Category Archives: back

10 Challenging New Ways to Chin up and Row

Here’s what you need to know…

• A big back is built from heavy deadlifts, chin-ups, and rows.
• While chin-ups and rows are very effective, you can stall out quickly without the right challenging variations.
• These ten variations are brutally hard and brutally effective.

It’s time to add some painful new back development tools to your toolbox. Here are my favorite new twists on the chin-up and row.

1. “Fly Away” Ring Chins

Ring chin-ups are easier on the elbows and shoulders while allowing you to supinate your hands throughout the pull, making for a huge contraction in your upper back.
To up the ante on ring chins, try “fly away” ring chins. Pull yourself up normally, making sure to pull all the way to your sternum, but flare your elbows out to the sides and pull them back on the eccentric, almost as if you’re doing a front double biceps pose and trying to pull the rings apart.

Fly-Away Ring Chins

2. Sternum “Plank” Chin-ups

Sternum Plank Chin-ups

I love Gironda sternum chin-ups, but they can be problematic for some.
Sternum plank chin-ups may be a better option. They smoke the upper back in a similar fashion, but they’re a lot more “user-friendly.”
For one, they’re safer because you aren’t asking your body to bend backwards excessively. They’re also easier, so more people will be able to do them. Granted, they still aren’t easy by any means and should definitely be considered a more advanced variation, but once you can comfortably do 10+ regular chin-ups with good form, they should be well within your grasp.

Lean way back as you pull yourself up, just as you would with a regular sternum chin-up, but rather than arch your back excessively, keep your entire body as straight as a board the whole time. Pull until your lower chest touches the bar and lower back down under control. The more you lean back, the harder it is.
As an added bonus, they double as one hell of a core exercise if you do them correctly.

3. Slow Tempo Chin-ups

I almost never advocate using an intentionally slow concentric. Chin-ups – and on rare occasions glute-ham raises, if I’m feeling particularly masochistic – are really the only exceptions.
I may subconsciously like slower tempo chin-ups just because they’re the complete antithesis to the kipping pull-up craze, which I don’t like. I much prefer strict chin-ups for back development purposes.
In any case, slow tempo chin-ups can be a good choice for people who are already strong on chin-ups and want to work their back while giving their joints a little break. I don’t do them often, but they’re a great occasional substitute on those days when your elbows might not be feeling quite up to snuff.
You don’t have to go overboard and do crazy long concentrics, but just slow it down a little bit on both the eccentric and concentric – maybe 3-5 seconds or so on each.


Slow Tempo Chin-ups

If you’ve never tried these before, you’ll be surprised how much harder it feels just slowing it down a little. You’ll also be surprised how much they torch your back and arms.

4. Side-to-Side Chin-ups

Side-to-side chin-ups are a good way to increase the difficulty of regular chin-ups and add in a unilateral component in a way that’s nowhere near as a challenging as a true one-arm chin-up.
Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip with either a pronated or supinated grip. From there, pull yourself up at an angle towards one hand, lower back down under control, and then pull yourself up to the other side in the same fashion.

Side-to-Side Chinups

The wider your grip, the more you’ll bias one side over the other and the harder it’ll be, so start with your hands closer together and move your grip out as you improve.

5. Split-Stance Rack Rows

As someone with a history of lower back issues, I’m not a fan of traditional barbell rows because they put undue stress on the lower back, and the sizeable risk just doesn’t outweigh the reward when there are so many other options to choose from.
Not to mention, you hardly ever see them done well and the “row” usually deteriorates into something that resembles a monkey humping a football.
Dead-stop rows (otherwise known as Pendlay rows) are better because the pause helps to keep the set under control and minimize cheating, but most people can’t lower the bar all the way down to the floor without rounding their lower back, again making it a risky choice.
To make barbell rows more lower-back friendly, try split stance rack rows. Set the bar up in a power rack at a point where you can bend over and still keep a flat back, which will be somewhere between mid-shin and knee level.
Next, address the bar with a split stance with the feet spaced about a foot apart, choosing whichever grip you like best. From there, row just like you would a regular barbell row, resetting the bar on the pins after each rep.

I like these better than regular barbell rows for a few reasons:

Split Stance Rack Rows

  • Rowing from the pins lets you work in a range of motion that you can do safely.
  • Using a split stance helps take a lot of stress off the lower back by allowing you to post up on the front leg (you should feel this in your glutes). You’ll find it’s much harder to round your back in a split stance than a symmetrical stance because the front leg serves almost like a safety brake, so it helps ensure that you maintain good alignment.
  • The split stance discourages you from cheating too much because it’s harder to get leg drive, making for a stricter row that you’ll feel more in the upper back and less in the lower back, which is what we’re going for.

These also work great if you have the Dead-Squat™ Bar because you can take a wider stance without the bar hitting your front leg, and you can pull back farther at the top because you don’t have to worry about the bar hitting your chest, making for a huge contraction.
It also allows for a semi-supinated grip, which I love because it hits the lats in much the same way as an underhand barbell row without the undue stress on the wrists that you get from a straight bar.
Here it is in action:

Split Stance Rack Rows (Dead Squat Bar)

With both of these exercises, alternate which leg you place forward each set.

6. Split-Stance “Scrape the Rack” Rows

Split Stance “Scrape the Rack” Rows

This is similar to the Dead Squat exercise above, only this time set up with the bar flush against the rails of the power rack and keep it pressed against the rack the whole time. You won’t be able to handle as much weight, but it feels great and takes even more stress off the lower back.

Unfortunately, these don’t really work with the straight bar because the front leg gets in the way.

