Best Back Workout

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The Harsh & Painful Reality of Effective Back Workouts:
A Definitive Guide

The back is perhaps the most neglected body part of all, even though almost all major physique contests seem these days seem to be won or lost based the condition of the competitors facing away from the stage. On a typical stage be it bodybuilding, fitness or figure, everyone has fairly decent arm, chest, shoulder and abdominal muscle development, but it is a select few- (the ones that win mind you) that have truly impressive back musculature.

Even though it is forgotten by most, a well tapered back does much to make your waist appear much smaller than it really is. There is something immensely striking in seeing the rippling waves of trapezius, rhomboid, and latissimus dorsi muscles streaming down into the Christmas tree-like gorge that is a well formed lower back. It is an aesthetic archetype that applies to both the male and female body, and has been an ever present feature of artistic representations of the heroic ideal for as long as art has existed. In modern times, superheroes stand with wing like muscles flaring from small, taut waistlines and it is in many ways the mark of a serious athlete. A strong lower back serves as amour against the likelihood of back strains, especially as you get older. A benefit that many never realize thanks to the fear that intensely working their back muscles might bring about injury. Sadly, the reverse is true, and it is by not training your back intensely (and I might add, properly) that predisposes you to injury. Proper training equals stronger muscles, stronger muscles mean less inadvertent injuries.

My own back has always been a strong point and I am often asked what I did to get to where I am. In this article I will try to point out what it was that allowed me to build so much muscle in an area that many seem to have difficulty developing. There are several reasons why this particular body part lags behind. The most obvious is that since most people don't really see their back muscles, they don't take the time to focus on developing it. As the say, out of sight, out of mind. The 'show' muscles get a lot of training attention, while back muscles are trained almost as an afterthought. The second reason is that real back training is hard, really hard. There isn't the satisfying pump that comes with a chest workout, nor is there the visual reward that you get from an arm workout. Instead it is overwhelmingly hard work to build muscle that everyone else but you can really see and the degree of difficulty required escapes most trainers. Walk into any hardcore gym and you will see people lifting hard and heavy on every body part except their backs. Exercises like heavy barbell rows and deadlifts are usually eschewed in favor of comparatively unproductive movements such as lat machine pulldowns and cursory pullups.

The difficulty lies in the very nature of muscle growth, namely that muscle fibers increase in size and strength only when exposed to a level of stimulation that they are unaccustomed to. In the gym that translates into having to continually strive against the almost instinctive desire to get to a comfortable place with regards to training and instead do everything in your power to make every exercise harder. Most shrink from what it really takes to do this, preferring instead to resign themselves to the mediocrity created by lifting the same weights in the same fashion, with the same exercises and the same number of repetitions day after day and getting essentially getting nowhere.

Such individuals embrace ideas like the 'importance of squeezing the muscle' and other half truths as justification for not giving their all. The 'muscle squeezing' idea is partially correct, but comes only after years of really heavy and intense lifting, where you have reached a point in where you are so in tune with every muscle fiber that you are able to contract them at will. It sounds easy, but it means that you have also found a way to make every exercise excruciatingly more difficult. As I said before, this comes from years of hard and focused training and trying to get to that level of control without the foundation of brutal heavy lifting is really a case of putting the cart before the horse.

There are plateaus for those that train correctly as you continue to get stronger and bigger as the years go by. Now one other problem that is specific to back training is that of upper and lower arm involvement. Performing a rowing exercise slowly and squeezing with low weight does little to activate the large muscles of the latissimus dorsi. Instead the much smaller biceps and forearm muscles get involved and fatigued long before the bigger and more powerful back muscles are significantly taxed. Consider the relative size of the biceps and forearms in relation to the huge sweeping expanse that is the collection of various powerful muscles that make up the back complex- the bigger the muscle, the stronger it is, and so it makes sense that the larger back muscles can generate significantly more force than the smaller and weaker secondary muscles of the upper and lower arm.

That being said your back muscles need much heavier weights to really grow. For that to happen with many back exercises there must be an explosive and forceful contraction at the beginning of the movement that allows the larger back muscles to activate and bypass the smaller arm muscles. The arms serve then only as links to the back and are not the primary movers. However for the arms to be truly effective at being connections grip strength becomes a factor that is impossible to overlook . The foundation of back training lies in a strong grip- the old timers would say that a weak grip equals a weak back, and as usual, they are absolutely correct. If you cannot hold on to the heavy weights needed to work the muscles of the back, then you are not going to even come close to realizing your developmental potential. Straps are not the answer either.

