Back Strength Training, Basics and a Few tricks for a Complex Muscle Group!

Tirage barre et traction pour la largeur du dos
muscles of your back
Your back is a complex muscular group!

Finally, I come back to you after several weeks of hard work. This time, I thought that writing an article on back training would probably be helpful to many bodybuilders. Indeed, back training in bodybuilding seems certainly more complicated than it could be at first glance. Your back has to be considered as a muscular group that includes a large number of muscles, from the bottom of the lumbar to the top of the trapezius. Indeed, it is true that the trapezius are naturally part of the back muscles but when you train, you can also choose to work these muscles with shoulders but actually, it is not the question for the moment…

As a complex muscle group, your back is composed of the latissimus dorsi or the “lats”, a muscle essential to the movements of Pull-up and the majority in the size of the muscle itself; the “lats” will always be the biggest muscles of the back, except for the trapezius. A whole set of smaller muscles are then placed on your back: rhomboids, infraspinatus and supraspinatus, teres minor, teres major… These first considerations will already inform you of the complexity and the need of a complete training of the back. Indeed, how can you be sure to work this complex set of muscles optimally, with every workout and with a limited number of bodybuilding exercises?

Back training is based on two different types of exercises, Pull-down and Rowing

Pull up for back training
Both Pull-up and rowing exercises have to be done during your workouts to give you the best back development!

From a basic point of view, back training is based on two types of pulling exercises, according to the basic principles of human physiology. Indeed, the back muscles have the function of pulling the shoulders backwards (with the arms), at the contrary to the pectorals which exerts the opposite movement. As it is a muscular group difficult to work without equipment, we can benefit from several types of pull-up exercises : Pull-ups with bars and handles and rowing exercises with handles and bars also.

Then, you will quickly understand that the difference between Pull-up or Pull-down and rowing exercises will be based on the orientation of the exercises considered, vertically for Pulling exercises and horizontally or at 45° for rowing. From there, most of us will say that these two types of exercises (Pull-down (or Up) and rowing allow for the first to work the width of the back and for the second, to work in thickness. You know, however, that I do not like shortcuts and that you have to be wary of them. Here too, this kind of considerations a little too rigid will be taken with much hindsight. While it is true that the Pull-down with the bar or the classic Pull up are going to recruit the latissimus dorsi in an ideal way, it is not said that only the “lats” will develop with these pull-up exercises just as the rowing will only give you some thickness. This is totally wrong and the training practice has already proven it hundreds of times. A large number of bodybuilders who do most of their volume of exercises with the classic Pull-up have often shown that they have a full back, both in width and in thickness whereas at the opposite, the rowing enthusiasts do not show a narrow back.

A maximal contraction of the back muscles is based on a technique of perfect execution of the Pull-down and Rowing exercises

Back pull-up exercise
A full contraction of your back is not so easy to get!

However, it seems obvious to say that if you want to get a strong back, it will be imperative to get a very wide latissimus dorsi. From a physiological point of view, it is impossible to develop a back to the maximum of its physical capacities if the latissimus dorsi is not sufficiently developed in width. This observation often leads us (like most bodybuilders will say so) to focus, consciously or not, on the work of the lats with the Pull-down bar when it would be quite possible to row first.

Still, I, usually work the Pull-down with the bar first. And for this article, I will give you my exercise program and criticize it, instead of making reminders regarding the practice of each back strength exercise. This would not be of great interest since you will easily find other great articles on how to do the Pull-down or to practice the rowing exercise. There is no need to repeat what has already been said before and perhaps better than I could say it myself. Here is my program, developed to work all the back muscles to their best. You are free to do the same program of bodybuilding in your gym, it’s up to you to see if it suits you or not…

My Back Training Program: Pull-Down and Rowings

As every Monday, my usual back training looks like below, I will explain you why…

  1. Pull-Down Bar
  2. Rowing T Bar
  3. Rowing with Rope behind the neck
  4. Pull-down bar Supination (Upward facing position)

Naturally, I do not give any indication on the training volume; it’s up to you to determine it according to what suits you best. Sometimes, I will even continue my training by a 5th exercise while carrying out the Pull-up with the machine (you know… this machine with a support that allows you to be helped a little during the lift!). I will add a very slight help in order to work my Time under Tension. I love to finish with this machine, it allows me to really feel my back contractions to the maximum. To tell the truth, I often noticed that the question of the maximum contraction of the back muscles was often underestimated. This is a shame because this point is often a key aspect of a better back training. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear bodybuilders complaining about their biceps while they are supposed to work their backs. Whether it’s about rowing or Pull-down, start to feel your back contracting to its maximum and you’ll get better results from your back workouts. You will probably avoid years of low-performing exercise if you first start feeling your back contracting as it has to do.

Contracting every muscle of your back is not as easy as one, two, three…

Certain kind of Pull Down exercises will add width but also thickness to your back!

Movement of contraction that may seem less natural than for the pectorals, arms or thighs because you do not see your back muscles contracted, take the reflex to contract your back thoroughly, imagining that you hold a handle in your hands one to two times a day. During the movement, you will try to place your shoulders as far as possible to the back while contracting your back muscles as hard as possible. At the same time, you will let your little pectorals stretch to their maximum range.

Make this type of contraction a real reflex and you will be able to reproduce it much easier during your workout. By doing this frequently, I can guarantee that you will save at least three to four years of unnecessary exercises because they are done at 50% of their maximum contraction. From there, you will understand just as quickly that a good back exercise is not to play the pendulum with a load but to contract the back muscles as far as you can, which is not at all the same thing in this case… Just see the incredible number of young bodybuilders in the gym who do not understand this principle, I do not regret having insisted on this point.

