4 Essential back exercises from Markus Rühl

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If you're ready to get your back in line with the rest of your bodyparts, follow my blow-by-blow guide to the four exercises below. Before your get started, remember these tips:

  • Train your back one day per week on its own for maximum muscle effect.
  • At the intermediate or advanced level, select all four exercises and treat them all with the same heavier-is-better approach. (Beginners may want to select two or three.)
  • Make your first set of each exercise a warm-up with a weight that allows you to handle about 70% of your poundage for working set number one; then pyramid for four heavy sets to make sure the back is fully worked.
  • Go for that good pump before you head home and you'll be satisfied with the results.

    EXERCISE 1:
    One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
    These allow you to work each lat separately. The challenge, of course, is to lift with a heavy weight while keeping the form perfect on every repetition. I prefer one-arm rows to barbell rows because the dumbbells allow for a fuller range of motion, a more complete contraction and the ability to isolate the lats on each side.

    I grasp a dumbbell in one hand and place my other hand on a bench.

    I let the arm holding the weight hang down at arm's length, with my palm facing my body. From this starting position, I raise the dumbbell up to my side, squeezing the lat and feeling the weight work the muscle.

    I begin with a warm-up set of 15 reps and pyramid the weight over four sets until I can just barely pump out three reps. For this exercise, I work only to failure, as the application of forced reps is biomechanically impractical and potentially dangerous.

    EXERCISE 2:
    Seated Machine Rows

    A plate-loaded low lat machine puts me in a position that allows a full range of motion in the movement, complete control of the weight and superb isolation of the lat muscles. I begin with my arms straight out in front of me -- with my lower torso placed firmly against the support pad -- and pull until my elbows are as far back as possible.

    I follow a smooth controlled arc; no twisting or jerking of the upper body allowed!

    I do a warm-up set of 20 reps, followed by four heavy sets, pyramiding down to eight reps. When I reach failure on the main sets, I perform two or three forced reps.

    EXERCISE 3:
    Front Pulldowns

    The goal here is to widen and thicken the upper lats. You won't accomplish anything, however, unless you place the emphasis on stretching and pulling with the lats instead of yanking the bar down with the strength of your biceps and forearms. I grasp the bar overhead with arms fully extended. Using my arms as levers only, I recruit the power of my lats as I pull my elbows down and back as far as possible, until the bar touches at upper chest level.

    At that point, I squeeze the lats for a maximum contraction before slowly releasing to the starting position.

    I warm up with 10 reps before hitting it hard with three heavy sets, pyramiding down to five reps on the final set. Once again, I employ forced reps for the main sets.

    EXERCISE 4:
    T-Bar Rows

    I enjoy doing these to add thickness to the middle and outer back, and the results speak for themselves. At this stage of the workout, I'm fatigued, and the reps increase accordingly: a warm-up of 20 reps, followed by four main sets, pyramiding down to 10 reps for the final set of the day. Staying strict and precise with my form despite my fatigue, I bend down to grasp the handles of a T-bar row machine with an overhand grip, arms fully extended. Then, without relying on my lower back or hamstrings, I raise the weight up toward my chest, squeeze my upper back, and return to the starting position. Forced reps are not practical for this exercise.

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