Programming An Optimal Back Workout
The back is the most practical and aesthetic component to your physique, responsible for defining the entire shape of your upper body. And, it is paramount for overall physical health & performance.
It is also an intricate body part with many different muscle groups, meaning it benefits from a variety of different exercises and movement patterns. These lifts also must be executed properly to elicit the proper strength and hypertrophy effects.
Here is our fool-proof assortment of four exercises, enabling you to build an impressively wide, thick muscle shield of a back!
The Barbell Row
You could perform a barbell row or a hex bar row, but for this piece, we are going to demonstrate the Pendlay Row - named after the legendary weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay.
Differing from the bodybuilder style barbell row, the weight is lifted from a dead stop floor and released back down after each rep. You start and complete each rep with the weight on the floor. Because of this, you can load the barbell significantly more than your standard row. This allows you to assume a safe, tight core position before each rep plus, you get the strength benefits of executing a high intensity lift.
With your feet roughly shoulder width apart, grip the bar from the distance at which your hands hang naturally when you stand. Hinge properly with your rear end pushed back, your hamstrings engaged, and neutral spine. You can go with a false grip (thumb over the bar) if you want to work on your grip more.
Maintain a tight core as you lift the weight, focus on puling the bar back into your abs; you will not be able to lift as much weight pulling towards your chest, and you are not properly engaging the lats & mid to lower traps performing a row that way!
Once at the top of the concentric (lifting) portion of the lift, lower the weight to the floor in a controlled but efficient manner. Do not simply drop it from the top.
This is your main, heaviest movement, so go with 3-4 sets, 6-12 reps.
The One Arm Row
Unilateral rowing movements are a must for any back routine because they allow for 3 variables to take place: Full, optimal range-of-motion, heavier weight to be used safely, & isolated contraction of the lats.
You have seen many perform the exercise on a bench, but you can get better core activation if you stand.
Grab a dumbbell and use the arm you are not lifting to support yourself. If you have nothing to lean onto you can rest this arm on your knee, but to lift the most weight and to fully engage the lats in doing so, you will want something to lean against.
To begin, hinge at the waist with your core braced and back in a neutral position. If rowing with your right arm, drop your right foot back so you can create a path for the DB to travel
As you lift the weight, focus on driving the arm back towards the hip area as opposed to pulling up into the torso; think of rowing the DB around your spine. This type of shoulder rotation enables you to really focus on contracting the lats!
Do not create excess momentum. This negates the purpose. Focus on using your arms as a lever and initiating the movement with your lats to row the DB in & around your body.
Being the second exercise in the chain, perform with a weight enabling 6-10 reps per arm at 3 to 4 sets.
The Cable/Band Pulldown
Moving away from heavy rowing movements, let us look at pulldowns using either a cable or resistance band.
To perform the exercise, grip the bar overhand at roughly a fist wider than shoulder width and engage your lats with the weight by pulling the bar into position. You don’t want to go too wide or narrow, otherwise you are not using your levers appropriately to engage your lat.
Without excessive movement/momentum, use your lats to pull the bar down to your upper chest while making a conscious effort to retract your scapula (pinch your shoulder blades together) and squeeze back. Be cognizant to avoid arching your back excessively - the movement then becomes a row rather than a vertical pull, so keep your upper body relatively straight!
Your arms are merely a lever between the back and the attachment piece. Meaning, your biceps should not be roasted after a set of pulldowns. They are an accessory to the exercise.
You don’t need to go lower than your chest. If so, you are taking emphasis away from the lats. Depending on the attachment you are using, pulling to just below your chin is sufficient.
You will want to go a little higher volume with a pull down at 8-15 reps, 3-4 sets.
For the last exercise, we are going execute a pull-over. You can do these with a barbell, dumbbell or band, but we will explain how to use a cable with a rope attachment.
As this is the last exercise, a rep range of 10-15 reps and 3-4 sets helps to make this a blood pumping finisher!
This movement is performed from a high angle, so the attachment should hang just above your head.
With a slight bend at the elbow and your body hinged forward slightly, pull down and back into your hips, again, remembering to squeeze your back hard at the bottom. Really focus on that squeeze; this is your last movement and when you are most fatigued, so give it all you have in order to fully exhaust those back muscles!
With two heavy compounds and two highly engaging vertical pulling movements, this quadrant of lifts provides you with everything you need to maximize your back gains.
Focus on steady, progressive overload with solid form, and you’ll be on your way to some seriously impressive development!