In your mind, what is the most crucial upper body workout of the week?
If I had to guess, many of you answered “chest” or simply “bench”.
I’m also willing to bet that some of you would answer (in a super meat head caveman voice) “ARMS”.
And hopefully there would be at least a few of you that would agree with my answer - “Back”.
In my opinion, back day is the most crucial upper body workout of the week, and for several reasons.
The Importance Of a Thick Back
Let’s talk about appearance first. What will make you stand out in a crowd? Big pecs? Large arms? While those “beach muscles” may look great, there’s nothing that denotes a powerful physique more than a wide and thick back. The wider your lats are, the more dramatic your V-Taper will appear, therefore making your waist look even smaller.
Scientists have determined that men instinctively look at the ratio between a woman’s waist and hips as an evolutionary sign of fertility. Studies have also found that woman unconsciously analyze the waist to shoulder ratio in men as an indicator of strength and vitality.
While other factors play into this such as deltoid size, body fat percentage, and skeletal frame, there is no greater way to play into our instinctual strength ideal than by building a massive back.
For me, it’s the equivalent of seeing someone in the gym that slacks on leg day…they’re not a real lifter. Same thing when I see someone with over developed arms and pecs but no lats. They might lift a little, but no way could they be strong.
Now let’s talk about strength. The muscles in your back play a supporting role in almost every heavy lift. Want an impressive squat? Your upper back better be able to carry the load and your lower back needs to be like steel to hold your torso in position.
Remember that bench day that was your first answer? What if I told you that in order to have a big bench you need to have strong lats? The strongest benchers in the world all understand how to use their lats to stabilize the bar and keep their arms in the proper position. Without your lats engaged, your elbows will flare out causing a tremendous amount of strain on the muscles of the rotator cuff.
Now that you understand the importance of “back day”, it’s time to correct the error of your ways. You’ve probably been doing the same old tired back workout for years - a couple of sets of pull ups, some pull downs, and some half-*** rows.
I’m going to help you out with two of my favorite back workouts, a heavy pulling/rowing based routine for thickness and a high volume scorcher guaranteed to widen your lats.
#1 The Super Thick
|2a. Rack Pulls||5||3|
|2b. Weighted V-bar Pullups||5||5|
|3. T-bar Row||5||10, 8, 5, 5, 3|
|4a. Iso-Dumbbell Rows||3||6 each (pause at top)|
|4b. Standing Dumbbell Row||3||5 each side|
|4c. Farmer's Walk||3||100 ft|
|5. Reverse Hyperextension||3||10 (no weight, pause at top)|
Start this workout with the grandaddy of back thickness, the deadlift. Use the first couple of sets to work to a heavy weight, roughly 85% of your max for the last 3 triples. If necessary, take a couple extra warm up sets to build up to the proper weight.
Next up is 5 supersets of rack pulls and weighted V-bar pull ups. For the rack pulls, set a rack so that you are pulling the bar from just below the knee, with the idea being that you can use a heavier weight than conventional deadlifts from the floor. This will allow you to overload the top part of the movement. This is especially effective for thickening up your upper back and traps.
When doing the weighted V-bar pull ups, make sure to lean back slightly as if you are trying to pull your chest to the bar, and get a good stretch at the bottom. After 5 rounds, transition to either a T-bar row or seated row for 5 heavy sets. By this point your lower back will be somewhat fatigued from the 2 deadlift movements, so ideally you want to use a T-bar with torso support rather than a free standing one.
For the next superset, start by lying face down on an incline bench and grab a set of dumbbells with your hands in a neutral position. Row both of them up and lock them into place, squeezing your shoulder blades back as far as possible.
This is the most crucial part of the row that many lifters miss out on as they drop the dumbbells to fast. Keeping one side engaged, row the other side then switch once it is locked into the top position.
After completing the set of iso-rows, grab a weight roughly twice as heavy for a set of 5 standing bent-over one arm rows. Transition immediately into a heavy farmers walk for 100ft. A good rule of thumb is to use a set of dumbbells that combined are equal to or heavier than your bodyweight (example: a lifter weighing 180lbs would need to use 90b DBs or heavier).
Complete 3 rounds then end with 3 sets of reverse hyperextensions.
#2 Airplane Wing "Lat Attack"
|1a. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns||10||10*|
|1b. Seated Row||10||20*|
|2a. Barbell Rows||4||5|
|2b. Straight Arm Pulldowns||4||8|
|3a. Wide Grip Pullups||10||10**|
|3b. Barbell Shrugs||10||10|
|4. Barbell Rollouts||1||50|
*Each set lower pulldowns by 1 rep and seated rows by 2 reps (i.e. 10 & 20, 9 & 18, 8 & 16, etc.)
** Strict form pullups, alter rep count if unable to perform 10 strict reps.
This lat attack starts with ten sets of one of my favorite high volume supersets consisting of wide grip pull downs and seated rows. Start with 10 pull downs and 20 rows. On each round you will lower the number of reps by 1 and 2 respectively (hint: the number of rows will always be double the number of pull downs - 10/20, 9/18, 8/16, etc.).
Next up is a superset of barbell rows and straight arm lat pull downs. To really isolate the upper back and avoid swinging on the rows, lay across an elevated bench and utilize a pause at the top of each rep. The weight you can use will be significantly lower than a traditional barbell row, but the quality of the squeeze should be much greater.
By this time you should have a massive pump and be feeling the effects of fatigue, so make sure to monitor your form carefully on the next superset of wide grip pull ups and barbell shrugs. 10 strict pull ups is ideal, but if by this point you can only do 3 perfect reps, then only do 3.
After 10 grueling supersets, finish up with 50 total barbell rollouts, broken into as many sets as necessary.
So now you have two of my favorite back workouts, leaving you with no excuse to let your lats and rhomboids receive second billing to your pectorals. I recommend doing them spaced about 3-4 days apart. I typically hit the "Super Thick" on a Monday and the "Lat Attack" on a Thursday.
Make sure to COMMENT and let me know your thoughts about the workouts and also what you would like me to teach you in future articles.