Whether you’re trying to gain gobs of muscle mass or to just look lean and strong, nothing says “I train hard” like broad, thick back! Just like with legs, getting a stand-out back takes some serious blood, sweat, and tears – you’ve really got to leave all you’ve got on the gym floor if you want serious results. Here are a few key tips and exercises for constructing great back workout routines!
Deadlifts for Mass
There’s no doubt that squats are the king of all exercises when it comes to putting on muscle mass as fast as humanly possible. However, the deadlift is a close second to the squat and is definitely the best mass-builder for the upper AND lower back. Simply put, if you don’t have deadlifts in your back workout routines, you’re not getting anywhere near the most you could be out of your training.
The deadlift obviously works your lower back hard, since that is a primary pivot point for the movement. If you execute the deadlift properly, you will be both straightening your legs and extending your back. However, the deadlift also places HUGE stress on the lats and traps. The lats are used the keep the bar in close to your body as you pull upwards. You may not feel them contracting in the same was as you would on a pull-up or a row, but they are working! The same goes for the traps. You’re not performing a shrug at the top of the movement, but your traps will be on fire just from being stretched to hold the weight in place! You will never see a strong deadlifter with small traps.
If you’re going to put full-range deadlifts in your back workout routines, it’s best to do them at the beginning. They are a hard, heavy movement with a relatively large range of motion, and doing them after any other pulling movements is going to seriously limit the weight you can use. You can’t get the benefit of deadlifts if you’re moving serious weight! This is the exercise on which you can probably lift more than any other.
However, there are other variations of the deadlift that you can use if you want to start your back training with pull-ups or rows. Rack-pulls are a kind of shortened deadlift done with the bar resting on the safety pins in a squat rack. You start with the bar around knee height and pull the bar to lockout. Since the range of motion is much shorter, you can still sling some serious weight around even when your back is fatigued from other movements!
Row to Grow!
Most people focus on pull-ups and pull-down movements when they train their upper back. While these are certainly essential for getting that width everyone wants, you’re never going to build a truly massive, thick back without putting some serious work in on heavy, free weight rows. Getting stronger at rows also tends to help your bench press strength. A row is essentially the opposite of a flat press, and getting strong at the movement gives you great stability on the bench.
People differ on what their favorite type of row is, but I’ve always preferred the basic barbell version. Bend about 45 degrees at the waist, put a slight swing into the motion, and pull the bar towards your stomach. Wear a belt and wrist straps if necessary, and work up to some seriously heavy weight! Rows are unique among exercises in that you can typically use a very heavy weight AND high reps, so don’t wimp out and stop the set early!
Another great row variation is the one-armed dumbbell row. It’s also one that, in my opinion, most people do the wrong way. I usually see trainees using super-strict, slow form with a small weight that they can probably curl! Strict form is all well and good sometimes, but seriously, you don’t build a huge back with light weights! Think about the deadlift – it’s the best back movement there is, but you use tons of other muscles. Do you really think you need to “isolate” your lats to make them grow? If you’re going to row with dumbbells, take a strong stance, bracing yourself with your off-hand on the dumbbell rack, and tug a huge weight for high reps! If you’re willing to get a little loose with your form, you’ll surprise yourself with how much weight you can use.
Finally, we come to a movement that every bodybuilder, weight lifter, and athlete is familiar with. While deadlifts and rows are going to put most of the mass on your back, you’ll never get wide, flaring lats if you don’t get strong on vertical pulling movements. Which movement should you pick? If you’re anything but an advanced bodybuilder, the answer is the pull-up. You may eventually find pull-downs of various sorts to be better for back development, but until you’re seriously big and strong, you need to bust ass pulling your entire body to that chin bar. This part is crucial in order to see success with your back workout routines.
There are tons of ways to perform pull-ups, but until you’re experienced at them, go ahead and do what is hardest (and most effective)! The basic, wide-grip pull-up done from a dead hang on every rep will build your back and grip strength faster than any variation and will lay a great foundation for a developed, muscular back. Use some chalk to get your grip right, get up to that bar, and tug like your life depends on it. Once you’re able to handle your bodyweight for 10-12 reps with FULL range of motion, start adding weight to yourself. Get to the point where you’re doing pull-ups with 100 pounds attached for 10 reps and see if you don’t have the widest back in town.
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