The back is an often neglected and underworked muscle group. The average lifter either works it with a half-effort, using only lat pull downs and uninspired rowing reps, or just doesn't care about making the back as brutally strong as possible.
If you are not one of these guys, and want as much back size and strength as possible, read on. I will be sharing some of my favorite back building tips. This article will help you improve your back workouts, and as a result, build a thicker, stronger and more impressive back. You will learn everything from how to structure a basic back workout to how to increase your rowing power and speed.
Maximize Your Back Training
Tip #1 - Target your back with the big 3 each week
The 3 bases I recommend for a solid back training week include:
- A row (Barbell row, dumbbell row, T-bar row or seated cable row)
- A pull (Pull ups, lat pull downs or rack chins/inverted rows)
If you are using a body part split, start your back training day with deadlifts and then move on to a row and pull. If you are using a full body workout, I recommend using only one of these exercises per training day. Here is a schedule I typically recommend:
- Monday - Row exercise
- Wednesday - Deadlifts
- Friday - Pull exercise
Tip #2 - Learn how to row and pull properly
Incorrect pulling and rowing is one of the biggest mistakes I see in the gym. Lifters tend to use mostly arms (biceps) to pull and row because they are never instructed on how to incorporate more of the upper back into the movement.
Here is how I instruct trainees to pull and row.
- Initiate the movement by driving the shoulder(s) back.
- Immediately concentrate on driving the elbow(s) back in concert with your shoulder movement.
- Finish out the pull or row by trying to squeeze the lat, or lats.
These 3 steps should be fluid, and part of one powerful and explosive movement. Don't break the steps up into three distinct and separate actions. Initiate your shoulder drive and then immediately explode your elbows back. Your hands should act as hooks, and the stress placed upon your biceps will be reduced.
It will take a few workouts to get a good grasp of this technique, but once you do you should be able to feel your back muscles working hard. Proper rowing and pulling will allow you to use more weight, build a bigger and stronger back, and reduce the likelihood of bicep injuries.
Tip #3 - Power shrug your way to glory
Now that you have the proper mix of back training exercises, it's time to hammer your traps with some power shrugs. Set aside the bodybuilding-type of dumbbell and barbell shrugs for a while and give this exercise a good, long run.
To perform power shrugs you want to explode each rep up instead of babying it. This will allow the use of a very heavy weight. This combination of massive resistance and controlled but powerful reps is great for trap development.
One of my favorite ways to approach power shrugs is a method I call power shrug hell. Start with 135 pounds on the bar and perform 8-10 reps. Add another plate to each side and do another 8-10 reps. Continue this pattern of adding plates until you can no longer hit 8-10 reps per set.
Understand that explosive power shrugs aren't sloppy power shrugs. You want to maintain a decent range of motion while keeping form that isn't out of control. Own the bar, stay in control, and when you feel like you can no longer shrug the weight for a decent range of motion, shut down your set.
Tip #4 - Limit you deadlifting training volume and intensity
Over the years I have found very little value in training the deadlift above 90% of your one rep max. During my 5 year climb towards an 800 pound deadlift, I received about 4-5 lower back strains. Each of these came as a result of training above 90%.
I simply think pulling with too much volume and/or too much intensity (weight at 90% of max and above) is not needed for back size and strength. Here are my guidelines:
- Don't lift above 90% of your max. If you feel like testing your strength, see how many reps you can do with 85 to 90% of your old one rep max, or just train 4-5 heavy singles.
- When training between 70 to 80% of your max, limit reps per set to 5. When training above 80%, limit reps to 3 per set, excluding the occasional tester set.
- When training under 70% it's ok to use more reps.
Just remember to stop any set when your form starts to deteriorate.
When it comes to volume, I think pulling back 20-40% on total reps compared to other heavy compound lifts is a good idea. This means that if you are doing a 5x5 on bench press, for deadlifts try a 3x5 or 4x5.
The deadlift is a potent lift, but I have never seen much value in working it too hard. Over time, after you understand your limits with the deadlift, you can certainly add in more volume if you believe it's necessary.
