As with all muscle groups, you want to take a muscle from its fully stretched position to full contraction. With the lats, that entails bringing your elbows as far back as possible behind the plane of your body, almost pinching your shoulder blades together. If you go too heavy, you won't be able to pull your elbows all the way back, in which case you're not using a full range of motion and working the target musculature completely.
Not that anyone's keeping score, but after writing my fourth chest article in a month, a Bodybuilding.com reader finally called me out in a reader comment: "When are you going to write something about back training?"
So here you go: "Something about back training."
All jokes aside, he had a point. Sure, most guys are interested first and foremost in building up big pecs and arms. But training back is important for a balanced and symmetrical physique. And it requires a high training IQ to build those flaring, wide lats that taper down to a small waistline, not to mention the topographical bumps and ridges that landscape the backside.
Sure you can "just do it" on back day, but you'll achieve plenty more if you understand exactly what and how you're training, and follow a planned attack to bring up your lats. Here we'll focus on eight strategies that target your upper lats; that is, the upper portion of the latissimus dorsi that spreads out when flexed like a spooked cobra.
Incorporate any and all of them into your back-day workout, then feel free to write your own "something about back training" in the comments section at the bottom.
Do Back Training After A Rest Day
Probably the smartest way to target a lagging body part—no matter which area you choose—is to do it first in your training split after a rest day. The smart bodybuilder uses rest days to recover both physically and mentally: eating well to top off muscle glycogen stores that fuel a hard workout, and getting enough sleep to stay mentally sharp and ready to bust the weights.
The back is actually a collection of muscles—the lats, rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius, and erectors (lower back)—and even the rear delts and biceps play a role in back training. You'll get a far superior workout if you're well rested, because it's so demanding on both the target muscles and your nervous system.
Choose Back Exercises That Require A Wide Grip
In any gym you'll hear all sorts of advice on how a particular grip works a given area of a muscle, but for back just remember two things:
- Your elbow position relative to your body as you pull affects how the muscle is recruited.
- You can't isolate one portion of the lats over another, but you can shift the emphasis.
Let's explain the first point. With a wide, overhand grip—no matter whether you're doing rows or pulldowns—your elbows stay way out wide, away from your sides. The upper lat fibers are those most responsible for driving your elbows when they're directly out to your sides. Now consider a close grip or even a reverse (underhand) grip on back moves; here, the elbows stay in very tight to your sides. This particular action targets the lower lat fibers much more effectively. Hence, wide-grip movements are your best bet if you're looking to beef up those upper lats.
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
Seated cable rows, bent-over barbell rows, pull-ups pulldowns, T-bar rows, machine rows, and standing cable rows can be done with any number of grips. If you're looking to build that V-taper from the top, emphasizing the wide-grip movements in your workout will target the area nicely. On single-arm moves like one-arm dumbbell rows, keeping your elbow out wide is difficult, so these moves do a better job of targeting the lower lats.
Train Upper Lats Twice Over The Course Of Your Training
Another good strategy you can use for up to 6-8 weeks when bringing up a particular area is to train it twice over the course of your split. Keep in mind that the back is a large muscle group that also recruits the rear delts and biceps; if you follow this strategy, be particularly careful so that you don't train those muscles on consecutive days. Leave ample time for rest and recovery. Longer training splits of at least six days work best with this approach.
You might also refrain from duplicating the same back exercises you do in each of your workouts. Besides different exercises, you might want to:
- Make one workout the "heavy day" and the other a "pumping workout"
- Make one workout rowing-focused and another built around deadlifts and pulldowns
- Otherwise alter your rep schemes so the target musculature is stimulated in more ways than one for better overall growth
- Vary the intensity-boosting technique you use (e.g., opting for forced reps one workout and following a rest-pause type of approach the other)
In all of these scenarios, the end result is that you're manipulating different variables to work the upper lats in multiple ways.
Start With A Solid Mass-Builder Using Challenging
You already know that multijoint movements are your best bet when it comes to allowing you to move the most weight, but not all multijoint exercises are created equal. Exercises in which you can't use momentum do a better job of isolating the muscle, but with your first exercise you actually want to be able to use a little body English as failure nears. From that perspective, something like a bent-over row is a great choice as your first exercise in your back workout, because you're able to use fairly heavy weights and just a bit of momentum.
