But, be that as it may, and not being a rocket scientist; I am just going to keep our discussion focused on your lats, upper back, lower back (multifidus), and spinal muscles. For more information on these muscle groups, just click on the terms.
Any program you put together needs to hit these four areas either directly or indirectly to build both strength and stability to your body. Your body works best in balance and looks better when everything ties in together.
And before we can talk about how to go about hitting all those muscles that will create the magnificent V-shape you are looking for; we need to talk about what to do. Now, with all due respects to the muscleheads that prowl the iron gym, I think I have a grip on which ones are the most effective.
So with further ado…
Here are my top ten favorite back exercises, in reverse order.
10. Hyperextensions – This is great exercise that hits everything on your backside from calves to lower back and right up your spinal cord. Talk about tying everything in; this exercise brings your hamstrings, your glutes, and your whole lower back all together. A key to a good movement is to really arch your back and flex your glutes at the top of the movement briefly before going down again.
9. Stiff arm lat pull downs – Not a power movement, but you will really feel it in the outer edges of your upper lats under your armpits. Your arms are straight (can have a slight bend in elbows) and grip is shoulder width. The start position is eye level and movement is just to bring the bar down to your body, keeping the arms “straight” and stiff.
8. Wide grip pull downs behind the neck – Not a power movement, the body should be kept straight up and down. Use a grip that is about 3 feet apart and pull straight down to the base of your neck. Keep the elbows back and flex hard at the down position. This is tremendous movement from rear delt to rear delt.
7. Neutral Grip lat pull downs – This may be the best lat stretcher out there. Grab the lat attachment that allows you to have a shoulder width grip with hands facing each other. Anatomically, I think this will really puts your lats in its best position. Pull the bar all the way to your chest for maximum benefits.
6. One arm dumbbell row – I love this exercise. With one knee on a bench, head up, and back arched, pull the dumbbell up. But instead of just pulling up, use a sawing motion. At the down position, the dumbbell should be just forward of your shoulder. As you pull up, bring it so that in the up position the dumbbell is by your waist.
5. Reverse grip lat pull downs (click on exercise title to take you a Dorian Yates video where’s the techniques for a number of different back exercises) – The pull on the back muscles from your oblique’s to your upper lats is beautiful. Again, pull the bar all the way down to the nipple line. You will need to lean back a bit and arch your back hard as you pull down, but you do want to get the bar all the way down. Sacrifice the weight if need be.
4. Dead lift– This is foundational, this is power, and this is just plain brute force. For overall strength, you need to do exercise periodically. Not every work out, but a few times a month.
As a side, I recently wrote an article where I discussed some of my more current thoughts on the merits of deadlifting (7/17/11) which you can read here “Do You Need to Deadlift to Build a Good Looking Back.”
For another viewpoint on deadlifting; Deadlifting for Strongman by Zach Gallman is a great article. He sat down with 3 of the best deadlifters around to get their insights into maximizing the benefits of deadlifting. Check out the videos of these guys pulling close to half a ton – WOW!
3. Bent-over rows – Back in the day; we used to do these up on a bench. We would drop the bar all way to the toe, and then, pull it back to the waist. At the top, the body is basically parallel to the ground. It is a good variation, but you really need to watch the weight and not throw the weight up (head over to my Arnold article for a video on how he did the bent-over row). In contrast, as for the current Yates variation, the upper body stays in stationary position with head body and back arched. If positioned correctly, the bar will hand at knee level. Pull the bar up to the waist using either reverse or prone grip.
Dorian Yates givng a seminar on how to do barbell rows correctly – Yates style.
2. T-bar row – My favorite rowing exercise is the T-bar row. As a kid working out in my folk’s basement; I would stick one end of the barbell in the corner and slap a dumbbell on top of it. I would load the weight up at the other end, straddle the bar and place my hands behind the plate. I would lean back and push the bar back into the corner, while rowing. Different contraptions available now to simulate that movement but so long as the principle stays the same, it is all good. I love this exercise. It will give you such a good pump in your lower lats, the middle of back, and your lower back. I remember seeing Franco Colombu doing this with like 8 or 9 45lb plates, wow.
