It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about building a better back. I like that post, but it was written for beginners and the clueless searching for answers. For dudes who have a good base and are looking to take their back to another level, we’re going to dive into some fun things to switch it up. Thank you, latest flock of chest-arms-chest-arms bros at my gym for the inspiration!
For a lot of people, getting a truly proper back workout doesn’t happen very often- everyone has that muscle group they suck at working, be it chest or shoulders or whatever, and for a lot of people it is their back. I say this as someone who always hit the back religiously and thought I was pretty good at it. Tons of pull ups of all grips, rowing plates on plates, etc. It wasn’t until, beginning last year, through some experimentation of my own and advice from friends/mentors Mike (Danger and Play) and Jay (Fab Fit Over 40– listen to our podcast episode) that I discovered what proper, grueling, and back inflating work out is like.
Too Much Weight
The main problem I had, one I shared with countless others, was TOO MUCH WEIGHT. Too much weight is a very easy pitfall for back lifts. Rows and pull ups, more than any other lifts save curls, lend themselves easily to cheating- from swinging to thrusting backwards (that better not be you!) to even subtle cheating like 5/6th reps and light hip/lower back movement that you don’t hardly notice. Most especially, it’s those who are like I used to be- those who think they have good form and don’t cheat- that fall prey to the 5/6th rep.
The 5/6th rep is enough to leave you exhausted and feeling accomplished, but that 1/6th that’s left is the huge difference maker. If you’ve been good about working your back hard and progressing weights and/or reps, but don’t regularly have a near crippling case of DOMS after back day, you are missing the 1/6th.
The 1/6th is that point where you anatomically cannot continue the rep any more- full contraction. It should be accompanied by a strong pinching feeling in the back muscles, and to get the most out of it you have to hold it fully contracted for at least a second. This is contrary to how most approach back lifts (and lifting in general), hastily yanking barbells and machines back and forth, but it is how you get that 1/6th.
You will be surprised how much weight you will need to unload off the bar/machine to accomplish this in a controlled manner, and amazed the next day(s) how *real* back muscle soreness feels. Long time readers know that I recommend HIT style reps but even if you don’t want to do that or aren’t experienced enough to delve into it, for the love of god if you take anything away from this post at least drop the weight to something you can control and squeeze that hell outta that 1/6th.
After trying to hit that 1/6th consistently, you may still find that you have a lot of work to do on your back. All that time not getting full contraction means your back is weaker than you thought. Compounding the problem, for many their biceps are dominating the lift and they crap out long before your back does- that was a problem I had as well (by mathis). Here are some ways to negate the bicep domination, blow up your back in size and strength quickly, and really put in some quality back work.
1 & 1/3 reps
1 and 1/3 reps are just like they sound. After doing a full rep, you begin the eccentric movement before stopping one third of the way through, and then contract again all the way down/back. This allows your back to stay more involved- doing a full movement and then a 1/3 rep that almost entirely uses your back only. You will have to drop down to lighter weights to get meaningful sets using these reps, and even then it’ll be tough to get double digit reps. Not only do they hit your back better than regular reps, doing those extra back-only contractions really allows you to retrain and ingrain your mind with how a full, proper rep feels like.
Static holds are simply when you hold the bar/weight/body for an extended period of time, fighting like hell against gravity. For example, pulling the row machine back and holding it at the end of the contraction for as long as you can. These build density as they are essentially a very long contraction, and they help build strength at the 1/6th part of the movement. There are many ways to utilize static holds, from entire sets of repeated holds to using it as the final rep of your last set (my preferred method).
This has become my standard back training procedure. You start your session with a Bicep lift and treat it like arm day. Same weight, reps, and sets as usual, lift til failure. Then you move on to your back lifts like normal. Without much help from your biceps, you force your back to do almost all of the work. It is insane how much of a difference this makes- you will shred out your lats in a way you never thought was possible. I find them even more effective than 1 and 1/3 reps, but don’t let me discourage you from trying them all. Also, like 1 and 1/3 reps, you’ll have to drop down a bit in weight. Don’t let your ego get in the way!
In part 3, we’ll go over different back exercises beyond Barbell rows and pull ups. There’s more to life than Strong Lifts and Starting Strength, no matter their value to beginners.