by Dan Blewett T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• You will make very fast progress by performing a concentrated back specialization program for four to six weeks.
• Back training is more than just pull-ups and rows. The main purpose of the back muscles is to stabilize the spine, so you must program accordingly.
• To stimulate hypertrophy, slower tempos should be used with higher-rep sets to maximize time-under-tension.
The biggest mistake when programming for back size is only taking the lats into consideration. Though we're all after that V-shape, the spinal erectors are really the support base for the entire posterior core.
For that reason, for the next 4 weeks we're not just going to row. We're going to get a good balance of strength and hypertrophy-based movements that fulfill the main purpose of the back musculature: stabilizing the spine.
Weights that used to feel impossibly heavy will start to feel easily manageable. A thick back will let you hold heavy things on your shoulders and not crumble.
Here's an outline of the movements we're going to use:
1. Active Thoracic Extension and Lumbar Anti-Flexion
With these movements we're moving the torso, forcing the back to extend or remain stable against resistance. In the deadlift and good morning, we don't want lumbar rounding, though some in the thoracic region is acceptable.
We don't want lumbar flexion in the seated good morning either, yet we want active thoracic extension from intentional rounding.
Target Muscles: Erector Spinae
Exercises: Seated Good Morning, Good Morning, Deadlift
Seated good mornings are a great accessory lift for those who lose their squats and front squats forward. I always use an EliteFTS Safety Squat Yoke bar for these, but a straight bar, thick bar pad, and lifting straps are workable substitutes.
You'll want to use a pad because as the shoulders roll forward, the bar will follow onto your neck. The pad keeps the bar sitting farther back and off the vertebrae.
2. Lumbar and Thoracic Anti-Flexion
In these movements the goal is to keep the spine stable, forcing the spinal erectors to resist lumbar and thoracic flexion. The front squat is optimal because the anterior weight placement pits the user against high thoracic flexion forces.
Remaining vertical with heavy weights requires tremendous back and core strength. Consequently, most people are poor front-squatters. It's also important to note that the erector spinae assist in lateral spine movement, so including some unsupported unilateral work is a good idea.
Primary Muscles Involved: Erector Spinae
Exercises: Front Squat, Barbell Row, Farmers Walk, Split-Stance Dumbbell Row
I like the split-stance version of the one-arm dumbbell row. You can set your feet as wide as you need for support. The closer the feet, the tougher it will be to stabilize.
3. Low, Vertical and Horizontal Rowing
Target Muscles: Latissimus dorsi, traps, rhomboids
Exercises: Chest Supported Row, Barbell Row, Chin-Up and Pull-Up, Split-Stance Dumbbell Row, Heavy Face Pull
If you're not doing dumbbell chest supported rows, start immediately. Everyone needs more scapular depression. Christian Thibaudeau has it right: pause and squeeze the shoulder blades hard, back, and down.
Rep Ranges and Tempo
For a great balance of size and strength, an undulating model using 6 and 10-12 rep ranges is best. Crazy variety isn't the goal, so many of the best exercises are performed twice per week: a 10-12 rep day and a 6 rep day.
Both days will build size, but the 6-rep sets will be the strengthening component to help us add weight on higher rep days.
Because size is a major goal of this program, tempo is important and we want to use slower eccentrics with our higher-rep sets. After all, if the reps are in a hypertrophy range, we should use a tempo that's concurrent with that goal.
With 6-rep sets, weights will be too heavy to use a very long eccentric or concentric phase. So, for 6-reps we need to power the weight up and lower it as controlled as we can, usually in the two second range.
Sets of 10-12 Reps: 3020 tempo (three seconds down, no pause at bottom, two
Sets of 6 Reps: 2010 tempo (two seconds down, no pause, one second up, no pause)
Thicker Back Program
Day 1 – Monday
Exercise Sets Reps
A Deadlift 4 5
B1 Chest Supported Row 4 6
B2 Heavy Face Pull 3 10-12
C1 Seated Good Morning 4 6
C2 Foot-Elevated Push-Up 3 failure
Day 2 – Tuesday
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Medium Chin-Up 5 6
A2 Incline Bench Press 4 6
B1 Good Morning or Romanian Deadlift 4 10-12
B2 One-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 6/6
C Heavy Suitcase Carry 5-10 min.
Day 3 – Wednesday – OFF
Day 4 – Thursday
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Barbell Row 5 6
A2 Barbell Overhead Press 4 6
B1 Seated Good Morning 3 10-12
B2 Split-Stance Dumbbell Row 3 6/6
B3 Glute-Ham Raise 3 6
Day 5 – Friday
Exercise Sets Reps
A Front Squat* 4 8
B1 Good Morning 4 6
B2 Wide Pull-Up 4 10-12
C1 Heavy Farmers Walk 3 2 min.
C2 Chest Supported Row 3 10-12
* 10RM weight with no specified tempo, rest 90 seconds between sets
Weekend – No lifting, but do something active.
If your back needs work, give this program 4-6 good, hard weeks.
This isn't intended to be the next in a line of lily pad programs you hop onto. Rather, it's a jumpstart to finding success with not only building a thicker back, but for increasing your big three: the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
Learn and begin integrating these lifts and techniques. And even if your big lifts aren't a big concern, ask yourself one question: does your back development separate you from the rest of the bros?