Old-School Back Workout

by on July 5, 2024


One thing I’ve noticed about my back training over the last year or so is that the deeper I’ve gotten into my education on concepts like anatomy, biomechanics and the very science-driven side of training, the more I’ve started to treat my back training like training a series of separate parts:

  • Movements for the lats
  • Movements for the rhomboids and mid-traps
  • Movements for the spinal erectors

And I’ve noticed that even though I’ve gotten significantly stronger on some big lifts, it hasn’t carried over to an improved back. After having spent some time looking at old back workouts from when I was really improving, and looking at the way some of the bodybuilders trained whose physiques I’ve always wanted to emulate (classic 90’s guys like Lee Priest, Dexter Jackson, and Flex Wheeler, for example), I’ve noticed that I’ve very much gotten away from just using exercises and workouts that train my back, letting everything tie together.

This workout is one of the sessions that I’ve been building in as a response to that, and wouldn’t you believe it, my back is starting to respond again! This is being done pre-contest, although once I pivot to the offseason, I’m not intending to change much.

Wide Grip Pulldown

Very basic, old-school execution here – grab a wide pulldown bar with a grip that’s right where the bar begins to curve, sit directly under the bar so your arms are overhead with your biceps in line with your ears, and pull the bar down to the upper chest, lifting the chest up to meet the bar and allowing the mid-back to arch a bit. If you’re not sure what I mean here,

Start with one warmup set of around 15-20 reps, then find a weight that’s a hard 20 reps and do 3 sets with it. As soon as you can hit 20 reps on all 3 sets, increase the weight, but if you can’t hit 20, use the last set to do a drop set, aiming for 20 total. Let’s say you get 20 on the first 2 sets, but only 13 reps on the third set, after you fail at 13, drop the weight down enough to let you hit another 7 reps for a total of 20.

Use straps if you have grip issues here, which you probably will because of the rep volume. I also have liked using a wider Mag grip bar as it doesn’t tax my grip as much, so if your gym has one of those available feel free to substitute that in.

Straight Arm Rope Pulldown

The stretch on this feels fantastic coming off of the pump from the pulldown, and lends itself well to a faster pace with higher reps. I like a similar format to the wide grip pulldown – hit one warmup set of around 10-12 reps, then 3 sets using a weight where you can hit 15 reps with perfect form for the first set. On the final set, use another drop set approach that allows you to hit 20 total reps. So if you got 10 reps on the final set, you might drop by 20%, get 5-6 more, then drop another 20% and keep going until you hit 20 (or more – if you can keep going, don’t stop just because you got to 20).

One-Arm Standing Machine Row

I’m using something a bit more stable than a dumbbell row as part of a pre-contest plan, but if you’re in a good offseason you can absolutely work in a standard dumbbell row here as well. My favorite version of this is with a Hammer Strength Low Row, but you’ll see a slightly different version in the attached video since that’s what I have regular access to.

A simple pyramid works great here – over the course of 4 sets, you’ll gradually add weight and drop reps. I’ll usually do something like 15, 12, 10, and 8 to finish, but if you want to get a bit more volume and not push the load quite as much you could absolutely go 20, 15, 12, 10. I usually don’t make huge jumps, maybe a 25lb plate per side on each set, as usually I’ll do one arm, rest for 4-5 breaths, do the other arm, and then rest a minute or less before starting again. I’ve played with drop sets here but if you’re using a plate loaded machine I don’t like the time it takes to change out the weight between drops.

 

Chest-Supported T-Bar Row

This is the only exercise for the day that doesn’t get into double-digit reps. Most chest-supported rows have the option for a fully pronated (overhand) grip or a semi-pronated (45 degree angle) grip – my preference is to go with the semi-pronated or I find I let my traps take over too much. The goal here is just to pyramid up doing sets of 8 until you reach a weight that you fail at 8 or before – I just go up 1 plate at a time until I get close to my limit, and then usually do one smaller jump for the final set. For example, my last recorded workout was 1 plate for 8, 2 plates for 8, 3 plates for 8, and 3 plates with 2 10lb plates for 7. Try to find your top weight within a good 3-4 sets – if your last set will end up being 5-6 plates you could easily start at 2-3 plates and work up from there.

 

Dumbbell Pullover

I like to end the main part of the back workout with pullovers before moving onto lower back – regardless of how much of this movement is technically “lats” vs. other muscles, it helps keep me mobile enough to get my arms overhead for overhead pulling motions elsewhere, so it gets a spot in the rotation for sure.
3 sets of 10-15 reps with the same weight, pausing for a second in the stretched position and stopping when the weight comes right over the eyes before going back down. Keep your elbows pointed up towards the ceiling as much as possible.

 

45-Degree Back Extension

Last but not least, some direct work for the spinal erectors, along with some glutes and hamstrings. I will alternate between doing these banded as shown in the video or using a dumbbell held at arms length – I don’t try to hold the weight to my chest as it just ends up making me fatigue through my arms and shoulders well before I’ve exhausted my lower back. I like to use a band or weight that lets me get around 20 reps on the first set if I really push, and then doing as many sets as it takes to hit a total of 50 reps. Limit rest to only 30-45 seconds between sets, so it’s not a traditional cluster set but still a fairly fast-paced end to the workout.

This is workout #1 of the week – I’m currently training back on both Mondays and Thursdays and each session looks different.
Give this workout a try and let me know what you think!


Zach is the co-owner and head strength coach of All Strength Training, a personal training center specializing in busy professionals located in Chicago, IL.  He is also a competitive physique athlete, having earned his pro card in the WBFF in 2016, and currently competes in the NPC classic physique division.

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