Category Archives: back training
Here’s what you need to know…
When it comes to squatting and deadlifting strength, the thoracic extensors play an even greater role in stabilizing the spine than the abdominals. And while many lifters perform accessory movements for the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and abs, most lifters don’t do any accessory work for the erector spinae. That’s a mistake.
For years powerlifting experts such as Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have stressed the importance of targeting the erector spinae, especially when it’s an inherent weak link for the lifter, but until now we haven’t had any research to back up their methods.
A recent study by Fisher et al. showed that performing the Romanian deadlift (RDL) didn’t improve lumbar extension torque, but lumbar extension training was found to improve both RDL performance and lumbar extension torque.
This shows that performing isolation movements for the spine can directly improve deadlifting performance. According to Hamlyn et al., the lumbar erectors fire harder during squats than deadlifts, but the thoracic erectors fire harder during deadlifts than squats.
Needless to say, both the lumbar and thoracic spine need to be incredibly strong to hold the pelvis in place and prevent the spine from buckling during heavy squat, deadlift, and good morning variations.
Below are eight go-to-exercises for accessory erector work. When you perform thoracic extension exercises, it’s very important to do them properly. You want to move mostly at the thoracic spine and not so much at the lumbar spine.
While the lower back does flex slightly when performing thoracic extension exercises, trying to maintain a lumbar arch ensures that it doesn’t round excessively and that the vast majority of motion comes from the upper back. Moreover, the lower lumbar spine and pelvis will remain stabilized with any lumbar motion occurring in the upper lumbar spine.
A variety of barbell, safety squat bar, chain, kettlebell, band, and dumbbell exercises can all be used to develop upper back strength.
Here’s a video that shows how to do all of these movements, with descriptions to follow.
1. Seated Good Morning
The seated good morning is a powerlifting staple for upper back building. Do these in a power rack and make sure you set the j-cups and safety pins at the appropriate heights.
You can do these from a higher bench height or a lower bench height (I prefer higher benches); with the legs bent or with the legs more out in front of the body; with a traditional barbell, or even better, with a safety squat bar.
The trick with seated good mornings for upper back building is to make sure you feel it in your upper back. If you keep a big arch you can make it more of a hamstring movement, but you don’t want this. Keep the bar high up on your back and let the t-spine flex and extend.
2. Safety Squat Bar Upper Back Good Morning
These aren’t traditional good mornings – not even close. You’re not bending over at the hips so much as just bending the upper back over. You can do these with a traditional barbell, but a safety squat bar is even better.
Moreover, you can do them with the safety squat bar in the regular or backwards position. Both work well but they feel differently from one another.
3. Chain Upper Back Good Morning
Chain upper back good mornings are my favorite t-spine exercise. The only problem is that if you’re very strong, you’ll need a lot of chain. Just drape the chains around your neck and then flex and extend the upper back.
You can hyperextend the t-spine with these and obtain good resistance through the entire range of motion. Hell, just standing with the chains on for extended periods murders the upper back.
4. Chain Upper Back Extension
This is an exceptional exercise and probably the most versatile of the group. Set up in a glute-ham developer (GHD), round the torso over the pad, and make sure your knees are bent so the hamstrings don’t contribute to the movement.
Chains are my favorite way to load this movement, but you can pretty much use anything – bands, a barbell, a safety squat bar, a cambered bar, or a dumbbell.
What’s best about this exercise is that you can tinker around with torso hinging placement to target different areas of the t-spine. Lower torso placement on the pad targets the lower thoracic region, mid placement targets the mid thoracic region, and upper placement targets the upper region.
5. Seated Kettlebell Deadlift
The seated kettlebell deadlift is highly effective for thoracic building, but you need a heavy kettlebell. The video shows me using a 48-kilogram (106-pound) kettlebell, but it’s still a bit light. If combined with chains, however, the exercise can be even more effective. Focus on upper back movement and push the chest tall at the lockout.
6. Front Squat Isohold
The front squat isohold is a great thoracic strengthener. Load up a barbell with 130-150% of your 1RM front squat, un-rack, keep the chest tall, squeeze the abs and glutes, and hold for time.
