A strong back is it just beneficial; it’s necessary.
Thick traps and wide lats are essential to supporting big squats, presses and deadlifts. Keeping the spine rigid and close to a neutral position under competitive weights is no easy task and slacking on upper back development is a way to ensure that your back is the first thing to go.
A developed back is also a cornerstone of aesthetics. Sure, part of that is because symmetry is important: you should want your back to be at least as well developed as your shoulders. arms and pecs. But even by itself, really noticable upper back development stands out because it is a sign that you’re good at moving things and hard to move yourself. It’s one of the quickest signals to everybody else that you are physically capable and not to be trifled with.
As obviously valuable as upper back development is, its an often-overlooked part of training because, let’s face it, your back muscles are behind you and “out of sight out of mind”. If you were followed around all day by a mirror that forced you to look at your woefully underdeveloped posterior, there’s no doubt that you would have twice the incentive to finish your rowing for the day instead of skipping it to head to Chili’s to hang with your boys.
The main reason that an underdeveloped upper back is so unacceptable is because it’s so easy to get. It’s one of those things that just fits nicely with everything that we already do in terms of strength and performance; you have to really go out of your way to neglect it.
Here are the three reasons that your upper back is not growing and three rules for fixing it.
REASON #1: You are focused on developing the muscle.
It seems intuitive that if you want to focus on the development of a particular muscle that you should isolate it. This line of thinking is what leads people into the trap of endlessly searching for exercises that torch their muscles in just the right way.
In reality, this fixation causes you to expend your effort on smaller exercises that don’t allow a substantial amount of load and are limited in how much fatigue they can generate. The muscles of the lats, traps and rhomboids are big and they do a big job. That means that they need a big stimulus in order to grow.
I firmly believe that if everybody trained their primary rowing movements as a strength movement, the same way that they might train their bench press or squat, that you would see a lot more barn-door backs walking around.
REASON #2: Fixation on the ‘feeling‘
If your lats haven’t grown in proportion to your other muscles, it might seem logical that you need to find a way to engage the muscle more. Many trainees end up on a journey of grip variations, specialty bars and exotic movements to try to master lat activation for this reason. There’s also a fixation with taking biceps out of the equation, as if the small muscles of your bicep are actually going to be capable of outpacing the larger muscles of your lats.
Finesse movements that hyper isolate the back are inherently going to be limited in how much wait they can accommodate and how much effort you can put into them. When it comes to upper back growth, these two things are absolutely key. That’s not to say that isolation or mastering the mind-muscle connection aren’t important; they certainly are valuable. But they should not be leading the charge in your mission for a mountainous posterior
The fix to this is to row with a lot of effort for multiple sets. Exercise selection should prioritize big compound movements that allow for load and intensity and your mission is to milk those for all they’re worth. Save the isolation exercises for the end; start your workouts with the big compound movement and make sure that you are actually putting some mustard on it
REASON #3: Lack of Priority
Everybody thinks that they do a fine job writing their workout schedule. People will be angry, frustrated and disillusioned because they haven’t seen the results they wanted but, the second you suggest that there’s something that they can change in their training, they will start clutching their pearls like a church lady in an Andrew Schulz set.
The equation to progress in the gym is simple. You do something and chart the result. If you didn’t get the result you wanted, it means you have to change what you do until you do.
If upper back was a priority, that means you would be doing it first or have it on its own dedicated day. It means you would be doing a lot of sets with a lot of effort, effort that is comprable to what you regularly put out in your leg and bench days. And if that’s been the case for any substantial amount of time, you’re not going to be on the internet looking for ways to fix your sorry upper back development.
A question I like to ask when challenging people about their dedication is “when was the last time you got nauseous from a back workout?”. Anybody with a modest amount of lower body development has likely done a leg workout or two that is sent them to the bushes. But when considering the effort put into underdeveloped muscle groups, lifters are usually strained to think of a time with the exhausted themselves that thoroughly.
Making upper back a priority with out side-lining the rest of your big lifts is so easy that there isn’t an excuse for not doing so. Even in the most rigorous splits that are dense with high-frequency I ever squat benching and deadlifting there is always room for an hour out of the week to accumulate 15 to 20 sets of rowing. If you want to consolidate it into the workouts you already have scheduled, then consider doing rows first. There is no reason that any sufficiently conditioned lifter should not be able to do some hard sets of rows without it impacting their benching or their deadlifting.
A third option is to superset with other priority movements. I actually enjoy running back and forth between my volume pressing, whether it’s my back off sets on bench or if it’s my secondary and tertiary machine exercises end some machine rowing variation. It doesn’t detract from my pressing performance, it doesn’t seem to make the workout longer and it dramatically increases how much work I can squeeze in for for my back.
In the video attached to this post, I dig into 3 big rules for developing a wide, strong upper back, but I’ll give you the TL;DR:
- Prioritize big compound movements
Pull-ups, chin-ups, bent barbell rows and any type of T-bar, machine or dumbbell row is going to meet this criteria. You don’t want to avoid using other muscles when training your back, you actually want to embrace it. Close-grip variations that allow for a lot of bicep engagement also allow for the most weight and the highest fatigue. These are notorious for their effect on back development.
- Use the technique that allows the most effort/weight/fatigue
Yes, I do advocate cheating reps on barbell exercises. That doesn’t mean that you go crazy and start flopping around like you’re having a seizure but it does mean that you are justified in using a modest amount of sway to get the bar moving in order to use a little more weight, grind out a few more reps and accumulate a s*** ton more fatigue than you would otherwise. Cheating reps shouldn’t be the only technique you use but I do recommend it make an appearance on at least some of your heavy work and on failure sets towards the end of your working sets. Save the strict work for machine, t-bar, seal or cable rows.
- Work a variety of reps, including low ones.
If we can accept that a big back is a strong back then that means we need to prioritize getting some strength. Just like every other lift and muscle group, neurological stimulus is going to go a long way here. I love doing low reps, sixes and five, sure, but I’ve also gone as low as triples. This range provide a ton of overload but also challenge your hips and midsection to hold position and brace in a way that you are likely not used to. This is where you get carryover to your deadlift.
You will notice that as your ability to move weights on the heavy end of the spectrum increases so does your ability to knock out reps with lighter weights. Your ability to get volume in a session goes up which means your upper back grows as a result. It’s the circle of life.
For a sample upper back workout and the slides to this video, click here. (You can also get my program Bullmastiff completely free!)