1: The Pull-Down Bar exercise

Generally, this is the first exercise in most bodybuilders who work their backs. As you know, this exercise effectively replaces the traditional Pull-up at the fixed bar since you can modulate the loads according to the strength of your back (and incidentally your biceps). This exercise allows you to erase the limitation generated by the lift of your body weight, allowing you to achieve a greater number of repetitions. Regarding this exercise, you should also definitely remember that you have to work with the bar BEFORE you and not behind the neck, in order to avoid hurting your shoulder joints, rotator cuff and gradually create a trauma to the muscles of the upper back (trapezius, supraspinatus, supraspinatus, splenius, scapula…).

As we discussed before, the Pull-up and Pull-Down bar works all the back muscles, even if the latissimus dorsi seems to be the most heavily worked out. First basic exercise to work your back muscles, it is still a classic exercise that should not be neglected. Be sure to keep your thighs firmly under the support so as not to move the trunk. Gradually bring the bar down to the chest while contracting the back muscles. Keep your back straight while looking up. Return to your original position by holding the charge.

2: The Rowing T Bar

Rowing T bar
The rowing T Bar will give you a thickness like any other exercise of back training!

Considered like the most efficient exercise of the back rowing movements, the rowing T-bar has the advantage of placing you in an intermediate position between the vertical position (like the rowing machines) and the horizontal position. In this way, this type of rowing makes you feel the effects of gravity (and therefore, an additional difficulty), avoiding that you have to place yourself horizontally so far. For me, the rowing T Bar is probably more efficient than other rowing exercises, for the reason I just mentioned. Again, it’s all about working on COMPLETE dorsal contraction if you really want to stimulate hypertrophy at 100%. Start with a moderate load by performing perfect repetitions before taking too much weight.

The weight you put on the bar should allow you to contract and relax your back with maximum amplitude, just as you would for any back exercise. Avoid taking too much weight will also help you to reduce the risk of lower back injury. Indeed, you will take care of placing your lumbar in a concave position during all the exercise. In my opinion, the rowing T bar allows the best possible contraction of the back muscles.

3:Pull-down with Rope behind the Neck

Back thickness
Developing a wide and thick back demands time and perseverance!

This exercise is rarely seen in the gyms but it is one of my favorite for the back muscles. Variation of the Pull-down rope to the forehead that we can practice for the back deltoids and the top of the traps, you will have to take a similar position to that of the Rowing T Bar but this time, using a rope. Try to take a rope that is large enough to allow maximum traction and full contraction of the back muscles. Here, you will have to lower your head and contract your back by pulling the rope down the neck if the length of the rope allows you to do so.

This exercise is really great to contract the traps and the small muscles of the upper back, rhomboids, supraspinatus… Of course, you will have to contract your back at 100% and then hold the charge until the maximum stretch of the back muscles is done, as with any other rowing or Pull-up exercise.

4: Pull-Down Bar in Supination (Upward Facing Position)

This exercise will not only allow you to obtain a good contraction of your back muscles but especially, to realize a maximal stretching of your lats (latissimus dorsi). In my opinion, stretching and contraction of the latissimus dorsi are among the most essential criteria to consider when it comes to Pull-Up, Pull-Down and Rowing exercises. If you are working on a bench that does not allow you to stretch your lats upper than the range you get by placing your forearms vertically while your arms are horizontal, you will never get a wide and thick back. In other words, if you are able to take the bar while sitting, the thighs under the pads, you will never have sufficient range of motion to build a hard and strong back. This Pull-Down exercise in close grip and supine hands will give you the proof that you’re on the good way to a better back development from your first rep…

To summarize on the Back Workout…

The rope to help you develop your back
The rope is certainly the most useful tool to help you develop the thickness or wideness of your back!

As I have just demonstrated, a complete workout is difficult to perform because your back is made up of so many small muscles that should all receive enough stress to stimulate hypertrophy. Stimulating the entire back is also a problem that ends up one day or another to each fan of bodybuilding. Nor is it the easiest to solve. With the program I just proposed, the first Pull-Down bar exercise will allow you to stimulate not only the large “lats” muscle but also other back muscles as I had said in the introduction. Just remember that this great classic back exercise should already cause you to get enough stress to learn how to contract your back properly. If your forearms or biceps are doing all the work, you will need to relearn this exercise again.

Actually, the Rowing T Bar is certainly one of my favorite exercises. The stance of the back required by this exercise will ideally develop your dorsal thickness. In any case, try to work with a load adapted to your strength and think to systematically move your shoulders backwards to obtain a maximum contraction of the back muscles. You are not Ronnie Coleman and you probably do not take the same thing as him. So, adding 5 or 6 plates of 25 kg on a rowing T bar will only have the effect of hurting your lumbar and shoulders at the same time, with no result on hypertrophy. To summarize, the Rowing T bar is one of the best rowing exercises to develop your back in thickness.

The third exercise proposed is also really optimal for the development of the upper back, including the upper trapezius, deltoid muscles, rhomboids and all the small muscles associated with this very important part of the back. Finally, you will see that the last exercise allows you a maximum stretching of the latissimus dorsi. Just think that the wider your back will be, the highest potential will be for a complete development of your back.

Here it is !

I wrote a long article again but I think that this one is far from useless as I see how many bodybuilders spend months, even years, without getting an effective development of their backs. Before the next article, stay tuned to Fitness Nations for other items. I’ll see you later on the site for other articles. In the meantime, you can also find me on Espace Corps Esprit Forme for a few shorter articles. Naturally, Fitness Nations will be just as useful if you want to quickly develop your knowledge of bodybuilding!

Eric Mallet

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