Proper Back Training for Size

by on July 7, 2015

Proper Back Training for Size

by Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLet’s be honest.

If you’re a member of a local fitness chain gym, then there’s a 100% chance that half the guys in there don’t have a clue what they’re doing when it comes to working out. In my short time spent in this career, I even notice it. But as I improved my own skills as a coach, I noticed something more about the serious trainees: Many of them still get it wrong when it comes to back training.

There are many exercises that get butchered on the gym floor, but when it comes to upper back training, the amount of people who do it right are as few and far between as impressive Nicolas Cage movies. It’s time to set the record straight. You may think you’re advanced, but if you’ve been butchering back movements for a while, you’re holding back true gains. The following four topics stood out to me as most important to cover. Take notes if you want to look like an action figure.

Stop doing weighted pull ups!

Seriously. Weighted pull ups sound like a good idea, especially if you’re a lighter guy who has very few problems with bodyweight exercises. Unfortunately, most people don’t train the basic bodyweight pull up in a way that actually uses their lats! People place the emphasis wrongly about getting the face and chin over the bar when doing pull ups, even encouraging the torso to contact the bar on every rep. Truthfully, the emphasis should be placed on shoulder depression and maximal contraction of the lats (which, depending on a lifter’s arm length, could occur when the torso is far short of the bar). It’s a real game changer, and ensures the back stays engaged through the entire movement. 90% of people I see adding weight to the movement have gone into “conquest” mode, where getting over the bar with only half-decent form becomes first priority. As a result, biceps and traps enter the lift like no tomorrow, the ribcage shrinks down towards the hips, and the shoulders raise. The most these guys will feel the next day is the upper lats (near the armpits), and zero soreness in the large lat bellies, where it matters. For a visual on the debacle I’m trying to explain, check this video:

Listen, it’s impressive to possess the general strength to be able to drag your body plus 100 pounds more over the bar. But we have to remember the focus. As guys looking for muscle size, zeroing in on the muscle we’re trying to hit comes down to strict technique. I couldn’t dream of doing my idea of a technically sound set of 90 pound weighted pull ups for even 5 reps. Therefore I don’t.

The moral of this story is basically something I stress throughout all my training articles and videos. Build your foundation first. Trust and believe in good technique as the cornerstone to all of your training, and you’ll develop true strength through proper function. I also find it interesting that a seasoned veteran like Meadows does ALL his pull-ups using those assist machines to ensure he maintains the exact form of which I speak. That should tell you something right there how important form is.

Use the 1 Arm DB Row as a Lat Exercise

The conventional single arm DB row, performed with one knee and the same side hand supported on a bench, is often misused and mistaken for an upper back exercise to train the shoulder retractors. What’s important to remember is the fibers of many scapular retractors (like the rhomboids) travel in more of a horizontal pattern. Pulling a dumbbell from ground level straight up to a horizontal body using a neutral grip doesn’t create the easiest scenario to make these muscles work effectively.

Alternatively, using the exercise to train the lats is a simple solution to any problems, since their fibers travel on a slanted pattern, much more in harmony with the natural movement of the upper arm and elbow. Pulling the dumbbell on more of a “drag” pattern that starts slightly in front of the shoulder and finishes closer to the mid-torso is a needed change to properly stimulate the back. For a thorough explanation of this change, check out this video:

As mentioned in the video, treating the single arm row as a lat exercise is what popularizes the decline bench variation of the movement among bodybuilders, since the change in angle resembles an inverted lat pulldown and proves very effective.

Use a Proper Toprock

Similar to the case of the weighted pull ups, overzealous attitudes can get in the way of lifting to stimulate the right muscles. Barbell bent over rows are a staple in many programs, but unfortunately they’re a key exercise to fall prey to the use of momentum, looseness, and the act of just “finishing the lift”. It’s not a no-cheating exercise, and there are several bad ways to compromise your form to get the reps up. The by-product of using weight that’s just plain too heavy ends up looking like this:

To handle heavy weight, it would be a lie to say that body English in some way shape or form wouldn’t be permissible. The thing is, the development of the skill transcends learning the form and technique for the movement. It takes practice to learn the timing and to understand just the right amount of “toprock” that can be used during reps of heavy weight. There’s a technique and a science to it that can serve as a safe addition to your training. A 225 pound bent over row is something that a completely rigid and motionless torso will have trouble rowing up to the torso; there’s a ceiling on just how much your arms can pull. As long as the low back stays in a slight arch, incorporating a well-timed, tight toprock to start the lift is both beneficial and necessary. This is another movement where Meadows actually employs a machine to aid in keeping his form impeccable, a Smith machine, another factor to consider. View my explanation here.

The End of the Dumbbell Pullover

Dumbbell Pullovers have been used by legendary bodybuilders for ages. It’s testimony to the exercise to support the idea that they work. Most bodybuilders prioritize it for the lats, with the added benefit of the “ribcage expansion” that they can provide from the weighted stretched position.

Now, I won’t dispute that the movement has an impact on both of these things due to its nature. What I will dispute is just how much of an impact it has on the lats. Looking at the force angle, we see a movement where the dumbbell is being pulled downward, by way of gravity. As a lifter goes through the pullover motion, they’re essentially travelling in a horizontal pattern while the dumbbell’s force angle is still pointing straight down. That means, since the lats become involved when the force angle simulates a vertical pull motion (or at the very least, an inversed version of that motion), they would only really be engaged for a small portion towards the beginning 1/3rd of the movement before other muscles enter the scene. In my opinion, you can get more bang for your buck by performing a different variation. Using a decline bench and a cable attachment, decline pullovers keep the tension on the lats due to a force angle that opposes them for the entire duration of the lift. Use it instead of the dumbbell (or superset with a dumbbell) if you’re looking to really torch your lats. These are also a staple in the Meadows arsenal. When you watch him he may even have his head hanging slightly off the bench, but he keeps the range of motion limited to the end where most lat stress is applied and up to above the forehead in order to not lose tension, this is another brilliant yet simple variation.

Back to the Basics

In summary, making your back grow really comes down to reviewing the foundation-based technique. Misapplication of the fundamental skills and biomechanics of the upper back cause embarrassment on the gym floor and the resultant pair of big biceps and chicken wing shoulder blades. As usual, an ego check is in order to make sure you’re not lifting too much, too soon. Take these words to heart and put them to practice, and you’ll be swole in no time.

Lee Boyce is an internationally recognized fitness writer and strength coach based in Toronto, ON. His work is regularly featured in the industry’s largest publications, like Men’s Health, TNATION,, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and more. Follow him on twitter and on facebook Be sure to visit his website for his blog, more articles and media.