Two caveats: First, if you don't know how to keep your back flat throughout the movement, you're gonna be in trouble. You've got to learn how to lock a slight arch in your back and prevent it from rounding. Like riding a bicycle, mastering this technique takes time and practice. It's the same body position you use for bent-over lateral raises and the bottom position of the Romanian deadlift.
Second, using body English doesn't mean you should be using a weight that requires you to cheat from the very first rep. You should be able to do a good six reps on your own without cheating, after which you can use just enough momentum to complete a couple more. The weight's too heavy if you're having to rise up (with the aid of your lower back) when doing bent-over rows or generating thrust through your legs on the first couple of reps.
Besides doing the best mass-building movement first in your back workout with the right grip, you'll also want to choose a weight that allows you to optimally build size and strength. Early in your workouts, when your strength levels are high, challenge yourself with weights that you can do for sets of just 6-8 reps. Of course, start with some warm-up sets first, but never take warm-ups to muscle failure. On your working sets, however, you'll want to go to muscle failure. Just make sure you're holding good form, especially in your back. If you start rounding your back, immediately terminate the set.
Include Other Wide-Grip Movements In Your Workout
While you don't have to do every exercise with a wide grip, you should endeavor to include several if your goal is to emphasize your upper lats. What you're looking for, however, are moves in which you're pulling the weight into your body at different angles.
Consider that with wide-grip pulldowns, you're pulling the bar from an overhead position, bringing your elbows down. With rows such as wide-grip T-bar row, you're pulling the weight perpendicular to your body, bringing your elbows as far back behind the plane of your body as you can. While both those exercises engage the upper lats, they recruit other muscles in slightly different manners, including the rear delts, rhomboids, biceps, and middle and lower portions of the trapezius. Yet the manner in which the upper lats are recruited is slightly different. That's why changing up the angles in back training is just as important as it is when training chest.
Standing Cable Row
Some machines allow you to pull from an angle slightly above perpendicular, others at an angle slightly below perpendicular. Also try the Smith machine, seated cable rows, and standing cable rows, positioning the pulley to various heights.
Introduce New Wide-Grip Movements Into Your Workout
Auto-pilot belongs in the cockpit of a Boeing 737, not in your workout plan. Seek ways to make slight changes in your workout from time to time. This will keep your training mentally fresh and work the target musculature in slightly different ways. For example, most trainees automatically do the seated cable row with the close-grip handle, but if you opt for a wide grip on the lat bar you'll do a better job emphasizing the upper lats.
Try new back machines you've never tried, or otherwise look for ways to refresh old favorites by changing your grip or the angle of pull when training back. Chances are good you'll find a little new soreness in the muscle the next day.
Boost Your Intensity With Advanced Techniques
Taking your working sets to failure is good when bodybuilding because it promotes the kind of cellular changes that increase hypertrophy. Taking 1-2 sets of each exercise past failure can really set you up for growth. Here are a few advanced training techniques that work especially well on back day:
- Forced reps: If you've got a good training partner, you can do a few extra reps past muscle failure on pulldowns, pull-ups, T-bar rows, seated cable rows, and machine rows. For the best results, your partner should provide just enough help to get you past the sticking point.
- Negatives: Here's where your partner helps you raise a weight (the positive contraction) after you reach muscle failure, and you take up to five seconds to lower it very slowly.
- Dropsets: This is especially easy to do with cables and machines that use a pin; simply reduce the weight by about 25 percent when you reach muscle failure and immediately resume the set, working to another point of muscle failure.
If you're training right, the target muscle should be completely exhausted by the end of your workout. If it's not, you want to boost your training intensity—not the length of your workout—by adding on more exercises and sets. Combining a good finishing exercise with an intensity booster is one such way to super-fatigue the muscle while driving fluids into the muscle for an expansive pump. You won't walk out of the gym with ILS—invisible lat syndrome.
Here's an upper-lat finisher that's super-intense: Use a workout partner or assisted pull-up machine (remember, you should be fatigued by now) and crank out a set of 10 reps with help. Immediately go over to the cables and do low-pulley rows using a wide grip on a lat bar. Choose a light weight here you can do for about 20 reps. Rest for a minute and repeat the sequence two more times to blow out your upper lats.