In my 12+ years of weight training and waiting on machines at the gym I have noticed that guys seem to really enjoy training chest, arms, abs, and maybe shoulders, but they seem to neglect legs and back. Or, they might actually train their legs and back, but they keep the exercises very basic and the workout is way too short. In this article I will be focusing on how you can get a workout in that will fully hit all of your back muscles and thus add great width and incredible striations. Let’s be real here, just because you can’t see your back at the beach doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t see it.
Before I dive into the specifics on back training I feel that it is important to take a look at what my specific goals are and how many times per week I am willing to dedicate toward those goals. If you read my article on the chest in the last issue of Status Fitness magazine, then this information won’t be new to you, but I don’t want to assume that everyone was able to read that issue. Anyway, the reason it is important to take a look at these specific goals is because clearly we don’t all have the same goals in the gym, nor do we all have the same amount of time to dedicate towards those goals. For instance, I am willing and able to dedicate five or six workout sessions per week that last one to two hours each toward my specific training goals. My goals are to bulk up to good muscle maturity and to do my best to stay lean at the same time. The style of weight training that works best for my goals is known as Hypertrophy training, meaning that I do 3 sets of 12, 10 and 8 reps for each of my exercises in the gym and I only take 60-90 second breaks between each set.
If your goals aren’t the same as mine then you might want to look into the other styles of training such as: endurance (12+ reps; 30-60 sec breaks), strength (4-8 reps; 2-3 min breaks), or power (4 or less reps; 3-5 min breaks). But for me, the Hypertrophy style of training seems to work well as I continue to get great muscle maturity while maintaining the low body fat level that I need to be at for fitness cover shoots, etc.
As I mentioned above, I typically follow a five to six day a week training split and the one that has worked best for me is as follows:
Day 1: Back (Biceps burnout)
Day 2: Chest (Triceps burnout)
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Shoulders
Day 5: Biceps & Triceps
Day 6 (optional): Weighted Abs & non-weighted obliques
Day 7: Off or back to Day 1
The reason I believe this is the perfect training split for goals similar to mine is because it allows the most amount of rest for the muscles: specifically for the secondary muscles that are worked on these days. For instance, on the back day, the secondary muscles that are hit are the biceps, rear deltoids & lower back. In order to get the maximum amount of rest while avoiding overtraining the muscles, you will want to make sure that you haven’t hit any of those ‘secondary muscles’ the day before or the day after your back day. So, in other words, you would not want to train shoulders the day before or after back, since you are hitting rear deltoids as a secondary. I would also suggest that you not train legs the day before or after back as leg day puts a lot of pressure on the lower back. Furthermore, I take advantage of the back day by doing the bicep burnout since they have already been hit as a secondary; this gives me an extra day of bicep training.
Now that you have an understanding of what I believe is the perfect training split for goals similar to mine it’s time to dive into my ‘Complete Back Attack’ and learn how I FULLY train my back.
First of all, I always like to start EVERY workout with about five minutes of speed walking on the treadmill as this is a great way to slightly increase heart rate and enhance blood flow through the muscles. Then, specifically on back day I spend a bit of time stretching through my back, rear deltoids and biceps; I’ll sometimes even do a few pull-ups as bodyweight exercises are always great as a warm up.
Now that the basic warm up is done let’s take a look at the anatomy of the back so that we know where all of those intricate back muscles are located. Knowing the anatomy of the back should give us a feel of what needs to be trained in order to put in that FULL back workout.
A.) B.) C.)
Image A: Is showing where the Latissimus Dorsi are located, which most would refer to as the Lats. The Lats take up the majority of the back and can be hit by performing exercises such as lat pull-downs & rows as you’ll see in my workout that follows.
Image B: Is showing where the Trapezius muscle is located, which most refer to as the traps. Many people think that the traps are just the top of the shoulders and neck, but in reality that is only the upper traps. The upper, mid, and lower traps all run together from the back of the neck all the way down to the center of the back. Each part of the traps can be isolated through special exercises as you’ll see below.
Image C: Is showing where the Quadratus Lumborum are located, which most would refer to as the lower back. All too often people have lower back problems, so while it is important to train this area to keep it strong, you should also be smart by not going too heavy as this will help to prevent those lower back injuries.
Now that you’ve got the anatomy under your belt, let’s learn how to train each of these parts of the back. I always like to attack those big lat muscles first and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to do the basic lat pull-down. This exercise is great because you have a nice wide grip with your elbows pointing out, which really give a nice spread and stretch to those lats. *Be sure to do a light warm-up set before diving into your heavy sets.
Exercise 1 (Lat Pull-Down):
When performing the lat pull-down I feel it is best to keep your upper body angled at a steady 45-60˚throughout the exercise. DO NOT use your upper body to rock back and forth with the weight, but rather pull with the arms through the elbows to keep the focus on the lats rather than the lower back. Keep a nice wide grip on the bar and pull all the way down to your chest and squeeze tightly through the back, then allow the weight to pull your arms up to full extension (this will stretch the lats nicely). Also, be sure to keep the traps down throughout the movement. That is one complete repetition.
My second exercise is a seated cable row using the rope and this is for the lat muscles as well. It’s good to do a few exercises for the lats because they are massive muscles that take some time to exhaust. This seated cable row is great because it really stretches the lats at the top of the motion and you can get a nice full squeeze back with the rope at the end of the motion. Using the rope is the key here because it will give you the full range of motion that you really need on these rows.
