By Bill Geiger, MA, and Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
1. Leaning Back As You Pull
Whether you’re doing pulldowns or rows, it’s not uncommon to see bodybuilders see-sawing their body in an effort to move weights that are simply too heavy. That motion turns a lat exercise into a lower-back move, and guess which muscle group is doing less work because of the added momentum? That completely defeats the purpose. Swallow your pride and lessen the weight a few plates. It’s okay to bend forward or backward about 10 degrees, but anything more reduces the emphasis on the target muscle and increases your risk of injury.
2. Neglecting Elbow Position
Exercises such as one-arm dumbbell rows, close-grip seated cable rows and close-grip pulldowns are all back training favorites, but there’s a big problem doing them all in the same workout: They miss the upper lats (the meaty area that accentuates your V-taper). When doing those moves, the elbows stay in tight to the body so that the lower lats are more heavily engaged. Always consider elbow position: With your elbows out wide and away from your sides, the upper lats are more effectively recruited. Wide-grip pull-ups and pulldowns and wide-grip rows more effectively target this region. Make sure to include moves in which your elbows are both tight to your sides and away from your torso in your back workout to hit all areas.
3. Not Using Pulling Straps
Toward the end of just about any back exercise, the challenge is as much about holding onto the bar as it is completing those last few reps. For most bodybuilders hand grip is weaker than the strength in their back, so the grip is bound to go before the lats are completely fatigued. Never allow your back to be at the mercy of your grip. Straps put you at an advantage for more reps on virtually every back exercise; in fact, research shows you can get 1–2 more reps per set using weights from 1–10RM (that is, on your heaviest sets as well as sets of 10 reps), so straps aren’t just for your low-rep sets. Invest in a pair of good straps and don’t wait for your grip to fail before putting them on.
4. Allowing Your Back To Round
This is one you probably hear more than any other, and for good reason: When your back rounds, it puts the discs in your spine, especially the lumbar (lower back) area, under tremendous pressure and increases the likelihood of an injury. Disc herniation is one of the worst injuries a bodybuilder can suffer because it can cause long-term pain, atrophy, numbness or even loss of ability to contract the muscle. Whether you’re pulling down, pulling up, pulling over or rowing, your entire body has to be in an ideal position for not only growth and strength gains, but for safety. For spinal health, keep your chest big and your lower back arched — never rounded. That means your core muscles have to be contracting isometrically to maintain your body position so that your back doesn’t round, especially toward the end of your set.
5. Not Pulling Your Elbows Far Enough Back
You’d never dream of loading up the squat bar and going down just a few inches (well, with the exception of dedicated partial reps), but that’s effectively what’s happening when you try and row weights that are too heavy. In the rowing motion, for a full contraction you need to pull your elbows as far behind the plane of your back as possible, retracting your shoulder blades as you squeeze the target muscle. Going too heavy limits the range of motion. While you may not be able to fulfill the full range of motion toward the end of a heavy set, make sure you’re using a weight that at least enables you to get 5–6 complete reps on your own.