Back Day! It’s not always easy to get excited about back training. The amount of work it takes to thoroughly train the back is exhausting. It’s a tough group of muscles to train and not often the muscles we admire most in the mirror, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of not focusing enough energy on training your back. But the back is where so much of your full body strength comes from and lifts like the Squat and Bench Press just won’t improve if you overlook training your back.
In addition to being essential for all your heavy lifting, a strong and healthy back improves posture, core strength and stability and those who train back are less likely to suffer from back pain or injuries from every day activity. The chief cause of back pain and back injuries is from having a weak back and bad posture. So besides just lifting heavy and looking like a monster, its essential to your overall wellbeing to give your back training the time and intensity it deserves.
Upper and mid-back training includes mostly pulling exercises: Deadlifts, Pull Ups, Lat Pulls, Rows, Rows and more Rows. Pulling from below, straight ahead and from above, using close grip and wide grip hand positions; it’s important to hit the back from many different angles and a variety of grips to ensure full back development, size and strength. Lower back training includes extension of the lower back from exercises like Deadlifts, Good Mornings and Hyper-Extensions.
There are plenty of great back exercises to choose from and down below is a list of several I’d recommend, but there is one brutal exercise in particular I feel is a back day workhorse: the One-Arm Dumbbell Row. This exercise works the mid-back muscles (rhomboids, lower traps, and erector spinae) and the lats directly. What is so special about the One Arm Dumbbell Row? First off, using dumbbells for your rows gives you a longer range of motion than with barbell rows. Doing rows with a dumbbell allows you to pull back further, giving you a deeper contraction at the top of the lift. Doing each side independently also ensures balanced development of the back muscles. Doing exercises one side at a time also doubles your reps, giving the rest of your body (nervous system, cardio-respiratory system) more of an endurance workout. And finally, rows done bent over a bench provide extra stability, allowing you to focus on perfect form and targeting the lats.
The above video is a pretty good demonstration of how to perform the One-Arm Dumbbell Row. For a more detailed analysis of this exercise and its benefits, I’ve found this article to be very informative: https://www.t-nation.com/training/deconstructing-the-dumbbell-row
So here are some METALBOB tips on this exercise and back training in general.
BEGINNERS – Focus on strict form rather than heavy weights when learning this exercise. Keep the back straight and nearly parallel to the floor. Keeping your head up and looking forward rather than looking straight down at the floor will help ensure you keep your back straight. Focus on lifting the weight with your back muscles, not your arms. Let your arm fully extend for a good stretch at the bottom of the lift, then as you raise the weight keep your elbow close in toward your body, tucking the dumbbell into your side at the top of the lift. Keep your upper body straight and stable, avoid rotating your torso as you lift the weight. Do 3-4 sets with a weight you can manage for 10-12 reps. Once you learn to do this exercise with strict form you can then start adding weight.
STRETCH / WARM UP – One dynamic stretch I like to do to warm up my back and loosen the erector muscles is the broomstick twist. I do this any day I’m training back or doing Deadlifts or Squats. Most gyms have some type of wooden pole of PVC tubes laying around. Grab one, sling it over your shoulders like you would for a squat only let your arms hang loosely over the top of the pole. Place feet about shoulder width apart and gently twist, keep your head looking forward as you rotate your trunk to gently stretch and rotate your spine.
GRIP – Back day is brutal on your grip. Pulling a shit-ton of heavy weights for endless sets will wear out even the strongest grip. If you are lifting heavy weights your grip will give out well before your back is even close to being done. For that reason I suggest using straps. No sense limiting how much work your back can do by what your grip can handle. So that you are not cheating yourself out of an opportunity to challenge your grip strength, only use straps for those heavy sets later in the workout when your grip starts to give out. The one big exception to this is: NO STRAPS FOR DEADLIFTS!!! In an earlier blog post I made a big spiel as to why you shouldn’t use straps for Deadlifts. I won’t go into it again here, but for Deadlifts – NO STRAPS! Use Chalk. And speaking of Deadlifts…
DEADLIFTS – I advise most beginner and intermediate trainees to include Deadlifts in their back training routine. Because Deadlifts require the most effort and because you want to hit them before your grip gets weakened, I suggest doing them early in your workout, immediately after your warm up. For more advanced lifters who are starting to pull heavy weight on their deadlifts (more than 1-1.5 x their body weight) think about dedicating a whole day to your deadlifts, combined with assistance work and lots of sets. Focus on upper and mid-back on another day, combined with chest or biceps.
BACK DAY BRUTALITY – As promised, here is a list of great back day exercises. Try a handful of these and switch up a few exercises each time you go in for back day. Experiment with using different grips, and changing up the use of dumbbells, barbells and cables.
- Pull Ups or Assisted Pull Up Machine
- Lat Pull-downs (Wide Grip and Close Grip)
- One Arm Cable Rows
- Straight Arm Pull Down
- Seated Cable Rows
- T-bar Rows or Lying T-Bar Rows
- Bent-over Barbell Rows
- Hyper Extensions or Good Mornings
And if you liked the insane music from the embedded video, the track is called “Desideratum” by Anaal Nathrakh. Enjoy!