The perfect back workout
A perfectly composed back workout routine
As any regular reader here at Penandbarbell.com will know I sometimes share my own exact workout sessions and comment on them. This is a way for me to exemplify some of the principles and ideas that I advocate. The different concepts that I like to put emphasis on in connection to muscle building and fat burning comes to light in these examples of my own routine.
In today´s article I will present you with a back routine that I think could be called the perfect back routine. This might come as a surprise in light of how much effort I usually spend on underlining the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect workout that is suitable for everybody. Well, I still don’t think that there is such a thing as an absolutely perfect routine – but I do feel that today’s example, at least when it comes to exercise selection, is as close as one can get when training the back. The reasons for this opinion of mine: these are all hardcore exercises, that are well tested and have proven value for anyone in search of an impressive back. Furthermore, the here selected exercises will target the back in all the vital different ways. As you are probably already well aware the back is a complex muscle group consisting of several layers of tissue and several different parts. This routine will develop width, thickness, strength, upper back and lower back. Furthermore, it will make you work the back from both above and below, as well as horizontally.
(On a side note: you will soon notice that this workout didn’t contain any pullups, which many might argue should be part of a “perfect back routine”. I would be willing to agree with this, except for the fact that there are too many lifters that aren’t able to perform an enough amount of pullups – which makes me somewhat reluctant to the usually automatic recommendation to make it a part of your back training. A “perfect” routine should be usable for all – or at least for most people.)
Make no mistake, this is a truly hard and gruelling back workout – but it is worth every bit of effort, since it will truly allow you to develop this both visually and strength-wise important part of the body.
It went as follows:
1. Bent over Barbell rows, 5x12
2. Deadlifts, 5x6
3. Lats pulldowns in front, 5x8-12
4. Lats pulldowns to the neck, 3x8-10
5. T-Bar rows, 5x12-14
6. Bent over Barbell rows No 2, 3x10-12
Comments on this workout as a whole
A hardcore session for the back, consisting of 26 sets distributed over 5 classic heavy exercises, that are all proven to be highly effective when the goal is to develop a strong, muscular and impressive back. These exercises combined like this will target every important part of the back (possibly with the exception of the trapezius – which I prefer to target more directly on shoulder day).
It was a high volume session, which is very demanding when the exercises involved are all heavy ones like they were here. I actually didn´t plan for it to turn out quite so high in volume. I was aiming for 20 sets – but, as already stated, I landed at 26. The behind the neck lats pulldowns and the extra barbell rows were both added in the spur of the moment, as a way of celebrating the great feeling that this workout session filled me with already after a few sets. It took me exactly an hour of lifting to perform the 26 sets of back work. I usually rested 45-60 seconds in between sets – but allowed myself longer rests in between exercises.
Knowing I was going to have a long hard back workout I was extra careful to perform a good warm up. I timed this warm-up so that it wouldn´t be anything less than 10 engaged minutes.
This workout was very straightforward. I didn´t employ supersets, drop sets or any other kind of intensity increasing shocking methods. The reason for this? These 5 classical hardcore exercises, when performed in succession during the same workout session, in themselves offers every opportunity for high intensity, as long as the rest intervals aren’t allowed to become too long.
The workout, exercise for exercise
First out: bent over barbell rows. A true contender for being the best back exercise there is, alongside pullups, lats pulldowns and (possibly) T-Bar rows. I went for the almost horizontal stance. This is the classic version, as opposed to the so called Yates version (named after the bodybuilder Dorian Yates, who won the Mr Olympia six times). When doing the latter, you stand more upright (often with a biceps grip), which allows you to use much heavier weights, but which also changes the target of the exercise. Yates rows will put a lot of strain on the trapezius, and less on the lats and rhomboideus. At the gym you can often spot people that think they are doing the classic bent over barbell row, but their bad technique and form involuntarily turns the whole thing into something more similar to Yates rows. In order to stay down, at the almost horizontal position, you will have to keep the weights lighter, which is what I did today. I paid extra attention to how I performed the exercise, caring only about muscle contact, not about weight. I was sweating hard after only two sets – and I already had a pump in the intended muscles, namely the lats and the rhomboideus.
If you want to add muscular thickness to your back there is no better exercise. Some will say the deadlift can give it a match in this regard, but I disagree. The bent over barbell row is a true back exercise. The deadlift is too much of an all round exercise for it to be able to challenge the barbell row for best exercise when in pursue of a well developed back. The barbell row offers more precision, more intent and more control. It is easier, for almost any lifter, to achieve a good and targeted pump through rowing than deadlifting. But it demands full concentration and good technique - especially in regard to posture. If one allows the back to round, or if one lets the lungs collapse, the exercise loses most of its powers. If those factors are in place, however, it is an absolutely great exercise.
The high reps allowed me to get really good muscle contact. It actually burned, the way you most often associate with the training of other muscle groups, like the biceps, the forearms or the abs.
