Whether your goal is to be a 250 lb. freak or 185 lb. sculpture, all of us who lift want to develop a V-shaped back with enough bumps and lumps to match the Rocky Mountains. However, this is no easy task, as the musculature of the back is quite complex and often hard to feel while lifting. It’s quite common to hear fellow trainees complain that when they try and work their lats, they manifest a better pump in the forearms and biceps, which does little to stimulate back growth.
Here are eight training mistakes that may be keeping you from beefing up your back.
This is without a doubt the #1 culprit for holding back the development of big backs. While there certainly is a powerful correlation between the strength of a muscle and its eventual size, there is an even stronger one between keeping the target muscle under tension and the ability to “feel” it doing the work. The mind/muscle connection is very real and more important than you may think. Especially when it comes to back training, going too heavy will disrupt your gains by reducing target muscle tension and preventing you from reaching the level of focus necessary for maximum stimulation.
In my early years of training I thought that using wrist wraps during back training was “wimpy.” My thinking was that if the weight was too heavy for me to hold on my own, I should not be using it! However, after winning my pro card, I took a long, hard look at my overall physique (and what I needed to be a successful professional) and realized my back was not as well developed as it should be. I realized that my grip was failing before my back/lats was on many sets and that not using wrist wraps had become counterproductive. As soon as I “swallowed my pride” and fixed this issue, my back development took off.
As a coach, I am a huge proponent of using a complete ROM, from full stretch to contraction on every exercise, only utilizing partials once you no longer have the strength for perfect reps. Rarely do I see trainees taking every rep from deep stretch to intense contraction when training back, which is a major reason why most fail to fully develop this area of the physique.
One of the most powerful ways to ignite hypertrophy is to cause “trauma” in the muscle fibers themselves. This trauma sends the dramatic signal (anabolism) to the body that growth and repair are necessary to prevent more injury in the future. When one fails to hold the deep stretch under tension that most lat exercises provide, he/she is cheating themselves out of much more efficient progress.
Even if you are using the proper poundage and moving the weight carefully and through a full ROM, your full potential for back development will not be realized unless you are keeping your torso in the proper position for precision targeted muscle engagement. Make sure that when you stretch you do so by “releasing the shoulders,” and not by swaying forward. In addition, as you pull toward full contraction, keep the chest out, lower back slightly arched, and shoulders back so you can completely squeeze the scapulae together.
I recommend three basic angles of pull at every back workout in order to help engage all motor unit pools in the various back muscles: a vertical movement such as pull-downs or pull-ups, a horizontal movement such as seated cable or machine rows, and a bent-over movement such as BB or DB rows. Additionally, I urge you to use varied grips, such as wide, underhand and neutral/close to force the back musculature to engage somewhat differently. Those who train in one-dimension (as far as angles/grips) will fail to build the best back they are capable of.
This simple “rule of thumb” can make a big difference in whether you are getting the most out of back movements. If your thumbs are not held on the same side of the bar/handle as your other fingers there is an excellent chance your biceps will become far too involved, effectively robbing you of potential gains in back muscle mass.
While there are many excellent machines out there that work the back hard, one cannot expect to ignore fundamental free-weight muscle builders such as BB/DB/T-Bar rows, various pull-ups, deadlifts and BB/DB pullovers and still build the kind of width and thickness that makes it necessary to turn sideways to successfully fit through most doorways!