As an avid fitness reader, I’ve noticed a certain trend over the years
When it comes to back training and programs based around that, logic seems to be cast aside.
Unlike programs for lower body training, chest or arms, programs for back hypertrophy and strength seem to be strewn with TRX rows and upside down, one-legged cable pulls on a bosu ball.
There is a noticeable feeling amongst some articles and magazines that variety and novelty are drivers of muscle growth.
Unfortunately, the benefits of “muscle confusion” aren’t quite as impressive as one might hope for.
I believe that the reason for this is the occurrence of a few simple issues, one’s that I’ve managed to successfully solve with both my own training and clients over the years.
See, as a powerlifter, back training is almost not required, there isn’t that much benefit as far as adding to my total is concerned.
However, there is always a need for balance.
Balancing pushing with pulling, preventing imbalance and ensuring equal muscle and strength development over time.
Not to mention, according to my coach,
I’m a bodybuilder trapped inside a Powerlifter.
For most of my training life, I trained for aesthetic improvement and much of those tendencies and habits have stuck with me. Despite recent realisations.
Bench, Deadlift, Squat – all easy to program and piece together into a program
Piecing together a leg session or a chest and arms session – no problem.
For some reason, it’s simple to program these sessions, to appreciate what a certain amount of squatting will do to someone’s ability to recover etc
Yet programming for barbell rows, chins, face-pulls, pull-downs and the like
seems somewhat amorphous.
There’s been a decent consensus for some time that the ‘big-three” provide the key-stone to a successful and effective programme. Together they provide stimulus for the majority of muscle groups – chest, arms, hamstrings, quads and glutes.
For back training, there isn’t and equivalent go-to.
Is it barbell row?
Or should I be taking the strain off my lower back – machine row?
What about face pulls?
…hold on, this session is over 50 sets, I don’t have time for that….
Sure, the deadlift trains the back in isometric contraction but as far as a balanced program is concerned – I’m never convinced this is enough.
As I see it, the problems with effective programming here is that we mis-interpret what we’re actually trying to achieve by training the back, there is no real honest way to measure progress and there is a total overload of choice when it comes to exercise selection.
Mis-interpreting the goal of the exercise
Unless you’re involved in some very niche strength sport,
it’s unlikely that you’re training for a bigger barbell row.
Sure, strength is important and is the most effective measure of muscular development regardless of goal but that doesn’t mean other factors aren’t important.
Because we don’t have standards already in place for these exercises, it’s easy to make our own version of a barbell row to assuage our ego
Look at Klokov’s barbell row here.. isn’t it beautiful
(Obviously, I’m kidding)
The point i’m making is that we will add in leg drive, body English and momentum to these exercises
Held hostage by our ego
We ensure that we progress, to ensure we use as much weight as possible
Even to the extent that we feel the exercise more in the hamstrings than the back.
So, the priority here is this:
- Start light and start well
- Ensure that you can feel a contraction in your lats, rhomboids or traps
- Your first week of the exercise should not be with a load that means you need to flap around like a salmon
- You should feel a pump (can’t believe I just said that) and a strong contraction in where you’re trying to train
- Yes, weight and loads are important but remember, typically we train the back for hypertrophy and structural support.
- If we’re not isolating the muscle group while training it, we’re defeating the point.
Honest progress measurement
Eric Helm’s with a succinct explanation of this issue:
(Skip to 2:37 for his example)
On back movements, its really, really easy to cheat.
On a bench press – you touch your chest
Squats – below parallel
Heck, even a barbell curl has pretty obvious ROM standards
Yet in every gym you will likely see a range of acceptable standards for a chin up or barbell row.
Some of this can be chalked up to ego, sure. But in general, we’re human and we’re in the gym to make progress.
If that means not touching our chin to the bar – we’ll damn well do that
Obviously, the fix here is obvious, choose exercises that can be easily measured and select rules for your progression.
Paradox of choice
Because there are so many variations and no defined rep and set scheme
We tend to just do what we enjoy
Hmmm well chins are quite hard
I’m sure lat pulldowns are better….aren’t they?
