How did it come to be that the back is so important in bodybuilding and fitness? Once again, a trip through the history books reveals a close connection between bodybuilding and athleticism. Many Olympic movements in fact require a strong ability to pull or draw in against resistance, which in turns builds up the size of the back muscle group. In addition, having a wide upper back with an impressive taper down to a lean waist implies strength, fitness and an efficient frame of health.
Let it not be construed, however, that a muscular back is essential strictly for male Bodybuilding, Physique and Classic Physique athletes; to be sure, women who compete in Figure, Physique, Fitness Model, Bikini, Fitness and Glamour can all positively impact their showings with a strong-looking, athletic back. The development requirement of your back of course ranges from category to category, but the proportionate ratio of your back to other muscle groups is consistently important. In the minds of some judges, there’s nothing sexier than a lean, tanned female athlete with fit, broad back width. Building your back may truly be the difference between a high or low placement.
PRINCIPLES OF TRAINING BACK
More than meets the eye. Many people mistakenly believe that the back and your lats are one in the same thing. You’ll often hear these two terms used interchangeably in the gym. This is not accurate, however, since within your back muscle group there also exists the teres majors, rhomboids, and deep spinal erectors. While the lats are the largest muscles within this group, the others warrant due consideration and should also be trained actively and proportionately. For example, the teres major is the highest muscle group in your back, in close proximity to your trapezius and rear deltoid muscles. From a visual point of view, these muscles form the “peak” of your back and therefore they often bear immediate scrutiny from the judges or your audience. Neglecting them, no matter how well you’ve trained your lats, can negatively impact your performance.
But don’t be discouraged by the thought of having to worry about the development of other back muscle groups one by one (including some with which you may not even be familiar); the enclosed workout in this installment will ensure you cover all of the muscle groups in your back. Due to their smaller composition relative to the larger lats, and based on many athletes’ unfamiliarity of their actual location, you may not directly identify the feel of these muscles in action during exercise performance. This is nothing to be worried about, however, since in fitness training you have to look beyond your fingertips – simply make it a habit to keep the faith that biomechanics are universal from individual to individual; that science has demonstrated the actions of specific muscles when certain exercises are executed.
A little variation in your grip goes a long way. The more experienced an athlete is in their training, the more knowledge and appreciation they have for a variety of execution. Consequently, many intermediate- to advanced-level athletes are aware of the need for constant stimulation on muscles in order for them to grow, so they perform an exercise such as the lat pulldown using a spectrum of techniques like drop sets, forced reps, slow negatives and so on. While this approach absolutely has a place in training for competition, often other little things which appear insignificant – like altering your grip position – get overlooked. For example, pulldowns need not be performed exclusively with a hook grip, in which your fingers rest on the top of the bar and your thumb is underneath. Try performing this movement with all your fingers and your thumb over top of the bar, and you’ll immediately observe a difference.
As a matter of fact, if you really want to engage your lats more efficiently, using this alternative uniform (a.k.a. “false”) grip has been shown to be superior to the traditional hook grip. To a not insignificant extent, people using the hook grip often remark that they don’t actually feel their lats in action during the lat pulldown, even with a wide grip; nor do they feel the soreness one would expect on the following day or two. However, applying the false grip has once again been observed to induce more of a feel of the resistance during the movement, coupled with more of the soreness you’d expect to induce as a result of training. Et voila – more muscle growth.
Go for the extra squeeze. Research has shown that inducing an extra muscle contraction (i.e. a “squeeze”) in the peak position can promote further muscle stimulation in some exercises. This means in simple terms that once you’ve rowed the bar to its highest point (or pulled down the bar to its lowest point), you are to hold the position for a split second, then consciously draw your back inward. This squeeze takes place even without the weight moving. After the contraction, you simply release the tension and return the weight using control back to the start position. You can even apply this method to the pull-up exercise and activate the contraction when you’re at your highest point.
Keep in mind two things, however: this extra squeeze is particularly effective for back exercises due to the physiology of the lats in particular. You wouldn’t apply this same approach to the bench press when you’re working your chest in the peak position with the same level of effectiveness, since the biomechanics of your pectoral muscles dictate otherwise (e.g. less wide, more dense, etc.). Also, when starting out on this method for the first time, use a much lighter weight than you would otherwise normally use, because fatigue will set in a lot quicker if you do this extra contraction every rep; you may inadvertently hit failure two, three or four reps prematurely. As an option, you can reserve the squeeze for the very last rep of a set (and even hold it for a period of several seconds, if you wish). As with all forms of training, practice makes perfect.
FOCUS ON BACK
Female athlete or male, if you really want to impress the judges you’ll need to make training your back as complete as possible. An easy way to think of it is to divide your back into four quarters and make sure that no area is untrained. It’s a fallacy to think that if you play to your strengths and merely emphasize the larger muscles, that the judges won’t notice any underdevelopment in your other areas. To that end, the “Four Quarters” workout herein offers a comprehensive approach to training all four quarters of your back, so you effectively build up not only your lats but teres major, rhomboids and spinal erectors as well.
