Welcome To Part 2 of My Series!
Thanks for stopping by to check out part 2 of the body part series, where I break-down the anatomy of an individual muscle group, and explain the most effective strategies to train them. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out part 1 where I talked about effective training for the shoulder muscles. In today’s post, I’m going to explain my top tips for training back. A lot of people, myself included, struggle at first to make the progress they’re looking for in their back development. The reason being, most of the time they are utilizing unnecessary exercises and not applying proper training principles to progress in their training method. Understanding the anatomy of the different back muscles, learning their functional movement in the body, and applying overload methods are essential to see the results you truly desire.
The four main muscles involved in your back anatomy that you should look to develop are the lats, traps, rhomboids, and erector spinae
The three main movement patterns to effectively train these muscles are a vertical pull (such as a pull-up), a horizontal pull (such as a barbell row), and a deadlift variation (such as a rack pull)
To help develop a stronger mind-muscle connection for the back muscles, think about pulling with your elbows and bringing your shoulders down and away from your ears during each exercise
There are four main muscles actively involved in the movement and function of your back: Lattisimus Dorsi (Lats), Trapezius (Traps), Rhomboids, and Erector Spinae (Lower Back). The two main functions of the lats are shoulder adduction and shoulder extension, mostly involved in bringing the arm closer to the body. The traps have three functional parts: the upper, lower, and middle traps. The upper traps are most actively involved in scapula elevation, while the mid and lower traps function to both retract and depress the scapular region. The Rhomboid muscles also comprise the middle and upper half of the back, and both the Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor are involved in scapular retraction. Finally, the lower back muscles are responsible for rotating the back, extending the spine through a desired range of motion. As you can see, each individual muscle in the back has its own unique function, which makes it essential for us to utilize varied movement patterns to effectively target each one. This is where the whole concept of targeting the muscle group from “all different angles” comes from. It’s not so much about “shocking the muscles” into growth, but rather replicating the movement pattern with progressive resistance to help make them bigger and stronger over time.
A horizontal pull refers to an exercise that involves moving a weight towards your torso from straight in front of you, with row variations being the most common for this movement pattern. Both a barbell and seated row are very effective exercises for targeting the Latissimus Dorsi and Middle Trapezius (Handa et al 2005). The seated row has also shown high rates of activation for the Rhomboid muscle group (Lehman et al 2004). Although it is typically believed that vertical pulling exercises are superior in lats activation, both the Handa And Lehman studies indicate there appears to be no different when performed with similar loads. This is exactly why I recommend having both a horizontal and vertical pull into your routine. Typically people tend to perform better at one or the other, and having both ensures that you’re effectively targeting the muscles of the mid and upper-back with proper form. Pick at least one exercise of each movement pattern, and progressively overload each exercise on a weekly basis for maximal back development.
A vertical pulling exercise on the other hand involved a weight vertically towards your torso, meaning pulling down from over your head. The most common exercise examples include both pull-ups and chin-ups, in addition to lat pulldown variations. While pull-ups appear to be a more functional exercise and can be loaded easier in training than the lat pulldown, there is no significant difference in latissimus dorsi activity when relative loads are equal (Doma et al 2013). Lehman studies indicate there appears to be no different when performed with similar loads. This means that if you’re unable to perform multiple reps of pull-ups, you can still use a pulldown machine and still achieve similar lat involvement. So while I definitely still recommend building your strength up over time to perform them in sets, don’t be discouraged if you have to use assisted or banded variations until you are eventually able to do them on your own.
Another common debate centers on the effectiveness of a pull-up compared to the chin-up variation. We know that both are effective exercises, but each recruit individual muscles more than the other. The pull-up has shown increased lat and lower trap involvement, while the chin-up has shown to elicit more of the biceps and pec major (Dickie et al 2017). Therefore as far as back development is concerned, pull-ups are probably an overall better option, but chin-ups are definitely a useful exercise that I recommend incorporating if you can perform them.
While deadlifts are not typically thought of as an effective exercise for back hypertrophy, heavy loads in both the pronated and mixed grips have shown to elicit significant lats activity (Beggs et al 2011). Additionally, deadlifts in the rack position (Commonly referred to as rack pulls) performed at heavy loads effectively target both the lats and middle traps (Contreras et al 2010, and may be safer for those with pre-existing back conditions preventing them from performing the conventional deadlift. As long as you’re performing the exercise with proper form (i.e. keeping your back straight and not rounding it), this is a perfectly safe exercise. In fact, research has supported that the deadlift is actually a useful exercise for preventing back injuries by strengthening the core musculature such as the rectus abdominis and erector spinae (ab and lower back muscles) (Colado et al 2011). Lifting heavy with compound lifts definitely has its place in your own routine, so please do not automatically rule out an exercise for safety concerns if you haven’t even tried to learn it in the first place.
Muscle Activation Cues
As I mentioned to start this article, the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of trainees, especially early into their lifting careers, really struggle to establish a proper-mind muscle connection with their back muscles. Most of the time, they feel their arms and shoulders taking over the movement, for the simple fact that they are not utilizing individual cues that can help increase activation of posterior chain. Here are my top two tips to really help you establish a strong connection with your back muscles and start to see faster progression in their development.
- Utilize a preactivation movement to start your workout: A preactivation movement involves performing a light isolation exercise at the beginning of your workout, for the specific use of developing a mind-muscle connection with the targeted muscle without fatiguing. Research has supported the use of this strategy for its effect on yielding additional muscle recruitment and contributing better to hypertrophy. For example, one study found that trainees increased activation of the lats during a lat pulldown by simply performing a few back-activation cues during the exercise (Snyder and Leech 2009). To apply this into your own training, think about incorporating a few light sets of straight-arm pulldown or single-arm row to start your workout, really focusing on feeling a contraction in your lats and other mid-back muscles.
- Focus on driving the elbows back and bringing your shoulders down from your ears: If you’re someone who’s feeling other muscles groups take over in your back movements, this is the best piece of advice I could give you. Before each rep, focus on retracting your shoulder blades and bringing them down from the top of your ears, then with each rep bringing your elbows back as far as you can. This is going to accomplish two things. For one, scapula retraction will help stabilize the shoulder joint and basically eliminate other upper-body muscles from taking over, while increasing your overall range of motion which should make it easier to establish a better mind-muscle connection. Take a look at the picture I have below for a visual guide of performing this.
I know that back training isn’t easy, but keep practicing utilizing the advice I’ve given above and don’t neglect this massive muscle group! I get that you can’t see most of these muscles in the mirror, and it’s probably more fun to train your chest and arms, but a well-developed back is both pleasing aesthetically as well as useful for functional movements and injury prevention. Make sure you’re incorporating some of these movement patterns at least two days per week into your lifting routine, and don’t feel discouraged if it takes you a little longer to become an expert on these movements.
That’s a wrap for part 2 of this blog series! Any more questions about how to maximize your back training? Please let me know in the comments below, along with any more suggestions for content you’d like to see soon. Have an awesome day guys, and I look forward to talking to you soon!