When it comes to building strong and defined muscles, the view from behind is not all about the glutes. Having a strong back and shoulders is not only attractive it is an essential part of feeling and performing at your best.
In part one of building a stronger back, we talked about the importance of having a strong and mobile back and how we can take steps to protect it by doing things like not walking like a duck, doing more twisting, avoiding shoes with heels, working on our calf flexibility, and strengthening our glutes. In part two, we'll put it all together with a killer back-strengthening workout that you can start doing at the gym right away.
A Back Building (Not Breaking) Workout
If you have been following me and reading my posts for a while now, you will know that I am a fan of building functional strength first and then muscle mass second. So with that in mind, here are six exercises that will help you build a functionally strong and toned back.
- Narrow Grip Chin-ups
- Subscapular Pull-ups
- Seated Rope Rows
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- One-Arm Arc Dumbbell Row
- Standing T-Bar Row
Let's go through each exercise one by one.
1. Narrow Grip Chin-ups
The close-grip chin-up is a classic bodyweight exercise that increases strength in the back and biceps. The narrow grip is also the grip where you will feel the strongest elbow flexion while simultaneously targeting the middle of the back. That means that this grip will allow you to lift the heaviest loads and recruit the inferior fibers of the lats. The underhand grip creates increased resistance on the biceps and forearms which isn't what we are focused on but is a nice added bonus!
Keep your hands about 6-8 inches apart and focus on getting your lower sternum all the way up to the bar or handles at the top of the movement. It’s OK to lean back a little as you near the top of the concentric pull.
2. Subscapular Pull-ups
Start with an overhand grip, just a little wider than shoulder-width apart (you can increase the width as you get stronger). Pull yourself all the way up so your upper pecs touch the bar. Once you reach the top, push yourself slightly away before you lower yourself slowly back down. This is how we get the subscapularis muscles involved.
Also, don’t think of the pull-up as simply an up and down movement. To also get the rhomboids (muscles in the middle of your back) involved, make sure to retract your shoulder blades more and more as you get close the top of the movement.
3. Seated Rope Rows
For this one, we want to counter all the chest work you may (or may not) have been doing, so position the pulley in front of your pecs (the center of your chest). Use a rope instead of the straight bar so you can minimize the involvement of your forearms and wrists.
Grab on to the ends of the rope and start the movement by retracting your shoulder blades, then bending your elbows until your forearms make contact with your upper arms. Keep your back nice and straight so you don’t let your lower back get involved. Pause for a few seconds, with the shoulder blades fully retracted before you relax your arms and lower the weight.
4. Bent-Over Barbell Row
This is a heck of a good movement in terms of the sheer weight that you will be able to lift. According to Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research/National Strength & Conditioning research, the bent-over barbell row exercise will work the larger muscle groups of the upper and lower back equally, which makes this a great overall back builder. This exercise has a significant lumbar load, so get it done early in your workout while your lower back is ready for it.
To do this exercise, bend your knees a little and bend at the waist to bring your torso slightly forward, hold the barbell with a pronated grip (palms facing down), and keep your back straight. Bring the weight up to your chest and at the top of the contracted position, squeeze your back muscles and hold for a pause. Then slowly lower the weight back down.
5. One-Arm Arc Dumbbell Row
You probably know how to do a regular dumbbell row. Well, this version of the exercise is different due to the trajectory of the weight. Instead of bringing the dumbbell to the chest, bring the dumbbell to the hip. At the top of the movement, your elbow can come up as high above your hip bone as possible.
Because of the trajectory used in this variation, the lats will perform more of a shoulder extension movement. So don’t be alarmed if the weight you can lift is drastically lower than what you use for a regular row.
6. Standing T-Bar Row
You should probably search for some videos of all of these exercises but if you aren’t familiar with this one in particular, definitely look it up.
Keep in mind when you are doing this one that you won’t want to fling the weight around. Instead, you really want to focus on the stretch and the contraction of your back.
Before you start, make sure the end of the bar is in a corner (or into what is called a landmine) to keep it from getting away from you. Stand over the bar (basically straddling it), and using your hips and legs, lift the bar until you are in a standing position. Get into a wide and stable stance, with your hips back, chest up, and arms extended. Then pull the weight to your upper abdomen by retracting the shoulder blades and flexing the elbows. Pause and return to the starting position.