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If you ask a bodybuilder what body part separates the men from the boys on stage, more than likely you will get a unanimous reply pointing to legs as the difference. Although I do agree, there is a point where everyone on stage has a good set of wheels. When the playing field weeds itself of the posers who have foregone real leg work (squats, stiff leg deads) and tried to get by on leg extensions, leg press, and some cute leg curls, it reveals the true separation between a good bodybuilder and a great one, in my opinion; that difference is the back. Think about how many guys have big arms, respectable shoulders and chest, only to disappoint everyone the second they turn their back to the crowd. Not only is the back a good guide to tell who is really putting in the dirty work on the pull-up bar, but it is a versatile tool that bodybuilders can use to emphasize strengths and cover up weaknesses.

The versatility of the back allows guys with a naturally thicker waist to emphasize their lats and back width to truly get that “V” tapered look. Guys with the natural width can look for more work to thicken the back giving the overall appearance of a denser bodybuilder. This specialized ability to train the back so diversely, witch consequently gets diverse results, makes it a perfect tool for putting you in the center of the stage when the trophies are handed out.

Break the Back Up

If you look at back exercises and the mechanics behind them you will find that there are really only three different exercises. You are either going to pull something from above your head downward, pull something to your chest from a extended arm starting position, or do a dead lift. There are plenty of attachments, hand placements, and grip differences, but only three exercises.
Although width of hand placement, grip type (supinated, pronated), and weight all have factors in the overall effected area of the exercise, you can separate back into two categories. You can work your back for thickness which would be pulling exercises directly to chest and dead lifts or you can work your back for width which would be pull exercises from overhead including pull ups. Again, in general, the wider you place your grip, the more the back is affected and the biceps help less during the repetition. So a pull up with a super wide grip allows for the back to be pinpointed more than a close grip pull up. This is due to the biceps assistance during the close grip pull up.

Splitting Your Routine

If you decide that breaking up you back into two separate days, one for width and one for thickness, if it’s the right move for you it is important to strategically place them in you routine so you can get the best benefit. You might want to think about doing biceps along with back on one of the days to allow for flexibility in the routine for the rest of the week. The main rules are to always give yourself two full days between back thickness day and back width day and to never follow or proceed back thickness day with a leg day. The leg advise is to keep you from doing heavy squats one day and coming back and having to dead lift the next or vice versa.

Sample Routine Splits

  • Monday: Chest
  • Tuesday: Back Thickness
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: Shoulders and Triceps
  • Friday: Legs
  • Saturday: Back Width and Biceps
  • Sunday Off
Remember that splitting the back into two different days will put an extra burden on you Biceps. This may have you change the typical way you train them. A decrease in volume with an emphasis on pump and quality should be the mindset on Biceps in this routine. 

Breaking down the Exercises

There are no bad exercises, but some, lets face it, are better than others. You are not going to get the same trap and upper back development from a simple shrug that you will from aggressively dead lifting to your limits. Breaking them into either back width or back thickness, I made a rundown of the best of the best in back exercises.

Back Thickness

Romanian Dead Lift: I have the most respect for the dead lift when it comes to all back exercises. It is as simple as it gets. Bend over and pick it up. That being said it is the lift that most people butcher while trying to learn, for that reason stay away from the heavy weight until you have perfected your form.  On a Back Thickness day that you do not feel like doing a traditional dead lift, try a rack dead lift. It is the same movement, but the bars starting point is just below knee level instead of on the floor.
Barbell Row: You can do these with a free weight or on a smith machine for stability, but no one arm row makes up for the squeeze you get from the barbell. I personally like a supinated (underhand) grip on these due to it lessening the involvement of your rear delts. Others can use a T-Bar Row for similar results. The T-Bar Row seems to work the middle back (rhomboids) more.

Seated Row: A seated row gives you the opportunity to vary your grip due to the multitude of attachments you can use on the machine. I prefer to use a bar with a neutral grip at shoulders width. Again, the wider you go with the grip the less the biceps can assist in the exercise.

Machine Row: Whether your gym has Hammer Strength, Life Fitness, Nautilus, or any other company supplying its floor with machines, chances are you will have access to a good machine row.  These are good toward the end of the workout because they can keep you in good form to continue to squeeze the back without swinging the weight.

Back Width

Pull ups: A close second to dead lift as the most useful back exercise in my eyes. It is the number one thing that will build width. The saying, “The wider you go, the wider you get” holds true here with a wide grip allowing you to build you a set of bat wings any bodybuilder would be proud of.

Pull Downs: If you are a very heavy guy, due to the enormous weight generated by your body, you might want to go with a pull down to focus better on the lats,. Another feature in the pull down is its versatility. Just like in the seated row, hand grips, attachments, and grip width can be manipulated to customize the exercise. I like to utilize the pull down station sometimes as much as twice in a Width workout. I use a supinated grip with a straight bar with hand at shoulder width. The use of a supinated grip allows you to feel the exercise a bit more in the forearms and biceps. Since I do Biceps along with my Back Width workout, I don’t care about the crossover. I also use the close grip attachment and with a slight back lean I pull my hands just below my chin. This also involves biceps, but I get a better squeeze in my lower lat with these more than anything.

Pull Over:
This much forgotten exercise could actually go on either day due to its effectiveness. Use these during the end of the routine to stretch everything out. This is another exercise that needs to be closely watched in the early stages. Lower weights and perfect form is a must in these. Too much weight will force tension into your triceps.

Relax

The biggest mistake I see people make when they train their back is to not relax at the end of the eccentric movement. If you do a pull up and lower yourself down but never really bottom out, there are muscle fibers you are not working. Same goes for seated rows and allowing your back to do the work. People that do not let the weight down the full range of motion but put more emphasis on their biceps and can really stunt the growth of their back. So it’s easy, just relax at the bottom and start over. Note: Relax doesn’t mean to relax everything geniuses, you still have to have good solid base and core tightened.

Sample Routines

Thickness
Dead Lifts 4sets 8-12reps
Barbell Rows 3sets 8-12reps
Seated Row (underhand grip) 3sets 6-12reps
Machine Row 3sets 12-20reps

Width
Pull ups     (wide grip) 4sets to failure
Pull downs (underhanded) 3sets 8-12reps
Pull Downs (close grip) 3sets 8-12reps
Pull Over 3sets 12-20reps

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