When building your ideal physique there's one area that's too often forgotten in favour of our beloved 'mirror muscles'…that's the back.
If your back development is lagging, your physique will appear incomplete.
Looking at the entire body as a whole, it’s also the one body part that can never be over-developed or become out of proportion.
A bigger back always adds to the physique. In fact, the most successful bodybuilders of all time, from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lee Haney, to Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman, all had some of the best backs in history, which is no coincidence at all.
Back training isn’t just imperative for those with physique-orientated goals. Bill Kazmaier, a former world champion strongman and powerlifter, often touted as the strongest man ever to live, had a famous saying: ‘A strong back equals a strong man’.
Now we understand the importance of back training, how do you go about building the ultimate back?
UP's Head of Personal Trainer Eddie Baruta (pictured below) discusses the intricacies of back training and developing impressive width and density.
What are the three main programming considerations or changes you’ve taken into account when building your back?
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is not training a muscle through its full range of motion, or at least periodising their training towards it.
That being said, the back musculature is very complex and intricate, and I’ve spent countless hours learning its anatomy and actions.
My main three considerations are as follows:
Train with intent! Simply put, if you don’t know how to contract a muscle, you’ll never be able to develop it properly. Take your time, use lighter loads and isometric contractions to establish a good mind-muscle connection. Once this is accomplished, only then should you look to progressively increase your loads.
This is a very common complaint.
At UP, about 75% of our clients struggle with ‘feeling’ their lats.
Much of this is due to poor posture and too much sitting, which locks the shoulders into flexion throughout the day (think how you sit when you type on your keyboard…) and shortens the muscles opposite to the back, especially the chest.
During a pulldown, instead of feeling their lats, clients will notice other muscles like the traps, teres major, upper arms and neck taking over. For these clients, focusing on stretching the pec minor and major, the upper traps and mobilising the shoulder joint more frequently will help.
If this is you, you can also try leaning back a little during your pulldowns. This should help set the shoulder blades in the right position for the lats to contract optimally.
If posture/flexibility isn’t the issue, the fix is a lot easier. Eddie’s thoughts echo what the late Vince Gironda was saying in the 50s, who said this issue was due to ‘weak nerve impulses’ to the muscles in question. His remedy was to count to six in the contracted position during all lat exercises, in order to strengthen the nerve force to the area.
Another trick to try prior to training back requires a partner. Facing away from your partner, bent your arm to 90 degrees and ask your partner to resist as you push your upper arm back into their hand for 6-10 seconds. Done correctly, you should feel your lats activating.
Back to Eddie's answers…
2. Train with intensity! That doesn’t mean smashing the barbell on the floor or shouting after every rep like you’ve just been kicked in the groin. It means you must choose the right load and prepare to go through the pain to elicit the correct adaptation response.
3. Train the muscle through its full range of motion. The glenohumeral joint has 180 degrees of flexion and 30 to 40 degrees of extension in the sagittal plane alone. With the back muscles involved in adduction/abduction and internal/external rotation of the shoulder joint (not to mention the scapulae), the exercises needed to develop a wide and thick back are endless.
When it comes to training any body part, understanding the functional anatomy of a muscle is crucial. Only by knowing how the muscle moves and interacts with the body will you be able to know what to look for and feel when training.
For the back, we have a lot of muscles to consider. Besides the traps, rhomboids and teres muscles, the largest players are the lats. The lats originate from the top of the pelvis and up both sides of the spine, and insert into the front of the upper arm bone (humerus).
One of the biggest mistakes people make when training the lats is not finishing the movement. As Eddie has mentioned, the range at which the lats can move through is very long. This means when chinning or doing any pulldown movements, the aim should be to drive the elbows down all the way to your sides for a complete contraction.
What are the 3 biggest mistakes you’ve made in building a bigger back?
Mistakes have been many over the years. Learning from them is more important though, and now I can honestly say that I’m feeling stronger and fitter than ever for it.
My three biggest mistakes have been:
Not bracing and engaging the back properly before/during a big lift. Numerous times I had to change the exercise due to this problem, but now it’s rarely an issue.
A good tip to implement into your next heavy pulling workout is prior to deadlifting, think about ‘protecting your armpits’ from someone tickling you. Try it and feel your lats engage on the pull.
Understanding the individual structural differences and ranges of motions. Too many times in the past I had an image in my head of how an exercise should look and didn’t consider the individual in front of me. Due to the complexities of the shoulder joint, this was especially prominent with back training.
Not resting enough to make sure I allow my body to recover. I’m doing a four-day-on/one-day-off training split at the moment, with a deload every third session, which suits me very well. If you’re doing a lot of low back intensive work, incorporating more rest days and periodising your training is important, as it often takes a lot longer to recover than other muscles.
Adding to Eddie’s thoughts, one of the issues we come across more often than not is in a trainee’s programme design. Most people are in need of more back training, but go about it the wrong way.
If something is in need of specialisation, you need to treat it as such. Training it once a week isn’t going to cut it. There are numerous ways you can lay it out, but a basic principle to follow is that you should aim to train it at least every three to five days.
A good way to implement this would be to a do heavy back work at the start of the week, and a lighter, more contraction-focused (also a less lower-back-loading) workout later in the week.
Do you have to deadlift?
Maybe not, but I always have a variation of a deadlift in all my programmes. In my opinion, the deadlift is a very complex movement and a great exercise, but a lot of exercise enthusiasts have fallen victim to it through injury. This is purely because almost everyone lifts with their ego and inappropriate technique.
The deadlift offers a lot of bang for your buck, and targets all the muscles in the back and posterior chain. If you are pressed for time, deadlift variations are your best bet.
With our PT clients, we almost always use some form of variation, ranging from using the trap bar, rack deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts and sumo deadlifts.
Your deadlifting doesn’t need to be limited to the traditional pull off the floor. The key is picking the variation that will best target what you want, and more importantly, allow you to progress safely.
What is your favourite back exercise and why?
Truthfully, I like all of them. Developing the back really is about variety and angles, so it’s hard to pinpoint. If I had to narrow it down from a ‘feel’ perspective, I would choose wide grip pull-ups and prone dumbbell rows.
For the latter, if you can do it with a cambered bar with rotating handles to allow for increased range of motion, that would be my preferred option. Dumbbells work well too.
Very few people perform pull-ups correctly.
The majority of people use their upper arms and teres to get them up, and finish with their subscapularis to round their shoulders over the bar.
In order to fulfil the lats’ functions, the aim should be to initiate the movement with retraction and depression of the shoulder blade; followed by driving the elbows down to your sides, while arching your spine and lifting your chest up to the bar.
You may not be able to get all the way up, which is fine for now, as using the correct form will allow you recruit your lats and smaller muscles in the upper back to a much greater degree.
What’s the number one ‘secret’ tip you could give that we could implement straight away into our next back workout?
Lift with intent (as I spoke about earlier), learn how to engage the lats properly and your back will have no choice but to grow. There’s always the genetic factor, but that’s another topic for another article…
Remember, when it comes to hypertrophy, you need to understand the difference between moving weight and making the muscles work. Certain movements lend themselves better than others to each. For deadlift variations, you need to think about moving the weight. For more targeted exercises such as chin ups, you need to get your head inside your lats to make sure you don’t compensate with other muscles to get yourself to the top.
How can we pull all this together into a workout?
“Here’s a workout I personally love:
If you’ve been struggling with your back training, this workout will provide the change in pace you might need. As always, take heed of the advice and let us know how you get on over the next few weeks.