by Jesse Irizarry T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• The basics like squats, deadlifts, and presses are the foundation of physique development, but at a certain point you need specialization to address your weak points.
• If your back is a weak point, smashing it once a week is not the answer. Hitting it every training day with a couple of exercises is far more productive.
• Intensity techniques can be used throughout the training week to shock your muscles. Just don't use the same ones all the time.
To beef up a wimpy back, the first thing you have to do is get serious about fixing it. A machine-based routine won't do, nor will any of the standard "chin-ups and rows once a week" programs so popular among commercial gym bros.
What you need is a focused plan that systematically builds strength in both rowing and pull-up variations while gradually increasing the total volume through multiple training exposures per week.
To accomplish this, a 3-week specialization block is a great place to start. It can also deliver marked improvements in both size and strength, provided you back off in week 4 and allow the magic of supercompensation to occur.
To help you along, here are three essential principles for setting up a back specialization routine, followed by some proven methods that never fail to deliver serious gains in size and strength.
1. Focus on Big and Basic
First, this isn't the time to work on corrective drills to restore function – that should've already been taken care of. Instead, focus on big compound movements and weight-bearing rows.
2. Share the Load
Instead of having one day devoted to doing every row variation under the sun, try rotating horizontal and vertical pulls and rows throughout the week. This enables you to use a heavy weight for every variation rather than going balls-out for the first two exercises and then having to settle for less load during the subsequent exercises.
So hypothetically, if you lift four times a week with two upper-body emphasis days and two lower-body, you could divide the variations over all four days to ensure that heavier loads can be used.
Here's an example:
Workout Emphasis Back Emphasis Exercise Suggestions
Day 1 Lower-Body Horizontal Movement Weighted Inverted
Day 2 Upper-Body Vertical Movement
Upper Back Horizontal Movement Pull Down
Day 3 Lower-Body Horizontal Movement Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Day 4 Upper-Body Vertical Movement Weighted Chin-Up
Note: While the weight should always be challenging, the overall difficulty of the exercise for both vertical and horizontal movements can be rotated in a given week to prevent burn out.
3. Don't Go Through The Motions. Get Stronger.
Get stronger in your rowing and pull-up movements. Too many lifters use the same weight and rep/set scheme every week for their assistance exercises just to get a pump in their muscles without ever trying to get stronger. Then they wonder why they're not building muscle.
While it's not always necessary, it's a good idea when specializing to record the weights you're using on all your back exercises to ensure you're actually getting stronger.
Got all that? Now let's look at some specific methods to use during your 3-week back blast.
Weighted Inverted Row Back-Off Sets
Back-off sets, while usually reserved for core lifts, can be very useful with back exercises like the weighted inverted row.
Also known as horizontal pull-ups, inverted rows are a great horizontal pull variation for building a thicker back. While they appear deceptively easy, simply adding some chains or plates can create a hard-core row variation that will make your back seriously strong.
Here's how it all works. Work up to a really heavy set of 5 reps and then take 85-90% of that weight and do 3-5 more sets of 5 reps.
For example, say you hit 5 reps with 110 pounds of additional weight – two 45-pound plates and one 20-pound chain – for your heaviest set. For the next set, drop the weight down to 90-95 pounds and continue doing sets of 5 reps. If that gets too hard too soon, take 85% of that and get in more volume.
This is a good way to ensure you don't take off too much weight and cheat yourself of getting the maximum result-producing tension.
The 5-Rep Max Chin-Up Workout
Max weight pull-up tests are usually reserved for testing scenarios, but they're also a great workout on their own that can be repeated for at least 3 weeks, usually resulting in phenomenal gains in both back strength and size.
Start out by performing 5 repetitions with bodyweight and then progressively add weight every set until you reach the heaviest load you can do for 5 reps. The goal is to get 5 or more quality sets in, so don't load too much weight too soon.
Rest 45-60 seconds between each set and try not to cheat much on your heaviest set, but still really challenge yourself. So pull up your skirt and pull.
Here's how hard and strict the heaviest set should look:
Bilateral Bent-Over Dumbbell Row Max Sets
I like to do these after a heavy squat day because they're a little more low-back friendly than conventional bent-over barbell rows. Better still, if done correctly, there's no need to perform any other row variation on the day they're used.
Pick two dumbbells that you feel like you could do 7 reps with and do a set of 5 reps. Then rest 30 seconds and do another set. Keep doing a set every 30 seconds for 6 straight minutes.
As you go through the sets, you'll inevitably have to drop the reps down to maintain the pace without dropping weight. By the end, you may only be doing 1 or 2 reps per set.
That's okay – the load and total volume is our priority here, not the number of reps per set. A little cheating is permissible by the end but don't get carried away with it.
Here's an example of a last set with some body English:
Putting it All Together
Don't you hate specialization articles that give you a bunch of exercises and tips but fail to provide the damn workouts? Fortunately, I've got you covered.
Here's your 3-week back specialization plan.
Day 1 Lower Body - Strength Emphasis
Exercise Sets Reps
A Front Squat (core lift)* 6 3
B Reverse Lunge (assistance lift) 3 6-8
C Split-Stance Romanian Deadlift (auxiliary) 3 6-10
D1 Weighted Inverted Row** 1 5
D2 Weighted Inverted Row*** 3-5 (back-off sets) 5
* 85-90% 1RM
** Max weight
*** 85-90% of max weight set
Day 2 Upper-Body - Volume Emphasis
Exercise Sets Reps
A Incline Bench Press (core lift) 4 5
B Dumbbell Press (assistance) 4 6-8
C Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press (auxiliary) 3 6-10
D1 Pulldown* 5 6
D2 Facepull** 6 6
Day 3 Lower-Body - Volume Emphasis (Heavy back exercise emphasis)
Exercise Sets Reps
A Snatch Grip Deadlift (core lift) 4 5
B Hip-Thruster (assistance) 4 6-8
C Split Squat (auxiliary) 3 6-10
D Max Weight Chin-Up 5* 5**
** Add weight each set until you reach max weight for 5 reps. Rest 45-60 seconds between sets.
Day 4 Upper-Body - Volume Emphasis
Exercise Sets Reps
A Push-press (core lift) 4 5
B Dumbbell Incline Press (assistance) 3 6-8
C Dumbbell Floor Press (auxiliary) 4 6-10
D Bilateral Bent-Over Dumbbell Row 6 min.* 2-5**
* Max sets for 6 minutes. Do a set every 30 seconds.
** Start with weight you can do for 7 reps, but only perform 5 reps. Do sets of 5 for as long as you can. You may drop the number of reps all the way down to 1 or 2, but don't reduce the weight. Be sure to do a set every 30 seconds with the same weight.
See you in three weeks!