1. Wide grip pull-ups – This is a stud’s exercise. Directly, or indirectly, this exercise hits everything. I’ve done lat pull downs with 220lbs when I weighed less than 200 in my younger days, but it is not the same as pull-ups with bodyweight. It has a special feeling to it. No doubt about it, it is my number one favorite back movement. By the way, Jason Ferrrugia of Muscle Gaining Secrets has a really good article on improving your pullups – Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Pull Ups – good read.
Just a brief aside, I always thought that if you could not afford to buy weights or join a gym, then the best three exercises to do were chin-ups, dips, and deep knee bends. You could do these at any park. Wow – fresh air, warm sun, and cool breeze – what a great way to work out.
Back to back, no pun intended, these are my favorites. I am sure you have your favorites. What is important is that as you design your workout program, it is done synergistically with the rest of your body.
I don’t like machine movements. The only exception is when my lower back is hurting. Otherwise, in every case, I find these movements to be inferior to free weights. Free weights has a total body synergy to it that machine movements lack. And that whole body involvement is what you want.
As for seated row, I personally have not gotten much out of it. A lot of people like it but with the success I’ve had with bentover rows and t-bar rows, I really don’t see the need to use it (except as noted below for shoulder injuries)
And this is key – once you find the movements that you like and have success with; you don’t need to change it. Dance with the one that brings you to the dance! What matters is what works for you and not what looks good in magazine.
My list is should be a start point for you. Start with the basics – chin ups, rows, deadlifts – then tweak and experiment for greater feel. Always use full, controlled movements and focus on your lats growing and exploding.
And with that…
- Pull – ups – Space your hands out about a 1 or 2 fists outside of shoulder width. 4 sets of max reps. Instead of doing 3 sets of 8 reps, shoot for doing a total of 20 or 30 reps in as many sets as it takes. In the beginning, set number at 12. Your first set you might do 4, then 2, 1,1, so on. When you get down to 1 rep per set, rests about 15 to 30 seconds. But, if your goal is 12, get 12. When you can do 8 or 9 on 1st set, move your total to 20, until you can do a good 12 to 15 on your first set – then think about adding a 10lb plate via belt.
- Bentover row – Simple, 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, start 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps. Good form every set. Last set should be hard but should not be sloppy. If you get sloppy on rep 6, stop and finish. Next workout, drop weight by 10lbs. Build with good form.
Past beginner stage
- Deadlift – 5 sets of 10, 8, 6, 4, 4. Your money sets are the last 3. As always with this exercise or any involving your lower back – use caution and good from.
- Wide grip pull-ups – 3 sets of max reps
- Rows – 3 sets of 10, 6, 6. No need for light warm-up. Rotate between tbar row, dumbbell, and barbell row every 3 or 4 workouts. Or if you are getting great results with a row movement, just stick with that one.
Key Points –
- Think of your hands as hooks and pull with your elbows. Everything is about your elbow movement. In fact, your lats only real purpose is to pull your elbows back. Think elbows – use wrist straps if you must to take the your grip out of the movement.
- Maintain a slight arch in your lower back and keep it tight. No need to arch excessively but a slight arch will protect your lower back
- Despite what you may see at the gym, don’t lean to far forward on your rows (I’m thinking seated rows) as it will lend itself to cheating, jerking, and ultimately injuring your lower back.
- If you do pull downs, always pull until bar touches your chest (upper chest area if using overhand grip and lower chest line if using underhand grip). Of course to do that, you need to arch your back and lean back a bit – but again, lean a little)
- With pull-ups, ultimately you want to touch your chest to the bar, but initially just get your chin over the bar
- Don’t be afraid to go heavy, your back is tremendously strong and durable. Yet paradoxically, your lower back is easy injure. And mostly, it’s due to sloppy form and cheating. Go heavy, but go tight and strict on your movements.
