The back is everybody’s favorite part, unless you’re one of those kids that just shows up to bench and curl three days a week. The back is rewarding to train, mainly because you can load up the exercises, and honestly having a nice strong back is also a big part of having a well-rounded physique if you care about such things.
There’s also the substantial fact that training both upper and lower back is important from a health and longevity standpoint.
I want to talk about all this and how you can maximize your results.
Firstly, what counts as a back exercise, though? To some people, back means lats only. To others, it means everything from the top of the neck on down to the glutes, which would include the traps and the spinal erectors.
For the purposes of this article, I’m limiting discussion to the upper back, which will be the muscles that are involved with the shoulder girdle. Nothing against the low back, I just think that it has more to do with posterior-chain or lower-body training, given its functions. I’ll give it more attention in the deadlifting article.
It’s all about the grip
With the upper back, we have two basic sets of muscles we’re trying to hit: the muscles responsible for moving the shoulder, and the muscles responsible for moving the shoulder blades (the scapulae). In gym-lingo, these are the lats and mid-back, respectively. Sometimes the mid-back is just called “traps”, which is misleading as there are actually several muscles that work to perform this function, although the traps are a big part of it. Some folks call this back “thickness”, while the lats are more back “width”. It’s not technically true, but there’s some use to thinking that way so I can’t be too hard on that thought process.
Any kind of vertical pulling movement, whether it’s a pullup, chinup, or lat pulldown will be largely a lat movement, as this largely involves movement around the shoulder. There’s also some mid-back involvement due to scapular retraction and depression. At least their should be; the way a lot of people do these exercises is so poor that these minor technique points are lost in the heaving. It turns into a low-back and hip exercise. But more on that in a minute.
In any case, I’m talking about the dominant mode of action here, since no movement will exclusively train one function. Since there’s always overlap, it’s more helpful to talk about emphasis instead of isolation.
Any horizontal movement, which would be the various kinds of rows (barbell, dumbbell, machine, body-weight, etc.), will tend to target much more of the mid-back muscles, although the lats certainly aren’t left out of the process. Rows are also prone to hip and low-back involvement if form is poor.
In practice, your grip is going to be the biggest determinant of the training effect, as far as which set of muscles is emphasized. I mean grip in the sense of how your wrists are positioned and where that puts your elbows in relation to your torso. You can grip the bar wide or narrow; you can use a prone, neutral, or supine grip; and you can pull with elbows flared away from the body or with elbows tucked in close.
Generally speaking, the farther your elbows are from your torso, the more mid-back will be involved. Conversely, bringing elbows in closer will bring in more lats. The wider grip will correlate more with the “elbows out” position, while a narrower grip will tend towards “elbows in”.
Wrist position will have more effect on how the muscles in the arm contribute. The more pronated your wrist becomes, the less bicep and more forearm will be involved in the movement, where full pronation is “palms facing away” or overhand grip. The opposite occurs with a supine/underhand (or “palms facing towards you”) grip. The neutral (“palms facing together”) grip seems to bring in both forearms and biceps equally. Wider grip will tend to fit better with the prone/facing away grip, just due to mechanics. With a closer grip, any of the three grips can be used equally, though neutral or supine grip seem the best fit with very narrow positioning.
I hope that doesn’t sound as confusing as it reads on first glance. Summary for those that glossed over it all: the muscles that are primarily worked by a back exercise will depend largely on how you grip the bar. Different elbow and wrist positions and different grip widths will all affect how the different back muscles are trained.
Sloppy vs. Strict
Now I want to touch on the form of these movements, since I harped on how they’re often done incorrectly. The main thing I see on rows and on lat pulldowns (because hardly anybody does pullups) is too much low-back and hip involvement. In both cases it’s very common to see too much weight loaded and the movement turn into a kind of hip-thrust with little to no back involvement.
That’s all fine and dandy, and don’t get me wrong I think there’s a place for that kind of “heaving overload” training, but let’s keep it real here. There’s a difference in doing things wrong because you don’t know better, and using “cheater” form because you have a specific training effect in mind. I’m a lot more forgiving of “bad form” when it’s done intentionally, with a purpose in mind. How many people in your average gym are doing things badly on purpose? Yeah.
This is the great debate: should you do back work strict, or should you let some sloppy form creep in there? I think there’s a case to be made for both.
The explosive or impulsive style of lifting is great for “just moving the weight”. My dirty little secret is that I credit a lot of my back strength with being able to just load the damn bar (or chinup belt) up and crank out reps without being concerned over the form. It’s not pretty, but you can’t deny that tension overload plus a decent tonnage will equal both size and strength gains.
The strict style is good for ensuring activation and training of specific muscles, a case of the “mind-muscle connection” some folks are big on. This is where the cheating/overload style of training failed me. As I’ve written before, stability and control of the scapulae are essential for shoulder health, and the postural muscles that position the scapulae must be up to the job. I found out the hard way that using big poundages on chinups and rows doesn’t necessarily translate to solid training for these stabilizing mid-back muscles. The rotator-cuff exercises that everybody wants to do don’t make up for it, either. Strengthening the RC muscles without ensuring proper scapular control is like changing the tire on your car when you’ve got a broken axle.