After the barbell rows were finished, I added some weight, grabbed the bar again – and started deadlifting. Since I wanted to train the back exclusively, I started out with the barbell on a rack, a few inches up from the floor. This allowed me to skip the first few inches, where I, being 1,91 meters (6 feet, almost 3 inches) tall have to pay extra attention to form and where my hamstrings will do much of the work. At the top of each rep I paused and squeezed my back muscles as if I was trying to crush something in between my shoulder blades. As you can see by the rep numbers I wasn’t going for the heaviest of weights. The deadlift is often treated as a powerbuilding exercise, where people do sets of 1-3 reps. I went for higher reps, doing 5x6. This adds up to a total of 30 deadlifts, which, after first having performed 5 sets of gruelling barbell rows, actually had me breathing hard in between sets, despite my recently improved conditioning and cardiovascular shape (that is the result of June’s cardio morning routine). When used like this the deadlift can result in a nice all round pump, which was also the case today. This having been said, though, it is hard to make deadlifts work a specific muscle as directly as the rows, so after the former was finished I was eager to get the blood flowing in full again.
This meant that it was time for the lats pulldowns (in front). This is an old favourite of mine, even though as of late I have frequently been skipping it in favour of pullups. I really enjoy both these exercises. We all have exercises that feel like “home turf” at the gym – and for me these back exercises are such movements, alongside the inclined biceps curl and the bent over lateral raises.
I went for weights that I could handle for 8-12 reps per sets. I was fighting my ego on this one. Being surrounded by lots of people it was tempting to prove a point by going for the full magazine – but I fought this urge and performed a couple of sets with weights that was actually half the weight I could have used if had I felt for it. Instead of caring about the numbers, I was concentrating on full contraction and experimenting with tempo. Some of the reps were performed with fast lifts, and slow negatives, some were slow all the way, going both up and down.
After a couple of sets, I suddenly had a good biceps pump. This didn’t please me at all, as it would have on most other occasions. A biceps pump on back day is a clear warning sign that something isn’t done right. I wanted my efforts to keep pumping up the lats, not the arms. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but the feeling I got was that the arms helped out a little extra due to my back being somewhat fatigued after the earlier exercises. This made me concentrate even further, stubbornly refusing the arms to continue stealing the attention from my back. I was fully engaged, fully present and very concentrated. I took the weights down even further, and continued pulling while pretending that I no longer was in possession of arms, having to rely solely on my back in order to move the weight.
It worked. After the 4th set the back was once again playing lead role. I got a great pump in my “wings”. I celebrated this by doing one more set – and then adding another three, but now behind the neck.
This is a totally different exercise in my book. I very much prefer doing lats pulldowns in front of me – that is how I do them almost 100 % of the time – but it was great fun shocking my back with these three improvised sets of behind the neck-work. I used even lighter weights doing these 3 sets, since I consider the behind the neck variation to be less about explosive strength and more about technique. At the bottom of each rep I concentrated on letting the lats out fully, forcing them to control the weight almost totally on their own.
After having completed the pulldowns I had already worked the back in three fundamentally different ways: pulling down from above, rowing horizontally in and out of the centre of my torso and lifting upwards from down below. This is a unique feature of the back, that you can (and, if you aim for the perfect workout, should) attack it in such different manners.
In accordance with my current priorities - to develop extra back thickness - I went on to T-bar rowing. It was 5 tremendous sets. I loved every second of them. The workout was already in my mind a great success – I had worked hard, probably lost 3 pounds of water, fought being out of breath, withholding high intensity, lifting both heavy and light, achieving layers upon layers of pump, working the back from fundamentally different angles, honing width (pulldowns), upper thickness (Barbell rows), low back stability and raw strength (Deadlifts). Victory was mine. I already had the deep satisfaction that comes from a hard back workout. The T-Bar rowing was all pleasure. It was also very rewarding, increasing my pump even further. I passed that magical threshold where one feels one can suddenly do anything, like there is no end to it. I felt invincible, like I could keep training for hours. I made every rep count.
The guy that had used the T-Bar before me had used big plates. I took the time and trouble to replace these plates with smaller ones, even though I increased the total weight. Why? In order to get a full stretch. I wanted to be able to pull the handle all the way up, into my abs. Most people I see load the bar with the big, full-sized plates, thus losing a lot of this great exercise’s effect. Their movements become too short. In my opinion they are settling for half-reps. There are times when half-reps are quite useful, but when you’re doing T-Bar rows you should aim for good form in order to maximize the reward.
After the T-bar (which is a fantastic exercise for lats thickness and which I will dedicate an article of its own in the near future) I finished things off by returning to the bent over barbell rows for 3 more sets of 10-12. Does this seem a bit over the top? Well, yes, it was – but it was my way of making the party longer. I was experiencing severe gym euphoria and wanted to make the most out of it. When I finally left the gym I was already longing for my next workout – and especially my next back workout.
As already mentioned I intend to prioritise lats thickness and rhomboideus for the next few weeks. I could tell by glancing in the mirror that I had hit the intended targets. This is a bonus advantage of getting a good pump, one can really tell what muscles has been thoroughly worked.
If this made you want to go to the gym for a back workout, then you should also read…
An article in which I highlight what kind of training that lays behind the most famous physiques of our time. It is suitable reading after today’s article. The back workout being discussed here is a good example of the kind of old-school bodybuilding that is, in fact, the most effective way to build visible muscle mass.
An example of a routine of my own, taken from workout journal and discussed in detail. Here you’ll find thoughts on exercise selection and workout composition.
Read about what I consider to be the best serratus exercise one can do. The exercise in question is the closest thing there is to a “king of exercises”.