Originally posted at www.t-nation.com
How many Mondays have you been to the gym, anxiously awaiting your chest workout, only to find that you have to wait 45 minutes just to get on a bench? It seems that every guy in the gym trains his chest on Monday; it’s a foregone conclusion.
Not only do they always hit chest on Monday, but they seem to never get in enough back work. More and more people are walking around with severely rounded shoulders because they have strong, excessively tight chest muscles and weak back muscles.
A few sets of pulldowns at the end of your hour-long chest workout isn’t going to cut it! It’s time to finally build a strong, muscular back! It’s time to get back on track!
Muscles of the Back
Before we get into the exercises that’ll develop our backs, it’s helpful to have an understanding of what muscles we’re working, as well as how they work. A brief description of the key back muscles is given below:
Erector Spinae: Collectively known as the erector spinae, the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscle groups are the key players in trunk extension (moving the back of the trunk closer to the back side of the legs). The erectors are heavily involved in exercises such as deadlifts and back extensions.
Latissimus Dorsi: The primary roles of the lats are extension, adduction, and medial rotation of the shoulder. The lats are used in virtually any pulling exercise, whether it be a horizontal pull (e.g. rows) or a vertical pull (e.g. pull-ups). However, vertical pulls tend to hit the lats harder.
Rhomboids: The rhomboids are a deeper muscle group that lies in between the shoulder blades. Their main role is to adduct or retract the scapula (pulling the shoulder blades back). The rhomboids are active in both vertical and horizontal pulling motions; however, horizontal rows tend to hit the rhomboids harder due to the greater amount of scapular retraction involved in the movement.
Trapezius: The trapezius is an interesting muscle group because of its diamond shape. The fibers run in several directions, making it capable of performing several actions depending on which fibers are recruited. The superior portion is probably the most often trained in gyms, and its primary job is to elevate both the scapula and the clavicle. Shrugs of all types are the major exercise utilized.
The smaller levator scapulae muscle group also aids in elevation of the scapula. The middle portion contributes (along with the rhomboids) in scapular retraction. Simultaneous contraction of all the fibers also aids in retraction of the scapula. Last, but not least, the inferior portion of the traps performs scapular depression (pulling the shoulder blades down).
Key Points Regarding Back Work
1) Chin-ups are performed with a supinated (palms facing you) grip, while pull-ups are performed with a pronated (palms facing away) grip. I know lots of people who are confused by these terms, and it’s important to understand the verbage used when talking shop. An easy way to remember this is that with a supinated grip, you could hold a cup of soup.
2) The lats are more active in vertical pulling exercises, while the rhomboids and middle trapezius muscles are more active in horizontal pulling exercises. As a general rule, the more vertical your torso is when performing back exercises, the more dominant your lats will be in the movement. On the other hand, the closer your torso is to horizontal, the greater the contribution of the rhomboids and mid-back muscles. This is key information when developing a holistic and balanced back program.
3) Stretch at the bottom, squeeze at the midpoint and pull through the elbows. This may sound simple, but I’d be willing to bet that 95% of trainees go through a partial range of motion when working their backs. This is just like people trying to pass off half squats as being deep enough; they’re stroking their egos with big weights rather than performing the exercise correctly.
To thoroughly develop the muscle from origin to insertion, a full ROM (range of motion) must be used. Let your back stretch thoroughly at the start and finish while still keeping tension, and squeeze at the midpoint to ensure you’re performing the pulling exercises correctly.
The second part of this point is to pull through the elbows. This helps us focus on using the muscles of the back versus the muscles of the arms. Think of your arms as hooks and you’ll take your arm muscles right out of the movement, placing all the emphasis on the back where it should be.
4) Always keep the chest up when lifting. This is extremely important in all lifts if you care about your low back health. Whenever you lift, always work to elevate your rib cage and keep your chest up. This gives you a natural arch in your low back, or at the least helps you maintain a neutral spine. Loaded flexion (rounding) of the back is the number one way to hurt your low back, so always keep an arch or at least a neutral spine when lifting.
If you’re having a hard time understanding this concept, think of what you’d do if you were at the beach. Men (and some women) want to show what they’ve got, so they naturally elevate the rib cage or puff the chest out. This “muscle beach” reaction is actually the ideal way to lift weights because it maintains that neutral spine posture. Try it out and your back will thank you for years to come!
5) Make sure to balance your physique with heavy, basic back exercises. How many intermediate trainees out there do you see with big arms, a huge chest, or cannonball shoulders? Now, think about how many intermediate trainees have huge, thick backs. Not only is your back important to developing your physique and improving your lifts, it’s also important in keeping you injury-free.
I’m sure you’ve all seen trainees who have very rounded shoulders or those who are continually complaining about impinged shoulders and tendonitis. A good percentage of these lifters could be cured by working as hard on their backs as they do on their chests and shoulders. Strong scapular retractors and depressors are extremely important in keeping the shoulders healthy and the upper body posture in proper alignment.
