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Training for Visual Mass, Part 2: The Back

In the last issue I argued that visual mass was primarily dependent on adding size to the back, legs, neck, and shoulders. In this issue I’m going to focus on back training.

One of the first mistakes people make when training for the appearance of mass is just to train the beach muscles they can see; namely chest and biceps. This is a big mistake, for three reasons.

anatomical chart of back muscles
Source: Gray’s Anatomy

First, chest and bis are a relatively small muscle group compared to the back. Second, they’re easy to overtrain and a common source for chronic injuries such as rotator cuff dysfunction, biceps tendonitis, and medial epicondylitis. Third, they don’t have as much potential for adding visual and real mass as the back (and triceps, for that matter, if we’re just talking about arm size).Anatomy time! The back may be divided roughly into three regions: upper, middle, and lower. There is also deep spinal musculature which is responsible for spinal stabilization, but I won’t go into that. In healthy people, the deep musculature just sort of does its thing whenever it’s needed, making sure the suspension bridge of the spine doesn’t collapse. Essentially, the back is responsible for pulling motions: rowing, chinups, any movement which pulls the shoulder blades back and down, extends (arches) the spine, and/or brings the upper arm towards the body.

Bill Goldberg's shoulders
Grr! Fear my enormous traps!

The most prominent superficial muscles of the upper back are the trapezius muscles (area “a” in the pic above), which are thick triangular muscles that run from the base of the skull across the top of the shoulder, and down along the spine to the midback. They also assist in stabilizing and moving the neck, cervical and thoracic spine, and shoulder blades. As you can see in the picture of Bill Goldberg, trap monster extraordinaire, large traps add a lot of visual and actual mass.

Traps are best trained with movements that incorporate shrugging motions, bringing the shoulders straight up (not rolled back) towards the ears. Many people like to do shrugs on their own, but I prefer to suggest shrugs combined with another movement such as a clean pull, snatch pull, or deadlift.

The midback’s main jobs are to stabilize and extend the thoracic spine, and to retract and depress the shoulder blades. The midback (area “b” in the pic above), of which the rhomboids are the most commonly known muscles, tends to be a somewhat undertrained area. A surprisingly good way to strengthen the midback is front squats, as the position of the bar requires strong rhomboids in order to keep the elbows up. Another exercise I like for midback strengthening is horizontal pullups (see variation #2), done with the same type of wide grip that would be used for a bench press. People who work at a desk all day are likely to round the thoracic spine for long periods, and may experience pain, tightness, and spasming in the upper and midback. Doing some kind of midback work is often helpful in alleviating these postural problems, although it should also be combined with postural awareness. Finally, bent-over dumbbell rows are one of the solid standby back exercises (make sure to push chest towards bench, arching back slightly… you’ll feel like your ass is hanging out in a “mount me, daddy” position, and it is, but it puts your back in the proper position).

latissimus dorsi
Above: the classic lat spread pose

The latissimus dorsi, or lats (area “c” in the pic), deserve special mention as the largest back muscles, and the ones which give much of the “V-taper” to the upper body. One of the most impressive poses which bodybuilders do is the lat spread, which is a “fanning out” of the lats to make them look sort of like a cobra’s head. If you have big lats, you’re well on your way to cutting an imposing and recognizably male figure.Lats are best trained with pulling movements that bring the upper arms towards the body, like chinups/pullups and rows.

It is a myth that the wider the grip on the pullup or row bar, the wider the lats. In fact, I find that wide grip pullups do an excellent job of aggravating the shoulder joint.

I also suggest that trainees err on the side of slightly lower weight and a more focused movement which concentrates on retraction and depression of shoulder blades (in other words, pulling shoulders back together and down towards the waist). One of the most common form mistakes I see in the gym is trainees using too much weight for their rows or pulldowns, and throwing the whole body into the movement, rather than performing a slow, careful pull. Practice scapular retraction and depression with no weight, to get the feel of it. First, pull shoulders back and push chest out, like you’re Jayne Mansfield sticking out your buzzums for the world to see. Then, keeping chest out, push your shoulders down towards the floor. That final position is what you want to feel at the end of a pulling rep. If you’re having difficulty feeling what it’s like to pull shoulders back, have a friend put their finger on your spine at the midback, and try to pull your shoulders back towards their finger.

The second most common form mistake is allowing the upper back to round and hunch during the movement. At that point, the weight is largely supported by spinal ligaments, not spinal musculature, so it’s to be avoided.

It is worth a trainee’s time and effort to learn how to do pullups. Pullups are a mainstay of back training, and will add mass to your back more than just about any other exercise. By the way, the difference between pullups and chinups is just the grip. Pullups are done with an overhand or parallel (palms facing one another) grip, while chinups are done with an underhand grip. Just semantics, no deep training secrets there to worry about. Use whichever grip is most comfortable; I personally prefer a parallel grip. You will also get some nice biceps work from pullups, as well as some indirect abdominal work.

