If you’re like most guys at the gym you’re spending a LOT of time focusing only on the muscles you can see in the mirror. Pecs, biceps and abs are usually at the top of any guy’s list of muscles they wish they had more, or at least had more definition.
But what if I told you that the “beach muscles” of the front side of the body are only half the story when you’re trying to build thick, “V” shaped torso?
“A wide back is essential for a V-shaped torso, and women’s attraction to it is ancestral. “When it was important that our mates protect us from woolly mammoths on the plains, we looked for a gene pool that could provide us with protection,” says Pega Ren, Ed.D.
If you’re really trying to build that head turning physique, developing the muscles of the back, the lats, traps, rhomboids and rear delts is crucial. Not only do these muscles help with posture, building them will balance out your physique. This will give you with an overall “thicker” looking upper body and that classic V taper to the torso.
Row, Row, Row Some More…
Almost everyone who has thick, well developed, lats relies primarily on rowing variations. Barbell rows,T-bar rows, seated rows. If you want a to build a thicker back, you’re going to need to spend time rowing. But make sure you dont stay with just one variation, angle or even rep range. While you dont, and shouldn’t, have to change everything each workout, varying things slightly every few weeks will make sure you’re getting development and growth through all the pulling muscles of the back.
My Favorite Row is the Kettlebell Row
I prefer to do these because the kettlebell allows for a slightly bigger range of motion and more activation of the muscles between the shoulder blades than a dumbbell does.
Back flat, shoulders slightly higher than hips with the feet shoulder width or slightly wider. One hand on a bench or dumbbell rack. Make sure you’re feet are planted, with the glutes turned on the whole time. A good rule of thumb is to have 20% of your weight in the front arm/ hand on the bench and 80% is in the heels and hips.
Some key technique points are:
- As you pull the weight make sure you’re crushing the handle.
- Pull the shoulder blade down the ribcage, “into the back pocket” and back towards the midline of the body in rhythm with the upper arm.
- Pull the hand slightly back towards the hip so the elbow ends up at ninety degrees at the top position.
- Dont allow the shoulder to “fall” out of the joint at the bottom. Always keep some tension on the muscles and think about stretching the lat as you lower the weight.
Lat Pulldowns and Pullups
Are both great back builders but are often done incorrectly.
When it comes to Lat Pulldowns, too often, I see guys yanking on the weight, leaning back excessively and driving the hips forward into the pad to complete the exercise. This is almost always from using too much weight. If you’re prone to this, you’d be better off, lightening the load, really focusing on pulling through the lats and squeezing the area under the armpits hard at the bottom. This will ensure maximal contraction of the lats. Combine that with smoothly lowering the weight by, maintaining tension and stretching the lats while reaching out, will keep tension on the lats through the movement and result in much better development.
If you have trouble feeling your lats fire, as many do with this exercise, try using a neutral grip bar where the palms are facing each other or separate handles instead of the traditional straight bar.
Pullups suffer from the same problem as lat pulldowns, too often, too much weight. But because pullups are done with body weight, this can become a real issue. Many people just can’t lift their body weight and more can only do it a few times, rendering this a pretty ineffective muscle builder simply because the amount of time you’re back muscles are under tension is so small you can’t build enough volume to damage the muscle and get optimal growth.
Luckily, bands are becoming more and more common in gyms and if you gym has some you can easily loop a band over a pullup bar or rack, put it under your knee or stand on it and you’ll be able to unload the most difficult part of the lift and perform multiple reps. A good rule of thumb I’ve used with clients is once you can do 12 pullups with a band in a set, move to a thinner band next time and start building back up.
Probably the best tip I ever received for pullups was to pull my shoulder blades into the back pocket while trying to “spread” my chest and put the upper part of my sternum (the bone that runs down the middle of the chest) on the bar at the top. This technique helps to activate the muscles of the mid upper back (rhomboids) more so than the traditional pullup.
