Many of you don’t brag about how many Pull-Ups you can do or how strong your back is. The Bench Press—and Squats and Deadlifts to a lesser extent—get all the love. But your back strength actually determines how much you can lift in these popular exercises. Your back muscles also add strength to sports skills and help protect your spine.
OK, so you know the back is important. But what if you regularly do back exercises and experience no meaningful results? If you fall into this category—or simply want to focus on increasing your back strength—try the following four strategies to get a jacked back.
1. Perform Deadlift Variations
You’re probably thinking the Deadlift is a lower-body exercise. And you’re right—it’s one of the best moves to build strong glutes and hamstrings. But, according to Pat Downey, owner of Vantedge Performance LLC (Woburn, Massachusetts), performing the Deadlift will add serious size and strength to your back. “I’m surprised at the amount of people who don’t equate the Deadlift to back strength,” he says.
When standing up with the bar, your lower-back muscles fire to help your glutes extend your hips. Simply holding the heavy bar and working to keep your back flat throughout the lift puts your back muscles under tension. You’re not necessarily performing a pulling motion, but your back is still working.
Downey recommends regularly changing up your deadlift grips. The conventional Deadlift does a good job of working your back, but you can more effectively work your upper back by using a snatch grip.
2. Perform Loaded Carries
Loaded carries like Farmer’s Walks are a great way to work your core, but they also help you strengthen your back. Any time your body handles heavy weight, your back muscles—functioning as part of your core—fire to keep your spine safe. Each time you step, your back muscles keep you stable and in an upright posture. If you were to relax your back muscles, you’d quickly lose control of your form. You should be able to carry at least 90 percent of your body weight.
3. Try Eccentrics and Isometrics
Many of you run into back strength roadblocks because you don’t vary your routines. Yes, you can load Pull-Ups or choose heavier dumbbells, but most athletes don’t put as much effort into progression with their back exercises as they do with, say, the Bench Press.
Change up your regular back routine by adding eccentrics or isometrics. Downey says, “We found this is a nice way to fire up those muscle fibers and put them under a lot of great stress”—which is critical for adding size.
Instead of performing your normal reps, lower either yourself or the weight over a four count (eccentric), or hold the top of the rep for a four count (isometric). These techniques increase the amount of time your back muscles have to work on each rep, causing them to adapt and leading to greater gains. But these simple holds are taxing—not something you want to do every week. Do them only once or twice per month.
4. Pull With Your Back
There are many great back exercises: Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, DB Single-Arm Rows and Inverted Rows. Each one is effective in its own right, and we recommend incorporating them into your workout program.
But many of you run into a problem by pulling with your arms, not your back, turning the exercise into a biceps move. Instead, initiate all back movements by first pulling your shoulders back, and finish by driving your elbows backward, as shown here.