Doing back exercises with strict form ensures that these muscles are being trained for that postural stabilizing function. Instead of focusing on heaving the weight for overload, you’d want to think more about retracting and depressing the shoulder blades. Again, this is not an either/or consideration. There’s nothing saying you can’t train both at once; it’s just that this consideration doesn’t come to mind for most people tossing weight around.
Fortunately there’s an easy solution to this: use both approaches. I think that if you’re going to do your big work, like weighted chins and barbell rows, with a little sloppiness, you should match it with something strict just for health and longevity’s sake. The big thing is to make sure you’re training scapular muscles, since that’s one of the first things to go with sloppy overload training.
Fatigue and Rep Ranges
I’ve found from experience that a lot of back exercises tend to respond well to high-tension, low-fatigue kinds of training. That means relatively heavy weights, but lower reps, staying away from failure, and sticking to lower total volume (counted as number of reps done, or number of “hard” sets done).
That seems to go for a lot of the “flexor” or pulling muscles. Contrast that to the “extensor” or pushing muscles, like the triceps, chest, or quads – those groups are known for having a high fatigue tolerance and responsiveness, which is why you hear about high volume and high rep training working fairly well for those groups (20-rep squats, anyone?).
Not so for the back (and hamstrings and biceps for that matter). You’ll hear a lot of guru-types explain this away as being a function of muscle fibers or motor units, with these muscle being more “fast-twitch” and thus suited for high-tension exercise, but fatiguing quickly. I’m not sure that’s the case. I think it has a lot more to do with the starting point of these exercises. With few exceptions, most pushing movements start with an eccentric or lowering phase, which allows you to exploit the stretch reflex for the lifting phase.
In comparison, nearly every pulling exercise has to overcome resistance from a dead stop at the bottom. That’s more challenging from the standpoint of both muscular work and neural drive – you really do have to focus on acceleration to overcome the resistance, and that does make a real difference. This is why most people will tend to gravitate to bouncing reps and sloppy form once back work gets heavy (well, besides general ignorance of the right form). Once you get into a rhythm, you can start to exploit the stretch reflex. That’s the easiest way to move the weight, and the body likes to find efficient movements.
In any case, I’ve found from my own experience that regardless of the rep-range used, most back exercises just don’t have the volume-tolerance of pressing movements. I hesitate to give out hard numbers, but a quick estimate would suggest that the number of sets would be anywhere from half to three-quarters of what I’d use for pressing-type exercises. Your mileage will vary, of course; I’m pointing this out only because people can get all hung up over things like this, when it’s not anything to worry about. It’s normal for these exercises to respond that way.
As a general rule, I tend to lean more towards ramping up to One Good Set rather than slogging away with a lot of volume, at least if you’re doing higher reps (5-10 or higher). With low rep training, which means singles/doubles/triples, I don’t find much difference and in fact pulling movements seem to respond really well to that approach.
Common Technique Points
When it comes to any back exercise, there’s a few key points I find myself harping on regardless of the form being used.
First thing is to keep the lower back arched (which means “as arched as is possible and don’t freak out if you flatten or even round a little because it happens”) and the chest high and puffed-out. If you keep more or less that posture as you do the exercise, it’s much easier to make sure the right muscles are doing the job. This isn’t to say you don’t have some wiggle-room to cheat, because you do. Just focus on keeping things as tight as possible. This goes for rows, pullups/chinups, and even lat pulldowns.
The next thing is to try and keep your hips out of it as much as possible. I say try because, well, if you’re using any decent weights it’s not going to happen, and secondly, there’s going to be times when you just want to do some damn heavy rows or pullups. There’s nothing wrong with using some hip-english or even the beloved kipping technique if you keep it in reason (though from experience, if you have any shoulder problems, use that kipping style sparingly) if it helps you throw some weight around.
The main thing I’m getting at here is that you shouldn’t be one of those guys that’s either:
- On the lat pulldown station with too damn much weight on and using your hips and lower back to heave the weight while your shoulders barely move; or
- The guy that’s doing barbell “rows” at such a high angle you might as well call them shrugs.
I’m all for being sloppy, but there’s limits. When your so-called back exercises aren’t even working the back, you need to think about what you’re doing.
I should probably say a little more about the kipping technique, too. I’m not opposed to using a little rebounding and cheating out of the bottom, especially on a high-rep set, but some of the kipping sets you see floating around on YouTube are pretty scary and cross over into that “not even training the back” zone. There’s smart-sloppy and then there’s just bad form.
Get Your Pullups Strong
I used the word “pullups” but you can generalize that over to chinups, which have the palms facing you, or even the neutral-grip chin, which has palms facing each other. Regardless of what you call the movement, you’ll be hanging from a bar and pulling your body up to the bar. The rest is details.
