Tuesday is back day. Since I can’t see my back very well in a mirror, it’s hard for me to tell what sort of gains I’ve been making in this rather broad area of my body. I can tell that my lats (Latissimus dorsi muscles) are thickening up some because I can see my sides, but they’re not exactly rock hard (yet).
Like the chest, you can’t really work your back directly. Most chest exercises employ some sort of pushing, mainly with the triceps. That’s why if you have weak triceps, it’s difficult to build your chest.
Most back exercises involve some sort of pulling which engages the biceps. So as you imagine, having strong biceps enables you to work your back better.
I used to start my back routine with a medium to wide-grip lat pulldown and then proceed to a seated cable low row, but I recently read somewhere (sorry, can’t recall the source) that since the low row engages more of your back than the lat pulldown, it was better to do the low row first, so I switched them.
My current back workout looks like this:
- Cable low row (130 lbs total)
- Lat pulldown (130 lbs total)
- Reverse machine flyes (75lbs total)
- Mountain pulldown machine (75 lbs for each hand)
Like the chest day workout, I typically do 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps per set resting 60 seconds or less between sets. Holding myself to only 60 seconds rest between sets on the dumbbell rows is pretty challenging for reasons I’ll explain in a bit.
Here are the details.
Cable Low Row
As I said above, I recently moved this exercise to the head of the line because it works so much of the back and is a good way to work the entire area hard, wearing it down for what’s to come.
I start out leaning slightly forward with the “V” grip in my hands and then pull hard into my lower chest/upper ab area. The action is “explosive,” sort of like how you start a lawn mower by pulling a rope. Then I try to lower the plates more slowly and resist the temptation to let the weights slam back down. You want to maintain the tension on your back while lowering for a few seconds if you can. Like any lift or pull, you want to maintain control as you return to the starting position. Maybe it sounds “butch” to let the weights slam down with a bang, but you risk damaging the equipment and it demonstrates poor form.
Advantages: Works much to most of your back muscles as well as your biceps.
Pitfalls: You have to resist the urge to lean back too far and use the weight of your torso to assist the pull. You’ll engage too much of your lower back and miss letting the rest of your back do the work.
This exercise is good for thickening your lat muscles and adding the appearance of greater width to your back.
Since you have to reach fairly high overhead to get to the lat bar, you’ll need to make sure the adjustable brace you place over your knees is set to keep you snuggly in your seat without making it impossible to grab the bar.
There are different theories about how wide a grip to use on the pulldown bar but research indicates that the width of the grip doesn’t matter as much as your wrist position. I use a proated grip (overhand) as opposed to a supinated grip (underhand). I also tend to use a medium grip as it’s easier for me to grab the bar that way, and I pulldown the bar in front of me to just below my neck.
I know there are those who swear by pulling the bar behind the neck, but for me, that feels like an injury waiting to happen. I’ve read that the behind the neck lat pulldown can damage your rotator cuffs over time, especially if you’re using a heavy weight. If you blow a rotator cuff, you’re out of business as far as most of your weight training is concerned.
Advantages: Classic workout for your lats and biceps.
Pitfalls: Watch your form, particularly how you position your wrists when grabbing the bar and always pull in front of you.
Now I Have One of Two Options
Occasionally, I allow myself to choose between one of two exercises that do more or less the same thing. Here’s option one.
One-arm Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
I hate this exercise. I hate it because even with weights that aren’t particularly heavy, this one knocks the wind out of me.
You need a bench for this one. I choose one 50 pound dumbbell and put it on the floor on the left side of the bench. With my right foot just to the right of the back of the bench and my left knee on the bench, while gripping the bench with my right hand to brace myself, I grip the dumbbell with my left hand and explosively pull it up to my left side. Then lower the weight more slowly to the starting position and repeat. As with the Cable Low Rows, this action is like starting a lawn mower or a chainsaw.
After doing the reps on the left, I quickly transfer the dumbbell to my right hand, reverse the position of my legs so my right knee is now on the bench, and repeat the exercise for my right side.
I limit myself to 10 reps per set because by the time I get done with a set (which actually doesn’t take very long), I’m huffing and puffing like a 19th century steam locomotive. Yeah, if I were a younger guy, I’d probably push it to 15 reps if I could manage the weight, but with my heart rate going like a jack hammer and with my blood pressure spiking to who knows how high for a few seconds, why tempt fate?
Advantages: Classic move to build strong lats and frankly, it looks macho as anything. A really good exercise if you want to favor intensity over duration.
Pitfalls: It’s an exhausting move that knocks the wind right out of me.
Here’s the other option.
The link I provided above will give you the basics including what this move looks like. Although you can do this with a rope attachment, I prefer the standard T-bar with a close grip.
I stand feet shoulder width apart and about arm’s length away from the weight stack gripping the bar close to center. Then I pull (really push) down to failure or to a maximum of 15 reps whichever comes first.
Advantage: Although this is also a good lat exercise, it’s not as exhausting as the Dumbbell Row exercise.
Pitfalls: Potentially you could acquire a shoulder injury if you go too heavy. If you stand too close to the stack, you’ll actually work more of your triceps than your lats.
Reverse Machine Flyes
This machine has adjustments to allow you to do a standard pec fly or a reverse fly by moving the settings for the hand bars to near the center of the machine and sitting facing the weight stack. You want to do this one a little lighter than you can because too heavy a weight will work more of your shoulders rather than your back.
Grip the handles and swing your arms back until they are parallel. Try to squeeze the center of your back when you are at full extension. Then slowly release and repeat. Make sure you produce a full range of motion.
Advantages: Hits muscles near the upper-center of your back as well as your rear delts (basically the back of your shoulders).
Pitfalls: If you adjust the seat too low, you’ll work more of your delts than you will your back. This is also true if you go too heavy as your delts will pick up more of the load. For this exercise to be most effective, you have to maintain a full range of motion from the starting position to where your arms are parallel.
It’s also possible to do this laying with your chest on an inclined bench and using dumbbells. I tried that once and it felt incredibly awkward. Even though the machine is considered a beginner’s option, I think I’ll stick with it for now.
Mountain Pulldown Machine
Anyway, that’s what it’s labeled at the gym, but I can’t find an example of this machine or the related exercise online. Basically, it’s a modified pulldown where you place your hands on the bars (one for each hand) up and forward rather than directly overhead. When you pull, the machine requires that you pull down along a curve toward your chest.
As I mentioned, there’s a pulldown grip for each hand so you could set the weights differently for your left and right, though I never do.
This is also an explosive pulldown exercise with a slow release back up. Make sure you adjust the seat so your arms are fully extended at the top of the motion. You want to get a good range of movement for maximum effect.
Advantages: Like the Cable Low Row, this hits just about every muscle in your back. I like to do this one last because it gives me one last shot at working my whole back while it’s exhausted, and because the machine takes care of balancing the weights, allowing me to concentrate entirely on the effort of pulling.
Pitfalls: Like I said, the seat adjustment is important to ensure a full range of motion.
I’ll probably talk more about range of motion and lifting in a future blog post. I see a lot of people at the gym doing only part of a lift or a pull which, while somewhat useful, doesn’t really completely engage the muscle group they’re addressing. In many cases, this is probably because they’re going too heavy. I made that mistake early on and had to put my ego aside, and go lighter so I could have better form. It’s worth it.
From here, I do some ab or core work and then move on to cardio, then end my gym session for the day.
Tomorrow: Wednesday is Leg Day. I hate leg day.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.