If you know me, my back is something I’ve had to work hard to grow – and I find that to be the case for a lot of people. It’s tough to train muscles you can’t see. When training things like arms, shoulders, and chest, the mirror can tell you if you’re working the right muscle. But with back, you can’t see it, so you have to feel it and that requires a strong connection to the muscle.
One of my biggest tips when it comes to back – lighten the weight until you’re hitting the right muscle group, then increase it. You also need to know what muscle you’re targeting, because it’s easy for stronger muscles to take over the work.
Now that I’ve spent the time growing my back, I only train it once per week. When I was really focused on growing it, I would split it into two sessions. This workout is what I do now, in one big full-out back session.
For each exercise, you’re going to do 4 sets. The first two are feeder sets, completing 12 reps. Feeder sets are a little higher in weight than traditional warm-up sets, but they aren’t maximal sets. You’ll increase the weight on each of these sets and then switch to “working” sets of each exercise for the last two. On your third set, which should be 80% of your max, you’ll aim to fail at 10 reps. On your final, biggest set, you’ll aim to fail at 8 reps, hitting some big numbers.
1. WIDE-GRIP PULLDOWN
The focus here is warming up – getting the blood pumping into the muscle and activating the lats. When I say “wide grip”, I don’t mean your hands should be at the very ends of the bar because this makes it hard to use the lats. So, put your hands shoulder-width apart and focus on keeping your shoulders down and not rolled forward, even on the stretch at the top. Keep your body upright, only leaning back enough so the bar clears your face, bringing it to your collarbone.
2. T-BAR ROW
Now we’re getting to the hard work. To start, we’re targeting the entire mid-back and the erectors, with heavy T-bar rows using a narrow grip. To keep the work where we want it, you need to really bend at the waist and push the hips back. Anywhere between a 60 to 90-degree bend is good – any higher and the work will be in the traps. Row the weight into the body, driving the elbows back and keeping the body still. Make sure your back isn’t rounded by keeping a little bit of an arch to it.
3. BARBELL ROW
Moving onto another row movement, but with a wider, overhand grip. Again, the wide grip should be about shoulder-width. Keep the same technique cues in mind as the T-bar rows – bent at the waist, slight arch to the back. Even with the wide grip, you’ll keep the elbows in and driving behind you as the bar comes to the lower stomach. If you aren’t feeling this, try it on the Smith machine instead of a free bar.
4. PLATE-LOADED SEATED ROW
Doing a seated row is going to let you focus on the stretch and will give your lower back a break after the heavy rows you just did. You’ll keep your chest on the pad as you extend forward to the point that your back rounds. Then, pull your elbows back to bring your hands to your ribs without leaning back at all. Remember, your focus is the stretch through the lats and driving your elbows back but keeping them narrow. Your grip can be over or under-hand, depending on the machine your gym has.
We’re finishing this workout with deadlifts to empty the tank and focus on building your strength off the ground. This isn’t about a one rep max, it’s about hypertrophy. Set up with your feet shoulder-width apart and sit your hips down for power. At the top, lock out without pushing your hips forward – save your spine from injury. As for the release, control it to the point that you don’t bounce into the next rep. You can drop it, but make sure you stop the momentum so each rep is its own. Start this exercise with a moderate weight and continue to increase it until you fail at 8, even if it takes more than 4 sets. Remember, you’re emptying the tank here.
|Plate-loaded Seated Row||4||12,12,10,8|
That’s it for your back day. After all these compound exercises, your back should be exhausted. One final cue I want you to always keep in mind when training back is to think of your hands as hooks. Hook them onto the bar, dumbbell, or handles, and pull without relying heavily on your grip strength, forearms, or biceps. Keep it all in your back, and you’ll start really growing.