7. Supported Meadows Rows

Landmine Rows

These are Meadows Rows with a lower back friendly twist. I like John’s exercise a lot, but given my history of lower back issues, I feel better having the bench for support.
To do them, put a barbell in a landmine unit (or securely in a corner if you don’t have a landmine) perpendicular to a bench and row just as you would with a regular dumbbell row. Once you’ve finished with one arm, leave the bar right where it is and just turn around on the same side of the bench and do the other arm.
Like so:

I recommend using straps when you go heavy or else your grip will greatly limit the amount of weight you can handle.

8. Band-Resisted Trap Bar Rows

Dead Squat Bar Band-Resisted Rows

In a previous article about trap bar deadlifts, I showed a simple way to add band resistance by looping a band around the sleeves of the bar and standing on top of it.
This method also works really well for rows with the trap bar and/or Dead-Squat™ Bar.

Remember that the purpose of the bands for rows is different than it is for things like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses. For those exercises, bands mimic the strength curve, so they provide less tension at the bottom portion of the rep where you’re weakest, and provide incrementally more tension throughout the rep as your gain a greater mechanical advantage.
For band-resisted rows, though, the tension is actually greatest where you’re the weakest, at lockout. This doesn’t do you a whole lot of favors as far as strength is concerned (so plan to use less weight than you would for a regular row), but it makes for one hell of a contraction and fries your upper back and lats.
To maximize the effect of the bands, try holding each rep for a second at the top.

9. Wide Grip “Elbows Out” Inverted Rows

Wide Grip “Elbows Out” Inverted Rows

These are inverted rows performed with the hands set wider than normal and your elbows flared out instead of tucking them in close to your sides as you would with a regular inverted rows.

If you’ve ever done a wide grip, elbows out barbell row, it’s very similar to that, only without the lower back stress. You’ll feel it differently than a regular inverted row, too. While it works more-or-less the same muscles, there’s proportionally more stress on the rear delts, so if that’s something you’re looking for, it’s a great choice.
You don’t need suspension straps to do them, but they enhance the exercise greatly because they allow you to use a neutral grip. I actually prefer somewhere between a neutral and pronated grip, but the point is that the straps allow you to pick the hand position that’s most comfortable for you rather than being locked into a fixed hand position.
To keep the straps from sliding inward, hang them from either side of a power rack rather than hanging them together from the front.
If you don’t have straps, just grab the bar with a wider grip.
These are quite a bit harder than regular inverted rows, so you’ll probably want to start with your feet on the floor and progress to elevating them on a bench as you get used to the movement.

10. Inverted “X” Rows

Inverted “X” Rows

You want to start with the straps set far apart from each other, so if you’re doing them in the power rack, hang the straps from the sides. From there, grab the right strap with the left hand and the left strap with the right hand and row as normal.

These feel quite different from regular inverted rows, in a good way. With a regular inverted row you’re pulling straight up, whereas here you’re pulling up and out to counteract the straps trying to pull your arms inward. This pulling action makes for an awesome contraction, especially if you try to hold each rep at the top for a second.
These are definitely harder than regular inverted rows, so keep that in mind and make sure you’ve mastered the necessary progressions before trying them.

Now Go Buy Some Bigger Shirts

Try some of these exercises and enjoy the upper back growth that comes along with them. Just don’t get mad at me if your shirts start splitting at the seams and you’re forced to buy new ones.

Cool Rowing Movements

by Ben Bruno – 9/26/2012

Cool Rowing Exercises
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 , 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 .
The prescription for building a thick upper back via rows is pretty straightforward:

  • Row big weights
  • Eat big
  • Rest
  • 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

Cool Rowing Exercises
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

Cool Rowing Exercises
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.
Cool Rowing Exercises

  • 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.

My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

by Ben Bruno – 9/12/2012

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.

Back

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.

Chest

My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

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.

Biceps

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:  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.

Triceps

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.

Shoulders

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.

Quads

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.

Hamstrings

My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

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.

If back issues prevent you from doing them in any capacity, my runner-ups are single-leg RDLs, glute-ham raises, and sliding leg curls.

Glutes

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.

Calves

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?

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

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

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

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.

Yates Row

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

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

Rack Row

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.

Pendlay Row

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.

Unilateral Movements

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!

Wikio

Back-Friendly Leg Training

Back-Friendly Leg Training

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

Back-Friendly Leg Training

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

Back-Friendly Leg Training

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)

Back-Friendly Leg Training

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.

Wrap Up

Back-Friendly Leg Training

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.

Wikio

Building a Big, Freaky Back

Back isn’t for pretty-boys. The typical overly-tanned commercial gym prima donna rarely has a back worthy of a second glance, which isn’t surprising considering it’s not on the list of bar-star approved body parts.
The back is the blue collar muscle group. You can’t watch it get all pumped and swole while you train it, and the workouts are usually basic, brutally heavy, and exhausting. So when a new lifter shows up at the gym with yoked traps, wide lats, and 3D rhomboids, you have to respect them a little.
They’ve spent years pulling some seriously heavy iron to achieve their comic book proportions. They’ve paid their dues. They deserve the attention.
For bodybuilders, there’s no such thing as having a back that’s too big. Legs can over shadow the upper body, arms can grow disproportionate to the shoulders or chest, but no judge will ever deduct points for having too much back.
At the highest levels, back is the muscle group that separates the best from the rest, so the bigger and freakier, the better. Haney, Yates, and Ronnie are among the greatest bodybuilders ever to set foot on stage and it’s no coincidence that they also possess three of the best backs in bodybuilding history.
Powerlifters and strongman competitors must also have tremendously strong backs. The back is the prime mover in the deadlift, which in a powerlifting competition is performed last and often decides the winner. You can’t “gear” a deadlift (use special powerlifting equipment) and the only way to get a bigger one is to earn it through pulling heavy iron.
A strong back is also vital to having a big squat and bench. You can’t move huge weights in the squat without the back strength to support it, while in the bench strong lats are critical to being able to lower big weights in the proper groove and driving the bar off the chest. Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all time, has said that the two most important muscle groups for powerlifting are the glutes and the back. Do you need a better endorsement?
Even if stepping on a bodybuilding stage or powerlifting platform isn’t in your plans, a big, strong back is still worth working for. For athletes, any sport that involves pulling, climbing, or physical contact will undoubtedly benefit from building a stronger back.
Finally, in the real world, a big strong back is highly functional. Anytime you pick up something heavy, the back is doing the majority of the work, so when you lift a heavy box at work, it’s your back strength that will determine your success.

