By: Jason E. Cohen, Esq. WNBF Pro Bodybuilder
I have witnessed more bodybuilding competitions than I care to remember. I have also competed in more bodybuilding competitions than I care to remember. The one thing that does stand out in my mind is how many of those shows were won or lost solely on the impressiveness of back development.
For some reason you always hear people saying, "geeze look at the size of that guys arms," or "check out the wheels on that guy!" You rarely hear people say, "that is a thick back!" My intuition is that since we can not see our own backs that the emphasis is taken off of intense back training. In addition, the back is a difficult muscle group to train due to the intricacy of its architecture. Think about it, the back is made up of the latissimus dorsi, rhomboideus, infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor and trapezius.
The question remains, what is the most effective way to build an impressive back? I like to have a plan of attack when I train back. I determine the exercises that I will perform for back based on three criteria: (1) width, (2) thickness and density, and (3) power and strength. The object of our back routine is to pick exercises that will satisfy these three criteria. The trick is to accomplish this without overtraining.
Before we get into the actual exercises and the routine, I want to stress some important things to remember. For the time being, forget about how much weight you are currently using on your back exercises. Instead, lighten the weight and concentrate on squeezing,
holding and contracting your back muscles on each and every set. This is something you will rarely see in the gym. It is also the primary reason that so many people fail to get really sore back muscles the day after training back.
Next, I really want you to concentrate on your form. On your pulling and rowing exercises, stick your chest out, slightly arch your back, keep your elbows in tight, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. This sounds like a lot to do, but it is very important. I want to emphasize the importance of feeling your back work while you are training it.
Following these simple tips will most likely decrease the amount of weight you are used to doing. However, the detail and thickness you will develop in your back will be worth it.
Remember, the object of our back training routine is to concentrate on three criteria: (1) width, (2) thickness, and (3) power and strength. You may be asking yourself, OK that sounds good, but which exercises do I do to satisfy these criteria. Please remember, you will not be doing all of the exercises I suggest every workout. You will only be doing one exercise for each criteria and an additional exercise for the area you think you may be weakest. It is very important to accomplish your back training goals without overtraining.
In order to really add some width to your back I suggest a couple of different exercises. I like to start off my back training with wide grip chin-ups to the front. Chins are usually a good warm-up exercise because you are only working with your bodyweight. If you are more advanced and really want to blast it, add some weight to a belt. I like to start off with three sets going to failure on each set. I often see people performing this exercise incorrectly. Maybe that's because the exercise is named wrong! They are not chins, they are "chests". When you pull your body up toward the bar, your upper chest should literally touch the bar (not your chin). When doing "chests" concentrate on your back and control your tempo. Really try to take the biceps out of the movement. You may want to use straps so that you can really isolate your back. Start off with three sets going to complete failure on each set.
Another good exercise for adding some width to your back is wide-grip pulldowns to the front. I do not recommend wide-grip pulldowns to the rear because it puts your shoulder girdle in an uncompromising position. If you do have shoulder problems (like 85% of all bodybuilders) you may want to try close-grip pulldowns instead. I have found that the close-grips do not put quite as much pressure on the rotator cuff. Whichever one of these exercises you decide to do, I suggest three sets to failure going up in weight each successive set.
I have found that back thickness is acquired through a variety of rowing exercises. Rowing exercises are my personal favorite because I seem to be able to really feel my back working while rowing. Some effective exercises are seated close-grip rows, bent rows, T-bar rows and cable rows.
Once again, when doing rowing exercises form is extremely important. Three basic things to keep in mind: (1) slightly lean back and pull up your chest, (2) arch your back, and (3) squeeze your shoulder blades together.
Since my weakness seems to be thickness, I usually do two exercises for this area. A great exercise to try is close-grip, seated pulldowns to the front. You will need a double handled, close-grip v-bar and a pull-down machine. Also, I strongly suggest using a spotter for this exercise. I add a little twist to this exercise to ensure that I am fully contracting my back muscles. I want you to lighten up the weight you usually use by about forty pounds. Get firmly positioned with your legs under the support pad and your arms directly above your head. Now, have your partner or spotter stick their finger directly between your shoulder blades. Each rep I want you to pinch and squeeze your spotter's finger in between your shoulder blades. This guarantees that you are getting a full contraction and really squeezing your back on each rep. As you will find, it doesn't take much weight to get an intense burn. Try doing three sets in this fashion and get ready for some pain the next day!
For my second exercise I usually pick a different rowing movement each time. I also like to throw in cross bench, dumbbell pullovers every once in a while. Remember, variety is a great way to get your back sore each and every time you train it. I am convinced that muscle has memory. Therefore, if you can throw something new in, it will keep your muscles guessing.
POWER AND STRENGTH
Up until this point, you were probably thinking that you wanted to give this type of back training a try. Guess what, it just wouldn't be fun unless we threw in a grueling exercise. Yep, you guessed it, deadlifts! The reason people hate deadlifts is because they suck! They are tough, intense, and require a lot of mental concentration. Usually the more grueling an exercise is, the more effective it is. Take squats for example, they are tough, but they work. Don't worry there will be no squatting today.
The reason deadlifts are so difficult is because they involve many different body parts and involve quite a bit of technique. If you are not a regular deadlifter, start slow and concentrate on your form. I prefer deadlifting off the floor with a forty-five pound plate beneath my feet. A couple of quick points to remember. When deadlifting: (1) keep your body tight, (2) your head slightly tilted toward the ceiling, and (3) start and finish the movement with the bar touching your shins. I usually perform deadlifts as my second exercise. I do this because I like to be properly warmed up, since so many different muscles are involved.
You have probably read many different schools of thought pertaining to reps and sets when it comes to the deadlift. Remember, we are not power lifters, we are bodybuilders. Huge amounts of weight aren't necessary to build a quality back. I like to mix it up a little.
Usually, I will do four working sets of deadlifts and one warm-up set. Some days I will concentrate on high reps (12-15 range) and on other days I will increase the poundages and do low reps (3-5 range). While on other days, I will do a warm-up then three low rep sets and finish with one high rep set. Don't be afraid to mix it up to make deadlifting more fun (fun may not be the correct word).
Also, you can vary your foot and hand positions to change your deadlifting technique (i.e. sumo squats).
One final word on deadlifting. It is very important that you concentrate on involving your whole back while doing the movement. Try not to pull with your hamstrings, traps, biceps and lower back. Once you get the technique down, you will see vast improvements in your back development in no time.
"BACK" TO THE BASICS
After reading this article you are hopefully thinking that building an impressive back is easier than you thought possible. Actually it is, assuming you really get a good "mind-muscle" connection when you train back. Really think about how you want your back to look while you are training it. Remember, go back to the basics, lighten the weight up a little and squeeze and contract on every rep. Now go attack your back!