And there’s no point in doing a full ROM, that’s bad for my shoulders….probably
I’ll just touch the top of my head with each rep
Hey, check this out, I’m repping the full stack
The less defined the parameters we have are, the more heinous the self rationalisation.
Over time, I’ve narrowed down my available exercises for back and assistance work in general.
They always fit the criteria of;
- I feel the contraction where I’m supposed to, In my lats not my hamstrings
- I can honestly measure the progress
- There is longevity in the exercise
- They are flexible
The first two, I’ve covered.
By longevity, I mean that there is plenty of scope to progress in weight
If I was picking a cable row where, in my gym, even the full stack was light – I would hit a brick wall quite quickly
By flexibility, I mean that I’m not tied to one piece of equipment
For some, this isn’t important but I do a lot of travelling – I require that I’ll be able to fit my session in wherever I am. Often, this means favouring a barbell movement
Fitting it all together
You didn’t think I’d write an article without some actionable steps did you!
Here’s how I respect the above rules and piece a program together. For the sake of example, below are just the exercises I use and this would either be done as one session or spread across the week as described.
Seal row / Chest supported machine row
The benefits of this are multiple
- A rep only counts when it touches the base of the bench or the pad of the machine – measurability, check
- It takes the scope for modified technique away
- Most gyms have the equipment
For back training, I like to program multiple sets and low reps in general, higher reps often lead to form breakdown and loss of mind-muscle connection.
So, typically, I program between 3-6 reps per set with a momentary pause at the top and brutally forceful contraction on each one.
The number of sets depend on the total weekly volume and goals but generally 4-6, generally this will be performed twice per week.
Progression would be using the double progression model:
Week 1: 50kg x 4 x 6
Week 2: 50kg x 6,6,6,6,5
Week 3: 50kg x 6,6,6,6,6
Week 5: 50kg x 6,6,6,6,6,5
When you reach 6×6, add the smallest weight increment possible
Chin up (narrow grip, palms facing)
The grip is to account for potential shoulder issues caused by placing the shoulder in extreme rotation (overhand and underhand grips) and I find a narrow grip also tends to reduce shoulder niggles.
By narrow, I typically mean in inch inside shoulder width. The rule is chin to bar, pausing at the top and at the very bottom of the full range of motion to kill momentum.
I normally program these in 3 times per week with the following sessions:
A: 7-10 sets of 3-5 reps
This may seem very high volume and excessive, but multiple sets of low reps allows focus on form, the potential for additional weight to be used and the potential for this to be super-setted between sets of other exercises such as squats or bench
B: 5 x max reps
This is simply repping out as many reps as possible for 5 consecutive sets, I like to limit rest between these sets to 60 seconds drawing some similarities with rest-pause training.
Again, this takes away the ability to just rep out at the expense of form, when rest is limited there is the inherent understanding that – if I don’t get many reps, its due to the short rest periods. The form is the same as session A
C: Reverse Pyramid training (2 sets)
Berkhan fans will be familiar with this.
Set 1, I typically use between 5-25kg of additional weight, done for as many reps as possible
Set 2, drop 5kg and rep out again, aiming for 1 rep less than the previous set
The goal is to progress with this by 1 rep over every 4 weeks – typically this is very challenging
These are fairly self explanatory, I use the following technique
I prefer going light and very high volume here and I use them as a super-set between all pressing exercises.
So, for every set of bench press, I perform a set of 15 reps, often accumulating 150-300 reps over the course of a week.
The goal here is to add the minimum amount of weight every 3-4 weeks.
Above is how I eventually narrowed down my choice and options to build a back training program that respects some basic (often overlooked) principles
Each exercise respects comparability and measurability with defined parameters of each.
When selecting exercises, ensure:
- You can honestly measure progression
- Start light and feel the contraction In its intended location
- Ensure you can perform the exercise in any gym
- Ensure there is plenty of room to progress with the movement
- Accumulate your volume in a week with a few carefully selected movements, not 10 different variations