7. Band Upper Back Good Morning
Another convenient way to load the upper back is with bands. Simply stand on the elastic band (or on multiple bands if you don’t have strong ones), wrap it around your neck, and flex and extend the upper back. Get full extension as it will provide resistance through the entire ROM.
8. Dumbbell Upper Back Extension
The upper back extension performed with a dumbbell is another simple way to load the t-spine, assuming you have access to a GHD. Try to hold the dumbbell up near chest level, because if you let it sink to navel level it reduces the torque loading on the spine.
Powerlifting legend Fred Hatfield used to perform this exercise with 225 pounds for sets of 10 reps using a special contraption that allowed him to hold a loaded barbell up closer to his chest so he could achieve full ROM. He felt that this exercise was very helpful in allowing him to achieve a 1,000-pound squat way back in the day.
3 Weeks to New PR’s
Squats and deadlifts can build a world class back, but isolating joint actions can thicken your thoracic region and help you blast through plateaus.
I recommend hammering the erectors for three weeks by incorporating some of these movements into your regular training. Test your max on the fourth week to see how your hard work paid off!
For most trainees, “back day” typically includes at least one variation of the row. This pleases the strength coach in me as it shows at least some consideration of balanced programming. However, the meathead in me is often dismayed by the gross lack of effort put forth into these rows.
Doesn’t anyone watch Pumping Iron anymore? That scene of Arnold and Franco banging out heavy-ass sets of T-bar rows just weeks before the Mr. Olympia? When it comes to back training those guys absolutely brought it, and there’s a lot to be learned from that.
But what about lighter, controlled rowing variations? Are they even worth doing?
Good question. To that end, there are really two main reasons to do rows:
This not only looks badass, it also helps provide a stable foundation for other compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and presses, thereby allowing you to lift more weight and in turn build more muscle all over.
This part isn’t nearly as sexy, but it’s still extremely important in terms of improving posture and warding off shoulder problems so that we can continue to train hard and remain injury-free.
So even if all you care about is point number 1, point number 2 should still be important to you because you can’t build serious muscle if you’re laid up with a shoulder injury. On the bright side, improving your posture will also go a long way towards making your chest appear bigger, so it’s not entirely unsexy.
While rows can certainly help with both these goals, training for size and training for optimal shoulder health and function aren’t the same. They aren’t mutually exclusive either, and there’s definitely some overlap, but different goals require different strategies.
The prescription for building a thick upper back via rows is pretty straightforward:
- Row big weights
- Eat big
- Row slightly bigger weights
- Rinse and repeat
Going back to point number 1, from a size perspective, good technique doesn’t appear to matter much. Often guys with the biggest backs, like the aforementioned Arnold and Franco, will sling massive weights with technique that would make the form police pull out their ticket books and have the YouTube warriors coming out of their parents’ basements in droves to cast stones.
That being said, it’s one thing if you’re trying to build elite level size and strength, in which case you may need to take some chances and push the limits. But for those who lead normal lives and want to balance getting bigger and stronger with staying healthy and pain-free, I strongly advocate using controlled form.
Bear in mind that I’m not coming at this from some holier-than-thou pedestal. I’ve conjured up my inner Franco and done more than my fair share of fugly rowing – if you even want to call it that – with heavy weights, and while I definitely packed on some muscle doing that, I’ve also hurt myself too.
The thing is, I’m hoping you can avoid my mistakes.
Look, you still need to focus on building strength and handling progressively heavier weights over time to pack on any appreciable amount of muscle, but your rows should always look like, well, rows – not a monkey humping a football.
For point number two, when the goal is improving posture and balancing out the shoulder girdle, form becomes of paramount importance. Bench pressing (and its variations) promotes scapular protraction and shoulder internal rotation, so to offset that we need to employ exercises that focus on scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation.
Rowing helps promote scapular retraction in theory, but you have to be meticulous with the form, and that can be hard to do when the weight gets really heavy.
Bottom line is some rowing variations lend themselves better to heavier loading while others are more “feel” movements. Both are important, and both have value. If all you did was heavy rowing all the time, you’d probably be pretty muscular, but you’d also be more susceptible to injury.
Conversely, if all you did was lighter “feel” exercises, you might be more injury-resistant, but you probably wouldn’t have much meat on your upper back.