6) Focus on what you’re doing! The back is a thinking trainee’s muscle. You have to really focus on what you’re doing, mainly because you can’t see the area you’re working on. Therefore, absolute concentration on each and every rep will help you produce the results you want.
Big, Bad, Back Exercises
Now that we’ve gone through some basic anatomy and pointers to improve your back, we need to discuss the exercises that can improve your back. Remember that the back muscles are very dense and there’s no substitute for basic, heavy exercises. Below are just a few of the exercises that can help turn your back into an anatomical road map.
This is the real deal exercise when it comes to building up the width of your back. Supinated grip chin-ups are a great introductory exercise and will help you grow, but for those who are serious about building some lats (especially the upper portion), wide-grip pull-ups are the way to go. The wide grip pull-up will also hit your teres major, a smaller muscle near the upper portion of the lats.
With a pronated grip outside of shoulder width, grasp a bar and hang with the arms relaxed. From the bottom, squeeze the lats and mid-back and pull through the elbows. Lean back slightly so you have an arch in your back to help improve the line of pull. You should come up to a point where your chin is above the bar or where the top of your chest touches the bar. Squeeze and hold for a brief second, then lower yourself under control to a full-hang position.
Sternum chin-ups have been around for a while, but I’m not sure how many people actually use them in their programs. There are two reasons for this: 1) they simply don’t know about the exercise, or 2) sternum chins are damn hard! The sternum chin-up is a great exercise (especially if you’re strapped for time) because it combines the benefits of a chin-up and a row into one meaty exercise.
The sternum chin-up starts off like your basic chin-up. Take a shoulder width, supinated grip and hang from the bar. Squeeze the lats and mid-back muscles and pull through the elbows. Starting at the halfway point, progressively lean your body back to a horizontal position so the second half of the motion is similar to rowing yourself into the bar. Stretch at the bottom and really try to squeeze the middle back muscles at the top. This exercise will hit nearly every muscle in your upper back.
The dumbbell row should be a staple in the program of anyone trying to develop some depth (front to back) to his physique. Not only is it easy to execute, but you can also move up in weights fairly quickly as long as you concentrate on what you’re doing. By using a dumbbell instead of a barbell, you’re not only building unilateral strength (each side individually), but you also get an improved ROM since the dumbbell is held closer to your body than a bar would be.
When I was at Ball State, one of my volleyball players said she already knew how to do dumbbell rows. I asked her to show me and she said, “It’s just like starting a lawn mower.” She put her opposite knee up on the bench and proceeded to perform the ugliest row I’d ever seen! Not only was she using every muscle except her mid-back and lats to perform the movement, but she was twisting her spine and using so much momentum I was surprised she didn’t herniate a disk jerking that fifteen-pound dumbbell around!
I perform the dumbbell row a little bit different than most. Stand about two feet back from any immovable object and place your non-rowing hand on it. Bend slightly at the knees and maintain a neutral spine with the chest up. From here, let the dumbbell hang down and stretch the back muscles. Pulling through the elbows, take the dumbbell to a point right around the lower abs. Squeeze the mid back and then return to the starting position. Not only will this version make you more stable since your feet are on the ground, but more stability means more weight, and more weight means more growth!
This is another hybrid exercise I like because it mixes the benefits of bent-over rows (heavy weights) with the benefits of rows with a V-bar attachment (improved ROM due to a closer line of pull). Set the bar up in a corner and place a V-bar attachment underneath it near the opposite end. Use smaller plates instead of 45’s so you can get a full ROM.
The V-bar row is performed just like a bent-over row, except you’re using a neutral grip with the V-bar attachment. Bend slightly at the knees and again make sure the chest is up throughout the course of the movement. Let the arms stretch fully at the bottom, pull through the elbows to a point around the navel and squeeze, then lower under control to the starting position.
Deadlifts are the best exercise you can use to develop your low back musculature, not only because they pound the erectors, but also due to the anabolic effects derived from heavy deadlifts (and compound lifts in general). The conventional style deadlift with the legs close together is typically the better option for erector development, but the sumo style also has benefits with regard to total posterior chain development (glutes, hamstrings, erectors, etc.)
I’m sure everyone reading this has heard of the trainee who “tweaked” or “pulled” his back doing deadlifts. Deadlifts are much likes squats: if you have poor form and/or use too much weight, you can get injured. The problem is, since people hear about that one single incident, they decide to ignore the heavy, basic lifts which could really improve both their strength and physique! Deadlifts and squats are possibly two of the best strength development exercises you can ever perform.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll describe conventional deadlift performance. Start with the feet fairly close together and the shins a couple inches away from the bar. As you bend down, the shins will naturally drift forward and lightly touch the bar. The weight should be on the heels, the chest should be up. If your chest isn’t up, chances are that your low back is rounded and at risk for one of the injuries we spoke of earlier.