Your finger strength will never improve while the muscles around them get bigger and stronger. This creates an imbalance, and muscular imbalance is never a positive thing as it can lead to potential injury. One other idea worth considering is that since you are only as strong as your weakest link what sense is it having muscles that are strong enough to lift a car when you donít have the grip strength needed to hold on to it? You canít use straps to lift a car or anything else that you might come across in the real world, which would make the strap-reliant trainer perhaps cosmetically appealing but functionally useless. (Besides, there are few things in life more satisfying than being able to lift a car, trust me on that one.)

One final note on intensity- momentary muscular failure is painful for most parts of the body, but for your back and legs it can be almost debilitating. However, since muscle growth occurs only as a response to unusually high stress, the only way to ensure that the stress applied is adequate is to take your sets to that point where another repetition would be all but impossible (as you advance you will even have to take some of your sets beyond that point of failure.) Now don't get me wrong, a set of dumbbell rows, barbell rows, T-bar rows to failure is never pretty, but if you are serious about your training and find the courage to give it a try you will understand how useful it is.

There won't be much time for conversation, nor will you be able to train for hours on end- but you will get results. Consistent ones, and that is what your goal is, isn't it? Heavy rows, then, taken to failure are the foundations of upper back development, but there is another equally important exercise that is often omitted, namely heavy deadlifts. Deadlifts and rows were all I did for my first year or so of training and looking back, I am thankful, in that I started from day one on a path towards success. Pulldowns look nice, and are useful, but are not in the league of rows and deadlifts. Why? The answer is simple biomechanics. You can lift much more weight in a row or deadlift than you could at a pulldown machine. I can do sets of 6-8 solid reps with the 300lb stack on the pulldown machine, and I admit it is pretty hard, but it is nothing compared to a 500lb deadlift for the same number of repetitions, or a 200lb one arm dumbbell row. The weight is much heavier and as such the resulting muscular stimulation is significantly higher.

Unfortunately, it isn't over there. Not only must embark on a quest to hoist seemingly inhuman weights to look inhuman, you also need to focus on the muscle and really learn how to contract them with maximum force. Just heaving heavy weights isn't enough. You have to learn feel it, which in turn actually makes the exercise harder. Posing helps tremendously, in that it teaches muscle control and creates that invaluable mind to muscle connection that leads to optimal development. There is a reason that bodybuilders exhibit considerably more muscle development than their non competitive counterparts who train just as hard as they do. The resultant muscle control from posing makes a very big difference.

One of my old coaches once said that there are no weak body parts, only weak mind to muscle control, and I could not agree more. Flexibility plays a role as well in that if you are unable to isolate and spread your shoulder blades, you will never attain that cobra-like flare. Like anything else posing takes a lot of practice, and I encourage everyone, competitors and non-competitors to practice daily.

I will end on the use of pull ups and chins in a back routine. I never did much of them in the gym, however the martial tradition that I studied had me climbing from very early on. That combined with the all the free rock climbing that I did as a teen, (I loved rock climbing but didnít have a clue as to what rope was!) I am certain helped contribute to the development that I have now. But again the pull ups that I do are much different from what you'd expect. Firstly, I did them only to supplement my martial arts practice, so I focused on one arm pull ups and chins.

Now while that proved invaluable for my ability to pull my entire bodyweight up with one arm, it also helped to build quite an impressive set of back muscles. It isn't easy, and I still do them even though I now weigh in at 225lbs! So those are my 'secrets'- exceptionally hard training. Many might credit genetics for what I have achieved, but the years of applying these aforementioned principles cannot be overlooked, that and the success of the many that I have trained in a similar fashion. So give it a try.

Information contained in this article is not meant to treat, diagnose illness, nor substitute for medical counsel and is intended for purposes of information and education only. Consult your physician before modifying your diet or starting any exercise program.

Kevin Richardson
copyright 2006

About The Author:  Featured on ESPN Radio and Fox 5 News, Good Day New York, Kevin Richardson, is one of America's most prolific personal fitness training gurus and the founder of the Naturally Intense System. You can get his new EBook for free here and you can read more of his articles as well as learn more about the Naturally Intense Lifestyle at

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