The key, like with most things in life, is to strike a balance to give you the best of both worlds.
You’re likely familiar with the mass-building rowing staples – barbell rows, T-bar rows, heavy dumbbell rows, etc. – so I’ll use this article to share some more feel-type rowing movements that don’t necessarily lend themselves to crazy poundages, but will still pay big dividends in your training program. None of these exercises require any specialized machines either, so they should be doable for most of you.
Don’t get me wrong, these exercises will still undoubtedly build muscle, so don’t think of it as boring prehabby-type stuff and just half-ass it and go through the motions. You should still be pushing hard and looking to add weight and/or reps over time, but only as long as it still looks good and you feel the right muscles – namely the lower traps, middle traps, and rhomboids – doing the work.
On that note, think about keeping your shoulders “down and back” and pulling with your elbows, not your hands, and avoid shrugging your shoulders up as you row. It also really helps to pause each rep at the point of contraction and really focus on squeezing the mid-back to ensure that you’re using the intended muscles and not just relying on momentum.
Without further ado, here are the exercises.
1. Batwing Rows
I first learned about batwings from Dan John. It’s essentially an isometric chest-supported dumbbell row where you focus on retracting your scapula and pulling your elbows back as hard as you can.
Batwing rows are similar, except one arm does an isometric hold while the other rows. It also helps to do them on an incline bench to allow your arms to extend fully during the rows without touching the floor.
Do each rep slowly and deliberately with a full range of motion and an exaggerated contraction. If you’re doing them correctly, you should feel a huge burn in your upper back.
Remember that you have to do both sides, so err on the light side at first as far as weight is concerned and make sure you’re nowhere near failure after the first arm because it catches up to you quickly. As a point of reference, if you’re using 40-50 pound dumbbells, you’re doing very well for yourself. Start around 20-30 pounders and go from there.
As an added bonus, this also functions as a nice core exercise too, as you have to brace to keep from rotating on the bench.
2. Chest Supported Row/Reverse Fly Combo
Lame name, I know. I’m not good with thinking up cool names for exercises, so if you’ve got something better, I’m open to suggestions.
This is a great exercise though, so frankly, I don’t care what it’s called.
Lie face down on an incline bench with dumbbells in each hand, just like with the batwing row. From there, row up, straighten your arms out to the sides and slowly lower down to the starting position in a reverse fly motion.
Here’s what it looks like in action.
From a muscle-building standpoint, this exercise gives you the benefits of rowing for the upper back while also allowing you to overload the rear delts with more weight than you’d otherwise be able to use if you just did reverse flies on their own.
From a shoulder health standpoint, it kills two birds with one stone, allowing you to work the scapular retractors and shoulder external rotators in one movement.
That’s a win-win.
3. Decline Inverted Rows
Inverted rows with suspension straps are not only an awesome back builder, they’re also great from a shoulder health standpoint because they target both scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation at once.
The shoulders are free to move through a natural range of motion as the hands move from pronated (palms down) to supinated (palms up), which introduces an external rotation component while you perform a closed-chain row.
If that wasn’t enough bang for your buck, it’s also one hell of a core exercise.
A typical progression would be to start with your feet on the floor, move to elevating your feet on a standard weight bench, and then start adding external load.
If you’re to the point of adding weight though, you might also want to try elevating your feet on a higher box to make it harder and change the angle of the pull.
When you elevate your feet on a standard weight bench, your body starts parallel to the floor when the arms are full extended, but as you row up, the head comes up higher than the feet.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I often do them that way myself, but one potential drawback is that there’s a strong tendency to cheat, especially when you’re trying to push yourself. The main problems I see are trying to create momentum by attempting to hump the ceiling, excessive shoulder shrugging, and poking the head way forward, which makes it nearly impossible to achieve full scapular retraction.
Elevating the feet higher seems to help take care of these issues and makes it easier to keep good form – provided you’re strong enough to do them, of course. You’ll end up pulling a little lower into your body than a typical inverted row too, which encourages keeping the shoulders down and does a better job of hitting the mid back.