Back Building Basics

Building a Big Strong Back

Deadlifts

Deadlifting is the base upon which back strength is built. Deadlifts stress every major muscle group in the posterior chain, from the base of the erectors to the top of the traps. Ronnie Coleman and Johnnie Jackson possess two of the thickest and most powerful looking backs to ever grace a bodybuilding stage, and both men are capable of deadlifting over 800 pounds.
Training the deadlift is surprisingly simple. Hit it hard and heavy and then let your body rest and grow. Deadlifting rep schemes are generally lower than most other compound movements. Sets of 5-10 reps work best for bodybuilding purposes, and for pure strength it’s common to work up to heavy triples, doubles, even singles on a regular basis.
Deadlifts have no need for fancy techniques like drop sets, super sets, or rest-pause sets. While it isn’t a highly complex movement, it’s an incredibly taxing one, and you have to be mindful not to over do it. This is especially true if you’re also squatting heavy and performing heavy rowing movements.
One effective system involves working in short three-week waves, followed by a down or deload week. Essentially, the weights are increased each week for three weeks with a corresponding decrease in the rep range, and then trained lightly or not at all the fourth week. I’ve had considerable success with this methodology.
As you get stronger, volume and training frequency will usually need to be decreased to keep overtraining at bay. For those able to deadlift more than 700 pounds, deadlifting every other week works well.
The lower back should still be trained hard during in-between weeks but with different exercises, such as good mornings, weighted back raises, and pull-throughs. This allows the lifter to train consistently heavy, facilitating significant strength gains, but also mitigates the likelihood of overtraining.

Chin-ups

Building a Big Strong Back

There is no better exercise for back width than good old fashioned chin-ups.
Chins are to back width as squats are to leg size. Lat pulldowns can be also used to add back size, but just like the leg press plays second fiddle to the squat, so do pulldowns to old school chins.
Chins are most effective using a relatively high set and rep scheme. One of my favorites is to perform sets to failure using only bodyweight until I hit 100 reps. This usually takes me 4-5 sets, ranging from 25-30 rep sets at the start to 15 or so by the last set.
I make a point of rotating my grip every set to hit the different areas of the upper back for complete back development. I begin with a very wide grip, move to a shoulder width/neutral grip for the second set, and then use a close grip on the third set. I return to the wide grip for the next set and continue the rotation until all reps are completed.
While all variations of chins work the lats, wide grip chins preferentially target the outer lats and teres major, while the medium, close, and underhand grips shift the emphasis to the lower and inner lats. I also perform a very wide grip variation, which I refer to as “ultra wide grip chins,” where I take a neutral grip on a special bar that’s wider than most wide grip bars. This hits the outer back especially hard.
One other key point is to focus on using the lats and to work through a full stretch of the muscle at the bottom of the movement and a full contraction at the top. Don’t concern yourself with whether your chin actually clears the bar; the last few inches of the movement involve mostly the biceps and not the upper back.
Many will have a hard time performing even a few decent reps due to excess body fat or low strength levels. Fortunately, many commercial gyms have chinning machines with counter weights that assist in the chin movement until you can perform bodyweight chins proficiently.
Another effective solution is to use a Jump Stretch band, made popular by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell fame. Simply loop the band around the center of the chin bar, pull one end through the opening of the other end and cinch it up tight. Then step into the bottom loop with both feet and the band will provide the necessary assistance. Experiment with different strength bands until you can perform chins on your own.

Rows

Building a Big Strong Back
There are several effective rowing variations and your specific leverages will determine which works best for you. However, rotating between all the movements often yields the best results. The most useful variations for building thick slabs of upper back muscle are the standard barbell row, T-bar rows (done old-school style with a barbell and V-handle), and heavy dumbbell rows. These exercises should all be performed with a moderate to high volume and rep range and with as heavy weight as possible. The upper back is a large, complex body part and needs to be hit heavy and hard, and from multiple angles.
Of course, any back article I write wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what Jim Wendler has dubbed the “Kroc row.” The Kroc row is nothing more than a very high rep dumbbell row performed with a ridiculously heavy dumbbell. Done correctly, Kroc rows should leave you gasping for air like a drop set of heavy squats while building upper back size and strength like nothing else.
Kroc rows build strength that transfers well to improving the deadlift lockout, and when performed without straps will build a vice-like grip. Emphasis should be placed on the weight and the number of reps achieved. My personal records are 175 lbs. x 40 reps, 205 lbs. x 30 reps (both without straps), and 300 lbs. x 13 reps (with straps). Kroc rows can be performed with one hand and one knee on a flat bench, or while standing bent at the waist with one hand braced against a dumbbell rack.
Focus on getting a good stretch at the bottom by lowering the shoulder until the lats are fully extended, and pulling the dumbbell up in a straight line until it lightly brushes the upper abs/lower chest area.
Do NOT try to keep your elbow tucked and pull the dumbbell to your belt line, the form preached by every pencil necked personal trainer and keyboard warrior. Due to the leverages involved, this overly strict technique severely limits the amount of weight that can be used and is ineffective for all but the newest of trainees.
Think of this overly-strict form as the lat training equivalent of a triceps kickback whereas Kroc rows are heavy close grip bench press. One will add slabs of muscle and build freakish strength while the other only looks good if wearing a pink leotard.

