Four Advanced Moves for Building a Strong, Balanced Back

Everyone loves a good chest workout, including yours truly, but you shouldn’t neglect your “posterior chain”. Ignoring back day can deteriorate your posture, lead to injuries and wreak havoc on your athletic performance. If your back program is in need of some inspiration, consider these programming tips and four advanced moves for adding functional strength and symmetry to your upper, mid and lower back. Oh, and they’ll help you look great in a tank top too.

When you think of “back” think of pulling. Pull ups, pull downs and rows (oh my!). There are endless varieties and modalities for pulling. You can pull your bodyweight, cables, bands, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and anything you can get your hands on really. You can pull with one arm or both. You can pull standing, hinged over, kneeling, supported or unsupported, It’s all about the back and the different variables do slightly different things. How do you decide? Well, working with a smart (and handsome!) trainer like me is one way that I recommend. I like to teach my clients how to think and program like a trainer so eventually they can build safe, effective and balanced workouts for themselves to achieve their goals. But until we have a chance to work together, here are a few basic guiding principles assuming you don’t have any injuries or issues that contraindicate.

Basic Back Programming Tips

Here are a few simple, general tips for building a solid back workout.

  1. Don’t skip the shoulder warm up.

  2. Include a mix of vertical (i.e. pull downs) and horizontal (i.e. rows) pulls.

  3. Include a mix of double arm and single arm pulls.

    1. (i.e. where you are pulling on one object with both hands like a bar and pulling on one object like a dumbbell or cable with each hand separately).

  4. Include a mix of modalities.

    1. (i.e. bodyweight, TRX, cables, bands, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, etc).

  5. Include a mix of hand positions/attachments.

    1. (i.e. wide, mid and narrow/neutral grip—each works slightly different fibers).

  6. Use proper form.

    1. Engage your core and make sure you don’t arch your lower back.

    2. For most back moves you will want to depress your shoulders (draw them down and away from your ears) and you will want to control your scapulae/shoulder blades and usually start by gently retracting and/or downwardly rotating them.

    3. Unless you are working your upper traps specifically, don’t shrug.

  7. Create and maintain tension.

    1. Don’t let your ego pick more weight than you can control.

    2. To build muscle and strength focus on creating tension and then holding on to that tension throughout the entire movement.

    3. Don’t let the weight jerk you around. The smoother the movement, the better.

  8. Start with a rep/set scheme that fits your primary goal.

    1. Basic strength/starting out: 12x3

    2. Endurance: 15x3

    3. Hypertrophy/building muscle: 12x4

    4. Pure strength: 5x5

The Moves

I’m not a fan of doing weird sh*t just for the sake of doing weird sh*t. Some of these moves may seems unusual, and they are. But each is strategic for accomplishing something important. Below I briefly describe four fairly advanced movements that have helped me and several of my training clients achieve strong, muscular backs. Be sure to carefully watch the video that includes several reps of these moves. These are not in place of basic back moves like good old seated rows (see above) and bent over dumbbell rows; they are in addition too.

  1. Dual Rope Cable Pull Down

    1. Keep your rib cage down (i.e. don’t arch your back) and keep the movement smooth. Feel the stretch and then contract. You’ll need two rope attachments for this one and make sure they are even in the carabiner. I like to do both straight arm and then bent arm reps in the same set.

  2. Snatch Grip Rack Pull

    1. Start with the barbell just barely above knee height. The main thing to focus on here is to create tension in the entire back by pulling up on the bar before each rep. At the top, really emphasize the “squeeze” or “flexing” of the mid back muscles. SQUEEZE! I like the snatch (or wide) grip because it helps give the nice “V-shape” to the back and also I like snatching a barbell when I Olympic lift. But you can also do a traditional hand position (i.e. just like you would in a barbell deadlift).

  3. Weighted Pull Up

    1. A general rule of thumb is if you can do 10 bodyweight pull ups, it may be time to add some weight. Start with 5-10# and you can use a belt like I am here or simply hold a weight with your feet. Release as far down as you can and try to get your chin up to your hands on the pull. Try to keep your feet in front of you instead of behind you to protect your back. I also try to extend a bit through my thoracic (or lead on the pull with my chest). Both neutral and wide grip are good.

  4. Across Body Single Arm Pull Down

    1. Have a seat at a lat pull down station that has two independent pulleys. With your palm forward, reach across and grab the opposite cable and pull down keeping your shoulder depressed and feel your scapulae upwardly and downwardly rotate.