Because the back muscles are the largest and most complex muscles of the upper torso, their development is paramount. Unfortunately they're also one of the toughest muscle groups to "feel" while you train.
While the muscles of the back don't face on coming traffic like the biceps and chest do, those in search of more upper body width and thickness will find successful back development paramount. The muscles of the back form the largest and most complex muscle group of the torso. Virtually all pulling movements performed by the upper extremity and shoulder girdle require the use of the back muscles. For these reasons you can't afford not to have your back on track!
The Back Muscles
While the latissimus dorsi or "lats" is the muscle most commonly associated with the back, other neighboring muscles which assist the lats in a variety of movements include the trapezius, the rhomboids, the 4 rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major, and teres minor) as well as the posterior deltoid muscles.
The compilation of these synergistic muscles form a very complex interrelated muscle group which requires a balanced training routine to ensure successful development. In the lower back, the major muscle group is the erector spinae muscle group and is primarily responsible for extension of the trunk.
A Balanced Approach
While the many muscles of the back work together in many movements, there are variations in their trajectories which make them unique. This means different angles of attack are necessary in order to have a balanced training routine. Since the muscles of the upper back are primarily responsible for pulling motions of the upper arm and retraction of the shoulder girdle, performing these motions with the arms in different starting positions provides a more comprehensive back workout.
In our first exercise (front pull-ups/pull-downs) the starting position of the upper arm is overhead. In our second exercise (cable rows) the starting position of the upper arm is straight forward. In our third exercise (dumbbell rows) the starting position of the upper arm is downward. Each of these different starting positions means different paths are required to complete the movement. And since each exercise requires a unique path to perform, different muscle fibers of different muscles are forced to center stage with each exercise.
The final exercise (hyperextensions) trains the erector spinae muscles of the lower back and does not involve the use of the arms.
The most common pitfall and source of frustration involved with back training is not being able to adequately "feel" the muscles of the back work and contract leading many individuals to handle cumbersome poundage in attempts to remedy the problem. This tried correction instead leads to an increased reliance on the biceps further reducing back stimulation. Obviously this isn't the way of the wise. This "feeling" of the back muscles contracting while achieving within them an intense pump is essential for back development and must be achieved. This makes mental concentration and focus mandatory during each repetition.
The most valuable concept to grasp and practice while training back is the pulling of the weights using the back and not the arms. Think of your arms as cables providing a connection between your back muscles and the weights.
As with any other workout, initiate this routine with a minimum 5 minute pre-exercise warm-up including stretches. Grabbing on to the back of a chair, lean back with bent knees and allow your upper torso to flex forward. You should feel the muscles of the back stretching out.
Another effective stretch consists of loading the cable pull-down machine with 80-120 pounds and grasping the bar while seated allowing your arms to fully stretch upwards from the resistance of the bar. Hold this position for 30 seconds allowing the muscles of the back to stretch. Finally, prior to starting each new exercise first perform 1-2 light weight sets for 15 repetitions. This ensures an adequate warm-up and minimizes the risk of injury.
Exercise 1 - Front pull-ups or pull-downs
These are two of the most effective mass building back exercises primarily stressing the lats. Switch between these two exercises and between varying grip widths frequently to maintain steady gains. When performing pull-ups, perform 3 sets to failure. For pull-downs, perform 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
The objective and focus should be on bringing your elbows down and back while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Gripping the bar with the palms facing away helps to minimize biceps involvement. Also, maintaining an arched back will increase the stress to your back.
Exercise 2 - Seated cable rows
This exercise is exceptional for developing the rhomboids, middle and lower traps, as well as the lats. Perform 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Your starting position is seated with the knees slightly bent, torso at 90 degrees to the plane of the seat, arms fully extended, and upper back arched posterior. To complete the movement you simply bring the elbows back and squeeze the shoulder blades together.
The key to this exercise is to bring the elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together using minimal hip and low back motion or swing. Your torso should remain at 90 degrees to the plane of the seat throughout the movement. Also, be sure to gauge your biceps involvement closely as there is a tendency for them to kick in during this movement.
Exercise 3 - Dumbbell rows
This exercise focuses on the middle to lower lats and the middle to lower traps. Begin by holding the dumbbell in your right hand with your left foot forward, right foot back, and knees bent. Support yourself on a flat bench using your left hand. There should be approximately 90 degrees between your torso and your thighs with your torso approximately 30-45 degrees above the plane of the floor. The arm holding the dumbbell should be hanging down towards the floor. Start pulling the dumbbell up by bringing the elbow upwards and back while retracting the shoulder blade back towards the center of the spine.
At the end of the movement the upper arm should be at your side in line with the torso, the palm facing in, and a 90 degree angle made between your upper arm and forearm. Again, your main focus is to make and feel the lats and traps contract while minimizing arm use. Perform 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
Exercise 4 - Hyperextensions
This is an excellent lower back exercise which works the spinal erector muscle group. Most all gyms have a bench specifically constructed for this exercise with a pelvic pad and padding for the backs of your ankles. Start with the front of your pelvis on the flat pad and backs of your ankles firmly against the ankle padding. Cross your arms and hold them across your chest. Your entire torso above your pelvis should be free to flex down towards the floor until your torso is approximately 120 degrees from your thighs. Once in this down position, extend your torso upwards until you're parallel to the floor.
The finished movement should place your torso 10-15 degrees shy of the plane made by your lower extremities. Do not hyperextend during this exercise as the name leads you to believe. Be sure that your back is slightly arched posterior at all times throughout this movement as there is a tendency to hunch your back, especially at the bottom. Keep the entire movement slow and controlled and avoid any bouncing or Indy speeds.
A word of warning... this exercise could aggravate lower back conditions. If you have a history of lower back problems or are currently experiencing back problems it's time for a check up from your chiropractic physician, especially before performing this exercise.
- Focus primarily on feeling the muscles of the back work and contract. This means avoiding excessively heavy weights, minimizing biceps involvement, and concentrating during every repetition.
- Keep the back slightly arched during the back exercises and avoid rounding the shoulders or hunching the back. This allows greater stress to the muscles of the back.
- Avoid heavy barbell bent-over rows, good mornings, or any other exercise in which you use resistance as you extend backwards with the fulcrum point at your hips or low back. It makes absolutely no sense to ruin your back when there are many safer movements that can mock the effects of these exercises.
Weekly Workout Schedule:
Workout 1 - Chest & Biceps
Workout 2 -Shoulders & Traps & Abs
Workout 3 - Back & Triceps
Workout 4 - Legs & Abs