Get Some Back, Baby!

Building a Big Strong Back

Here’s a recap.
  • Deadlifting is the base. Train deads with relatively low reps and volume but with very heavy weights. Try working deadlifts in four week wave cycles.
  • Chin-ups are the most effective exercise for upper back width. Try them with varying grips for relatively high reps and sets to build a complete back.
  • Heavy rows are vital for adding upper back thickness. Barbell rows, old school T-bar rows, and heavy dumbbell rows are among the most effective variations.
  • Try the Kroc row to take your back size and strength to a new level.

Sample workout

A.
Week one: Work up to one heavy set of 5 reps in 4-5 sets.
Week two: Work up to one heavy set of 3 reps in 4-5 sets
Week three: Work up to a heavy single in 4-5 sets.
Week four: No deadlifting.
Repeat
B.
Warm up. Then perform as many sets as necessary to total 100 reps, alternating each set between a wide overhand grip, a medium neutral grip, and a close neutral or underhand grip.
Each week try to achieve the 100 reps in fewer sets. When you can achieve this in four or fewer sets, add weight.
C.
Work up to one all-out set (with each arm) of 20-30 reps with as heavy a dumbbell as possible. Every week strive to set a new rep PR. When able to perform 30 reps, increase the weight. Don’t do the wimpy where you keep your elbow tucked!
A thick, wide back looks freaky on stage and means serious business wherever life takes you. A thick chest and massive quads might look impressive, but nothing transfers from the gym to the real-world like a powerful set of lats, traps, and erectors.
It’s a statement of strength and power that commands respect.

Building a Bodybuilder Back

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.

Warning!

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.

Upper 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.

Lats

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.

Lower Back

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

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:

Back Training Routine: Lat Emphasis

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 Routine: Balanced Development

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.

Building a Bodybuilder Back

Guy throwing the punch? Anderson Silva. Funny-looking red-headed kid with the star-shaped boo-boo? You.

Building a Bodybuilder Back

Building a Bodybuilder Back

Reverse Flyes, Arnold-Style

Building a Bodybuilder Back

Reverse Flyes, Supported

About Dr. Clay Hyght

Building a Bodybuilder Back

Dr. Clay’s new book, Set Your Metabolism on Fire, is more than 100 pages long, and packed with fat-burning, muscle-building information, including complete meal plans. Whether it’s because he’s a really nice guy or an idiot, he’s giving it away for free! Visit DrClay.com to get your copy before he comes to his senses.

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast

I get bored easily.

That’s why I’ve spent the last few years augmenting my training toolbox. There’s only so much I can say about training for bigger muscles before I unleash a barrage of Hulk Hogan-style leg drops on my keyboard. I know what your muscles need to grow. But I can’t guarantee that you’ll have the time and energy to get the job done. So the ball’s in my court to make the process as user-friendly as possible.

Now that I can do more to help clients, I’ve taken on more esoteric cases. In the last few months I’ve had three interesting clients come to me for help.

First was Tracy. She was born with spina bifida, a nasty neural defect that mandated four major spinal surgeries by the age of 24.

She had lost the mind-muscle link to most of her core, hip, and lower body muscles, and this made her so weak that she couldn’t stand up from a Barca lounger unless she used her upper body strength to hoist herself up as if she was escaping a swimming pool after mistaking little Billy’s half-eaten Snickers bar for something far more ominous.

So I designed a program to strengthen and reprogram her atrophied muscles.

Second was Heidi Montag, the star of MTV’s hit reality show, The Hills. She definitely wasn’t born with any physical disadvantage, except that her butt was too flat for the Playboy centerfold shoot that’s currently on the newsstands.

Not only did she want a curvier caboose, but she also wanted to look like an athlete — not an emaciated starlet with breast implants. Her goal for the shoot was to expose powerful curves, and she needed them fast. So I designed a workout to give her, and any other female, a sexy, bikini body.

Then there was Alex. He’s the only one of the three that you can probably relate to. He had no physical limitations, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass about making his ass look better. He just wanted bigger pecs and lats so he’d look better without a shirt while he scoped out chicks along the beach.

These seem like three specific cases that all require a unique training strategy. Interestingly enough, I used the same training approach for all three clients. Whether I needed to rehabilitate injured muscles or sculpt a bikini body or add muscle to a guy’s upper body, the most important component I had to get right was their training frequency. Put simply: the more they train a movement, the faster they’ll get results.

You know that saying, “If something is worth doing, do it every day?” Well, I can tell you that this mantra does carry over to hypertrophy training. Indeed, the reason why trainers say that you need months to gain appreciable amounts of muscle is not because your body can only manufacture a few pounds of muscle each month — it’s because it takes months’ worth of workouts to see results.

So what if you could cram two or three months worth of training into three weeks? Provided you can recover from each workout, I think you’ll agree that you’ll gain muscle faster than ever before.

This is exactly what I did with Alex. He wanted a bigger chest and upper back, and he wanted it, like, yesterday. I designed a simple plan to do it. And it worked! It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly simple. He gained over two inches of chest girth in less than a month.

