Tips for Complete Back Development

After my last post that showed my weight loss pics, a few people asked what I do for back development, so here are my tips…

  1. Work your back as much as your front – too many people in the gym put all of their energy and focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror. It’s not uncommon to see guys doing 4 or 5 exercises at high intensity for chest, and then on back day they’ll do some half-hearted lat pull-downs and cable rows and call it a day.  Your back has as least as much muscle as your chest, front delts, and abs combined, so work it accordingly.
  2. Always include these four movements for full back development: a pull-down movement for the lats, a rowing movement for the rhomboids and middle back, a deadlift movement for the spinal erectors, and a shrugging movement or farmers walk for the traps. There are tons of options available for each of those movements when you consider free weights, machines, and different types of grips and handles.  Just make sure you cover all four in some form or fashion each week to develop your back from top to bottom.
  3. Pull with your back, not your arms – keep your bicep involvement to a minimum on all back exercises. For whatever reason, this seems to be a lot harder for some people than others.  On deadlilfts and shrugging movements, make sure to keep your arms straight during the exercise.  If you find your biceps taking over on pull-downs and rows, one trick is to envision your hands as hooks on the bar and focus on pulling your elbows back.  A second tip is to squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the weight towards you.  Most importantly, you should be mentally focused on your back muscles during the exercise rather than simply moving the weight from point A to point B.  The longer you’ve been practicing that mind-muscle connection, the easier and more natural it will be to place the stress of the exercise where it belongs.
  4. Use bigger weights for a bigger back – light weights are fine for warming up and basic muscle tone, but to gain muscle size/thickness you need to challenge yourself to move heavier weights in good form. I’m not talking about doing a one rep maximum but rather using the heaviest weights you can for whatever your target rep range might be.  On upper body pulling movements like lat pull-downs and rows, you should be handling similar weights to what you use on pressing movements like bench presses and incline presses.
  5. Use a variety of rep ranges – most people will get best results by varying their reps in the range of 5-20. The variety will develop different components of the muscle, prevent overtraining, and keep things mentally fresh.
  6. Don’t abuse your lower back – this boils down to using good form (especially no lower back rounding) and not overworking your lower back. If you’re under 30 and lucky, you might be able to get away with abusing your back for a while, but eventually it will catch up with you.  When designing a workout routine, consider the total workload on your lower back throughout the week including things like squats that you might not do on back day.  For me, when I’m doing squats, deadlifts, and cleans each week, I do rows on a machine with chest supported to spare the lower back.

My personal back routine

Keeping in mind we all have different goals, exercise preferences, and recovery abilities, I’ll go ahead and post my current back routine to provide an example of how to put one together.  I work back twice per week:  One day I do pull-ups and rows, and another day I do olympic lift variations and some type of deadlift or farmer’s walk.  I typically also do chest and arm work on both back days, but I’ll just list the back exercises:

Week 1 (light)

Day 1: lat pulldown 3 x 15-20, machine row 3 x 15-20

Day 2: power snatch – 5RM, power clean – 10RM, farmers walk x 150ft

Week 2 (medium)

Day 1: pull-up 4 x 8-10, machine row 4 x 8-10

Day 2: power snatch – 3RM, power clean – 5RM, deadlift 5 x 5

Week 3 (heavy)

Day 1: weighted pull-up 5 x 5, machine row 5 x 5

Day 2: power snatch – 1RM, power clean – 1RM, stiff leg deadlift 3 x 15

The notation above is sets x reps, and warm up sets are not shown.  5RM means work up to one set of 5 reps as heavy as you can go, after doing several progressively heavier warm up sets.

The routine is a three week rotation, so right after week 3 you go back to week 1.

You can see that each week there’s some type of pull-down, row, pull off the floor, and trap exercise, and the reps vary between 1 and 20 over the three weeks.

Hopefully you picked up something useful to apply to your back routine.  A strong healthy back is great for moving heavy things and for giving you that look of power missing from most mirror athletes.


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