Elevate the feet high enough so that your torso is parallel to the floor (or even at a slight decline) at the topof the rep as opposed to the bottom. Obviously the higher the box, the harder it is. Don’t go too high, though, as it will reduce the range of motion. A typical bench is usually between 16-18 inches, and even going to a 24-inch box makes a huge difference, as you can see in this video.
If you’re currently at a stage where you’re adding weight to inverted rows but still don’t feel that you’re getting much out them, or if you’re ignoring inverted rows altogether because you think you’re beyond them, give these a shot.
4. Dumbbell Rows (1.5 Reps)
Dumbbell rows are a great exercise, but stronger lifters will often find that their gyms don’t have big enough dumbbells to accommodate them. If that’s the case, you’ve got a few options.
- Do a shitload of reps with the heaviest dumbbell available, a’la Kroc Rows.
- MacGyver a barbell and do one-arm T-bar rows to get a similar training effect with more loading potential. (See left.)
- Make a lighter weight harder by using “1.5 reps”
All three of these choices could work in the right scenario, but since this article is focusing on lower weight “feel” type movements, I’ll focus on the “1.5” rep technique.
Row up, pause, come halfway down, row back up, pause again, and come all the way down. That’s one rep.
Confused? This video should help.
It won’t take much weight for these to be extremely challenging – especially if you refrain from using body English – and the “1.5” rep technique means more work for the scapular retractors. Try pulling lower into your body (just to the side of your belly button) to help reinforce the idea of keeping the shoulders down and back.
If you’re strict and don’t allow your torso to rotate, it’s also a great core exercise.
5. Seated Barbell Band Rows
I actually came across this one almost by accident. One of my online personal training clients was looking for an exercise to mimic seated cable rows, but he didn’t have a cable machine or a specialized rowing handle in his home gym. With that in mind, I thought about it and went to the gym to mess around a little bit and try to figure something out, and this is what I came up with: seated barbell band rows.
I’m glad that happened because I really like this exercise, and even though I have a cable station, I’ve been doing them this way.
I like them for a couple of reasons:
- The bands offer accommodating resistance, so it’s harder at the point of contraction. While this doesn’t mimic the strength curve very well, it makes for one heck of a contraction and really forces you to accelerate through the row.
- Using a barbell forces you to keep your lats contracted throughout the set to keep the bar from tipping. You’ll have to try it to see what I mean, but the bar wants to wiggle around on you, so to keep that from happening, you have to brace your lats and core. It’s hard to describe, but the feeling is very different from using a specialized rowing handle.
- With a regular seated cable row, your feet are usually placed in front of you. This isn’t a problem necessarily, but it often leads to rounding at the lumbar spine on the eccentric phase if you aren’t careful or don’t have good hamstring flexibility. With this version, it’s much easier to keep a neutral spine.
- Because the barbell is heavier than a normal seated row handle, it works the shoulders quite a bit too. Think of doing an isometric front raise while you row.
- When you use a traditional close-grip “V” handle like most people when doing cable rows, it usually leads to internal rotation of the shoulder as you row into your stomach. With a wider grip, you can keep that from happening as much.
As far as the form goes, it’s almost identical to a regular seated cable row. I like to hold the barbell using a thumbless “false” grip because that helps me engage my back more and reinforces pulling through my elbows by literally making the hands function merely as hooks, but that’s just personal preference.
I realize this looks like a pretty wussy exercise, but I urge you to try it before rushing to judgment. It’s actually much tougher than you might think. To progress it, you can use a thicker band and/or move farther away from the anchor point. You can also add small weights to the end of the barbell, but don’t crazy as it’s not meant to be a shoulder exercise.
Pulling It All Together
Certainly, don’t abandon your basic heavy rows – and if you’re not doing them already, please start – but try adding some of these exercises into the mix to balance things out.
You could do them at the end of your workouts after your heavier upper body work to pull everything together (pun totally intended) or on separate days when you’re looking to build additional volume to correct imbalances you’ve already developed without stressing your body too much.
How you choose to implement them is up to you and will depend on the type of program you’re following, but just make sure you do some of this stuff to give you the optimal blend of upper back size and shoulder health to ensure you keep crushing it for the long haul.
Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.
When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.
The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:
To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.
Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.
The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.
If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.
My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.
Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story: if you want big biceps, do curls. The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.
I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.
I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.
I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.
This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.
As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.
While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.
You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.
I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.
I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:
If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.
And I’m Done
These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?
People who understand strength respect a big back. Dave Tate said when he used to powerlift competitively, he never worried about the lifters with big chests or quads – it was the guys with thick lats and spinal erectors that concerned him.
A thick, strong back is a sign of a strong lifter. The erectors, lats, rhomboids, and traps are of paramount importance for both weekend warriors and competitive lifters. We all know guys at the gym that look impressive from the front but resemble middle school kids from the rear. Don’t copy them.
Why a Big Back is Important
Training the back is crucial for strength sports as well as overall health and performance. A strong, thick back will bolster your bench, squat, and deadlift as well as support other lifts that help you get big and strong.
A thick upper back creates a nice shelf for the bar to rest when squatting, while strong lats allow a lifter to “lock in” their position on a deadlift and power through to lockout.
Your lats are also the foundation for all pressing movements. The wider and thicker your back is, the bigger the base of support you’ll have to press big weights.
Furthermore, the strength in your upper back is crucial for shoulder health. Many people focus too much on pushing movements and neglect their pulling strength. At the very least, you should perform a pulling exercise every time you perform a pushing one to balance out the body.
Shoulder specialists like T NATION’s Eric Cressey recommend as much as a 3:1 pull to push ratio when trying to bring up an athlete’s strength and correct imbalances.
Enter the Barbell Row
The barbell row (and its variations) is one of the best movements for both back size and strength. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most butchered lifts you’ll see performed in the gym, which is a shame, as too much body English completely diminishes the barbell row’s potential benefits.
This isn’t to say that sometimes you can’t work up a little heavier and use looser form, but many take this to an extreme, performing “rows” that resemble a penguin having a seizure. The key is to keep tension on the muscles you’re trying to work, namely the upper back. Leave your ego at the door.
Finally, lifters often have horrible shoulder positioning when performing rows. Below is a great method to correct this pattern.
Pack the Shoulders
Safe and effective barbell rowing requires packing the shoulders, or actively depressing and retracting the shoulder blades. First, think of sticking your chest out and pinching a ball in between your shoulder blades. Next, try to pull your left scap to your right hip and your right scap to your left hip.
A very good way to learn this is by performing bat wings, either with your body weight or with dumbbells.
Set up a barbell in a power rack about waist height. Elevate your feet on a bench and perform an isometric inverted row. Keep your chest “proud,” while keeping your hips level. Squeeze your glutes, drive your heels into the bench, and keep your neck packed. You’re essentially in an upside down plank; learning to keep a neutral spine and packed shoulders.
Dumbbell Chest Supported Row
You can do these with dumbbells or kettlebells. What’s great about performing this movement on an incline bench is that it’s very hard to screw up. Keep your belly and head glued to the bench and stick out your chest while keeping your shoulders down and back. If your head, chest, or belly come off the bench you’re cheating, so it’s a self-correcting exercise.
A good idea is adding an isometric hold. These will teach proper shoulder positioning when performing more advanced rowing variations. To accomplish this, simply hold each rep for a one-count and notice the change in muscle recruitment in your back. The difference is quite humbling.
Bent Over Row
When performing bent over row variations, many lifters are too upright and don’t sit back enough. You want to try to get your body parallel to the floor so you’re completely bent over. This way the resistance directly opposes gravity and allows for much more efficient conditioning of the lats and upper back.
Focus on keeping your core braced to help maintain a neutral spine. Also, keep a “soft bend” in the knee, as too much knee bend will result in the bar crashing into your kneecaps.
You can perform this exercise with a pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand) grip. With all rowing variations, it’s important to stick the chest out while pulling the shoulders down and back.
I like to perform rows with a supinated grip as it allows for more external rotation. Think of performing the movement as the opposite of a bench press and tuck the elbows in towards the body as you raise the weight.
This is similar to how I see most barbell rows being performed, although most times I think it’s unintentional. This is a good variation for when you want to hit the back a little differently than a traditional bent over row. Your body will be more upright and you’ll pull the bar to the lower part of the stomach. This is a very good variation when you want to move a lot of weight for high reps; just don’t use it all the time.