Much like any other exercise, you can approach pullups from two angles: you can either use a light load for a lot of reps (the “volume” approach), or you can start slinging weight on them (the “progressive overload” approach). Both methods work, just as with anything else, and the trick here is to use some of both as required.
The volume approach can be thought of as laying a foundation, while progressive overload lets you actually build the house. To build a bigger house, you need a sturdier foundation. And so it goes, on down over the years (If you have no idea what I just said here, I mean that you should work on improving both aspects over time: train to work on volume, then intensity, then volume, and so on, ad infinitum).
I think the pullup is one of the more underrated exercises, because a lot of people talk about them but you might find like one guy in your average gym that actually spends any time working on them. The lat pulldown is always busy, though. That’s because pullups are hard to get good at, especially if you’re lazy about them or a woman. Seriously, women seem to have the hardest time with pullups.
I think both cases are because people just don’t put any thought into training them. When you see most programs that include pullups, what do you see? Every damn thing else in the routine will have a precise number of sets and reps. Then you get to pullups and it says “three sets to failure”.
Really? That’s how you get a lift strong? The people writing these programs will acknowledge that they think every other exercise will benefit from some set/rep combo…but pullups you just go train to failure? Yeah, great logic.
Recall what I said earlier about how these exercises don’t always respond so well to volume. You knock out a set or two to failure and you’re pretty well going to be done. So if you want to rack up a reasonable workload, and especially if you’re the type that has trouble doing even one, you need to re-jigger your thought process away from the “lol just go to failure” meme. Seriously, who’s bright idea was that?
Good starting points for pullups/chinups will be doing singles. That’s sets of one rep. I know, I know, you read in some book that one rep trains strength and not size and you’re going to burn out your CNS. If you want to get good at chins and you can only do a few reps, or one rep, you don’t have many choices. Do singles. Do lots of singles, in fact. Do singles in between sets of other exercises. Do them in the morning and in the evening. If you can’t even do singles, then do negatives instead. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to do one. Then you can do singles.
If you can already knock out a couple of reps but have trouble improving, consider graduating to doubles or triples. Or do ladders. Ladders are remarkably effective for chinning strength. You just alternate between sets of one, then two, then three. Then start back over at sets of one. And so on.
You may notice a theme emerging. Instead of doing “three sets to failure”, the goal is to rack up as many “fresh” reps as possible. You want to increase the volume of work done by increasing the number of total reps, not by doing high-rep sets. Once you get to a point where you’re comfortably knocking off 30-50 total reps in a session, you can bet money you’ll be able to knock off One Good Set of pretty decent reps.
The other option to explore, assuming you can already do say 5-8 reps, is to get a dipping/chinning belt and start to add weight for a few sets of 5 reps. A few can mean 2-3, or it can mean one. The point is to get some work with extra resistance in that money spot of 5 reps.
If you can handle that, a good way to do it is to have one weighted session and one or two high-volume sessions each week. If you’re not strong enough to handle your own weight yet, then do two or three high-volume sessions each week until you can.
I Do Barbell Rows from the Floor
I’m not a big fan of the 45-degree bent-over row (or Yates row as I’ve heard it called). Doing them at this angle turns the exercise into a near-shrug movement. Granted this isn’t bad if you’re trying to train the traps, or if you want to man-handle some big poundages, but I’ve just never seen much use from it. It’s like doing rack lockouts above the knee. Sure you can throw some big weights on to impress all the yokels, but it doesn’t ever carry over to the lifts you really care about.
I prefer to use a strict(er) style of BB row, starting from the floor. This exercise became e-popular a few years ago, labeled as a “Pendlay row” after Glenn Pendlay, who described the form awhile back. The funny thing is, this is just how bent-over barbell rows are supposed to be done, versus the really sloppy half-bent Yates row version that everybody seems to do.
The bad thing is that rows are almost always either too damn strict or not strict enough. For every heaving Yates row out there, there’s some “fitness person” doing them with a 5kg dumbbell or one of those 15kg pre-loaded bars. Perfect form, but still not very effective.
I’d like something in the middle ground, maybe something along these lines. He’s using a lot of hip-drive to make that work, sure, but he’s also being stricter than most “overloaded” rows and he’s able to load up a ton of weight because of it.
There’s strict and then there’s “strict”. Starting from the floor, you have the option to keep the hips near motionless (which means using light weights), or to use a little hip drive to keep things moving, allowing you to go a little heavier. The slightly-cheated version has become my mainstay when I do BB rows. It’s a nice compromise between the super-sloppy 45-degree row, which I just don’t get much from, and the pansy weights of the strict style.
These lessons apply to the DB row too. You can go strict, or you can do the Kroc row. You can start it from the floor or from the hang. You can brace yourself on a bench or a rack, you can do them three-point style (which means you have both feet on the ground and one hand bracing on a bench), or you can do them freestyle to be a true gangsta.
The variations are endless, and you should definitely find a few of them that you like (and a couple that you don’t) in order to make sure everything’s getting enough stimulus.
If you’ve got any questions or things I left out that should be in this piece, let me know in the comments.