Take a deep breath, brace the abdominal and low back region, and drive you heels through the floor while simultaneously pulling back with the shoulders. As you’re pulling up and back, you can also think of pushing the chest through and squeezing the glutes. Start off light, hone your technique, then work to progressively add more weight. Even if you aren’t a competitive powerlifter, almost every strength athlete can benefit from deadlifts.
The back extension seems to be a forgotten exercise nowadays. The basic back extension is a pure low back exercise, meaning that it puts the majority of the work on the spinal erectors through a trunk extension movement.
One myth needs to be dispelled here as well: raising the torso past or beyond neutral isn’t as bad as we’ve all heard. After consulting with Dr. Mike Hartle, a sports chiropractor and powerlifter here in Ft. Wayne, I learned that the trunk can actually move up to 30 degrees beyond the neutral position! While I’m not saying to strive for that ROM with this exercise, moving 5 or 10 degrees beyond neutral should have no ill effects on your spine.
Here’s how to do it. Lay face down on either a Roman chair, glute-ham raise or back extension bench. The top of the hips should be just beyond the midpoint of the bench and your upper torso should hang down perpendicular to your legs. Squeeze the erectors and raise yourself up until you’re in line with your lower body or just a little further. Squeeze and hold at the top, then lower yourself under control to the starting position. You can increase the load by holding a plate to your chest or putting a dumbbell behind your head.
Squats (Yes, Squats!)
What’s that you say? Squats aren’t for your back? I’ll say it right now: if squats aren’t the best exercise you can do for developing strength and mass (which is very arguable), then they’re definitely in the top three.
I’ve trained at Westside Barbell with Dave Tate and Louie Simmons on several occasions, and one thing that always stood out was how massive and thick all their athletes’ backs are. These guys also routinely squat 800, 900, and over 1000 pounds. Imagine how well developed your back would be if it could support that kind of weight, let alone squat with it?
Not only are squats extremely anabolic due to the amount of musculature being utilized, but they also provide bone density benefits. Michelle Amsden is a female powerlifter whose bone density is through the roof. While most women are worried about osteoporosis and bone density problems later in life, Michelle’s bone density was determined to be in the top 1% of all women. She also squats 369 pounds at 123 pounds of body weight. Coincidence? I think not.
There isn’t enough room in this article for a thorough explanation of how to do squats, so I’ll leave that to Ian King or Dave Tate. Just let it be known that if you want to reach all your strength, health and physique goals, squats should be a part of your program.
Scapular Wall Slides
Most of you probably haven’t heard of this exercise. This isn’t an exercise that’s going to build massive muscles, but it’s one that nearly everyone should be using to target the smaller and less developed muscles of the back.
The areas we’re focusing on here are the scapular retractors (the middle trapezius and rhomboids) and the scapular depressors (the lower trapezius). When these muscles are weak or inhibited, the upper body posture is usually very poor with the shoulders rounded forward. This is the most common postural flaw I see in patients who have upper body pain and dysfunction. Not only are the chest muscles excessively tight, but couple that with weak mid-back muscles and you’re an injury waiting to happen! This is a very simple exercise that can not only improve your posture but your lifting as well.
Standing with your upper back and butt against a wall, walk your feet out approximately 18″ away from the wall. Lift your arms up so that your upper arm is parallel to the ground and the lower arm is perpendicular. The elbows and hands should be pressing into the wall behind you. From the starting position, try to pull your elbows back into the wall and down.
This exercise is as hard as you make it, so take it easy to begin with, then crank up the intensity once you start getting comfortable. If you’re performing this exercise correctly, you’ll feel it in between the shoulder blades. Again, this isn’t an exercise that’ll put slabs of muscle on your back, but it trains muscle groups that are quite often neglected and can help keep you injury-free and training at full speed.
Shrug all you want, but you won’t see a lot of size increases in your traps with just that exercise. If you haven’t tried Olympic or power pulls before, you’re in for a rude awakening come the day after; they’ll punish your traps like no other exercise! The beauty of only performing the pull is that you’re taking a very difficult exercise and simplifying it to a point that anyone can use it.
Grasp the bar with a grip just outside of shoulder width (clean grip) and stand up straight. From here, push the butt back, lift the head and chest, retract the shoulder blades, and turn the elbows out. This will help keep the arms straight and prevent them from bending prematurely. From this position, violently drive the feet through the floor and shrug the weight up as high as possible.
Keep in mind the amount of weight (to begin with) is insignificant. The keys here are to shrug and get the shoulders up as high as possible while keeping the elbows locked in and the arms straight. This will put the brunt of the work on the traps. After you’ve mastered this exercise with the clean grip, experiment with different grip widths to help further develop your traps.
When designing your next training cycle, I hope you’ll include some of these exercises. While there’s nothing new or gimmicky about them, they are proven and have been building better strength athletes for the last century. Mix it up with some old-fashioned hard work and watch your formerly average back turn into something that can provide shade for women and small children!