A lot of people think they have it all figured out when it comes to programming movements into their workout system.
A little deeper digging, however, exposes that they don’t know how to play the game the proper way.
An exercise that delivers huge benefits still needs a strategy to get the most out of it.
This series of articles may not include movements you haven’t heard of before, but there’s guaranteed to be execution and programming information about each move that you haven’t considered.
It would serve you well to take it seriously. Your overconfidence is probably the very reason you’re still struggling to add size and strength.
Exercise 1: Pull Ups/Chin Ups
Some respected strength coaches refer to the pull up as the “upper body squat”, meaning it’s so beneficial to have this staple to build a foundation of true strength and muscular development. There’s no real excuse for it to be absent from any program phase you’re in. Sadly, people often abuse the exercise by using incorrect form.
The way I was taught, the pull up wasn’t used as a sheer feat of strength to get your head over the bar using any form possible. Moreover, many directives that encourage ways to “do more pull ups” neglect the fact that this movement should be led by the back muscles. The back should be doing the majority of the work.
Even if it means less total reps performed, it’ll be worth it when your entire lats are involved and getting much more out of it than they would otherwise. For any overhead pull movement to involve the back, 3 things need to happen:
- Set the shoulders to initiate the pull
- Create a slight back arch to maintain the involvement of the target muscles
- A reset between each rep
To walk through each of these points in order, watch the following 3 instructional videos.
Chances are, after you make the modifications to make chins and pull ups more back-friendly movements, you won’t need to gravitate towards heavy weighted pulls. Often times, these heavy pulls incorporate many more muscles than they should and much less of the target muscles. Focus on the basics and build from the ground up using proper pulling technique.
Exercise 2: Deadlifts
It’s no surprise that the deadlift makes its presence in my top 3 back exercises. Simply put, this can light up your entire posterior chain when done correctly. That includes your lats and upper back.
People fail to realize that the isometric contraction the upper back muscles need to maintain while performing a set of deadlifts can really attack the musculature and add plenty of strength and thickness to the tissue. Making sure that the deadlift doesn’t just kill the lower back, however, is a different animal.
It’s not to say the low back shouldn’t be involved; it definitely should. And anyone reading this already knows that pulling with a flat back and neutral spine goes without saying. But your body’s pulling geometry is what will determine just how much the low back is included despite this neutral spine. Take note of this checklist:
- Step under the loaded bar, so it’s above your shoelaces, and an inch or so from your shins.
- Reach down with a tight grip and squeeze the chest out high. Aim for the hips to drop below shoulder level.
- With a hip-width stance, keep the knees out beside your forearms, and pull.
- On the way down, drag the bar down the thighs, and “sit” once it passes knee level.
This setup encourages the bar’s path of travel will remain in a straight line, and not have to travel irregularly, which can come back to haunt a lifter at heavier weights by potentiating injury and also plateauing strength gains. To illustrate, watch the video below.
Exercise 3: Bent Over Barbell Row
The barbell bent over row is a classic staple exercise many people shy away from. The general idea behind the lift is fairly easy to understand, given you’re not a complete newbie to exercise and lifting. With that said, I’ve still found that people can be a bit overly conservative with “strict form” when it comes to the execution.
If you think of an Olympic rower, their discipline involves them pivoting from the hip joint so their entire backs are involved in each stroke to make the boat move. Simply put, a row exercise means you need to row the weight. That means that within reason, there should be movement in the torso.
Many coaches and textbooks will excoriate any upper body movement deeming it a “cheat method” or “poor form”. Truthfully, within reason, you’ll need to create some upper body torque to create the necessary starting force. This is important so the lift doesn’t create its own ceiling on your strength since there’s only so much your arms would be able to pull.
For a more detailed explanation, view the video below.
Again, no one’s encouraging a drastic movement with the upper body, and on that same note, no one’s saying there are no benefits to be derived from staying completely still. However, you’re definitely putting a cap on your potential by sticking to pencil-straight form the entire time.
Bonus Exercise: Single Arm DB Row
I wanted to add this movement as an honorable mention simply because it’s a prime assistance exercise worth recognition. Though it is unilateral in nature, it can come in quite handy if it’s used with the right intention.
Setting up for a single arm row involves placing one hand and the same knee on a bench, getting square, arching the back, and rowing with a properly set shoulder. Unfortunately, many people go through the right steps, but focus on hitting the wrong muscles, namely the scapular muscles like the rhomboids, teres, and mid traps.
It’s not to say these muscles won’t be involved; they definitely will be. But based on the body’s positioning and starting geometry, this movement is best geared to hit the lats when done well and it all comes down to the path of the movement you decide to assume.
Instead of pulling straight up in a perpendicular line from the ground, try “sweeping” the dumbbell in from slightly in front of the body. This subtle change will help mimic the path of the lat fibers and ultimately hit them more directly than the previous method would hit the scapular muscles. Once more, here’s a guide in video form:
There are plenty of exercises that I left out for the purposes of this article that also deserve their kudos. But in my books, if the movements above never see the light of day in your workouts year round (or if they’re just plain done wrongly), it could be the very reason you still fit on the kiddy rides at your local amusement park. For width and thickness, you’re going to need to know the deal.