Dead Stop Variations
Many lifters don’t have enough hip mobility to keep proper position for true bent over rows. A way to work around this is by performing bent over rows in a power rack using a very low pin setting.
This variation allows the lifter to reset his back every rep to ensure his form and positioning is optimal. I also like this exercise for improving deadlift starting strength since the lifter has to lift the weight from a dead stop every rep. You can play with different heights, but usually around the lower part of the shin works well.
This is a dead stop row variation performed from the floor. It requires more hip mobility than the rack row but has the same benefits. You won’t be able to use as much weight as a regular bent over row since there’s no stretch reflex, and you must lift the weight from a dead stop every rep.
This is another great exercise for improving starting strength. I like to initiate this exercise with my quads as in a deadlift, and then row to my lower stomach. This is a great exercise to perform heavy for pure back strength.
Increase your Grip Strength
Towel Bent Rows
This is a great bang for your buck exercise to work your upper back and grip at the same time. Simply grab two towels and wrap them around the barbell where you’d normally place your hands.
This is also a great variation for people with shoulder issues. The towel allows for a neutral grip, which is a very easy position for the shoulders. It also forces the lifter to grip with more force, thereby activating more stabilizer muscles in the shoulder girdle. Lastly, it will force the lifter to use a lighter weight, which again will be a little easier on the shoulder joint.
Towel T-Bar Rows
This is a great way to perform T-bar rows when D-handles and other T-bar machines aren’t available. The towel also allows for a more natural range of motion.
Stick a barbell in the corner of two walls or inside a power rack and wrap a towel over the barbell. This movement can be performed very heavy and is a great exercise for size and strength.
Like the last variation, this will also work the grip and allow for a shoulder-friendly neutral grip.
One-Arm Barbell Row – Staggered Stance
If your gym doesn’t have heavy dumbbells, you can perform one-arm barbell rows. This is also going to work the grip since you need to balance the barbell by gripping it in the middle. Perform them on a bench or in a staggered stance. One-arm rows are great for developing each side of the back independently and can help prevent asymmetries from developing.
One-Arm Barbell Row – Neutral Stance
One-arm barbell rows can also be performed from a neutral stance, which will work the core more since you need to resist the side from bending due to the asymmetrical load. This variation can also be performed inside a power rack with dead stop reps to increase starting strength.
Rowing Wrap Up
As you can see, there are many effective rowing variations you can add to your training. Each of these exercises can be used as a supplemental or assistance movement on your strength building days, or as a main back exercise if you’re following a body part split.
But to reap all the benefits of rowing, you must be mindful to keep your technique as clean as possible. Start by performing barbell rows with a lighter weight and master your technique before piling on the weight. You’ll be surprised how much weight you really need when you perform rows with strict form.
Here’s a summary:
- Make sure to perform a proper hip hinge.
- Sit back to get the body parallel to the floor.
- Only bend the knees slightly.
- Keep the core braced to ensure a neutral spine and to help eliminate unnecessary body English.
- Keep the chest proud and the shoulders packed to ensure shoulder health and optimal muscle recruitment.
- When in doubt, lighten the weight and really focus on the muscle being worked. If you feel it in your legs, lower back, and neck, you’re using too heavy a weight.
- Holding each rep for a one-count at the top eliminates most bad technique.
- Work the lats isometrically from time to time.
These exercises will help you set new PRs in your bench, squat, and deadlift, while making your physique an impressive sight when seen from behind. Start performing these exercises regularly – and properly – and build some wide, thick lats that would make Dorian proud!
Back-Friendly Leg Training
I’ve dealt with back problems my entire life. By problems, I don’t mean the occasional lower back tweak, but rather serious complications that greatly affected both my training and my overall quality of life.
Suffice it to say, my issues weren’t the sort that a few Advil and ten minutes on the foam roller could cure. I’ll spare you the gory details, but things came to a head in 2005 after involuntarily wetting the bed several times and being forced to have surgery to repair a disk at L5-S1.
I was also an athlete and exercise junkie, but after the surgery I had a lot of trouble (and still do) running and cutting, which obviously ruled out most sports. So I turned to lifting weights for my daily endorphin fix.