So I’m here to share the chest and back HFT plan that I gave him.

The Exercises

For three weeks you’ll focus on the push-up and wide-grip pull-up for the majority of your upper body work. These two exercises will take the place of all your upper body pushing and pulling requirements. If you add in exercises like the bench press or seated row, you’ll burn out in no time. You can add 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps for the lateral raise, biceps curl, face pull, and triceps extensions for three workouts each week, but it’s not necessary.

The great thing about the two primary exercises is that they require very little equipment. You’re born with everything you need for the push-up. The pull-up, on the other hand, isn’t quite as simple since you probably don’t have a pull-up bar hanging in your doorway, but the solution to that dilemma is simple: get one.

The Equipment

These days, there are a plethora of pull-up bars that can be hinged to your doorway. I won’t list all of the companies here, but I’ll just say that I have the Total Upper Body Workout Bar by Iron Gym in my place.

It only takes a few minutes to assemble and it doesn’t require any drilling. Just position one end of the apparatus over the molding around the top of a doorway in your house, and you’re good to go. (Note: if you happen to have a home that doesn’t have wood trim molding around your doorways, you’ll need to buy the version that screws into the sides of the doorway.)

The Training Parameters

Six days each week you’ll do 100 push-ups and 50 pull-ups. Why the seemingly unbalanced parameters? Because a push-up only engages about half your body weight; the pull-up uses all of your body weight. So that’s why you need twice as many push-ups to keep the strength in balance around your shoulder joints.

Again, each day, for six days a week, you’ll do 100 push-ups and 50 pull-ups. I don’t care how many sets it takes to complete either, just get them done. For example, you could do five pull-ups every hour for 10 hours. Or you could do 10 pull-ups five times per day. Or you could do 13, 8, 7, 6, 6, 5 and 5 reps over the course of three hours. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

The same is true with push-ups. 100 reps are required each day and it doesn’t matter how, or when, you get those reps.

Granted, this whole thing sounds ridiculously simple (conceptually, not in the execution), but it works. What have you go to lose?

Technique Tips

1. Your chest must touch the floor with each push-up, and you should push your shoulder blades apart at the top of each rep to engage the woefully disrespected serratus anterior. (Doing your push-ups this way will improve your shoulder health.)

2. The pull-ups are to be performed with a wider-than-shoulder width hand position with your palms facing away from you. Every rep must start from a full hang and you should touch your chest to the bar with each pull.

3. Perform each rep of each exercise as fast as possible. Don’t go to failure on any set — always keep at least one rep in the hole. This will allow you to maintain your strength throughout the day.

4. If you can do more than 30 push-ups in one set, perform each set with your feet elevated on a flat bench, chair, stool, or a stack of encyclopedias (I prefer the Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition).

More to Know

During the first week your chest, lats, and serratus anterior muscles will be screaming in agony. No worries. By week 2 the soreness will be virtually gone since your localized muscle recovery will skyrocket to meet the demand.

Do this program for six days each week for three weeks straight. Then, refrain from any upper body pushing or pulling movements for five full days. This will allow for any supercompensation that might be lagging behind. In other words, many people get bigger during the five days off.

What can you expect? At least two inches of new girth added to your chest measurement. You’ll have trouble finding a training system that will build muscle faster!

Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast <!–Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast–>

About Chad Waterbury

Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast

Chad Waterbury is the author of Huge in a Hurry and Muscle Revolution.

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

>Best of Back

>

“I wanted my back muscles to bristle with power,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said about his preparation for his role as Conan the Barbarian. “If my back is writhing and rippling during fight scenes, the public will know that I am a rugged fighter.”

Writhing, rippling, dense layers of muscle, all tapering down into a tight waist. Arnold really nailed it.

If you think about it, a massive, symmetrical back defines a bodybuilder and avid weight trainer. For modern physique competitors, the contest is often “won from the back” as the saying goes. For regular gym rats, a good back is what separates the truly dedicated from the truly pathetic.

A great back has two main qualities: thickness and a V-taper. That means you need to do both horizontal pulling (row-type exercises) and vertical pulling (pulldown or pull-up type exercises). A common mistake among beginners is to do one but not the other. A common mistake among advanced trainers is to do both movement patterns, but overemphasize one over the other, creating imbalances and a weird, mutant-like look that prompts small children to point at you and laugh.

To help both groups, we’ve put together some of our staff’s favorite rut busters, gap fillers, and foundation builders for the back.

It’s time to get your barbarian on!

#1: The Gymnast’s Extended-Set Back Routine

Back in the 70’s, Arnold popularized a lat training program that involved doing a massive volume of pull-ups. Basically, he suggested you do 50 strict, wide-grip pull-ups, regardless of how many sets it takes. At the end, you might be getting only one or two reps per set; didn’t matter, as long as you reached 50 reps total.

Modern strength and hypertrophy experts, most of who agree that anyone worth his salt should be able to do at least 12 full-range pull-ups, have echoed this theme. But the thought of higher-volume pull-ups confounds two groups of lifters: the weak newbie and the experienced trainee with a high body weight. The good news is, both can build a powerful set of lats with this program from Charles Poliquin.

“Many athletes and bodybuilders who claim that they can never really ‘feel’ their lats will be ‘feeling’ them for several days after this program!” says Poliquin.

The idea is do as many reps as possible with one grip position, rest a little, then do another set with a new grip position, rest, and repeat several times. You start with the grip position that’s the toughest for most people. That way you’re fresh and can do more reps. As you progress through the sets you’ll fatigue, but you’ll use “easier” grip positions at which you’re naturally stronger.

