheer multitude of muscles and the function of each, it’s far more effective to split your training into days primarily dedicated to one plane of movement. We’ll dedicate two days to vertical pulling and two days to horizontal pulling.
- Rep range: As I mentioned above, in order for a specialization program to be effective it must cover different rep ranges. For most muscles (particularly smaller groups like biceps or triceps), it’s effective to use a variety of rep ranges each workout.
For larger muscle groups (like your back), a wide intensity spread generally crosses too many borders to be effective. The focus of the training stimulus is lost and the results are not optimal. By training within a narrower spread of reps, the training session will be more productive.
6-Week Back Specialization Program
It’s important to note that these are specialization workouts and are intended to work the back. They are quick, painful, and effective and consist of less than 20 sets per workout. They should take you no longer than 35 to 40 minutes to finish, so get in, get out, and grow.
Workout 1 Low Rep Horizontal Plane Training
- A. Bent-Over Barbell Row with 3-second pause (supine grip)
- Sets: 6
- Reps: 3
- Rest: 45 seconds. Add five seconds of rest each set.
- Note: Hold for three seconds at the top of the movement. You’ll have to use a weight that’s lighter than what you’d normally estimate as being your 3RM.
- B. Explosive 1-Arm Bodyweight Row
- Sets: 5 each side
- Reps: 6
- Rest: 15 seconds between arms, 45 seconds between sets.
- Note: Perform in a smith machine or power rack.
- C1. ’Wrong-Way’ Cable Rows with V-Handle
- Description: These are to be done “Arnold style.” Rather than maintain a completely upright posture, allow the weight to pull you forward a bit on the negative (you may also protract your shoulders). On the negative, pull back with your upper back, shoulders, and generate a bit of force with your lower back. While technically “sloppy” form, this version of the row allows for a much greater stretch and contraction of the traps, rhomboids, and lats. Just be smart with the weight and don’t blow a disc.
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 8
- Rest: 60 seconds, then move to C2.
- C2. Horizontal Chin-up
- Description: Take an underhand grip on the pull-up bar and get ready to feel silly. Lean back as far as you can during the chin, aiming to perform a lever as you do. That is, in the end position of the chin-up, your goal is to be as horizontal as possible.
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 6-8
- Rest: 90 Seconds, then back to C1.
Workout 2 Higher Rep Vertical Plane Training
- A. Mechanical Advantage Pull-up Drop Set
- Description: Begin with a wide grip pull-up, then narrow grip, and finish with a parallel grip. This is one set. Each pull-up should be performed from a dead hang, with the strictest form possible.
- Sets: 1
- Reps: As many as you can do, stopping one to two reps short of failure on every movement.
- Rest: 5 seconds between phases. Let your feet touch the ground while resting.
- B. Single Arm Cable Pull-down
- Sets: 4
- Reps: 10, 10, 8, 8
- Rest: Zero seconds between alternations, 60 seconds between sets.
- Note: Perform ten reps with your right arm, then ten with your left. Without resting, perform eight more reps with your right arm, and eight more with your left. That’s one set. You will perform four sets, for a total of 54 reps per arm.
- C. Bent-Over Straight Arm Press-down (rope attachment)
- Description: Set an adjustable cable pulley to roughly belly-button height. Stand about four feet from the pulley and bend at the waist. Your head should be just below the pulley. From here, execute a straight-arm press down. Pause at both phases of the movement, allowing for maximum stretch and contraction.
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 12-15
- Rest: 60-75 seconds between sets
- D. Jump Pull-up
- Description: These are Crossfit-style jump pull-ups from a platform of some kind. I’m not a CF fan, but this pull-up variation is exceptional for increasing your ability to close the gap on the last part of a pull-up range of motion. Also, it’s incredible for density and adding size. Be sure to actively pull yourself up and push yourself down from the bar. Focus on flexing and squeezing the entire 30 seconds.
- Sets: 2
- Reps: As many as possible in 30 seconds.
- Rest: 30 seconds
- Note: This exercise is done for time, not reps. Simply perform as many as possible for the given time period.
- E. Mechanical Advantage Pull-up Drop Set
- Description: Begin with a wide grip pull up, then narrow grip, and finish with a parallel grip. This is one set. Each pull-up should be performed from a dead hang, with the strictest form possible.
- Sets: 1
- Reps: Go to failure for each phase.
- Rest: 10 seconds between phases. Let your feet touch the ground while resting.
Workout 3 Higher Rep Horizontal Plane Training
- A. Compound Row
- Description: I first started doing this exercise about two years ago, and thought I made it up. I called it the “Roman Row.” Then Nick Tumminello published an article with the same exercise and called it a Compound Row. (Evidently, since he’s not an arrogant bastard like me, he didn’t name it after himself.) While this isn’t a great mass builder, it’s particularly effective for increasing the mind-muscle connection and preparing you for maximal recruitment for the rest of the session.
- Sets: 1
- Reps: 15-18
- Rest: 20 seconds then proceed to B.
- B1. Chest Supported DB Row
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 8-10
- Rest: 30 seconds, then proceed to B2.
- B2. Side-to-Side Inverted Row
- Description: In a Smith Machine or power cage, set a bar to waist height. Lie underneath, and take the bar in an overhand grip. Pull yourself up and to one side then lower yourself to the middle. Repeat to the other side. That’s one rep.
- Sets: 3
- Reps: 16 (8 per side)
- Rest: 30 seconds, then return to B1. After your last set, rest 90 seconds and proceed to C.
- C. Standing Cross-Body Cable Row
- Description: Stand offset to a cable attachment. Pull across your body, completing a row.
- Sets: 2
- Reps: 10, 10, 10, 10
- Rest: Zero second between arms, 90 between sets.