- Warm-up well. Your back is so strong in relation to your biceps that if you do not warm up well, you open yourself to bicep injury as well as your lower back (see Dorian Yates)
- If I haven’t been clear, your best defense against injury is good, tight form. Your path to injury lies in excessive sloppy, cheating that results from using too heavy a weight.
Doing heavy deadlifts (is there any other type) every back workout is probably not optimal. In any split routine, you’re going to hit your back every 3 to 5 days. Heavy deadlifts every workout could lead to overtraining quickly. If you are going to deadlift every workout – do so for no more than a month and cycle it with a month of hyperextensions. Or you could do one workout of heavy deadlifts and alternate with a hyperextension workout.
- Rows – 5 sets of 15, 12, 8, 6, 6. This is your power exercise on non deadlift days. Because you are in bent over, “static” position with a heavy barbell (dumbbell) out at the furthest point from your lower back – it acts as fulcrum to keep you balance – do not heave with your waist. Keep your waist tight and rigid to avoid lower back injury
- Underhand grip Pulldowns – 3 sets of 12, 10, 8. Your palms face you and your hands are about a foot or so apart. Lean back and put a slight arch in your lower back (or simply stick chest out and up). Pull the bar until it touches your lower chest line
- Hyperextensions – 3 sets of 2o reps. Cross a 10 lb plate across your chest if or when the reps get easy.
Additional Workout Routines
Most shoulders involve the rotator cuff or a strain/pull along the frontal portion of your delts. Check that. Those were my injuries and my recurring shoulder injury always run in a line through my frontal delts. Your injuries may, and most likely, be different. However, having a shoulder injury shouldn’t prevent you from getting a good back workout.
Check with your doctor first.
I think the key to a good workout with shoulder pain is to keep your elbows below your shoulders. No pressing movements, hence no pull-down movements and no pull-up movements. Nothing that elevates your arms above your head.
Fortunately, rows are the prime movers for building a strong back.
- Seated cable rows – 4 sets of 20, 15, 12, 8. Do these with individual handles (see pic of Franco), not close grip handles. You want to keep your hands free to rotate so that you can find the groove that causes the least pain or no pain as you row. Also, do not stretch all the way forward on the release. Keep your back slightly arched and in an upright position throughout the movement. This will ensure that your elbows stay low. Move your hands in or out a little bit if you feel any pain in shoulders.
- Hyperextensions – 3 sets of 20 reps or max. Always finish each rep with a little arch and flex of glutes at the top.
Tough injury. Still, you need to work out but you need to really, really be careful here.
Not a big fan of machines but here you should take advantage of them. Essentially, you should be rowing, much like with the shoulder injury. But use the machines that have a chest pad that takes the lower back out of the rowing movement.
It’s key to move your hands and elbow movement to find the plane that causes no injury. That means, using very light weights until you find that plane, at which point, you can use more resistance.
You should also experiment lightly with pulldowns behind the neck. Pulldowns behind the neck will keep your upperbody vertical. Again, experiment with hand and elbow movements to find the pain free plane.
Both exercises, do 3 sets of 15 reps. Keep weights moderate.
The objective is to keep your back muscles engaged not blow them up.
Of course, consult with your doctor or therapist before all else.
It would generally be foolish to “pick” a bodypart or group of parts and tag it as being the most important. You are the sum of all, not a collection of individual pieces. It’s synergy.
Still, your back is so fundamental to a healthy lifestyle that I cannot stress deeply enough the need to have a strong back. Yes, having a nice set of pecs and bis/tris is swell. Being broad shouldered is great. But it’s your back that supports all that, and then ties into your lower body via your lower back and hips.
Injury the lower back and it’s over.
And a great looking back looks beautiful. No one describes it as well as Larry Scott – take read. And a strong back becomes the foundation to rest of your upper body.
So, to fully and correctly strengthen and develop your back muscles; use the back exercises I’ve listed along with the workout recommendations to formulate a workout routine that works for you.
Remember – Use great form and don’t be afraid to get heavy. Pick 3 movements that hit your lats, lower back, and the middle. If pressed for time, go with a pullup/pulldown movement and a rowing movement. And hit the lower back statically.