August 1, 2007

Weight-Gainer Series: BACK

BY David Bohn ("Fitness")

It has been a beautiful summer thus far and I hope everyone has had a chance to enjoy the great outdoors. While you have undoubtedly been making the most of the beautiful weather, you need to make sure to continue on with your workout program. For this article, I’m going to focus on a large body part that tends to get second shift with some people since it is not the primary “show muscle group;” the back. Remember a few keys when trying to add mass: the individual needs to overload the muscle, i.e. fairly heavy weight. You need to eat a protein-rich meal ideally within 30 minutes of lifting and you need to give your body sufficient rest between workouts. Your muscle actually regenerates and grows when you sleep, so get adequate rest!

As you get ready to workout your back, make sure you’ve warmed up properly. Again, this is important to make the muscles and connective tissue more pliable and able to adapt to the heavy load you are about to place on them. Do between 5 – 10 minutes on a stationary bike or treadmill or whatever gets your heart rate up between 65 – 75 % of your Heart Rate Max (HRM). The back can potentially be one of your largest workouts because of the myriad of muscles and joint actions involved, hand positions, etc. so this article will attempt to simply touch on some of the primary movers for forming a solid back.

Once you have warmed up, if you have the strength, I recommend the free-standing chin up/pull up bar. This is one of the hardest, yet most effective pieces of equipment for forming the back. Also, by varying the position of the hands, the weight-lifter can attack the back from a variety of angles and hit a bunch of different muscles in the process. The wider, overhand grip can help with the width of the lats, while the underhand grip is great for thickness and overall development. Furthermore, the underhand grip is a very strong recruiter of the biceps muscles, so doing a back and biceps workout is a natural combination. However, if you have to throw your legs around (not the appropriate location) to get your body up, use a seated pulldown machine until you have enough independent body strength to use the pulldown bar.

As a very general rule, for size, work towards 3 or 4 sets of 8 – 12 repetitions per exercise, for strength shoot for 4 – 6 sets of 6 – 8 repetitions and for muscular endurance work towards performing 2 – 3 sets of 12 – 15 repetitions.
The wide-grip pulldown is great for back thickness. Regardless of whether you are using the pulldown bar, a seated pulldown machine, etc., make sure the spine is elongated and the chest extended. Inhale with the arms extended; exhale as you pull the bar to the chest. As you pull the bar to your chest, if you shrug your shoulders blades to your spine, you will also strengthen the rhomboids, the muscles in the middle, upper back. Remember to keep the shoulder depressed away from the ears; this will help to minimize the chance of pinching a nerve in the neck and it helps to more appropriately recruit the correct muscle groups. Also, you can target or emphasize a bunch of other muscles just by changing your hand positioning or even how you pull the bar to the body.

By pulling the bar behind the head, you can work on the width of the back by targeting the lats, particularly the lower portion. This exercise also works the forearm flexor muscles, biceps, as well as the brachialis. However, this version of the pulldown is not recommended for beginners because obviously if you do not control the weight as you pull it down, you risk crashing the bar into your vertebrae and can potentially crack your vertebrae and become paralyzed for life; a big no-no. Additionally, performing the behind-the-head pulldown is also quite hard on the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder girdle. If you happen to have any shoulder pain, avoid this version of the exercise. So, do the behind-the-neck pulldown with care.

By placing the hands shoulder-width apart facing you, the movement develops the lats and the teres major. It also places an intense focus on the biceps and brachialis, which is one reason why some people perform a back/bicep workout. Performing the close-grip pulldown (palms facing together) also develops the lats and teres major, biceps and brachialis. It also helps to stretch and extend the spine if you let the arms lengthen through their near-complete range of motion before activating the back and pulling the handle to the upper chest/clavicle.

Another staple exercise is the seated row/dumbbell row. These exercises help build the back and target the lats, teres major, posterior deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids (remember to squeeze the shoulder blades together). Make sure the back is stabilized and extended as you pull the bar or weight to the chest. Remember to have the elbows travel as far backward as possible, exhaling at the top of the movement. Pause for a second or two and really focus on giving yourself a strong contraction through the upper back, then return the weight to its original position under control and resisting gravity. Taxing a muscle during its eccentric part of the contraction (lengthening) further helps to breakdown (and then hopefully rebuild) muscle.

Another great mass builder is the shoulder shrug, which because of the name, some people mistakenly do with shoulders. It’s ok to do that exercise with shoulders, but it’s not as effective if that’s your only back exercise with a shoulder workout. For shrugs, use either the Olympic bar or heavy dumbbells. You can also use the smith machine if you are going for extremely heavy weight. Once you have chosen a heavy weight, the movement path of the weight is very simple; shrug straight up, return to start. Voila. I see a lot of guys still doing this odd around the world shoulder roll. When you are using extremely heavy weight, that’s a perfect to rip out and permanently damage your rotator cuff muscles, a set of four small muscles that help hold the humerus in the shoulder socket. Unless you are using very light weight and are performing the shoulder roll for rehab, it can be a high-risk of injury move. Another key point with shoulder shrugs is that the trapezius muscles, the muscles at the base of the neck, seem to respond to volume. This means that you need to perform more repetitions than you would for some other muscle groups in this exercise program.

There are numerous other exercises to do, but I will finish with back extensions. One can use the Roman chair or as is more common the incline back extension machine. Secure the feet with the foot/ankle supports and place your hips on the support pads. Keep the spine extended as you tilt from the hip. While this exercise does target the glutes, as you become more familiar with the exercise, you learn to disengage them more so that your spinal erectors can perform more of the work. For this exercise there is no need to use a lot of weight, it is again more important to be able to do a high volume of work rather than move a lot of weight. Additionally for this exercise it is important to stretch after each set; but if you have done it correctly, you will almost always feel the need to do so!

There you go, an effective start to a strong program and back. Again, when working with the back, as with all muscle groups, execute the exercises with correct form before adding weight to the routine. Remember to lift, eat and rest and stay dedicated to your program and you should see some nice strength and size gains before the year is out. Happy lifting!