A big, thick, well-developed back can elevate a physique from good to great. Sadly, the muscles of the back are the ones that most lifters struggle to develop the most.
This struggle is partly down to a bias towards training the mirror muscles, but it is also heavily influenced by poor exercise selection and rep execution.
The back is a large area of muscle mass comprised of multiple different muscles capable of other actions. The complexity of fully training the back is illustrated by the vast array of machines and attachments available.
The grip you select and then the intention of the movement with which you initiate a rep will go a long way to dictating the quality of the stimulus you create. Getting results from your training boils down to creating the appropriate stimulus to cause the desired adaptation. A significant stimulus combined with adequate recovery is what you need to build muscle and strength.
Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation
Creating an effective stimulus is essential to growing your back. Less obvious is the efficiency of your back training can also essentially have knock-on effects for the rest of your muscle groups.
As I’ve mentioned, the back is a large area of mass to train. If your reps and sets are not efficiently creating a stimulus, you’ll need to do more sets to get an effective workout.
Train Your Back
An effective back workout could be achieved with only six sets but, poor execution and exercise selection might mean double that number to be adequate to get a muscle-building stimulus. That’s double the sets for the same effect, which is wholly inefficient.
Doing twice as many sets for your back is hugely fatiguing. This fatigue will affect your overall systemic recovery capacity. The body only has a tolerance for so much training each week. If you have to do twice the amount of back workout, this will eat into your reserves for other muscle groups.
The total number of sets you could handle each week will be compromised. If the back is taking up twice the room in your program that it should, it means something else will suffer. Perhaps your biceps training will have to drop, for example.
Long story short, we want to maximize training efficiency wherever possible. Being efficient opens up a bigger window of opportunity to allocate resources to other muscle groups and to gradually increase overall training volume. Given training-volume has a dose-response relationship with muscle gain, the potential to do more over time is a handy tool to have in your toolbox.
Key Takeaway: More effective back training will grow your back faster and facilitate the possibility for better growth in other muscle groups too.
Paying attention to grip selection and how you execute your reps will go a long way to optimizing your back training. Some basic anatomy will help you to make the smartest choice of grip position and arm path.
As a rule of thumb, a neutral or supinated grip is better suited to train the lats on rows and pulldowns. One of the actions of the lats is to extend the shoulder. They can perform this action more effectively when in a neutral or slightly externally rotated position.
Train Your Lats
When targeting the lats, use grips that allow for a neutral or slightly externally rotated hand position. Examples include wide(ish) neutral or supinated lat pulldowns and rows. Grip widths of shoulder width or just outside are spot-on for this. The lats attach onto the upper arm. Consequently, it is the upper arm path we are concerned with, not how far your hands move.
When training a muscle, you want to take it from fully lengthened to shortened while maintaining tension throughout the entire range. Take the muscle’s origin and insertion (each end of where the muscle attaches onto bone) as far apart as you can actively control and then try to bring those two points as close together as possible.
To do this effectively for your lats:
Initiate the lifting phase of a pulldown or lat focused row by driving your upper arm down. Don’t lead by pulling with your biceps. Think of your hands as hooks. The lats attach onto the upper arm, not past the elbow. Focusing on bending the elbow will shift the emphasis onto the biceps.
This technique flaw can turn an excellent lat exercise into a shitty biceps one.
Remember, the goal here is to train the lats, so you need to initiate with them and keep tension on them. By taking a neutral or semi-supinated grip and beginning the lifting phase by driving your upper arm down and in towards your hip, you can dramatically increase the activation and tension of the lats.
The arc of your arm path on a lat pulldown should almost be like you’re performing a lat pullover to maximize this effect.
Train Your Upper Back
The upper back:
When it comes to training the upper back, we want to focus more on the movement of the shoulder blades. The upper back muscles all act directly on the scapular (shoulder blades), so, to effectively train them, this area is where we want to see motion taking place.
This motion is best achieved with a pronated (palms down) grip and a higher arm path. Work these muscles throughout their entire range by thinking about getting a full stretch forward into a protracted position then initiate by driving the elbows back and trying to pull the shoulder blades back and together at the peak contraction.
Imagine you are trying to do a reverse hug and trying to get your elbows to touch behind you (they won’t unless you’ve suffered some horrific injury), but that is the general motion and arm path you should be pursuing.
Shortcuts to a Bigger, Stronger, V-Shaped Back
Lats = neutral or supinated grip and initiate by pulling the upper arm down and then in towards the hips.
Upper back = pronated grip and rowing with your elbows up and out style to begin and finish the rep by trying to squeeze the elbows around towards each other behind you as much as possible.