- Note: Complete ten reps with your left arm, then ten reps with your right. Switch immediately to your left arm for ten more reps, then your right again for another ten. That’s one set. Rest 90 seconds and complete a second set. Rest 90 seconds then proceed to D.
- D. Mechanical Advantage Barbell Row Drop Set
- Description: Begin with a wide overhand grip then switch to a narrow overhand. End with an underhand grip. Begin with a weight you can lift roughly 15 times on the first phase.
- Sets: 2
- Reps: Work until failure on all phases.
- Rest: 10 seconds between phases, 140 seconds between sets.
Workout 4 Low Rep Vertical Plane Training
- A1. Snatch-grip Rack Pull
- Description: In a power rack, set the pins to around thigh height. Take hold of the bar in a snatch grip and hoist that bitch.
- Sets: 5
- Reps: 3-6
- Rest: 45 seconds then move on to A2.
- Note: Hold at the top of the movement for at least five seconds or as long as possible, whichever comes first. Use straps.
- A2. Alternating Single Arm Cable Pull-down
- Description: Holding one side of a V-handle cable attachment in your left hand, pull down and back, squeezing the lat as hard as possible during the entire range of motion. Slowly return the weight to the starting position, and pass the attachment off to your right hand.
- Sets: 5
- Reps: 6-8 each side
- Rest: No rest betœ
B. Negative Weighted Chin-up
- Sets: 4
- Reps: 4-6
- Rest: 60 seconds between sets. After your last set, rest 90 seconds and proceed to C.
- Note: Select a weight you can perform one to two regular chins with. Do not perform the concentric, but simply lower yourself down, counting three seconds per rep. Use a stool or bench to get back into the top position.
- C. Explosive Pull-up
- Sets: 1
- Reps: Explosive singles till death. (Or extreme failure.)
- Rest: 2 seconds between reps.
- Note: Set yourself up under the pull-up bar, hop up, and hold. Pull yourself up explosively as fast as you possibly can. Your goal should be to get your waist above the bar. Control your descent only casually. Drop to the floor, shake your arms out, rest two seconds, and do another. As you fatigue, begin to use the explosion to assist the movement. That is, use the momentum from your jump towards the bar to help perform the pull-up. Repeat this until you either die, or can’t do anymore. (Preferably the latter.)
This is the workout you’ll do to maintain the rest of your size and strength for all other muscle groups. There are six exercises listed, but how your set the workout up is up to you.
I’ll just give you three rules:
- This workout is to be no more than 15 total sets.
- No more than three sets on any single exercise.
- The reps per set should not exceed 10. (Generally, lower is better.)
That’s it. The rest is up to you.
Here are the exercises:
- Front Squat
- Dumbbell Low Incline Chest Press
- Romanian Deadlift
- Reverse Lunges
- Push Press
Here’s your schedule for the next six weeks:
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4||Week 5||Week 6|
|Monday||Workout 1||Off||Workout 4||Workout 3||Workout 2||Full Body Workout|
|Tuesday||Off||Workout 1||Off||Off||Off||Workout 1|
|Wednesday||Workout 2||Full Body Workout||Workout 1||Workout 4||Full Body Workout||Off|
|Thursday||Full Body Workout||Off||Off||Off||Workout 3||Workout 2|
|Friday||Workout 3||Workout 2||Workout 2||Workout 1||Off||Workout 3|
|Saturday||Off||Workout 3||Full Body Workout||Full Body Workout||Workout 4||Off|
|Sunday||Workout 4||Off||Off||Off||Off||Workout 4|
Super-Charging Tips for Back Training
- Flex it, Bro – Back muscles are notoriously difficult to recruit and a lot of trainees just “arm-it.” That is, they move through a complete range of motion, but are mostly using the muscles in the arms rather than those in the back.
Instead of just doing the exercise, focus on trying to flex the working muscles at the beginning of each rep to help engage the target area and recruit more muscle fibers. In addition, because the muscles you’re trying to work are bigger and stronger, you’ll be able to use more weight.
- The Magic Touch – In keeping with the idea of increasing the mind-muscle connection, here is something we do at my facility. If you have a spotter or training partner, have them lightly rest their fingertips on your lats or other back muscles during the entirety of a given set. (Stop laughing.)
This is a technique called tactile stimulation. By gently touching a muscle during the set, you become more aware of that muscle, and it makes it a lot easier for you to consciously flex and squeeze, allowing for a better workout overall. You can do this yourself on all unilateral exercises by wrapping the non-working hand or arm around your body (think of hugging yourself) and grabbing your lat.
- Stop hating on the pull-down – People always decry pull-downs because they’re not “hardcore” like pull-ups. I’m here to tell you that when used correctly, pull-downs can be one of the best exercises in the world for building a wide, well-proportioned back.
In all honesty, the vast majority of people do pull-downs incorrectly, which may be why they are so widely despised. Incorrect performance produces lackluster results after all. Here’s the right way to perform pull-downs.
Instead of just sitting down at the machine and pulling down, set up correctly. Sit with your torso angled back about ten degrees. Do not think about pulling the bar with your hands towards your chest. Rather, close your eyes, flex your lats, and concentrate on pulling your elbows towards your hips. You should imagine them traveling in a slightly curved line towards your waist, coming inward as you complete the rep. Pause when the bar touches your sternum.
Finally, I must say that pulling yourself towards a fixed object and pulling a mobile object towards your body are vastly different things. They will elicit different responses, and should also be treated as completely different movements. Therefore, a program that uses both with be more effective in terms of increasing strength, power, efficiency, and most importantly size.
There you have it: a six-week specialization program that will give you the posterior strength and size you’re after, without compromising the rest of your body. Give it a shot and let me know what you think!