Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
Ask any experienced bodybuilder and he’ll tell you that while he enjoys showing off his arms, chest and abs, the one bodypart that’s grown to be his favorite to train is his back. The feeling of multiple muscles working in tandem to crush a myriad of moves is as fulfilling at the end of a session as any other day of the week. But that didn’t happen overnight. No, in order for it to “click,” he had to be thorough, going step-by-step to make sure that even though he couldn’t see it in the target muscles in the mirror, his entire back was clearly in focus. Concentrate on these tips and exercises and it’ll start to click for you, too.
5 Keys to Bigger Back Training
1) Always use straps.
If someone tells you you’ll weaken your grip by using straps, tell him he’s wrong. Flat out. For one, you’re training back, not grip — and that can come on another day. Never sacrifice back size for pride, grip strength or forearms (none of which are negatively affected by the use of straps.) Also, even if your goal rep range for a particular set is 10, research has shown that using straps at that weight allows for 1–2 more reps. More work, more mass.
2) Focus your training on multijoint (compound) moves.
You want to attack your back with as much weight as possible, but if you have a choice, you want to do that you’re your muscles are freshest. They’re aren’t a lot of choices for single-joint back moves, but they don’t have much of a place in a mass-building workout anyway.
3) Maintain a strong position.
With perhaps one exception (the stiff-legged deadlift) every back exercise calls for a chest up, back arched and butt out form. Putting your body in this position will make you stronger from your first rep to the last. If you collapse your torso, you not only invite injury but your muscles lose their mechanical advantage.
4) There are basically two types of back moves: rows and pull-ups/pulldowns.
With rows, no matter the grip, you’re pulling the weight perpendicular into your torso; with pulldowns, you’re pulling from overhead.
5) Know your angles.
There are lots of rumors out there with regards to back training, but remember this first and foremost: How and where your lats get hit depends on the position of your elbows relative to your torso. Wide-grip rowing moves requires that your elbows stay out wide from your body and therefore hit the upper lats, middle traps and rhomboids (wide-grip pulldowns work only the upper lats); reverse-grip and close-grip exercises in which your elbows are tight to your sides better target the lower lats. Choose your exercises accordingly.
Complete Back Workout
Bent-Over Barbell Row 3–4 Sets x 6–8 Reps
Close-Grip Seated Row 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Reverse-Grip Seated Row 3 Sets x 10–12 Reps
Pull-Up 3 Sets to failure
*Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
*Choose a weight so that you reach muscle failure at the target rep. Take weight off on successive sets on a given exercise so that you can reach the higher rep target. Rest up to three minutes before your heaviest sets.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
The bent-over row is as thorough an exercise as you can get for back training, and that’s why you hit it first. This move is responsible for major sections of the back; you’ll also engage your legs, glutes and core to accomplish each rep. Because it’s standing you can use heavier weights.
Upper lats, rhomboids, middle traps
Do It Right:
Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Keeping your knees unlocked, lean forward at your waist until your torso is just above parallel with the floor. The barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up into your midsection, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a count, and then slowly lower to full-arm extension.
For the reverse-grip version, actually let the bar drag up your quads and into your lower abs. That’ll keep the emphasis on the lower lats as your elbows remain tight to your sides.
Seated Row (Close & Reverse Grip)
The close-grip seated row done with a neutral grip is excellent at targeting the lower lats. With your hands close together, it automatically pulls your elbows in tight to your body, allowing the lower lats to be highly engaged throughout the range of motion. By moving to an underhand, shoulder-width grip, you further isolate those lower lat fibers as well as bring into play the biceps. For that reason, you’ll be stronger on the reverse-grip version and able to do more reps with the same weight, which is why we’ve listed it after the close-grip version.
Lower lats (biceps secondarily on reverse grip)
Do It Right:
Attach a close-grip handle to the machine and sit upright on the bench facing the weight stack. Place your feet against the foot platform with your legs slightly bent. Grasp the handle while keeping your back flat and chest up and sit erect with your chest out. Pull the handle into your midsection, keeping your elbows close to your sides. Hold the peak contraction for a count before allowing the weight to pull your arms to full extension.
Note: For the reverse grip, attach a lat bar to the cable and take a shoulder-width underhand grip.
Keep forward and backward lean to a minimum. Seesawing turns this lat move into one for the lower back (spinal erectors) while inviting muscle-robbing momentum.
Probably one of the most difficult and underused moves in the gym, the important goal in the pull-up is to try and bring your chest to the bar. You can try various grips: The wider your grip, the more the focus shifts to your upper lats. If you go narrow or use a reverse grip (sometimes called a chin-up), you’ll shift emphasis to the lower lats and biceps. Since you’re using only your own bodyweight, take each set to failure.
Do it Right:
Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip with your thumbs wrapped around the bar for safety. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and feet crossed behind you. Contract your lats to raise your chin over the bar. Concentrate on keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to your sides to raise yourself. Hold momentarily in the peak-contracted position before lowering yourself down to the starting position. Try not to swing but stay tight, pulling with just your lats.
Put a bench underneath you so that you can step up to adjust your pulling straps to the overhead bar or handles. The bench also makes it easy to dismount when you reach failure.