by Ben Bruno T-Nation
If you're pressed for time and can't read the rest of the article, here's the take-home message: do more upper back work.
Most of us have pre-existing structural imbalances from slouching all day, which are exacerbated by unbalanced programming that's usually skewed more towards pressing than pulling.
It may seem counterintuitive, but to achieve the balance we're looking for, we actually need unbalanced programming, only it should be shifted more towards pulling to counteract the damage that's already been done.
The trouble is that most of us are busy and simply don't have the time to do much more than we're already doing. I can appreciate this, so I've laid out eight programming strategies to help you improve your pulling prowess without adding much (if any) time to your current workout.
1. Start Your Workout with a Pulling Exercise (i.e. chin-ups or rows).
The first exercise in your routine generally gets the most attention and therefore sets the tone for the rest of your workout. Chances are, if you're like most guys, that exercise is a press.
This has both physical and mental ramifications. On a physical level, it means that you're always doing your pulling exercises in a fatigued state, meaning you can never quite give it your all.
On a mental level, it establishes the mindset that pressing is more important, so when it comes time for your pulling, you're more likely to half-ass it.
Furthermore, if your workout gets cut short for any reason, guess what invariably gets nixed? The pulling.
Try starting your workout with either chin-ups or some sort of row to allow you to attack it when you're both physically and mentally fresh.
Another reason this works is that pulling seems to have much less of a detrimental effect on pressing than vice versa, meaning if you do chin-ups before the bench press, your bench press won't take nearly as big a hit as your chin-ups would if you did them afterwards.
Really, who are we kidding? You'll be able to muster up the energy for pressing no matter where it falls in the workout. Save the stuff you like best for the end.
2. Paired Sets with Pulling and Pressing Movements.
Here you'll alternate a pulling exercise with a pressing exercise. I call it a 'paired set' instead of a 'superset' as the latter implies brief to no rest between exercises, which isn't ideal when strength is the goal. Instead, it might look something like this.
Dumbbell row 8 reps/arm
Rest ~ a minute
Incline bench press 6 reps
Rest ~ a minute
Dumbbell row 8 reps/arm
Rest ~ a minute
Incline bench press 6 reps
Rest ~ a minute
Dumbbell row 8 reps/arm
This timesaving strategy works because you aren't spending a ton of time sitting around resting, yet you still get ample rest between sets of the same exercise so you can put forth full effort. If you use a unilateral rowing or pressing exercise like the example above, the rest periods will be even longer since you have to do both arms.
Don't get too hung on specific rest periods, though, and be that guy walking around with a stopwatch. That's unnecessarily anal. You don't want to rush, but you don't want to dawdle either. A minute is a good starting point, but adjust based on how you feel.
You'll also notice that I started and ended the pairing with the dumbbell row. That's a way to get a little more volume with the pulling without altering the structure of the workout too drastically.
If you're doing paired sets in this fashion, try pairing a horizontal pull with a vertical push (like dumbbell rows and incline bench press) or a vertical pull with a horizontal push (like chin-ups and bench press), but that's just personal preference. Experiment to find which combinations work best for you.
3. Put Band Pull-Aparts in your Warm-up.
Band pull-aparts are a great way to warm up the shoulders while getting some supplemental work for the upper back.
It's important to do these correctly to reap the full benefit. Make sure to depress the scapulae (think about keeping your shoulders as far away from your ears as possible) and pinch your shoulder blades together on each rep.
They should feel easy. If you find yourself struggling to keep your arms straight, choose a smaller band. No need to be a hero here.
Joe Defranco suggests doing 100 reps a day, which is a good goal, breaking it into five sets of 20 or thereabouts.
Even though it might not feel like you're doing much, the added volume over time will add up in a big way.
Let's conservatively assume you train four days a week for 40 weeks a year.
40 weeks a year x 400 reps/week= 16,000 reps a year!
That's a ton of extra work without even thinking about it.
4. Combo Exercises On Lower Body Days.
Combo exercises are a way to sneak some upper back work into your lower body training sessions without having to add any additional time to the workout.
Since we're doing these on lower body days, select exercise combinations where the limiting factor is the legs and not the upper back. This means that the upper back won't get taxed to the fullest extent, but that's precisely the point. Think of it as a "light" day to get some quality back work in without adversely affecting recovery too much for your primary upper body sessions.
The beauty of these combos is that you don't even have to change your programming whatsoever. Where you'd normally do your accessory posterior chain exercise, you simply do that exercise with an upper back twist.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Inverted Row Hamstring Bodycurl
Perform an inverted row followed immediately by a hamstring body leg curl. The bodycurl is the harder of the two exercises and you'll be limited by what your hamstrings can handle, but because you have to hold an isometric contraction for a few seconds during each rep of the row, it also becomes a difficult upper back exercise.
