Strong Back, Strong Body
If there's one muscle group that truly separates the wheat from the chaff in strength sports and physique, it's unquestionably a big, strong back. Back development is the foundation from which an awesome physique and bone-crushing strength is built. As a friend of mine says, "I've seen weak guys that had huge arms and a big chest, but I've never seen a weak guy that had a big back."
To develop slabs of back meat you'll need to move big weights both horizontally and vertically. You'll be strong all over at just about everything you do... and you'll look impressive as hell while you do it. Here's what foundational back training really looks like.
Why Most Backs are Weak and Small
I see guys in the gym doing so many weird movements now, and most of them can't do the basic compound lifts with even a modicum of efficiency. It's not a coincidence.
Most guys need to get exceptionally strong on a few basic movements first and spend a few years banging out rep PR's before they start wondering if they need a weird exercise for the teres major and lower traps. Here's what we should all be asking them:
"Why are you lying upside down on a Swiss ball doing one-arm cable rows while talking about proper thoracic extensor position when you can't even barbell row your body weight or do ten strict pull-ups? Maybe you'd be bigger if you fixed those problems rather than worrying about the angle your prumbria dyfuria is flexing when the artichoke unvebrula is inverted in the sagittal plane."
Whether it's under the bar or under the stress of life, you'd be amazed at how just getting stronger ends up being a cure for most problems. It's true for every muscle group, and that includes the back.
Back Width and Thickness
Let's talk in bro-terms here:
Vertical pulling (like pull-ups, chins, and pulldowns) generally builds lats. These lifts make your back wide. Horizontal pulling (like rows) generally makes you thick through the mid-back, rhomboids, and traps. Deadlift variations build dense spinal erectors.
These are common deductions formed by experienced lifters through trial and error. If you need a complicated explanation and rat studies to prove what causes back growth, then chances are you aren't actually going to get in the trenches and build your back anyway.
And since you, Mr. Chicken Wings Back, keep wondering if there's a bunch of special exercises that will be the secret answer to your hypertrophy prayers, I'm here to tell you, NO. We already know the answers and they're pretty simple: heavy basic movements, time under tension, proper technique, and consistency.
Barbell Rows Gone Wrong
Rowing is crucial for a big back, yet many lifters don't get as much out of them as they could. What are they doing wrong? It depends. There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to the execution of the barbell row. And those stuck are on either end are leaving gains on the table.
- The Super Strict Guys – Those on the overly strict end will limit the amount of weight they can use because they'll get in a statue-stiff position, which won't allow for more weight. They think all body English is "bad form" and tell everyone they're going to break their backs if they use any appreciable amount of weight.
- The Dry Humper – The other extreme will use way too much weight and basically dry hump the bar by jerking the weight up and slamming their stomach into it. There's very little time under tension involved because all they're really doing is "kipping" up the bar.
The first group is too rigid and limits the amount of overall tension that can be created, and the second group needs to stop watching homemade R Kelly videos. Think you might fall into one of these camps? There are a few ways to make your row more efficient, safe, and productive.
Barbell Rowing 101
Before you start, set your base. The supportive muscle groups need to be in the safest and most stable position during movement execution. For this to happen you need to lock down the joints at angles where the antagonist muscles would perform a strong isometric role.
Here's how to get into that strong, stable position:
- Get your weight on your heels. Think in terms of doing a Romanian deadlift. Set your weight into your heels to counterbalance the weight of the barbell in front of you. Think "anchor the posterior chain."
- Breathe into your diaphragm. Breathe down into your gut and push your abs down and obliques out. This creates intra-abdominal pressure that helps to stabilize the lumbar spine.
- Activate your lats and upper back. How? By turning your elbows back and depressing your scapula. This will do a couple of things. It'll help you initiate the movement with your lats and mid-back, and help you move in synergy with proper breathing which will help you keep your spine stable.
Once you're in position, there's a few things to do to make the actual rowing part more effective.
Use the bar to set the proper angle of your torso
People often wonder what the angle of the torso should be during the barbell row. You can use the bar as a guide for finding an optimal torso angle and proper rowing range of motion.
At the lowest point in the range of motion, the bar should be a little below the knee.
If the lowest position the bar gets in is above the knee, which is usually the case for dry humpers, then you're basically doing a slightly bent-over shrug and taking the lats and upper back through a very limited range of motion. The traps are doing most of the work. Trap work is awesome, but there's better ways to develop the traps than bump-and-grind rowing.
Just below the knee is the sweet spot where you can use the appropriate amount of weight for full range of motion and for a decent amount of reps (8-12). It's true the lats can get more lengthened if you go a little lower, but you may compromise a strong lumbar position in doing so.