Exercise 2 (Seated Cable Rows w/the Rope):
Do your best to keep your back straight up and down throughout the whole repetition. It is important not to rock back and forth with your upper body as we want to keep the focus on your lats, not your lower back. Also, make sure to keep your elbows tucked down tightly to your sides as this will also help to keep the focus on your lats. Begin by pulling the rope towards your navel and bring your elbows back as far back as you can. When you get to that point you want to pause/squeeze tightly through your lats. Now slowly allow the weight to bring your arms forward to a full extension, which will stretch the lats nicely. This is one complete repetition.
Now that you’ve successfully pushed those lat muscles, let’s move on to the trap muscles. I typically start with the lower traps, then I move up to the mid traps, and I finally finish up with two upper trap exercises. For now, let’s focus on how we focus on my favorite exercise to isolate the lower traps, which is known as the Pivot Prone Pull.
Exercise 3 (Pivot Prone Pull):
As you can see in the picture I am using resistance bands that are wrapped around a pull-up bar above me. This exercise is in reality best done on a cable fly machine using the D-handles with the arms set to the highest point and angled in to just wider than shoulder width apart. Start on your knees and align your body directly under the cables with your arms FULLY extended. Pull your elbows all the way down and slightly back and pause/squeeze through the lower traps. Now slowly extend back up to the start position. IMPORTANT KEYS TO THIS EXERCISE: You’ll want to keep your back straight and your chest up throughout the whole repetition. Your hands will be facing outward from the sides of your body throughout the whole repetition as well, which will likely feel a bit awkward/unnatural, but this is the key to targeting those lower traps.
Now let’s move up to the mid traps where we will do a standing single arm mid-trap row. In reality the mid traps would have been hit pretty hard as a secondary back muscle to the lats on the seated row that we did earlier, but now we will attempt to isolate them a bit more with this mid-trap row.
Exercise 4 (Mid -rap Row):
On a cable cross-over style machine you will want to set the arm so that it is at about the same height as your navel. Hook up the d-handle to the cable, set your comfortable weight, and take a few big steps back with d-handle in hand. You’ll want to have a runner’s stance while doing this exercise as this is a great way to keep a steady balance. Typically you would have the opposite leg forward to the arm you are working. Now you will pull your elbow back as far as you can go, hold/squeeze through the mid trap for a moment, and then allow slowly allow the weight to bring your arm forward to the full extension/start position. IMPORTANT KEYS TO THIS EXERCISE: Your palm will be facing downward toward the ground throughout the whole repetition. Your chest should be up and your back straight (no leaning) throughout the whole repetition, too. Finally your elbow should be at about a 45 degree angle from your side as you pull back. In other words, it is not down and brushing your hip, nor is it up and parallel to the ground, but rather at the half way point in the middle of those two positions. All of these keys are very important as they will help you to better isolate that mid trap muscle.
For the upper traps I typically like to do a couple of exercises because this muscle will rarely get hit in your daily routine or as a secondary in the gym. Two of my favorite and most creative exercises for upper traps are the Calf Machine Shrugs and the Trap Dips. I feel this is a great exercise combination for upper traps too as they both manage to target the traps differently.
Exercise 5 (Calf Machine Shrugs):
Set the calf machine a few notches lower than you would set it if you were doing calf raises and put a weight on that will push you comfortably. If it is your first time doing these you may want to start off light until you can get a feel for the exercise. Now you will stand up in the machine with the weight on your shoulders and simply shrug up as high as you can with your traps (hold), and then let your traps slowly drop to the start position. The more range of motion you can get in your shrugs, the better the workout and growth. A FEW SIDE NOTES: Every calf machine is different and might hold you at different angles, etc. Try to keep your hands down to your sides if at all possible. I have however, been on calf machines where I’ll hold the machine’s steel beam down by my navel just so I don’t fall out of the machine. Do your best to keep the hands as low as possible so you can get that good shrug motion. On a different note, I usually put a towel on my shoulders too, as the extra padding is more comfortable on the shoulders.
Exercise 6 (Trap Dips):
Get in position on a dip machine as if you were going to do triceps dips. The difference here is that you will keep your elbows straight and your dip will happen at the traps. So, you will simply allow your traps to slowly dip as low as they can and then you will use your trap muscles to pull yourself back up to the top position and then hold/squeeze through the upper traps. You will also keep your legs straight throughout the repetition. When you get comfortable with this exercise and feel you’d like to challenge yourself more you can simply add a dumbbell between your feet.
The final part of the back that I train is the Quadratus Lumborum/Lower Back. I like to save this part of the back for last as it is the location that seems to get the most stiff/sore after training and I would rather be done at that point than have to carry on and do more exercises. Lots of people do several exercises for lower back, but I personally only do one exercise as my lower back gets plenty of exercise in my daily routines. I usually switch the exercise I do for lower back and will do the weighted back extension on the cable machine one week and the hyper-extension machine the next week. However, in this article/workout I will be focusing on the weighted back extension.
Exercise 7 (Weighted Back Extension)
Hook the triangle row attachment to the seated cable row machine and choose a safe weight that will push you. Now get in the seated position as if you were going to do a seated row; however you will keep your arms straight with the weight and simply lean all the way back to a lay down position with your back. Now you will allow the weight to slowly pull you back to the start position; and that’s one repetition.
This wraps up my ‘Complete Back Attack’ workout. It’s important to remember to switch up your exercises every month or so as this is a great way to shock your system with new exercises. Every exercise will isolate and flex the muscles differently, so don’t get caught doing the same workout for too long as it could hinder progress. Switching things up could be as easy as doing a lat pull-down with the rope instead of the row bar, and/or doing your seated row with one arm using the d-handle. Just replace exercises with new ones and even switch up your sets/reps for a few weeks once in a while too. You have to shock your system into giving you the results you desire. To see this specific ‘Complete Back Attack’ workout and many of my other body specific workouts you can simply go and download them from my website at JamesEllisFit.com.