The reasons to train your back is more than to just...well...have a big back. Back training has an impact on other muscles too! Find out why back training is so important.
When you think about back training, most of the time people are thinking about dead lifts. This is the most common of the compound exercises for back and legs. Let’s not forget there are other well rounded exercises for making a strong back.
"All parts equal to one another and go hand in hand."
You can’t expect to have a strong chest without having a strong back, back training is just as important. If your goal is to have a strong bench press or a very well developed chest, you can’t ignore your back training. The same goes for the lower body. You can’t expect to have strong legs without having a strong lower back to help support the legs. All parts equal to one another and go hand in hand. A strong back is important to your overall health and the way you carry yourself, as well. Yes, your posture comes from a strong back. There have been reports over the years that the people that do not train back are more likely to have back pain and what not.
Having a strong back is just as important as having strong legs and chest. Back is over looked most of the time because ,frankly, it is another tough body part to train. Back training is shied away from a lot of the time because most injuries occur from incorrect back training. I have seen guys come into the gym and go straight to the compound lifts, use terrible form, way to heavy weight and not enough reps to properly stimulate the muscles in the back. What I’m going to try to do in this article is focus on what has to be done to safely and correctly build a quality strong back. Let’s start with the basics and go from there.
Properly Getting Warmed Up:
Just like in every other body part the muscles have to be primed to work. Simply twisting or doing hands to toes a couple of time will not cut it when getting your back ready for a rigorous workout.
Start out by doing a little cardio.
Walking is perfect for this so get on the treadmill for about 10 minutes to loosen up the lower back. Get a light sweat going. When that light sweat is starting to come out you know that your internal body temperature is elevated and the muscles are starting to heat up.
Now go and stretch.
One awesome way to stretch is from a chinning bar or hold on to a fixed object and pull on the lats slowly. Slowly pull and feel the latissimus dorsi muscles stretch. It is also important to have your hamstrings properly warmed up and stretched as well, so get on the floor and do some hamstring stretches. A couple extra ones to add to the mix are side bends and side to side twists, either with a broomstick or towel. If you have a partner, you can do awesome lat stretches with each other by one holding on to one end of a towel and the other on the other end of a towel and take turns pulling on the lats. After stretching for 5 to 10 minutes you should be ready to start your workout. The reason I'm boring you talking about stretching is because it is so important and it can make the difference in a good back vs an awesome back.
Upper Back Before Lower Back:
A lot of people, especially power lifters, start out their back exercise with dead lifts. This is not mandatory if you are not lifting for complete power strength. If you want a good back workout I believe the compound exercises for back can actually be done toward the end of the workout. Reason: your upper back will be properly stimulated and then the lower back can be focused on for prime growth.
If you can do chin ups, do them. There is nothing better for upper back development than chin ups. Making sure you use an over hand grip and also get enough stretch from the bottom of the latissimus dorsi to the top of it as well. Where I have seen a lot of people go wrong with chin ups is half reps, not going down all the way to stretch the lats. When you pull up squeeze at the top to really pump some blood into the lats. Try to keep the reps for chin ups in the 10-12 range. Since this is a body weight exercise, when you start getting able to do 15 to 20, start using a weight belt and add some weight to it to increase your resistance. Keep sets to about 4 and for an extra good pump in the lats, on the last set have someone grab your feet when you start struggling with the last reps and try to pull out as many as you can. Like I said, if you can do chin ups do them. If you can’t do them either do rack chins or lat pulls on a machine.
When doing chin ups, rack chins, or lat pulls, it is important to note that using lifting straps is a good idea. If you are not a power lifter where you have to continually work and rely on grip strength, it is okay to use lifting straps so you learn to pull with your back and not use the biceps to do the pulling. You will still get a bicep pull when doing any pulling movement but lifting straps will definitely bring down the amount of stress on the forearms and biceps. Now, with doing pulley type lat pull machines, it is important to use proper weight and form. Keep the upper body upright and pull down with the cables and squeeze then come back up really getting a good stretch in the lats.
I like to consider all of these lat exercises as a good warm up exercise. Then I recommend going on to heavier exercises like hammer strength pulls, low cable rows or T- bar rows. Any of these work well together and can be done for 3-4 sets with keeping the reps in the 12-15 range. Also doing one arm rows with a dumbbell is good for working the upper back. There are all sorts of good equipment now days to work the upper and middle back. So choose the best one for you.
