If you’re struggling to build up your back muscles, fitness trainer and founder of Built with Science Jeremy Ethier has a plan to get the gains you’ve been after.
Ethier’s plan focuses on targeting four main regions of the back: the upper back, lats, lower traps, and lower back. He also notes that if you’re struggling to build up those muscles, you may be making one of the following training mistakes.
Mistake 1: You think of the back as one muscle.
According to Ethier, people training their back fail to think about what they’re doing with each exercise. If you’re not strategic with the moves you choose, you might wind up focused on only one muscle, leading to imbalances.
Mistake 2: You neglect the smaller back muscles.
These are the muscles that help to keep your shoulders healthy and your posture upright. If you neglect this work, you won’t function as well as you might otherwise.
Mistake 3: Your workout programming has issues.
Ethier notes that when it comes to back exercises, people often end up doing too much volume for some muscles and not enough for others.
To fix this, Ethier breaks down his picks for the 14 best back exercises, split into the four regions he mentioned earlier. For a balanced back day, he recommends picking two exercises from the Upper Back category, two from the Lats category, and one from the Lower Traps category. Depending on your Lower Back training volume, you can choose to add in some back extensions as well. Do three to five sets each. Add these in to your routine one to two times per week.
According to Ethier, this is the region responsible for most of your muscle thickness and definition. It consists of the upper traps, mid traps, and teres muscles. To hit them best, Ethier says that these are best worked when the elbows are pulled at roughly a 45 to 60 degree angle away from the torso.
Rather than keeping your elbows too close or too far out from your body, tuck them to a low 45 to 60 degrees as you pull. Then, using an overhand grip, he suggests finding a hand position that allows you to pull the bar to the level of your chest. Focus on driving your elbows back and squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
The key again is with elbow angle, says Ethier. As you pull, keep them at a 45 to 60 degree angle out from your torso rather than flaring out to the side. Keep your shoulder blades down as you pull, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the end position. Using a wider handle can make it even more effective.
This move helps prevent imbalances by working one side of the back at a time. Either recommends using a landmine attachment and load the bar with smaller weight plates to increase range of motion. Stand in an athletic stance as if you were doing a barbell row, keeping your elbow angled at 60 degrees as you pull the bar up.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows
This is one of Ethier’s favorite moves. To do it, set the weight bench at an angle of about 30 degrees. Grab a pair of dumbbells and pull them up to the level of your chest, with your elbows angled at 45 to 60 degrees. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top and let them open up at the bottom for a full range of motion.
Overhand Grip Pullups
Keep your elbows angled out to the sides by using an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width to hit the upper back muscles more than the lats, according to Ethier.
You might be surprised to see this exercise on the list, but Ethier says using wider grip and elbow angle will biomechanically favor the upper back more than the lats.
The lats are a broad muscle, and Ethier says that building it up will make your back look wider. These are best targeted in exercises where the elbows can pull as close to the torso as possible.
Narrow Grip Barbell Row
Using a narrow grip will target the lats more. To do it, put your hands at about shoulder-width apart, keeping your elbows as close to your sides as possible. To maximize range of motion, instead of pulling up to the chest, pull lower down towards your belly button.
To make these more lat-focused, keep your elbows close to your sides as you row. Avoid arching your back as you pull, which will shift the load to your upper back. Instead, Ethier says to keep your torso straight or maintain a slightly forward angle to hit the lats. Drive your elbows down and back as you pull.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Lat Rows
Either recommends to keep the elbows angled close to the sides, pulling lower down the body.
Dumbbell Lat Rows
Keep the elbows tucked when you do this exercise. Ethier suggests thinking about tucking your elbows into your back pockets.
One-Arm Lat Pulldown
Get into a kneeling stance in front of a cable machine and grab the handle with a neutral grip. Then, lean forward slightly and pull the cable down while keeping your elbows as close to your sides as possible.
Ethier says that these “small yet important muscles” often get neglected. When you want to train these muscles, he suggests matching your arm angle to the direction that those muscle fibers run, 90 to 120 degrees. That means Y raises.
Prone Y Raise
Lay on a floor or bench and raise your arms in a wide ‘Y’ shape. If that’s too hard, use a weight bench. Keep your thumbs down for maximum activation, but if it’s not comfortable, keep your thumbs up.
Standing Cable Y-Raise
Use a cable or resistance band to create constant tension through each rep. Set up a cable at waist level and grab each handle in the opposite hand so you can cross them. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes to prevent your back from arching, then raise your arms up to form a ‘Y’ shape.
Your lower back muscles are activated during compound exercises like rows, squats and deadlifts, says Ethier. But a great, more targeted addition to that is to add back extensions to your routine.
Ethier says that positioning is key to make the most out of this exercise. Start with your pelvis at the top of the pad or just past it. Then, lower yourself down to the bottom position while keeping a neutral spine. When you raise back up, avoid going into hyperextension by stopping once your torso is in line with your legs.
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