Tip #5 - Use straps or Versa Grips if you have to
Use lifting straps or Versa Grips if you need to. Never let sub-par grip strength hinder your back training. Ever. I don't care what anyone says. If your grip strength is an issue, perform your back workout and then go train your grip strength.
For many years I avoided the use of straps. My rowing strength sucked, for lack of a more appropriate descriptor. I could only dumbbell row 120 pounds by 10 reps. I thought this was strong until I hit the man up button and started training with Versa Grips.
Since using straps my back strength has exploded and my size has improved. At my peak I was able to one arm dumbbell row 260 pounds x 10 reps and row 150 pounds x 42 reps. I was also able to barbell row 415 pounds for reps.
I also recommend using straps on lat pull downs, pull ups and inverted rows if you need to.
Tip #6 - Don't obsess about rear delt training
If you are blasting your back with plenty of row and pulls, you won't need a lot of rear delt work (if any).
A rear delt flye or rear pec dec exercise involves moving both the elbow and hand back at the same time. If you think about the execution of a row or pull up, you begin to see that these movements also involve driving the elbow and hand back. Rows and pulls are like rear delt flyes on steroids.
Rows and pulls are compound movements that not only tax the upper back, but also the rear delts. These are your primary rear delt builders. You can certainly add some sets of rear delt flyes if you prefer, as an isolation lift meant to bolster your existing rear delt work, but it certainly isn't needed.
Tip #7 - Increase your back strength standards
Too many lifters obsess over adding every last pound and rep to the bench press and barbell curl, but only train back with a half-assed attitude. Yes, 120 pound dumbbell rows is stronger than the average gym rat, but no, it's not strong enough.
Aim for dumbbell rows with 150, 160, 170 plus pounds. If you don't have dumbbells this big at your gym, order a 20" to 24" spinlock dumbbell from Ebay. My spinlock allows for dumbbell rows up to 300 pounds.
You also need to be barbell rowing at least what you bench, if not more. If you are benching 275, then you need to be barbell rowing 275 for reps.
The same goes for pull ups and deadlifts. You need to get to the point where you can knock out 10 pull ups per set with ease. Also make it a goal to get your deadlift over 500 pounds.
Tip #8 - Can't do pull ups? Then do inverted rows
For many years I advocated the use of lat pull downs for trainees unable to do a pull up. I thought pull downs were the next best option...but I was wrong.
Over the last 5 years I have come to love inverted rows, also know as "rack chins." Inverted rows allow me to get a quality lat contraction while also feeling much more taxing and potent than lat pull downs.
To perform inverted rows, simply place a barbell about 5 feet off the ground in a squat rack. Next, find a bench or box to place your feet upon. With your feet on the bench, grab the barbell and start doing pull ups. Even if you can't do a single pull ups, you should be able to knock out 5 rep sets of inverted rows with ease.
"You also need to be barbell rowing at least what you bench, if not more. If you are benching 275, then you need to be barbell rowing 275 for reps." Can't emphasis this enough. My bench sucked for years due to half-assed back workout. A little over a year ago i really started working back. When benching focusing less on chest and more on back pressing against the bench. I bench and row 315 for reps now. From 275 bench and 225row. Again if you can bench it, you sure as hell had better be able to row it. Keeps shoulder injures away as well.
Hi Steve, Gr8 article as always.
About "Power shrug hell" , is there a rest between every set or just the time when I adding more plates?
Do you think something like high pulls or power cleans would be as effective as powers shrugs.
Great article man, thanks. I recently strained my lower back doing some bent over barbell rows and I was on my surgery rotation so my days were spent bending over the OR table for hours on end which didn't help. Any advice how to help this heal up or how to work my training around it? Thanks
I gotta say that this is the best advice I have ever read on back training. I am definitely gonna apply your suggestions into my back workouts! Great Stuff Steve. Thanks for your posts.
Thanks Chris! That means a lot. Glad I could help.
Steve, what an awesome suggestion. Suffering from limited space and equipment at home this is a great suggestion for me to try, utilizing what gear I have. I thank you sir.