Single Leg Pull-up, Inverted Row, Hip Thruster Combo
This is cool because it starts out as a pull-up but morphs into an inverted row as your body position changes during the hip thrust. It's like a combo exercise within a combo exercise.
The most difficult part is still the lower body challenge for the glutes and hamstrings, so consider this a hip-dominant exercise with the upper back work being gravy on top.
Back Extensions with Rear Delt Raises
Like the name suggests, this is just a back extension (hip extension if you're doing it right) with a simultaneous rear delt raise.
I've also seen back extensions combined with rows, so that's also something you may want to try.
Whichever method you choose, make sure you rise up all the way and pause for a brief moment up top. You don't want to let the upper-body work interfere with your hip range of motion.
Banded Iron Cross Glute-Ham Raises
If you've been doing your 100 band pull-aparts a day then the last thing you'll want to do is even more of them, but this is a great little tweak to enhance the glute-ham raise.
The possibilities for combos are aplenty, so put on your thinking cap and let your creativity run wild.
5. Combo "Core" Exercises.
Like the prior section, these are exercises that ride a blurry line between a core exercise and a pulling exercise. The core will be the limiting factor, but the upper back will still get some significant work. Usually this involves some sort of row with an unstable base.
Regarding programming, these combos will replace whatever other core exercise you were doing before.
For example, you might replace a standard plank or a Pallof press with a renegade row.
Or you might replace a side plank with a side plank row, where you get into a side plank in front of a cable station (you can also use bands if you don't have a cable station available) and perform rows with the free arm while trying to maintain a stable torso.
My personal favorite is unsupported deadstop dumbbell rows, where you set up just as you would for a normal three-point row but place your non-working arm behind your back. From there, perform controlled rows with a pause at both at the top and bottom and focus on getting a good contraction in the upper back on each rep while bracing the core to resist rotation.
Since this is meant to function as a core exercise it's important to be strict, but this exercise still allows you to row decently heavy loads, translating to a greater stimulus for the upper back.
Note: If you used these variations to replace your other pulling work, you'd be shortchanging your back because you'll always be limited by the core stability demands. When programmed as a core exercise, though, they can be a great way to give you more bang for your buck both by increasing the core demands and getting in some auxiliary upper back work without adding time to your training session.
6. Paired sets with accessory lower body exercises and upper body pulling.
The idea here is to slip some added pulling work into your lower body sessions without it having a deleterious affect on your leg work.
Start by doing your squats or deadlifts first in the workout when you're fresh. I don't like to pair these exercises with anything else (except maybe an easy mobility drill) because they're extremely taxing and require a total body effort.
After the first main exercise, pair up your accessory work with some upper body pulling.
The thing to watch out for is that this strategy doesn't work as well when using a lower body exercise that's grip-intensive like Romanian deadlifts or heavy single-leg work with dumbbells since the pulling work will also smoke your grip.
Things like glute-ham raises, hip thrusters, and barbell glute bridges may be better choices for your lower body exercise or you may find your grip becomes the limiting factor (unless you use straps).
As for the pulling exercise, keep it relatively light since it's meant to augment the heavier work you're doing on your upper body days. Think things like face pulls and inverted rows, or even bodyweight chin-ups for those used to doing weighted chins.
7. Farmer's Walk Finishers.
Try substituting farmer's walks for whatever you're doing for conditioning work (you are conditioning, right)? They offer a myriad of benefits from core strength to added sex appeal to just general badassery, but to keep it specific to the purposes of this article, they provide added isometric scapular retraction work.
They'll also help build tremendous grip strength, which will carry over nicely to your other pulling work. Plus, it beats the hell out of mindlessly slogging through 30 minutes on the elliptical.
Read this article from Shon Grosse about how to get the most out of them, and also this one from Dan John for some ideas on how to implement them into your program.
8. Two Back Days.
I prefer full-body workouts or an upper-lower split, but for those using bodypart split training, try to include two back days in your program.
It's common for lifters to have a chest day, a shoulder day, and a back day, meaning two days of pressing and only one day of pulling. And if you also do a specific arm day where you incorporate things like dips and close-grip bench presses for triceps, this skews the balance even more. You may feel fine now, but you're not doing your shoulders any favors and are setting yourself up for an injury down the line.
If that's you, consider consolidating your pressing work into one day and adding a second back day into the mix.
One option is to devote one day to back width where you focus on vertical pulls and rear delt work, and the other to back thickness where you do your rows, deadlifts, rack pulls, etc.
Unless you're a competitive bodybuilder, I'd prefer you transition into more of an upper/lower style of training because I think you'll see better results that way, but this article isn't about overhauling your entire program; it's about improving on what you already do to make it more balanced.
A good training program is only as good as its execution. Above all else, if you want to increase your upper back strength, you need to make it a priority rather than an afterthought, and that means not only focusing on your programming, but also on your attitude.
It's not about going through the motions to fulfill some made-up volume quota; it's about doing it correctly and accumulating quality volume.
When you pull, pull like you mean it.