Between the Shoulder Blades
One of the primary reasons you need to start training the muscles of the back is to help with posture and “balance” your physique. But none of that happens if we just focus on the lats. The Rhomboids need to be trained also to help retract the shoulder blades and counteract our desk jockey lifestyles and the posture that develops from it.
The main way to train the rhomboids is to make sure that on each rep of your rowing exercises you’re fully retracting the scapula and squeezing them together at the end of the motion. If you find that you’re having trouble doing this simply squeezing the shoulders together in 3-5 second bursts through the day is one of the most effective ways to learn what this feels like. When you can create scapula retraction and a really hard contraction between the shoulder blades on your own it’s time to incorporate exercises to directly train the area.
Exercises like, TRX Scapula Holds, Face pulls, and Rhomboid (Batwing) Rows all put you in a position to effectively train the area between the shoulders without the lats taking over. But you can’t get lazy and must remember to focus on pulling the shoulder blades together and squeezing the upper back during these motions.
Some More of My Favorite Back Exercises
While Kettle Bell Rows and Pullups are staples there are some other exercises that are a little less common that I also like for training the back:
Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns
These are a tricky exercise for most.The key to getting the most lat activation here is to have a consistent elbow and wrist angle. The arm does not need to be perfectly straight, but the elbow and wrist angle can not change during the movement. The minute that either of these joints changes the focus of the tension will leave the lats. If you’re using a straight bar think about “hooking” your wrists onto the bar instead of gripping it.
Another tip many find useful is to hinge at your hips and lean forward slightly almost having the torso match the angle of pull. This seems to increase the “feel” in the lats about 75% of the people who try it.
TRX/ Ring Row
Personally, this is my second favorite pulling exercise, but it’s the one I use the most with my clients. Why? Because it’s almost foolproof. The TRX row almost inherently puts people the correct rowing position and allows them to get good scapula retraction. The only thing people really need to focus on is maintaining a tight line ears through ankles, not allowing the ribs to pop up or the hips to sink. Remember to focus pulling through the ribs and really squeezing the shoulders together at the end position.
Let’s not forget about the traps. They’re vitally important if you’re trying to build the “Power Look” and no exercise is as time tested for trap development as shrugs. While I’m not really a fan of barbell shrugs due to the position they place the shoulders and arms in, rolled forward and internally rotated. I also dont think most people get as complete a movement as with dumbbell shrugs where the weight is at the side of the body and the movement is a more pure up and down.
But, if I have to choose, I’d opt for a heavy band instead of dumbbells. I feel like I can get the hardest contraction in the traps with the least amount of stress on my shoulders and neck using the band version. A word of advice, don’t roll your shoulders at the top. That’s not helping to build your traps. Rolling the shoulders at the top of a shrug is just inviting an injury to your rotator cuff.
Developing the Mind-Muscle Connection; a Critical Component for Optimal Back Development
It’s often overlooked, but with many people have trouble “feeling” the muscles of the back. Too often the muscles of the forearms and biceps will take over on rowing motions and the back muscles will be under activated,
The mind must be focused on the back executing the movement and not pulling with the biceps. For most, this is difficult to do in the beginning as you cannot ignore the fact biceps are pulling muscles and used in any pulling movement. Mind visualization and practice are required in order to perform lat exercises properly for maximum benefit. Critical Bench
It’s critical to not go to heavy and mindlessly complete reps. Instead, really focus on activating, pulling with and contracting the muscles of the back. A good way I’ve heard this, deliberate execution of every rep, described is, “make a 70lbs dumbbell feel like 100lbs”. Once this starts to happen you know you’re getting good muscle activation and those most out of every rep.
If you place the same amount of focus or more, if you’re lagging behind, training the muscles of the back as you do the front and really focus the most out of each and every rep you’ll end up with a thicker, more balanced physique. All while developing that coveted “V” shape torso so many are after.