It doesn’t matter who you are. Your physique will NEVER be imposing physically, or useful functionally if you don’t have a developed, strong back.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll pause this article for a moment while you scour the internet trying to find 5 examples of impressive physiques or noteworthy lifters who don’t have this staple of development.
I assume you’ve returned.
Long story short, your back – all parts of it – are a staple for athleticism, strength, and physique goals.
Without it, you wouldn’t get far in any department, and would probably risk injury.
With that said, we recognize the importance of training the back for strength through choice movements, but here, we’re going to take a look at what it takes to make it grow.
Put these guidelines to use and you’ll be a happy camper with a shield for a backside.
Tip 1: Row A LOT & for High Reps
To bulletproof your shoulders, and add serious thickness in the upper back, it’s imperative that you become okay with doing plenty of row variations for volume. It’s okay to add rows into other isolation workouts as well, because in my books, you can’t overtrain the upper back.
Also, when you consider the programs of many of the biggest guys on earth with the most developed backs, you’ll never see people doing row patterns of any sort for sets of 3-5 reps. They’re geared towards volume and high reps, and they respond quite well to such a protocol.
The reason why is because the muscles of the upper back are postural muscles, geared towards endurance. This implies they’re jam packed with slow twitch muscle fibers due to their slow-fatiguing nature.
Tapping into this by way of sets of anywhere from 10-25 reps will work wonders for the muscles of the lower traps, rhomboids, rear deltoids, teres, and upper lats. In truth, this is your bread and butter directive for upper back training.
Exercises that are my go-to for high rep row patterns:
- BB Bent Over Row – 10-12 reps
- Inverted Rows – Max reps
- Single Arm DB Row - 12-20 reps
- Seated Rows (various grips) – 12-25 reps
- Face Pulls – 12-20 reps
- T-Bar Row – 10-12 reps
Tip 2: Do Pull Ups & Chins the Right Way
Usually when I see training articles geared towards getting better at pull ups, they're angled at getting the reader strong enough to get their face over the bar. It’s more about the force production and less about the engagement.
For a lifter who’s generally OK at doing pull ups, but having trouble making his back grow from them, it’s time to look more closely at the technique being used.
In truth, there’s a way to do chin ups to involve the entire body (which can be beneficial for bracing, core strength, pulling strength, and more), and there’s a way to do them so that the back – specifically the lats – are the most involved. And honestly, it’s kind of difficult to have it both ways.
Doing pull ups that get the back involved the most comes from firstly initiating the lift by way of depressing the shoulder blades. This is one direct role of the lower traps, and the lats will also pre-engage due to the overhead position of the arm while performing this action. If you’re not good at this skill, you’ll have a hard time engaging your back to get the most out of your pull ups. Use this video as a guide.
If you’re ready to graduate to the real thing, then use that piece of the pie and apply it to full range of motion chins. Including a thoracic extension and possibly cutting your range of motion by a couple of inches could be just what the doctor ordered to get the perfect stimulation for your lats.
And I don’t mean up high by the armpits either. The meat of the lats exists below your shoulder blades, down on the mid back. If you really want a V-taper, it’s imperative you train the entire lat for that width.
All of this means that the weighted chins you’re doing for sets of 3 with questionable form may need to take the back seat for a while as you get more proficient at good, solid bodyweight chins that really zero in on the back, and the right places of it.
Tip 3: Deadlift Smart
Read most training articles on the web, and you’ll probably find that the deadlift is hallowed to oblivion as the quintessential posterior chain movement that is an absolutely necessary staple for a strong back.
Without arguing its importance as a prime pattern that deserves your attention, it’s also equally important to review your goals and circumstances before jumping into the heavy stuff.
What's the Rest of Your Program Look Like?
If your program is very low-back dominant as it is, especially on back day, it’s worthwhile to reconsider the set volume, rep range and variation you choose for your deadlifts.
You may also want to consider whether or not other movements like horizontal back extensions, hip thrusts and back squats may already be effectively training the target muscles on other days of the week through their combined efforts.
The Time of Day You Train
This may sound silly, but any smart coach will know there are points over the course of the day where you’ll be at your physiological peak compared to others – and if you like to train at 5:30AM, there’s a massive chance that you’re not in that peak zone at that time.
Truthfully, training early in the morning, relatively soon after waking, can be a contraindicated time for some lifters due to the spinal discs holding a bit more fluid at this point, yet to naturally drain from being vertical and moving around. Adding heavy external loads in this circumstance can be riskier for spine health, especially if you have a history of back issues.
If you’re a taller, longer legged lifter, a conventional deadlift will place more shear forces on your lumbar spine than someone who’s short with a longer torso. The effects a program of deadlfits, bentover rows, back extensions and hip thrusts will have on his spine won’t be the same as the effects it’ll have on yours.
Keep aware of this, and make sure you place heavy deadlifts smartly in your routine, if you do at all. Remember – the world won’t end for your back training if you have several other movements you can do instead.
Your Physique Goals
No one else will say it, so I will. There are many physique competitors who don’t include deadlifts in their programs (or at least not often) due to the fact that they’re not looking to hypertrophy their lower back, obliques and trunk too much to create a wider waistline.
Although this decision is strictly for cosmetic purposes, there is still something that can be learned from this. Many people who swear by the big three lifts for function and physique may be missing out on the benefits that diversifying training can deliver for them.
A strong, healthy trunk can be developed through many other lifts, and incorporating them in conjunction with deads is probably a smarter way to go about things for both performance and physique improvements.
As a guy with a 550 PR deadlift, discogenic back issues, and a 6’4” frame, at this point in my training journey I happen to feel and train best when I deadlift once every 2 weeks, usually with a trap bar (but sometimes conventionally).
Based on the above, of course there will be many people who will prefer a different method and more frequency. But if the goal is being able to train hard and maintain a good developed physique for the long haul, you’ve gotta do what works best for you.
On Upper Traps
The upper traps are an often neglected component of completing a developed back. They’re important to train and can be a make or break signifier of someone who’s strong, athletic and able to do real work.
I wrote all about training them earlier in this series, and you should check out the link right here.
To wrap things up, these pointers are simple.
Row to oblivion, learn how to pull up the right way, and be smart with your deadlifting.
You’ll have a brick wall for a back in no time, and you’ll be standing taller and wider.
The best part is the fact that it’ll improve your pressing strength, make your chest more prominent due to your improved posture, and finally create the imposing physique you seek.