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You’re doing it wrong. If your back isn’t warped and misshapen like Quasimodo, pictured above moments before eating a live bird, then your back training sucks. It’s no shame, as not all of us spend all our lives pulling 30 ton bells or even 30 lb dumbbells, and back training often takes a backseat to more ‘important’ muscle groups. After all, which Hollywood actor was lusted over for his impressive yoke? But contrary to popular belief, a well-developed back is essential, both to form and function; it will make you stronger, more anabolic, and maybe if you do enough rows you will look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Big backs started to win appreciation when Dorian Yates ushered in a new era of mass, winning the Olympia in 1992. His fleshly backpack was to be outdone only by Ronnie Coleman’s. So big backs are in, but what’s the key to back development? We will examine three unique elements: stretch, max, and exhaust.
The back is made up of many muscle groups, most prominently for our purposes, the traps, the lats, and the “lower back”. Incidentally, most back exercises are done while standing, pulling the weight towards you, the opposite of chest movements. Range of motion in such a situation can be tricky, as the starting and end point aren’t well defined. So to ensure proper back stimulation in this phase, maximum ROM is attempted. For horizontal rowing such as hammer strength or cable rows the goal is to get a full stretch of the lat by extending the arms to their maximum range. Ideally you want to have your arm extending in a straight line, perpendicular to your body, pulling the weight below the sternum. This might require you to bend over more, or on seated rows to bring your back forward. On vertical rows (pull-downs) you want to bring the weight down in a straight line, bring the bar close to your chest then guide it back upwards, returning to full extension. The weight load is irrelevant when starting out, the goal is muscle activation.
As apparent in the explanation, this technique is best applied on cable or hammer strength movements or with dumbbells. You don’t want to apply it to a movement like bent over rows or pull ups (these come in the next parts). As for tempo, go with a negative of at least 3 seconds; control is essential here, and time under tension is to be maximized. For more information check out our Tempo article.
This concept is based on the idea that in order to activate maximum muscle you need to move maximal weights. What does that mean? Using near maximal weights will cause greater muscular development. In these sets, weight load takes priority over perfect form. It doesn’t mean you let the movement devolve into something unrecognizable as such, but you might start using your hips more to bring the weight up, or rocking your back. That’s fine unless you deviate too much, to the point of risking injury. The philosophy is that this type of shock will force the body to adapt to the heavier weights, thus making relatively lighter weights much easier. It will also aid overall development. This technique is to be used sparingly as overtraining can happen quickly. I wouldn’t recommend more than 15-20% of your training to consist of the maximum.
This will work on almost any movement but works great on big movements such as bent over rows, or dumbbell rows or even hammer strength rows. Aim for about 4-6 repetitions, start light and keep increasing the weights until you hit failure after the 3rd or 4th rep. To increase intensity further, you can add Rest-Pause or Drop-Sets. Learn all about these swole-approved torture techniques in our Sets and Reps article.
Just as the title suggests the aim here is to utterly fatigue and deplete the muscle. Sets aim for maximum repetitions which makes it hard to get a bad workout. Best reserved for the end of your training as the final charge, be wary though if you plan on training synergistic muscles afterwards since you will need to rest for a longer time than usual. These sets are taxing but not as much as the maximum; they are more of a localized burnout. It’s really important to maintain form in the beginning but the goal is to finish the set one way or another.
The best way to do this is the infamous high rep dumbbell rows aka Kroc Rows. 20 reps seems to be the golden number, done for three sets. Start your first set at a moderately low weight and increase by 10lbs each set. The final set must be agonizing, so if your second set was too light go up by 15 or 20lbs for your last one (per dumbbell).
45s x 20 ( Warm up to gauge where you are)
55s x 20 ( Woha that was way too easy)
70s x 20 ( Increased 15lbs, weight was perfect)
It’s best to use two of three concepts in one session, for example the maximum followed by the stretch. Add in one or two more back exercises done in a straight set fashion, making sure to do both vertical and horizontal pulling. Avoid training the maximum each session, as overtraining will ensue. Rotate the movement every week to maintain steady progress. If you find yourself stalling, cut down on training while increasing rest and food intake. Follow this advice and maybe one day you too can have tumor-like lats.