So, if you can’t manage a pullup, begin with pulldowns on the lat pulldown machine. Here are some form tips. No pulling behind the neck unless you want an increased likelihood of chronic rotator cuff damage! It works better to pull to the chest anyway. I suggest you do your pulldowns while standing, not seated, so that you get more of the feel of what a real pullup feels like. Keep spine in neutral position and knees unlocked while you do this. You might feel a little extra oomph in your abs through this movement.

Then, progress to negative chinups. Put these first in your back workout so that you’re fresh. Negative chinups are done by starting in the completed chinup position, i.e. with elbows fully bent and chin above the bar. You do this by pushing a bench or chair under the pullup bar, then jumping up to the completed position. Then, you slowly, as slowly as possible, lower yourself down. You can also try assisted chinups by using a low pullup bar (a Smith machine is good for this) and supporting your legs on a chair, so that you’re pulling up less bodyweight. If you have a helpful workout partner, you can try assisted chinups with them supporting your legs. Bend your knees ninety degrees, and cross your ankles, then they can push up on your shins. Once you can complete about four negative pullups, you can probably do a full pullup.

When you can do a few sets of about 6 pullups, experiment with adding weight. You can hold a light plate (like a 2.5 or 5 lb.) between your knees. To add more weight, invest in a dip belt, which is a nylon belt similar to a weightlifting belt. It has a chain on it, which is threaded through the weight plates, then clipped on so that the weights hang between your legs. I encourage you to try adding weight as soon as possible, because many people can do pullups with weight more easily than they can do pullups for several reps. You can find some ideas for different types of pullups here.

No back training article is complete without mentioning deadlifts. Many people consider DLs to be a leg exercise, and of course they are. But they also help to put a lot of mass on the back, as well as build functional strength for real-life activities (how many times do you have to pick something off the floor? lots!). Regular DLs (as opposed to sumo-stance DLs where the back is straighter and more of the load is on the hips and hamstrings) are an excellent addition to a back strength routine. Here are some more form tips for learning deadlifts:

I suggest beginning with a broomstick or unloaded barbell, and perfecting the form first before adding too much weight. Remember that eventually you will be pulling from somewhere around mid-shin once you get the bigger 45 lb. plates on, so don’t worry about trying to pull right from the floor with the small plates on. Just put the big plates on, figure out where the bar sits, and pull from that level (take the big plates off first, of course!). You can do this with no assistance, or using the pins of a power cage, or wooden boxes. This bar height is a real plus for shorter lifters!

Finally, the lower back (indicated by “d”), which consists at the superficial level of the spinal erectors, is an oft-forgotten part of back training. A strong lower back is an important part of injury prevention, as it is most frequently the weak link in the chain. Lower back gets worked with squats, deadlifts, and any overhead work, but it’s worthwhile to include some lighter lower back work semi-regularly at the end of a workout, such as back hyperextensions, good mornings, reverse hyperextensions, light bent-over rows (make sure to keep back tight and arched), and glute/ham raises. Lower back training should be done with a lower intensity. This is not the time to be a hero and see how much weight you can move. Rather the emphasis should be on thoughtful, focused movements which can be completed in good form.

To sum up, here are the rules of good back training.

  1. Think in terms of quality, not quantity of movement, even if this means you have to use slightly less weight. Use a full range of motion, focusing on retraction and depression of shoulder blades, as well as keeping lower back tight and arched. Control the weight throughout the movement.
  2. Train back to chest in roughly a 2:1 ratio, or pulling movements to pushing movements in at least 1:1 (pushing movements can also include stuff like standing shoulder press).
  3. Pick compound exercises like rows and pullups as the foundation of your workout.

So, how to put this all together? Here are some ideas.

1. Put all “pulling” movements together on one day. Something like:

Deadlift or deadlift to shrug 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Pullups/weighted pullups 3 x 6-8
Rows 3 x 12
Back hyperextensions 3 x 12-15

2. Put some heavy pulling movements on one workout day, and light pulling motions later in the week, for active recovery. Something like:

Day 1 – heavy

Deadlift or deadlift to shrug 3 x 6-8
Pullups/weighted pullups 3 x 5
Other exercises as desired, perhaps other light pushing exercises to offset the heavy pull, or heavy pushing exercises to make the whole day a heavy day

Day 2 – light

Perhaps other heavy exercises, or other light exercises to make the whole workout a light workout
Rows 3 x 12
Back hyperextensions 3 x 12-15

In the next issue I’ll discuss training neck and shoulders, another component of building visual mass and a recognizably masculine physique.

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