Row the bar to your lower abs
This is another thing that confuses people. If you pull the bar to your chest, then the moment-arm from the hips to the bar becomes very long and the lower back bears the brunt of the counter-balance. Put less stress on the low back so that the mid-back musculature can hog most of the tension.
To coach yourself, remember: Weight on heels, load the posterior chain, elbows back to activate lats, scapula down to engage upper back, bar lowered directly below knees, pull bar into the lower abs. It's not that hard. Now row some big weights.
I call these Dorian deadlifts because, well, Dorian Yates is the first guy I saw doing them this way.
Despite all the talk about the deadlift being a great back builder, the first part of the movement is a lot of hamstrings and to a lesser extent the glutes. The muscles of the back end up working mostly in an isometric fashion to keep your spine from shooting out into the wall behind you.
The conventional deadlift done in a full range of motion is actually two movements: a push off the floor, then a pull over the knees. The push off the floor is initiated by leg drive. Then as the bar gets to around knee height and the hamstrings have completed their part of the job, the rhomboids, lats, and traps work isometrically to hold position as the lockout is completed. The conventional deadlift, done with a full range of motion, has a couple of shortcomings when it comes to back building.
- There's not a great deal of emphasis placed on the eccentric portion of the rep, where growth potential is higher.
- There's not much of an eccentric. The lumbars, traps, and rhomboids do the brunt of their work in a short range of motion during the concentric to hold proper spine alignment.
With the Dorian deadlift, you fix both of these issues. It creates an emphasized eccentric, and it creates more tension for the entire back-meat area.
Start with one full rep, then from the top you lower the bar to just below the knee before reversing the rep. Because the eccentric stays in a loaded position, the scapula will lose retraction. The concentric forces the traps and upper back to pull the scapula back in with proper spinal alignment. Now we're talking about a lot of tension distribution from the erectors and throughout the upper back. That's good.
Why not just do block or rack pulls from the same height? That's an option. The shortcoming there, in contrast to Dorian deadlifts, is that once you set the bar down on the blocks or rack, everything gets unloaded – you lose tension. With the Dorian deadlift, the lumbars and upper back stay contracted to hold the spine in proper position in the range of motion where they're required to work the hardest.
These are unusual in most gyms. That's okay. Not every lifting session has to be as basic as the girl in Starbucks who "can't even" right now. These are great because you can achieve a very strong peak contraction in the lats.
Sit on the floor and prop your back up against the seat. Allow a full stretch of the lats, then pull with your elbows as far behind you as you can. Do this while arching your low back and getting your chest out. It's not rocket surgery.
This method will boost your chins the fastest:
- After a few warm-ups, add a little weight with a dip belt and do 5 reps.
- For the next set, add a little weight and do 4 reps.
- Then add a bit more and do 3 reps.
- Add more and do 2.
- Now do a single rep that's heavy for you, but can still be performed with a good deal of power and explosiveness.
- After this, do two sets of bodyweight chin-ups for as many reps as possible (AMRAP).
Each week try to add a little more weight to the top single and more reps to the back-off sets.
The driver in all of this is using the right amount of weight for the top single. It shouldn't be a grinding single. This is key because when the single is very difficult to complete, it'll tax your nervous system to the point where your back-off sets just suck. You won't be able to do as many bodyweight reps as you could've and you won't experience the same benefits.
Train Your Back Twice a Week
If you really need to bring up back strength and development, train it twice a week. Choose one vertical movement and then either the barbell row or Dorian deadlift.
- Rope Pulldowns: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dorian Deadlift: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
- Back-Off Chins: 5,4,3,2,1 – 2 x AMRAP with bodyweight
- Barbell Rows: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
How To Train Back Every Day
You can also pick one of these lifts to do each day and rotate through them. Try it for three weeks. Strive to hit some rep PRs, then take one week off from back training.
- Day 1: Dorian Deadlifts – 1 set of 6-8 reps
- Day 2: Back-Off Chins
- Day 3: Rope Pulldowns – 4 sets of 8-10 reps
- Day 4: Barbell Rows – 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Day 5: Start the cycle over
Sling Some Iron
There's going to come a day when the basics and progressive overload are going to have a point of diminishing returns. But there needs to be some quality time invested in those two things before you start overturning every rock to fill in the gaps.
If you want to build an impressive amount of foundational muscle, then start with building your strength on the foundational movements. Get to a point where you can sling some heavy iron. Stop neglecting your back if you want significantly more strength, power, and physique development.