My drug of choice is leg training. There’s just something satisfying about it – not necessarily fun, but satisfying. Leg day will push you to your physical limits and show you what you’re made of along the way.
It’s also a surefire way to separate the real lifters from the prima donnas. Big arms and broad shoulders are a dime a dozen, but when I see a guy with strong and muscular legs, he’s got my respect because I know he’s put the work in. There’s just no other way.
Leg day can be a slippery slope for those with back problems. On one hand, you’ve got to push it hard to see results, but most traditional leg training programs can wreak havoc on your back if you’re not ultra careful.
You don’t want to risk getting hurt, but you also don’t want to be relegated to a life of wussy training and wearing sweatpants at the beach, either. I struggled with this for a long time, and I suspect many reading this do too.
Through considerable trial and error, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to modify leg training to not exacerbate my back problems while still training with the brutal intensity required to make progress. If what I’m saying resonates at all, this article is for you.
The Program Basics
For many, a typical training session will look something like this:
- Single leg knee-dominant exercise
- Posterior chain/hip dominant
- Bilateral knee-dominant exercise (Optional)
It’s basically your run-of-the-mill leg program, only in reverse. Traditional methods will have you starting with some form of heavy squat, followed by something for the posterior chain before wrapping up with single-leg exercise accessory work.
This method has built many a big set of wheels and is no doubt effective, but if you have a preexisting back problem, it may also be setting you up for a world of hurt down the road.
In this back-friendly program, we’re still including all the same basic components of a traditional leg workout. We’re just flipping the order in which we do them.
I’ll now discuss the “whys” and go into each part of the workout with more depth.
Single Leg Work
Single leg training is an effective way to overload the legs without stressing the spine, making it a great option for those with back problems. You’ll start each workout by picking one exercise from the list below for 3-4 sets of 6 reps per leg.
- Rear-foot elevated split squats
- Single-leg squats
- Lunges (reverse, forward, or walking)
- Skater squats
Remember, we’re using the single-leg work as a primary exercise, so treat it accordingly. Don’t just breeze through it. Work your way up to a top set where you go as heavy as you can for 6 reps using good form.
I recommend taking 60-90 seconds rest between each leg to allow sufficient recovery (except for walking lunges, which will obviously be done in a continuous fashion), and at least two minutes between sets. If you’re doing it right, you’ll need every last second of it.
You’ll be surprised at how much weight you’ll be able to handle when you take it seriously. It may feel a little awkward at first, but the learning curve is typically very fast, so stick with it.
First Things First
Placing single-leg work first in the training session will allow you to get much more out it. When performing it at the end of the workout in a fatigued state, stability becomes much more of a limiting factor. When fresh, stability isn’t nearly as much of an issue, allowing the focus be placed on strength.
For those new to single-leg training, I recommend starting with rear-foot elevated split squats because they’ll be the most stable.
Once you master those, lunges will be the next easiest to learn, followed by skater squats and single-leg squats. Be conservative with your weights the first couple times out to allow sufficient time to familiarize yourself with the movements and let your body adapt to the new stimulus.
Starting too heavy will only slow the learning process and leave you crippled with soreness. Trust me on this one.
You’ll notice I omitted step-ups. I’m not a fan of step-ups as a primary strength exercise for two reasons. First, many complain of knee pain from heavy step-ups. Second, it lends itself to heavy cheating from the back leg, especially as the weights get heavier.
If you feel strongly about step-ups and can do them pain-free with good form, certainly use them. I think most people will be better off choosing exercises from the list above.
Posterior Chain Work
It’s best those with back issues avoid heavy spinal loading. Unfortunately, this rules out some great time-tested strength and mass builders like deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings. If you still want to train the hip hinge pattern (you definitely should), try single-leg RDL’s, cable pull-throughs, or kettlebell swings instead.
I’m also not a big fan of machine leg curls. Sure, they won’t hurt your back directly, but they could indirectly contribute to low back pain by neglecting the glutes.
The glute-ham raise is my favorite alternative here because it works both the glutes and hamstrings simultaneously while putting lower amounts of stress on the spine in comparison to heavy deadlifts and good mornings.