Here’s how it’ll look:

Remember, a pull-up is where your palms are pronated or facing away from you. A chin-up is supinated, where your palms are facing toward you.

Even if you’re a newbie or have a high body weight and can only get three reps per position, that’ll still give you 12 total reps per extended set. As a bonus, after a few months of the gymnast’s routine, your lat spread will be so wide that you’ll be able to jump off the roof of your house and glide to the grocery store, which will save gas in this troublesome economy.

#2: Rack Pull (Partial Deadlift)

You do your pulldowns and pull-ups. You do your rows. So your back training is covered, right? Well, if you’re like most people, you’ll discover you’ve been missing something after you begin performing rack pulls. This lift builds a brutal upper back and traps!

To perform, place a bar in a power rack so that it sits just above knee level and load it up with every plate in the gym. (Okay, maybe not every plate, but you can go very heavy on this one.) Now perform just the “top” of a deadlift. Coach Christian Thibaudeau recommends that you hold for two seconds at lockout before lowering the bar back to the pins.

You may also want to take a tip from coach Mike Robertson and perform the rack pull with scapular retraction. In Mike’s version, you’ll set the pins in a power rack to a point about an inch below your kneecaps. From here, just do a top deadlift: fire your heels into the floor, thrust your hips forward, and lock out the bar with a glute squeeze.

When you’ve locked the bar out, pull the shoulder blades together forcefully and maintain this retracted position for three seconds.

This is a phenomenal exercise for upper back thickness, forearm and grip development, and deadlift lockout strength. And while we normally don’t recommend that you overuse lifting straps or hooks, feel free to break them out on the last couple of sets of this exercise so you can really focus on the heavy load.

#3: Sternum Chin-Ups

Here’s one for advanced lifters only. Newbies need not apply!

We learned of the sternum chin-up from Poliquin, but it was first introduced by Vince Gironda many moons ago. Why haven’t you ever seen it performed in your gym? Because most people simply can’t do it. It’s that tough.

This variation of the chin-up involves leaning back throughout the entire movement.
The lower portion of the chest is what will actually touch the bar. You can use either a supinated or pronated grip, and the grip can vary from narrow to shoulder-width (the latter being more indicated for the stronger trainee).

“As you pull yourself to the bar, have your head lean back as far away from the bar as possible and arch your spine throughout the movement. At the upper end of the movement, your hips and legs will be at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. You should keep pulling until your collarbone passes the bar and your sternum touches it. By the time you’ve completed the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement, your head will be parallel to the floor.”

This exercise works more than just the lats. It also creates a great overload on the scapular retractors. The beginning of the movement, however, is more like a classical chin, while the midrange resembles a pullover motion. Finally, the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement.

In other words, yeah, you’re gonna be hurtin’ for a few days after you try this one!

#4: Face Pulls

Bill Hartman, physical therapist and strength coach: “Face pulls are the most underrated exercise in all of strength training!”

Chad Waterbury: “Face pulls and more face pulls. That’s probably what you need. It’s definitely one of the most underrated upper body exercises. When you do it correctly you’ll strengthen your rhomboids, traps, and external rotators.”

Not only do Hartman and Waterbury concur, the face pull has found its way into the programs of Poliquin, Dave Tate, Joe DeFranco, and just about every other muscle-building expert you can throw a bottle of aminos at.

Which begs the question: If you’re not doing face pulls, what the heck is wrong with you?!

We think the face pull is one of those neglected exercises that not only leads to size gains, but also acts as a corrective movement to fix those I-benched-too-much-in-my-youth issues. It’s also great for curing computer-geek posture.

“Face a pulley machine and grab the rope with an overhand grip. Pulling through the elbows, take the middle of the rope in a straight line towards the bridge of your nose. The key is to make sure you fully retract the shoulder blades at the midpoint, squeeze, and then return to the starting position.”

Lots of variations here. DeFranco likes pulls to the throat, but you can also pull to the forehead to target a slightly different area of your upper back. You can also perform them seated or standing. And while an overhand grip is standard, many prefer the neutral grip.

Whatever you choose, the face pull might be the “missing ingredient” in your recipe for a big back!

#5: Cobra Lat Pulldown

We love the big foundational movements like heavy rows and pull-ups, but every once in a while a “new” exercise comes along that really sparks fresh growth. The cobra lat pulldown we learned from Coach Thibaudeau is one of those movements.

“When you stretch a muscle you increase its activation potential. So, this exercise is a very good one for those who have problems activating and stimulating the lats,” says Thibaudeau.

Lie down sideways on an incline bench (around 45 degrees). Grab a single handle attached to a high pulley, making sure that you fully stretch the lat at the top of the movement. Now, pull the weight so that your elbow is moving toward your hip area. Squeeze the peak contraction and return to the stretched position.

#6: Cable Pullover

Many Golden Age bodybuilders swore by the Nautilus pullover machine for building a powerful upper body. The pullover was as common as the bench press and the row. Sadly, most gyms these days don’t even have a pullover machine, and those that do pale in comparison to the old Nautilus machine.

Thibaudeau, a big fan of the older pullover machines, has struggled for years to replicate their effectiveness. Here’s what he came up with: the cable pullover.

“The set-up for this exercise is a bit tricky. You’ll have to set up a decline bench in front of a low pulley station with a triceps rope attached. Lie down on the bench so that the rope is above your head.

“The starting position has you in a fully extended position. You perform the exercise by executing a pullover motion (keeping the arms straight) focusing on your lats the whole time. Really emphasize a wide pullover arc — this will hit the lats the hardest.

You lower the weight slowly, again in a wide arc, and return to the fully stretched position. Hold the stretched position for one or two seconds to get rid of momentum and to increase hypertrophy stimulation.”

