Back training 101… it's all about feel! You can't see your back when you train it. You need to feel it.
Guys get wrapped up in these half-assed rows and shrugs, and if there is any body part where people use momentum more than muscle power, it's back!
Let's first talk about the mistakes that are the most common. Then we will shed some light on good back techniques that are productive when training your back.
The top 4 back training mistakes
#1 – Standing upright when doing bent over rows so you can use 300+ lbs to impress people.
I see this shit all the time. Guys want to stand practically upright and use 3-4 plates/side on bent over rows. It's a joke to me. They heave the weight up to their abdomen and from start to finish they have managed to move the bar about 6″ with pure momentum. Before the days of wrist wraps nobody did this, because you weren't going to grip 300+ lbs for sets of 8-12 and utilize a full range of motion with a double overhand grip! They kept their body low and really emphasized a full and controlled range of motion and squeeze of the movement, and it worked!
When it comes to the back, in almost every competition I've entered I've dominated back poses. My back is clearly thicker and wider than most guys in the 198-225 lb range. Do you know what kind of weight I use on bent over barbell rows? This morning I started with a 25 lb plate/side, then went to 50 lbs/side, then 75 lbs/side, finishing with 100 lbs/side and it was HEAVY. No wrist wraps, body down low almost parallel with the floor. And 100 lbs/side was probably even too much to be using, and I'm 224 lbs right now lean at 5'9″. I used to use 315+ with wrist wraps, and never got a damn thing out of that I didn't get with 150 lbs.
#2 – Believing lateral pulldowns are superior to pull-ups.
No fucking way a lateral pulldown will ever be more productive than pull-ups, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit! I do use lateral pulldowns, but its usually because I've taxed something else too hard to do pull-ups in that workout. I'm at the point where my bodybuilding is a system of checks and balances, and recovery is a big issue. But for a beginner I wouldn't even waste my time with lateral pulldowns, strictly pull-ups!
#3 – Believing deadlifts will hurt your back.
Deadlifts will not injure you if done properly, and if anything they will KEEP YOU from getting injured. Actually, I believe someone who strictly does deadlifts and pull-ups could have a better back than 90% of guys in the gym doing every little back exercise there is other than deadlifts and pull-ups (which most don't, because they are hard, boo hoo). Deadlifts will throw some serious mass on your frame everywhere, especially the back! It's the most demanding exercise there is, utilizing more muscles than any other lift in the gym. If you're not doing them on the regular now, you need to start!
#4 – Using too much biceps in a bent over db row.
I see this all the time. Guys want to pull the dumbbell straight up to where it's almost in line with the side of their pecs. The problem with this motion is the biceps come into play too much, and if you're a guy with genetically gifted biceps they will really come into play, because they'll want to take over for the back.
A much more productive motion is to pull the db in a range similar to pulling the chord on a lawnmower. I like to start with the db slightly out in front of me and pull it back to my waist, I pull it back right to the area a gun holster would be on on my waist. I cannot go as heavy like this, but my back contracts much much harder and the last time I dieted for a competition it was evident they worked. I had what looked like new muscles lower down between my spinal erectors and bottom of my lats, definitely a result of bent over db rows in this range of motion.
So hopefully my tips can get someone on the right track here. I'm going to lay out 3 different back routines to try, for the novice, intermediate, and advanced. Although an advanced guy still couldn't go wrong with any of them!
Novice back routine
Wide grip pull-ups – as many as you can at a time until you hit 50 reps
Deadlifts – 5 sets of 8-12
Intermediate back routine
Wide grip pull-ups – 3 sets of 10-12
Bent over rows – 3 sets of 10-12
Hammer strength back machine – (pick one) 3 sets of 10-12
Reverse grip lateral pulldowns – 3 sets of 12-15
Advanced back routine
Bent over barbell rows – 4 sets of 8-12
1 arm db rows – 3-4 sets of 8-12
Db pullovers (for your serratus) – 3 sets of 12-15
Wide grip pull-ups – as many as you can at a time until you hit 50 reps (if you can do this in as little as 3 sets you're elite level)
Deadlifts – 3 sets of 5 reps supersetted with hyperextensions holding 5-10 lb plates (you do a back hyperextension and at the top of the movement you pull the plates in your hands back like you're hitting a rear double biceps shot).