Back exercises: your complete guide

Workouts

Sort out your posture and bag a bigger bench in one fell swoop

Nick Hutchings
27 Jan 2016
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Pity your poor back. Invisible in the mirror and little-cited in lists of things potential romantic partners like, the latissimus dorsi and chums are some of the easiest muscles to ignore in the pursuit of, say, giant pecs and a chiselled six-pack. But doing so is short-sighted: not only does having a strong back improve your physique, it also helps to correct your posture and prevent injury.

If you spend hours in the gym doing bench presses but give little attention to your back, the overdeveloped muscles in your chest and front shoulders will pull your shoulders forward, making you hunch like a gorilla. Also, a muscle imbalance from too little back training can lead to a lack of shoulder flexibility, which can in turn lead to injuries from badly performed exercises. The moral is: pay as much attention to your back as your front.

First, some basic biology: your upper back is criss-crossed with muscles that manipulate your shoulders, allowing you to pull objects towards you and make a shrugging motion. The trapezius muscles (traps) originate at your neck and spread out across your shoulder blades and down your spine. Beneath your arms, your latissimus dorsi (lats) are the wide wings that draw your arms down and in when you do pull-ups. These large muscles are supported by a host of smaller ones that allow your arms and spine to move across a multitude of planes.Running down the sides of your back bone, the erector spinae muscles do the job of supporting and stabilising your spine whenever you bend. These are the muscles that, if trained properly, will protect you from lower back pain when you do heavy lifts. Along with your abdominal muscles, the erector spinae form part of the core. You'll need to work the full set to get the best benefits from your back workout, but the good news is, it needn't take long. Here's how to get it done. 

1. Do bodyweight 'pulls' (from lots of different angles)

Yes, the not-so-humble pullup is still one of the best things you can do to build your back in short order. Do it with your hands facing away to target your lats, or with your palms facing towards you (technically a chin-up) to add in some biceps work. Can't manage a single rep? Jump until your chin's over the bar and lower yourself as slowly as possible: once you can string out a single 'negative' rep like this for 10 seconds, you'll be ready to graduate to the full thing. But don't neglect horizontal pulls either: the inverted row, done with your body straight and feet on the ground, will work different muscles and help you build bench-press stability. Mix it in with your pullups.

2. Add supersets to your back training

For time-efficient back work, superset it with something else: go straight from one move to another with no rest.  The classic is the push-pull superset (technically known as 'antagonistic'), which involves a pressing variation (bench press, press-up, dumbbell bench press) with a pull (pullup, row, inverted row). Besides, supersets have a number of benefits, including burning more fat due to your elevated heart rate and adding extra muscle to your frame in a shorter amount of time by working them so hard that they're shocked into growth. 

3. Row more, row better

Hopefully you're already doing some sort of 'row' variation in your workout, be it the classic bent row or the bodybuilder-favoured one arm variation - but doing them with a bit of tender loving care will fill your shirt faster than simply throwing the weights around. For the bent row, slower is better: use a weight that you can bring all the way up to your sternum and pause at the top, giving your muscles the time under tension they need to grow. For the one-arm version, try the 'Kroc' row: grab a weight you'd normally struggle to lift for ten reps, do a warmup set or two, then hit as many reps as possible, 'cheating' the move a bit by pulling the weight like you're revving a lawnmower handle.

This content is from the experts at Men's Fitness magazine.

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