#7: Iso-Dynamic Rows

Sometimes it’s not a new-fangled exercise you need to explode your back; it’s a new technique.

One such technique is using a variation of the isometric (i.e. holding a load in place without moving it). You can recruit up to 10% more muscle fibers during an isometric contraction, and as Thibaudeau and other bodybuilding experts have noted, the back responds especially well to isometrics.

Here’s a Thibaudeau routine that turns the standard cable row into an isometric torture session:

For this movement, hold the peak contraction for a certain period of time on each rep. To adjust to the fatigue level, the duration of the hold is decreased with each rep.

Two or three sets of this should do nicely. And by “do nicely” we mean make you cry like a little girl in a frilly pink dress holding a lollypop.

And if you like that, you can use the exact same iso-dynamic technique for the pulldown. Ouch.

Wrap-Up

Remember, for a barbarian back, use a foundation of heavy compound exercises that target both planes of motion: vertical and horizontal pulling. Then ramp things up with new plateau-busting exercises and training techniques for ultimate back development! Crom!

Exercise Models: Andrew Barker, Tim Smith, and Christine Pendleton.
Location: Gold’s Gym, Abilene, Texas

Best of Back Best of Back

Pull-Up: Wide-Grip and Medium-Grip

Best of Back

Chin-Up: Medium-Grip and Narrow-Grip

Best of Back

Rack Pull

Best of Back

Sternum Chin-Ups

Best of Back

Face Pull to Throat

Best of Back

Cobra Lat Pulldown

Best of Back

Cable Pullover

Best of Back

Iso-Dynamic Rows

<!– Best of Back Best of Back–>

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

Best of Back

“I wanted my back muscles to bristle with power,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said about his preparation for his role as Conan the Barbarian. “If my back is writhing and rippling during fight scenes, the public will know that I am a rugged fighter.”

Writhing, rippling, dense layers of muscle, all tapering down into a tight waist. Arnold really nailed it.

If you think about it, a massive, symmetrical back defines a bodybuilder and avid weight trainer. For modern physique competitors, the contest is often “won from the back” as the saying goes. For regular gym rats, a good back is what separates the truly dedicated from the truly pathetic.

A great back has two main qualities: thickness and a V-taper. That means you need to do both horizontal pulling (row-type exercises) and vertical pulling (pulldown or pull-up type exercises). A common mistake among beginners is to do one but not the other. A common mistake among advanced trainers is to do both movement patterns, but overemphasize one over the other, creating imbalances and a weird, mutant-like look that prompts small children to point at you and laugh.

To help both groups, we’ve put together some of our staff’s favorite rut busters, gap fillers, and foundation builders for the back.

It’s time to get your barbarian on!

#1: The Gymnast’s Extended-Set Back Routine

Back in the 70’s, Arnold popularized a lat training program that involved doing a massive volume of pull-ups. Basically, he suggested you do 50 strict, wide-grip pull-ups, regardless of how many sets it takes. At the end, you might be getting only one or two reps per set; didn’t matter, as long as you reached 50 reps total.

Modern strength and hypertrophy experts, most of who agree that anyone worth his salt should be able to do at least 12 full-range pull-ups, have echoed this theme. But the thought of higher-volume pull-ups confounds two groups of lifters: the weak newbie and the experienced trainee with a high body weight. The good news is, both can build a powerful set of lats with this program from Charles Poliquin.

“Many athletes and bodybuilders who claim that they can never really ‘feel’ their lats will be ‘feeling’ them for several days after this program!” says Poliquin.

The idea is do as many reps as possible with one grip position, rest a little, then do another set with a new grip position, rest, and repeat several times. You start with the grip position that’s the toughest for most people. That way you’re fresh and can do more reps. As you progress through the sets you’ll fatigue, but you’ll use “easier” grip positions at which you’re naturally stronger.

Here’s how it’ll look:

Remember, a pull-up is where your palms are pronated or facing away from you. A chin-up is supinated, where your palms are facing toward you.

Even if you’re a newbie or have a high body weight and can only get three reps per position, that’ll still give you 12 total reps per extended set. As a bonus, after a few months of the gymnast’s routine, your lat spread will be so wide that you’ll be able to jump off the roof of your house and glide to the grocery store, which will save gas in this troublesome economy.

#2: Rack Pull (Partial Deadlift)

You do your pulldowns and pull-ups. You do your rows. So your back training is covered, right? Well, if you’re like most people, you’ll discover you’ve been missing something after you begin performing rack pulls. This lift builds a brutal upper back and traps!

To perform, place a bar in a power rack so that it sits just above knee level and load it up with every plate in the gym. (Okay, maybe not every plate, but you can go very heavy on this one.) Now perform just the “top” of a deadlift. Coach Christian Thibaudeau recommends that you hold for two seconds at lockout before lowering the bar back to the pins.

You may also want to take a tip from coach Mike Robertson and perform the rack pull with scapular retraction. In Mike’s version, you’ll set the pins in a power rack to a point about an inch below your kneecaps. From here, just do a top deadlift: fire your heels into the floor, thrust your hips forward, and lock out the bar with a glute squeeze.

When you’ve locked the bar out, pull the shoulder blades together forcefully and maintain this retracted position for three seconds.

This is a phenomenal exercise for upper back thickness, forearm and grip development, and deadlift lockout strength. And while we normally don’t recommend that you overuse lifting straps or hooks, feel free to break them out on the last couple of sets of this exercise so you can really focus on the heavy load.

#3: Sternum Chin-Ups

Here’s one for advanced lifters only. Newbies need not apply!

