Back in the Limelight

Back training. Loved by some, hated by others, and unheard of in the vast ranks of the gym douchebags who seem to only acknowledge the existence of their chests, biceps, and shoulders. As a strong, muscular, well-informed trainer, you know how important it is to train your back. A strong back helps to prevent injuries, create a well-balanced physique, and increase your strength on the big lifts.

But how often do you really focus on your back training? Chin-ups, rows and deadlifts are staples for most guys, and there isn't anything wrong with these whatsoever. But sometimes you need to break the mold a little. Adding some new back exercises into your routine can help you break through plateaus, boost your strength, and give you a welcome change of pace in your training.

1. Weighted chin-ups

OK, weighted chin-ups are probably already in most peoples’ programs, but I firmly believe that they should be in everyone's programs. When it comes to building brute strength, they beat the lat pull-down hands down. Plus, knocking out a set of chins with a couple of 45s around your waist is sure to make you the envy of half the guys in your gym and, if you’re lucky, get the cute girl on the stepper to stare at you in awe. Not only that, but they’re one of the few ways smaller guys can outshine the heavyweight lifters.

When performing your weighted chins, you’re probably best to use a neutral grip with your palms facing each other. If you don’t have access to neutral bars, don’t worry. Chin-ups with a supinated or pronated grip work just as well. It’s just that neutral grip is generally kinder on the shoulder joint.

Make sure you start each rep from a dead hang and go until your chin clears the bar, squeezing your lats and rhomboids hard throughout the whole movement. For progressions on weighted chin-ups, I’m a big fan of Ben Bruno’s approach.

Basically, you alternate chin-up workouts. In the first one, you work up to your 10RM on weighted chins. In the second, you just do body weight chins for higher reps (generally 50–100) in the session. For the next workout, go back to weighted chins, but try to add around five pounds. Do this each workout until your reps drop below five and then reduce the weight a little and go back to a 10RM. Aim to do more body weight chins or the same number but in fewer sets in each unweighted workout, too. If you’re a bigger guy or new to doing weighted chin-ups, a 6RM to 8RM may work better than 10.

2. Trap bar rows

Regular barbell rows are a staple in many bodybuilding and powerlifting programs, and they’re a great exercise. But sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. Using the trap bar for your rows  puts your hands into a neutral position and makes the grip slightly easier than having to hold an Olympic bar.

I’ll also make the assumption that, like all of us, you’re probably guilty of using a bit (or a lot) of body momentum and jerking on your final few reps of a set of barbell rows. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, provided you keep it to a minimum and don’t injure yourself, but there’s always the temptation to do more and more of your sets like this, which takes the emphasis away from the muscles you’re trying to work. Doing your rows in the Pendlay style—resting the bar on the floor between reps and aiming to keep your torso as close to parallel to the ground as possible—minimizes cheating and makes your lats, rhomboids, and traps work harder.

Rotate these into your routine for a few weeks in place of traditional barbell rows and watch your strength skyrocket.

3. Band resisted lat pull-downs

I know I hated on lat pull-downs earlier, and while I still stand by my comment that chin-up variations are far superior and far cooler, lat pull-downs still have a place in my heart when it comes to adding back mass.

The trouble with lat pull-downs though is that sometimes your biceps give out before your lats are properly fatigued. Bad news. The solution? Add more resistance to the end portion of the movement. This is where bands come in.

Grab a light to medium band and secure one end around the top of the pull-down tower while looping the other end around the handle. Make sure there’s little to no tension on the band at the top of the movement but enough at the bottom that you’re really having to work hard to move the weight through the final few inches.

You know the drill for tempos on this one—pull the bar down forcefully, pause, and squeeze the peak contraction. Then try to resist the bar again on the way up.

4. Towel T-bar rows

I started doing these in one of the first gyms I trained at. It was a tiny room in an out of the way corner in an upscale hotel. Despite only being just about big enough to host a hobbit tea party, they still managed to fill it with thirty or so cardio machines, the most useful weight machines they could find (i.e. adduction, abduction, chest press, shoulder press, and ab crunch machine), and one, single, solitary Olympic bar with about 200 lbs of plates. Even for me—a skinny, non-athletic, 140-lb British kid at the time—that wasn’t enough weight to last me for too long. So I had to become inventive with some of my exercises.

Although the gym didn’t have much weight to play with or any kinds of cable attachment handles, I wanted to find a way to do T-bar rows. Cue towel T-bar rows. (The free towels were perhaps the one advantage of training in an upscale hotel). These are pretty straightforward. Set your T-bar rows up as usual but wrap a towel around the bar instead of a handle and row away.

You’ll use less weight than you would for regular T-bars, but you get an increased range of motion, which hits your back better. You also get a crazy forearm pump at the same time.

5. Incline dumbbell scapula retractions

Hands up—who regularly does specific exercises for their scapula retractors? No one? Fair enough. I thought so.

Provided you have row and chin variations in your program, there probably isn't any real need to include direct scapula retraction work in your program. But hey, it can’t hurt. And seeing as the primary action of your rhomboids and mid-traps is scapula retraction, it’s probably pretty beneficial. Add to that the fact that most people have very weak scapula retractors, which can lead to injuries and upper cross syndrome and limit your strength on pretty much every exercise, and there’s some good reasons to work them right there.

You don’t need anything fancy to work them though. Just set a bench to around a 30- to 45-degree incline and lie face down on it. Grab some dumbbells—20–30 lbs should do—and hold them with your arms straight. Lift them up by squeezing your shoulder blades together. The movement will only be an inch or two, and you may not feel like you’re doing much initially, but add in a squeeze at the top of each rep and you’re on to a winner.

There you are. Five back exercises that you may or may not have tried before. Back training is often shunned in favor of the more sexy chest training and more manly leg workouts, but building your back can be just as entertaining. Chuck two or three of these into your program for the next few weeks to help break strength plateaus and give your back training a boost.