by John Meadows, CSCS, CISSN T-Nation
This article is about making the all-time best exercises for building a bigger back even better.
It's a favorite subject of mine, one that requires an appreciation of the dedication and resourcefulness needed to sculpt an impressive body, especially by those that didn't win the genetic lottery.
This stuff doesn't get studied. It's not taught in university classrooms. The only way to learn about it is to let it become your obsession.
You have to experiment with countless exercises and keep meticulous records, and often travel to far and distant places to learn from those who've fought similar wars and came up victorious.
It's costly and can lead to enormous frustration, and most don't have the time or willpower to do it on their own.
Fortunately for you, that's where I come in. I've been there – hell, in some ways I'm still there – and I've learned a lot about building a pro-quality back.
Just be warned: it's not fancy namby-pamby stuff. It's the gut-busting basics, made harder.
The Back Big 3
Most would consider these three exercises to be the "basics" for back training:
Row variations – bent over barbell, dumbbell, and T-bar rows
Chin-ups or pulldowns
All the above are great. Although I got limited results from performing them in a traditional sense, there's no denying the thousands of lifters who've achieved good results by hammering away at just these three.
Still, you can make these exercises even better.
Barbell Rows. Next time your program calls for barbell rows, try this. Keep your back flat and bend over to almost 90 degrees. Pull your elbows back until your hands are even with your stomach and flex your lats.
Now, pull your elbows back even further and flex. Feel how the contraction is even more intense? By slightly increasing the range of motion you get more muscle firing. This might sound simple, but it works!
Here's how you apply it with cambered barbell rows (watch how far back my elbows travel with the cambered bar):
You can do these explosively as I'm doing in the video or you can try to hold the contraction for a split second. Dave Tate has noted that these are also good for guys with bigger guts as they can get a greater range of motion.
Dumbbell Rows. I love dumbbell rows but there are a couple different ways to make the old standard much more effective for lat hypertrophy.
Most lifters do these straight on, with their hips and shoulders level (even). This isn't optimal for back hypertrophy as the shoulders and biceps tend to receive the bulk of the stimulus. However, just a small adjustment will result in some serious lat frying.
Forget about keeping your shoulders and hips squared. Raise the hip on the side you're doing the row. For example, if rowing with the left arm, raise the left hip slightly higher than the right and stay in that position.
You can also use a barbell. One-arm barbell rows are as basic as it gets, although rarely performed. The barbell variation can be performed several ways to hit different areas of the back. Again, raising the working-side hip makes the exercise more intense.
Watch how in the video below, a one-arm barbell row/Meadows row superset, I subtly raise the hip on one side and leave it there. Also, notice how I sit back just a tad as the weight is coming down for a slightly greater stretch. Nothing crazy, but even a little tilt makes a big difference.
Now let's suppose your lower lats need work. Not that they're inserted high – we can't change that – but underdeveloped at the bottom. I jokingly refer to this as "white man's disease."
To tweak this basic exercise so that it trashes the lower lats, stagger your stance opposite the way you normally would. It might feel awkward at first as it goes against everything you've been taught. You can hold onto the barbell with straps or, better still, use a suitcase handle from EliteFTS.
Check out the video below. Look at the weight, and where it is in relation to my body. The weight is coming up behind me, and the lower lat is doing the brunt of the work. This is an exercise that when you get it right, you'll know it!
To make these even better, add a small pro mini-band as I do in the video. The lat contraction gets even stronger.
T-bar Rows. T-Bar rows are a great way to put slabs of meat on your lats. Unfortunately, many pile on too much weight and do a weird version of a lower back shrug. I'm okay with a little momentum, but if you lose the feel of the exercise you're just wasting your time.
Try the one-arm version I call Meadows rows. This is the king of lat builders. Those who do them regularly and correctly say they absolutely destroy the lats. It's cool to now see IFBB pro bodybuilders and others doing them in videos and magazines.
Chin-ups. Everyone knows that you can vary grips, range of motion, how much you cheat, etc. on chin-ups, so the only thing I'll add occurs after your last set. Attach a heavy weight to your body with a dip belt or straps and just hang on the chin-up bar for as long as possible. Shoot for one minute to start. Relax your scapulae while you do it as in the video below, which will stretch the heck out of your lats – something they're not used too!
Pulldowns. I have many pulldown versions in my arsenal, but two of my favorites are very simple.
I learned these from Charles Glass about 10 years ago. You can better focus on driving with the lats, and you can't swing or you'll smash your skull against the machine. Face away from the machine and "curl" your lower back around the pad. Forcefully drive your elbows straight down. You'll see why I like these better than regular pulldowns.
You can also stand with one foot on the pad and do a version I call "stretchers." Ducking your head at the bottom gives a nasty stretch in the shoulders, which helps loosen up all the soft tissue around the scapulae and shoulders. You can feel the difference after doing these two or three times, which leads to insane pumps in the upper lats.
Here is how you do it:
Deadlifts. The biggest issue I have with using deadlifts for building muscle is that you can pull so much more in certain portions of the range of motion. Many lifters can rack pull 700 pounds, for example, but might struggle to pull 450 off the floor. This makes it hard to execute full range of motion reps with maximum intensity.
Imagine if you could pull 450 off the ground, then pull 550 at mid-shin, and 650 at lockout? That would be a perfect rep. Now imagine if you could do this for sets of 5-20 reps?
Well, it's easy – just add bands or chains. Most bodybuilders are missing out on a great opportunity for mass by not using bands and chains where appropriate.
You can even get a little crazy and add a shrug at the top. Often I'll do a rep of the deadlift and then do three shrugs at the top as in the video below, or do more of a continuous motion deadlift into a shrug and then back down. It all depends on what you're trying to develop.
Just adding bands or chains to deadlifts makes them much better at building muscle than when performed in the traditional sense.
There's another thing you can do to boost your results – train with passion! Pour your heart and soul into it. Don't waste your time by going through the motions.
I know everyone with a gym membership says that they "train hard," but often when I see them in action I'm less than impressed.
See the video below for a demonstration by Dave Tate about working your tail off through a set. No book or manual can teach this either.
Until next time.