Back...The Legs of the Upper Body
Building an amazing back is something that very few people are able to accomplish. Most people do a great job at training all of the other body parts, besides the back. The truth, is that posterior exercises take practice and are typically much more difficult to get the hang of compared to others. When people see lagging parts in their physique, it is typically their back. When I say "the legs of the upper body," I mean just that. Legs create base and stability and need to be trained adequately! The same thing needs to be applied to all back exercises.
Building a strong, functional, and proportional back is something that is extremely important. Not only does a strong posterior protect against injury, but it also adds great shape to a physique for both males and females. The "V-Taper" is something that is desired with many people trying to better their body. This is the shape the torso takes when someone is in great physical shape. The torso forms the shape of the letter “V” with broad shoulders and lats down to a narrow waist. Below is my progression this past five years slowly developing a "V-Taper"
The biggest problem comes down to training style and format of the exercises. When it comes to other upper body parts to train such as the chest or shoulders, people gravitate towards strength oriented rep ranges. Heavy sets of 3's, 4's, and 5's are much more common with these body parts, which is why growth and development is easier. The natural instinct is to go heavy with pressing motions. Often times you will see over developed chest and shoulders, with an underdeveloped back.
The reason for this is due to the fact that training the back in these heavy/lower rep ranges can be difficult to master. Pulling with your back, and engaging the lats is something that takes 1000's of reps to master. It is a skill to be able to pull with your posterior, and have minimal engagement with the biceps taking over most of the work. However, it is something that must be done in order to achieve success.
The majority of gym goers train the back in higher rep ranges compared to their pressing movements for chest and shoulders. This is because it is much harder to "feel" the back muscles working compared to other upper body muscles. Like I said earlier. It takes practice. Honestly, so much practice to learn how to engage your back with every rep. This comes down to form, and pattern recognition over time to properly engage your lats when pulling. Once you have mastered the form and feel (which goes for any lift honestly), it is time to start adding weight, just like you would with any other upper body muscle group. This is where most go wrong. The key back exercises are never progressed in a strength format like the rest of the body. Back muscles need to be trained in lower rep ranges (3-6) in order to develop strength and muscle mass optimally. This is especially true for any compound movement. Compound movements are exercises that are multi-muscle working with each exercise. When training back, this includes exercises like pull-ups, chin-ups, T-rows, and deadlifts.
Over the past five years I have been increasing strength on my main compound lift which is weighted chin-ups and the results have been amazing. In the link below you can see me tackling 100 pound chins for seven sets of three reps. I also explain how I structure this lift each week.
There are multiple ways to train your back. The most efficient way is to incorporate pulling motions in three different ways. The first way is with vertical pulling. These movements include the pull-up, chin-up, and lat pull down. Different variations of all of these exercises exist based on hand grip width and variations. Vertical pulling is the most optimal way to add strength, size, and width to your lats. Over time this will develop stronger core stability and a v-taper.
The second way to train your back is through horizontal pulling motions. Horizontal pulls add strength and thickness to your lats. These movements include t-bar rows, low cable rows, any seated or chest supported row, and dumbbell rows. Different variations of all of these exercises exist based on hand grip width and variations. Horizontal pulling is the most ideal way to add strength, size, and thickness to your lats.
The third way to train your back is through hip-hinge exercises. Hip-hinge exercises include deadlifts, sumo-deadlifts, and rack pulls. The goal with any hip hinge movement is to develop strength and size to the low back, spinal erectors, and core. Often times the legs are brought in as secondary muscles worked during these exercises.
My full back day workout explained below.
The final thing that I want to touch on is strength and injury prevention by building a strong back. The lats tie into the spinal erectors, and the spinal erectors tie into the core. Core strength and stability is crucial long term to prevent injury on other lifts. A strong, well developed back will lead to better strength and development on other key lifts. When it comes to pressing motions for shoulders or chest, the back is often fully engaged to stabilize the spine and protect the core. With lower body leg exercises, strong lats will keep the person in an upright protected position. Protecting the spine is very important with any of this.
If you take a look at my full leg day video below, you will see that my back has to support the weight when squatting to protect my spine. On top of that, when doing my RDL's as my second exercise, you will notice this is a hip hinge exercise. The back and spinal erectors are fully engaged with each rep. The body works in unison and needs to be trained equally with each body part!
95% of people that I see in the gym each day are not training back correctly. At minimum, your first compound lift needs to be focused on gaining strength and advancing to that next level of adaptation. My recommendation is to start with pull ups or chin ups each back session, and slowly advance to weighted pull ups or chin ups each week by using a chain belt/dip belt to add strength each week. Aim for 20-25 working reps for your first exercise. It can be in a format such as 7x3, 6x4, 5x5 ect...This will build raw strength and central nervous system adaptation over time. If you prefer the rest of the exercises to be higher volume of reps per set, so be it.
With these tips, over the course of many months, you will build an amazing back with proper shape and strength!