BACK to Basics: Tweaks to Building an Impressive Back

by Matt Weik

To achieve success building the most muscular back on the planet, sometimes it means going back to the basics in order to do so. Often, we overlook the simplicity of a movement and over complicate things by increasing the weight to the point where we aren’t even utilizing the muscles we intended to work. Rather, we are using momentum along with accessory muscle groups in the process. Below are some things to consider when looking to increase the size and width of your back.

Change your grip

A simple way to help build your back is by changing the grip used to perform movements. When doing things such as a lat pull-down, you can utilize a wide overhand grip, a close overhand grip, a close underhand grip, a neutral grip (where the hands are facing each other), etc. The list goes on and on. Use the many different lat pull-down attachments to hit the muscle fibers different. Recruiting the same muscle fibers can build some size, but it isn’t your best option. In order to force growth, you need to hit the muscle using different angles and change things up often. Don’t get set in only using one grip or one attachment on the machine or exercise, variety is the spice of life—change it up to spark new growth.

Stop rowing with your biceps

Too many times I see people in the gym doing one-arm bent over dumbbell rows (either standing or utilizing a bench for stability) in a straight linear fashion up and down. This shouldn’t be the path taken when completing a row focused on building your lats. Doing so will only increase the size of your arms since you’re basically completing a hammer curl every time you complete the movement.

Rather, to begin the movement, you want to start pulling the dumbbell using your back and once your arm reaches a ninety-degree angle, you want to use your lats and move your elbow further behind you. A better visual of this exercise would be pulling the dumbbell straight up, and as the bend in your elbow hits ninety-degrees, use your lats to pull the dumbbell further towards your hips (not actually to your hips, but for visual demonstration imagine the dumbbell moving further back and away from your upper body).

Utilize a hook-grip technique

Most times than not, you’re probably using a grip where your entire hand and fingers are wrapped around the bar during a lat pull-down. While this is important when going heavy to ensure the bar doesn’t slip out of your hands, there’s another technique that allows you to focus more on the muscles in your back by utilizing a lighter weight. By simply changing your grip from a death grip on the bar, simply hook only your fingers around the top of the bar so that no part of your hand is actually touching the bar. Again, the weight needs to be lessened for this movement, but that’s ok because you’re taking your forearms and biceps completely out of the movement by not grabbing a hold of the bar with your hands. This hook-grip allows you to fully utilize the lats and muscles in your back to move the weight.

Use a slight lean for more upper back development

When reading books on exercise, we are often told to maintain good posture when doing movements such as a lat pull-down and to not lean back. However, if you want to recruit more of your upper back and not so much of the lower lats, it’s advantageous to lean back slightly which changes the line that the bar follows when completing the motion. The bar will still be traveling to your upper chest, but instead of the elbows traveling more towards the side of your body, they are now traveling more behind you activating more muscles from the upper back.

Stop short-changing yourself

Not using a full range of motion is never wise when looking to put on good quality size gains. No matter what exercise you are performing, make sure you not only get a great contraction with the muscle you intend to hit, but just as important, make sure you get a good stretch as well.

For instance, when completing the lat pull-down, some people whether they realize it or not, do not fully stretch the lats before they begin pulling the bar again. You can see their short range of motion since their elbows are still bent. Let the bar extend up and away from your body to pull out those lats and get a good stretch before contracting again and pulling the bar back down towards your chest. The same thing can be said for an exercise such as the dumbbell row that we mentioned earlier. At the bottom of the movement, allow your arm to extend and pull on your lats. Even better, get a good pre-stretch by allowing the dumbbell to move forward and slightly in front of your before pulling up and back for the movement.

These little tweaks can all make a huge difference in your overall back development. Sometimes it takes going back to the drawing board and back to the basics to force new growth to take place.