We learned of the sternum chin-up from Poliquin, but it was first introduced by Vince Gironda many moons ago. Why haven’t you ever seen it performed in your gym? Because most people simply can’t do it. It’s that tough.

This variation of the chin-up involves leaning back throughout the entire movement.
The lower portion of the chest is what will actually touch the bar. You can use either a supinated or pronated grip, and the grip can vary from narrow to shoulder-width (the latter being more indicated for the stronger trainee).

“As you pull yourself to the bar, have your head lean back as far away from the bar as possible and arch your spine throughout the movement. At the upper end of the movement, your hips and legs will be at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. You should keep pulling until your collarbone passes the bar and your sternum touches it. By the time you’ve completed the concentric (lifting) portion of the movement, your head will be parallel to the floor.”

This exercise works more than just the lats. It also creates a great overload on the scapular retractors. The beginning of the movement, however, is more like a classical chin, while the midrange resembles a pullover motion. Finally, the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement.

In other words, yeah, you’re gonna be hurtin’ for a few days after you try this one!

#4: Face Pulls

Bill Hartman, physical therapist and strength coach: “Face pulls are the most underrated exercise in all of strength training!”

Chad Waterbury: “Face pulls and more face pulls. That’s probably what you need. It’s definitely one of the most underrated upper body exercises. When you do it correctly you’ll strengthen your rhomboids, traps, and external rotators.”

Not only do Hartman and Waterbury concur, the face pull has found its way into the programs of Poliquin, Dave Tate, Joe DeFranco, and just about every other muscle-building expert you can throw a bottle of aminos at.

Which begs the question: If you’re not doing face pulls, what the heck is wrong with you?!

We think the face pull is one of those neglected exercises that not only leads to size gains, but also acts as a corrective movement to fix those I-benched-too-much-in-my-youth issues. It’s also great for curing computer-geek posture.

“Face a pulley machine and grab the rope with an overhand grip. Pulling through the elbows, take the middle of the rope in a straight line towards the bridge of your nose. The key is to make sure you fully retract the shoulder blades at the midpoint, squeeze, and then return to the starting position.”

Lots of variations here. DeFranco likes pulls to the throat, but you can also pull to the forehead to target a slightly different area of your upper back. You can also perform them seated or standing. And while an overhand grip is standard, many prefer the neutral grip.

Whatever you choose, the face pull might be the “missing ingredient” in your recipe for a big back!

#5: Cobra Lat Pulldown

We love the big foundational movements like heavy rows and pull-ups, but every once in a while a “new” exercise comes along that really sparks fresh growth. The cobra lat pulldown we learned from Coach Thibaudeau is one of those movements.

“When you stretch a muscle you increase its activation potential. So, this exercise is a very good one for those who have problems activating and stimulating the lats,” says Thibaudeau.

Lie down sideways on an incline bench (around 45 degrees). Grab a single handle attached to a high pulley, making sure that you fully stretch the lat at the top of the movement. Now, pull the weight so that your elbow is moving toward your hip area. Squeeze the peak contraction and return to the stretched position.

#6: Cable Pullover

Many Golden Age bodybuilders swore by the Nautilus pullover machine for building a powerful upper body. The pullover was as common as the bench press and the row. Sadly, most gyms these days don’t even have a pullover machine, and those that do pale in comparison to the old Nautilus machine.

Thibaudeau, a big fan of the older pullover machines, has struggled for years to replicate their effectiveness. Here’s what he came up with: the cable pullover.

“The set-up for this exercise is a bit tricky. You’ll have to set up a decline bench in front of a low pulley station with a triceps rope attached. Lie down on the bench so that the rope is above your head.

“The starting position has you in a fully extended position. You perform the exercise by executing a pullover motion (keeping the arms straight) focusing on your lats the whole time. Really emphasize a wide pullover arc — this will hit the lats the hardest.

You lower the weight slowly, again in a wide arc, and return to the fully stretched position. Hold the stretched position for one or two seconds to get rid of momentum and to increase hypertrophy stimulation.”

#7: Iso-Dynamic Rows

Sometimes it’s not a new-fangled exercise you need to explode your back; it’s a new technique.

One such technique is using a variation of the isometric (i.e. holding a load in place without moving it). You can recruit up to 10% more muscle fibers during an isometric contraction, and as Thibaudeau and other bodybuilding experts have noted, the back responds especially well to isometrics.

Here’s a Thibaudeau routine that turns the standard cable row into an isometric torture session:

For this movement, hold the peak contraction for a certain period of time on each rep. To adjust to the fatigue level, the duration of the hold is decreased with each rep.

Two or three sets of this should do nicely. And by “do nicely” we mean make you cry like a little girl in a frilly pink dress holding a lollypop.

And if you like that, you can use the exact same iso-dynamic technique for the pulldown. Ouch.

Wrap-Up

Remember, for a barbarian back, use a foundation of heavy compound exercises that target both planes of motion: vertical and horizontal pulling. Then ramp things up with new plateau-busting exercises and training techniques for ultimate back development! Crom!

Exercise Models: Andrew Barker, Tim Smith, and Christine Pendleton.
Location: Gold’s Gym, Abilene, Texas

Best of Back Best of Back

Pull-Up: Wide-Grip and Medium-Grip

Best of Back

Chin-Up: Medium-Grip and Narrow-Grip

Best of Back

Rack Pull

Best of Back

Sternum Chin-Ups

Best of Back

Face Pull to Throat

Best of Back

Cobra Lat Pulldown

Best of Back

Cable Pullover

Best of Back

Iso-Dynamic Rows

<!– Best of Back Best of Back–>

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

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