For more on the glute-ham raise, including how to do it, check out this article. For those who don’t have access to a glute-ham bench, you can try some of these leg curl variations that are superior to machine-based alternatives.
Pick one exercise per workout and do 3-4 sets. Reps will depend on which exercise you choose. Glute-ham raises and single leg RDL’s are best done using slightly lower reps (5-8) while pull-throughs, kettlebell swings, and the various leg curl variations work better in the 8-15 rep range (swings can go as high as 20).
Bilateral Finisher (Optional)
This isn’t optional because I’m a softie, but because I believe that once you become proficient with single-leg work, you won’t need it.
Think about it, if you gradually work to 250+ for rear-foot elevated split squats, 250+ pounds for lunges, and 100+ pounds for skater squats and single leg squats, and consume adequate amounts of protein and calories to support hypertrophy and weight gain (the most important and oft-neglected part of the equation when it comes to building muscle), your legs will have no choice but to grow.
In my case, I’ve transitioned almost exclusively to the single-leg stuff for my knee-dominant work (i.e. quad exercises), and don’t see myself turning back any time soon. I’ve gotten stronger, my legs have grown, and my back has never felt better.
Making the Leap to Single-Leg Training
I realize not everyone is ready to make this leap. Some find that as they first transition into single-leg training, they aren’t able to work their legs to the extent they’d like to. While this diminishes as form improves, some just love squatting and aren’t ready to part with it entirely.
For these types, placing squats at the end of the workout makes sense. My problem with bilateral squatting for back pain sufferers isn’t the bilateral movement pattern – it’s a very important pattern to learn and master – but rather the extreme spinal loading associated with heavy squatting, as well as the form breakdown that can occur as a result of heavy loads.
Doing them at the end takes care of both of these problems as it drastically reduces the amount of weight your legs will be able to handle. For those with back problems, lighter loads means less load on the spine, and it will also make it much easier to keep good form. I also prefer front squats over back squats for this reason because they require less overall load and promote a more upright torso, thereby reducing the shearing forces on the spine.
Still, with heavy front squats, the limiting factor for most will be the upper back, not the legs. Doing heavy single-leg work first fatigues the legs without fatiguing the back, so when it comes time to squat, the legs again become the limiting factor, making it safer and more efficient.
I recommend doing 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps. I usually prefer a lower rep range with front squats when they’re being performed at the beginning of the workout. Since the weights will be significantly lighter here, supporting the bar shouldn’t be a problem, and the higher rep ranges mean less load for the back and greater time under tension for the legs.
The weight you’ll use for front squats will depend largely on your proficiency with single-leg work (the better you are at it, the more it will tax you), as well as which exercises you did previously. Start light. You probably won’t be able to handle nearly as much as you think you can. (I personally use about 65-75% of what I could handle if I were fresh.)
Taking it a step further, you can even do things to consciously make the front squats harder so that less weight is required.
One way to do this is to slow down the eccentric portion of the rep.
Another technique to use on occasion is “1.5” reps, which I picked up from Charles Poliquin. You may want to have a fire extinguisher on hand because these burn.
If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you can try something I got from Dan John called “Goji” front squats, using kettlebells suspended from chains. Be prepared for a roller coaster ride.
Sure, the weights will need to be lighter than you may be used to, but I assure you won’t be thinking this is easy. Those used to squatting big numbers may at first suffer a little ego bruising, but your back and legs will ultimately thank you.
Still not sold on the idea? It might help to think about it in bodybuilding terms as “pre-exhausting” the legs. Bodybuilders have long used leg extensions or the leg press to pre-exhaust their quads before squatting. That’s exactly what we’re doing here, only I’d argue that single-leg work trumps either of those other exercises in both safety and efficacy.
As a rule, I try to avoid using absolutes. I won’t push my luck and say that everyone should train like this as there are many different ways of doing things. I will say that everyone with the goal of getting bigger legs couldtrain like this – bad back or not – and get great results.
Healthy individuals that enjoy heavy squatting would still be well advised to train like this periodically to deload the spine and keep it happy for the long haul. You might not think it’s important now, but you may change your tune when instead of lifting you’re stuck playing Angry Birds on your physiotherapists’ table.
Try it for yourself and see how it goes.