Lower Back Work:
This is where the meat and potatoes of the back workout come together. You have an entire arsenal of good exercise to choose from here. Here is where you can do your dead lifts or rack dead lifts. Note: doing rack dead lifts will really put a lot of stress on the lower lumbar so if you are not used to doing them start out with doing lighter weight and slowly work your way up in weight. I’ve seen too many people start doing rack dead lifts and end up with lower back injuries because it can quickly become an ego exercise when you are not coming straight off the floor and you can use heavier weight while doing these. Rack dead lifts are supposed to work the lower back through endurance and not necessarily heavy weight. The correct form when doing this exercise is to stand up with the weight like you would be doing a dead lift and contract the lower back muscles. Slowly, with good form, let it come back down to the start position right below your knees. Keep reps with rack dead lifts high, in my opinion, this will train the back better in the long run. Don’t let your ego get the best of you and go so heavy you hurt your back because I can promise down the road it will happen if you choose to be that guy in the gym who wants to look cool with 500 or more pounds on the bar doing weight you should not be doing when you can get the same thing done with lighter weight.
Bad technique is shown on the right: shoulder blades directly above the bar.
Proper form is shown on the left: shoulders are directly above the bar.
Dead lifts, in some circles, are the single best exercise. Nothing is simpler than picking weight up and putting it down, but is the dead lift a back exercise or is it a leg exercise? That debate will go on forever. Some people do dead lifts on back day some on leg day. I’ve even seen it done on its own day by itself like we used to do when getting ready for a power lifting competition. None the less, if you choose to do them on your back day, make sure you are using proper form. Simply picking weight up and putting it down is not as simple as it seems. Improper form will quickly lead to injuries fast. If you are not sure you are doing them right, search YouTube or look on the internet
Start light with sets on dead lifts and once again, choose reps in the 10-12 range. This will keep the muscles worked under constant tension to insure they are stimulated and worked hard enough to promote hypertrophy, which in turn, with proper rest, creates growth. Dead lifts are a superior exercise when done. Just know that it takes time to build the proper structure and secondary muscle to help build these lifts.
Another good lift of the lower back is barbell rows. This is an excellent exercise to really work the lower back but again should be done with strict form and slow reps. I see a lot of people jerking the weight when doing this exercise and the outcome is always the same. You will pull or strain a muscle if you are not careful doing barbell rows. Pick the weight up and bring to waist level like doing a dead Lift. Lean over slightly and pull the weight up to your navel and squeeze. Then lower the weight with control back to about knee level and repeat the reps for about 10-12.
There is a wide variety of exercises to do for back. I am just listing a few of the most common ones that are used. You can choose from this wide variety:
- Dead lifts
- Rack dead lifts
- One arm dumbbell rows
- Lat pull downs (Wide grip and close grip)
- Low cable rows (Wide grip and close grip)
- T bar rows
- Wide hammer strength rows
- Narrow grip hammer strength rows
- Barbell rows
These are just a few in a large selection.
I will put in trap training in this article only for one reason. Most people really consider it a shoulder exercise but the Trapezius muscles are actually more connected with the back than the shoulders. They run from the top of the neck and the shoulders all the way down the middle of the back. When most people do the common shrug exercise, they mostly are hitting the top portion of the traps and not hitting and stimulating the middle traps. Exercises that hit the middle traps still consist of shrugs and dumbbell shrugs but also upright rows hit them quite well too.
It is important to note the biggest mistake trainees make in the gym while doing shrugs is, number 1, going way to heavy and also rotating the shoulder cuff. This is dangerous and can lead to rotator cuff injuries. Do not rotate your shoulders while doing shrugs. Lift the weight with the traps and squeeze. Let the bar or dumbbells come down low and get a good stretch out of the bottom of the movement. If you want to train your traps on the same day you do your back training there is nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with doing it on shoulder day as well, as shrugs can be a good finishing off exercise for shoulders when done this way. I do not however recommend doing shrugs at the beginning of a shoulder workout just because when you start your heavier movements for shoulders you want your traps to be fresh for the compound lifts you may be doing for shoulders.
My Basic Back Workout:
- Warm up 10 minutes to get a light sweat doing some form of cardio.
- Stretch for 5-10 minutes making sure to stretch out the upper and lower bac
- Chin ups or lat pulls:
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Hammer strength pulls or seated rows
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Seated cable rows or wide grip seated cable rows
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Dead lifts or rack dead lifts
4 sets of 10-12 reps
- Barbell rows or Tbar rows
4 sets of 10-12 reps
Finishing Off A Good Back Workout:
I always like to finish off a good back workout with some type of core exercise such as crunches or ball crunches. I love to use an exercise ball to do crunches on because after torturing your back for the workout, doing crunches with the exercise ball helps loosen up the lower back and continues to stretch the lower back. This is also good while cooling down because you still need to stretch. This stretching I keep hammering in can’t be talked about enough, especially when it comes to working the back. A good back and a strong back should never be so tight you cannot move around.