Better Moves for a Bigger Back
by Lee Boyce T-Nation
There comes a time when you’ve done rows and pull-ups to oblivion and reach a plateau in strength, muscular development, or both. That’s when it’s time to think outside the box. These hidden tricks can help you do just that.
1 – Stop Moving Weight
This may seem misleading. I’m not saying you shouldn’t resistance train. I’m saying you need to stop training with weight that you can actually lift. I just blew your mind, right?
No, really, if you want to improve your strength and even your mobility, you’re going to get through your sticking points by using isometrics (trying to lift something that can’t be moved). The benefits:
- Isometrics allow you to apply maximum force without risking injury since the body isn’t changing positions under load (which is the most likely scenario for injuries).
- They strengthen a part of a typical force curve that traditional weight training would simply pass through.
As an example, focus on shoulder flexion and extension isometrics to hit the rear deltoids and lower traps, thereby challenging the limits of your range. Watch me put Dani Shugart through the gears:
Setting up a barbell with a heavy load on the pins in the rack is a great way to do both of these isometric exercises. Banking it against the back of the rack makes it even more sturdy.
2 – Pause for the Cause
The above is all fine and good when it comes to the idea of trying to push something away from you (in this case, the loaded bar). When you pull something towards you and hold the end ranges, it typically exposes glaring issues of weakness that lifters have been overlooking for years.
Adding a pause to a pulldown or row is a good first step in acknowledging that it’s a different ballgame.
Beyond this, however, we can increase the octane by taking things back to fitness testing in 11th grade gym class. The flexed-arm hang was probably a piece of cake when you were 16 years old, weighed 150 pounds, and were unaware of good lifting technique. I remember being able to hold myself up there for close to a minute.
Change the game and use proper pull-up mechanics, though, coupled with all of your added mass, and you have a whole new challenge that probably won’t allow you to do much more than a 20-second hold.
If you’re not used to these, prepare for a world of intrinsic soreness for the next couple of days.
3 – Do Big Boy Rollouts
Yep, they’re an ab exercise… until you use a barbell instead of an ab wheel and go out wide (think of your bench press grip). Then they become one of the greatest ways to torch your upper lats and teres muscles.
They can be a game-changer for the constant tension they provide to the upper lats during both the eccentric and concentric halves of the lift.
Bonus points: If you really want to torch the upper lats, then try supersetting barbell rollouts with snatch grip deadlfits. You can even use the same bar. Boom.
4 – Rock n’ Row
If you want to engage as much of your back musculature as possible during your seated rows (or horizontal pulls in general), it’s imperative you add some movement from the hip joint. I call this “toprock.”
By applying a little sway with a neutral spine, you’ll remain safe while keeping the emphasis away from the biceps and away from unwanted shoulder glide once the weight begins to get a little heavy.
Think about it: The “intro to training” textbooks says the form police will arrest you if you keep anything other than a completely rigid torso when doing rows, but applying a bit of momentum is perfectly acceptable and isn’t “cheating.” This is me doing what I consider to be a standard set of heavier seated rows:
As you can see, I’m maintaining good tension throughout the rep, and never is there any rounding of the lumbar (or thoracic) spine. And, as the video below shows, I believe this same principle should apply to all row variations, within reason:
5 – Isolate with Fisherman Rows
Dumbbell rows are a staple in many programs for unilateral pulling strength and development of the lats. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who might not have the right conditioning to use the classic single-arm dumbbell row without risk, and others who just plain struggle to get a handle on proper form and technique.
For lifters with a history of lumbar issues, the last thing they need is a one-sided load combined with an uneven hip position, which is what happens when they place one leg up on a bench while the other stays grounded.
Moreover, finding the right places to put your hands and feet to promote a level hip position to avoid the pitfalls can be frustrating. Even healthy lifters can have trouble finding a position that gives the proper amount of emphasis to the right areas.
The major difference you’ll see right off the bat with the fisherman row is the fact that both legs are mounted on the bench, not just one.
This immediately stabilizes the pelvis so you don’t have to spend time trying to finding the least objectionable hand, foot, and knee position. Make sure to set up on an angle to the bench so the dumbbell’s path isn’t impeded.
Since this setup places the arm a bit farther away from the bench, it also allows you to use a greater rotation at the wrist, which allows you to hit the upper back and lats from a slightly different angle while staying comfortable.
6 – Mind Your Reps
Keep the fiber type of the back muscles in mind. The primary role of most of the back muscles is to keep the spine erect and maintain good posture over long periods of time. So it’s safe to say that slow twitch muscle fibers dominate these muscle groups, making them respond well to endurance work.
That means – with the exception of huge loading exercises like deadlifts and weighted chins – you’re better off aiming for double digit reps in pulldowns, reverse flyes, seated rows, bent-over rows, plate-loaded pulls, etc. You’ll be glad you did.