The argument can be made that sloppy form or cheating in execution will cost you more in back training that in any other muscle group. When training their back, athletes often fixate on a number of reps (usually 10) that they “must” hit, and in so doing fail to complete the full range of motion for each rep near the end of a set. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that by doing so, you’re only cheating yourself and putting the kibosh on your gains. Pay extra attention to a full range of motion when working your back, even if you have to stop a set short of your target rep – or even if you have to reduce the weight involved. Failure is not something to be avoided in weight training; in fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to efficient muscular development.
“FOUR QUARTERS” BACK WORKOUT FOR ASPIRING UFE COMPETITORS
The “Four Quarters” back workout here is highly effective for building muscle in all areas of your back, while hitting all four of your back muscle groups. One notable element of this workout is that you’ll be changing the resistance (the weight you lift) not just often, but for each and every set. Progress from lighter to heavier weights during each exercise, including even at the start when you perform your first set of the Pendlay Row for eight reps with a lighter weight as a form of warmup.
|PENDLAY ROW||4||8, 12, 10, F9*||1:30 mins.|
|STRAIGHT-ARM PULLDOWN||3||12, 10, F9*||1:15 mins|
|CLOSE-GRIP SEATED CABLE ROW||3||12, 10, F9*||1:15 mins.|
|INCLINE DUMBBELL ROW||3||12, 10, F9*||1:15 mins.|
|LANDMINE ROW||3||15, 12, 10||1:15 mins.|
|BACK EXTENSION||3||12, 12, AMRAP**||1:00 min.|
*F9 means fail on the 9th rep. In other words, use a weight whereby you could complete eight reps successfully, but then fail on the 9th rep.
**AMRAP means “As Many Reps As Possible”. Continue the set until you can no longer complete a rep using good form (e. g. you complete 10 reps with good form but cannot complete an eleventh rep with good form; stop the set here).
- Load a barbell to your desired resistance and set it on the floor
- Stand adjacent to the bar and separate your feet to shoulder width
- Bend forward from your hips with a straight back until parallel to the floor
- Bend your knees just slightly for stability
- Grasp the bar with an overhand grip at the width of your shoulders or a bit wider
- Keep most of your body anchored in position, especially your back and legs
- Row the bar up toward your lower chest / upper abs and hold for a second
- Squeeze a contraction in this peak position if so desired
- Using control, lower the bar all the way to the floor and relax your hold completely
- After one second, repeat the action with a similar intra-rep “break” each rep
- Set the lat pulldown cable to a high pulley position and set your desired weight
- Stand tall, facing the apparatus at a distance of arms’ length from the bar
- Separate your feet to about shoulder-width and bend your knees slightly
- Grasp the bar with an overhand grip at the width of your shoulders
- Make sure all of your body except for your arms are fixed in position
- Pull the bar in a downward arc until the bar reaches your thighs
- Hold in this bottom position briefly, squeeze a contraction, then using control return the bar along the same path up to the start position.
- Set the weight stack of the seated cable row apparatus to your desired resistance
- Sit on the machine lengthwise facing the weight stack and place your feet squarely on the grid(s).
- Ensure you’re positioned with a substantial bend in your legs at the knees
- Lean forward from your hips and grasp the bar with a narrow overhand grip
- Row the bar horizontally to the position of your lower abs and hold for a second
- In this peak position, squeeze an extra contraction from your back if desired
- Release the tension and return the bar along the same path back to the start
INCLINE DUMBBELL ROW
- Set an adjustable bench to a 45-degree angle or used a fixed incline bench
- Place a dumbbell on each side, below the top of the bench
- Position yourself on the bench facing down, your head in line with your spine
- Spread your feet wide for stability and rest squarely on your toes
- Reach down to grasp a dumbbell in each hand using a semi-neutral grip
- With your body anchored in place, row the dumbbells vertically until they’re in the same plane as the bench
- Keep your elbows tucked in during the move; avoid flaring them outward
- Hold at the top for a second, squeeze a contraction if desired, then lower to the start
- Place a barbell on the floor such that one end rests against the bottom of a wall
- Load the other end with your desired weight plate
- Stand parallel to the bar at the very end of the side with the weight plate
- Spread your feet to shoulder width and bend down to grasp the very end of the bar with one hand using an overhand grip
- Rest your non-working hand on its same-side knee
- Row the bar upward along the natural arc of the bar as high as you can
- Hold in the top position for a second then lower along the same path to the start
- Approach a back extension apparatus from the side where the incline runs away from you
- One at a time, place your feet inside such that your heels rest against the pads
- Bring your thighs to the front of the incline pads and elongate your body
- Cross your arms across your chest prior to beginning the action
- Hinge forward toward the floor such that you perform a 90-degree range of motion
- Pause for a second in this bottom position
- Exhale sharply and raise your torso back up to the start, all the while keeping your back straight
Timothy Rigby, M.A., NCSA-CPT is a freelance writer and one of Canada’s most published fitness writers.