A: Use any attachment that allows for strong mind-muscle connection in the lats. Maintain a very slow eccentric to maximize the time under tension. Try to get the lats as contracted and shortened as possible. Take the last set to failure then continue with myoreps. Myos should be 3 deep breaths for rest followed by 3 additional reps. Continue with myos until you can no longer achieve 3 perfect reps OR you complete 5 mini sets.
B: Maintain a semi pronated grip and adhere to the tempo closely. The goal should be maximal scapular movement through protraction and retraction. Make sure to reach through the stretch. Take full rests between sets.
C: Try to perform these with machine assistance if possible. Use a load that would be about your 10 rep max with the tempo. Rest 15 sec between clusters then take the final to failure. This can be done with bw or weighted if assistance isn’t warranted.
D1: Aim to keep all tension in lats here. Control the whole ROM and try to build the tension throughout. Push hard and take each set to one rep shy of failure.
D2: Only perform TWO sets here. Use your off arm for bracing and support. Pull the DB high and allow the traps to kick in and work hard. Maintain a controlled tempo and get a ton of blood flowing! Perform D1 and D2 on the same side before switching.
E1: Use a semi supinated grip here if you can (something like a MAG grip would be best). Adhere to the tempo and open your scaps up for free movement. Keep your upper arms tight to your torso/midline through the set to get the lats involved. Stay a couple of reps away from failure and build volume here.
E2: Only TWO sets here. Add a mini band around your wrists. Place your hands on a wall and reach through your scaps (protract). For time, attempt to pull the band apart and slowly walk your hands up and down the wall in small movements. Try to apply as much tension into the band as you can and avoid stopping until time is up. These will BURN! Take a full rest before returning to E1.
As much as I desire simplicity with categorical explanations, there are some all-encompassing terms that make my skin crawl. This issue is by no means domain-specific, but the transgressions made against anatomical references are particularly egregious.
A few of my favorites include:
The Core (Does anyone know what muscles and structures this is actually referring to?)
The Thighs (Is this including the glutes? Adductors? I have no idea why but it makes me just think “quads and hamstrings.”)
The Midsection (You mean abdominal complex…Because nobody I know uses this term to refer to the lower back or posterior structures.)
And the topic of this article…The Back
While using the generalized term “back” is a bit more anatomically informative than the other micreants, it’s still not giving us anything in the way of detail. I guess we can do some rows here, pulldowns there, and maybe even throw in some deadlifts and shrugs if we're feelin' frisky. But we’re still throwing a dart blindfolded. Just because you know the general direction to aim, doesn’t mean you’re going to be accurate.
A much more sound approach is to break things down by regional specificity; the “back” fragments into the lats, rhomboids, traps, and erectors. And to be fair, even these classifications have strokes of combinatory generalities, but zooming-in to this level of granularity gives us a more clear picture with respect to training, specifically exercise selection. By individually targeting these muscles from multiple angles and through various planes of movement, we can maximize muscle hypertrophy and improve overall muscular balance and strength.
Now, let’s dissect the major units to see if we can get a better grasp on how to effectively train the “back”.
The latissimus dorsi, or lats, are a large, flat muscle that runs from the armpit to the fascia of the lower back. When people think of the back, they are typically visualizing the lats and their "winged" shape. They are responsible for extending, adducting, and internally rotating the humerus.
Single Arm Neutral/Supinated Machine Pulldowns, Single Arm Step Back Rows, Neutral Machine Assisted Pull-ups
Notes on training the lats:
The lats are glamorized and celebrated, but don't let that fool you—they have it rough. They suffer from what I like to call the "conflation effect": everyone thinks they're training their lats when biomechanics say otherwise. Most pull-down, pull-up, and row exercises are going to stimulate the lats but are not “lat” movements. Hitting the lats is often a byproduct or secondary effect.
To effectively target the lats as the primary mover, the variation and execution must be carefully considered. Use a neutral or supinated grip. Unilateral variations allow for more direct targeting than their bilateral counterparts. Pure vertical or horizontal pulls are often NOT going to be the best for the lats; defer to intermediate angles. The lats have a finicky strength curve that needs to be accounted for—err towards movements that are heavier in the stretch and lighter in contraction. The lats are relatively resilient to volume/intensity and not too prone to incurring muscle damage under normal circumstances—don’t be shy about pushing hard. Machines and cables will almost always be better modalities for targeting the lats compared to free weights. On that note, failure should be pursued more liberally with the lats than with other muscles of similar size (e.g. quads, pecs, etc).
The trapezius (traps) are a diamond-shaped muscle that extends from the base of the skull to the middle of the spine and across to the collar bone and superior ridge of the shoulder blade. They are responsible for elevating, retracting, and depressing the scapulae.
DB shrugs, Snatch Grip RDLs, Jansen Rows, Pronated Tbar Rows
Notes on training the traps:
Contrary to popular thought, the traps aren’t just the muscles connecting your shoulders to your neck when viewed anteriorly. The entirety of the muscle complex runs from the base of the skull down to the inferior edge of the scapulae. In fact, it’s often easier to think of the traps as being comprised of 3 individual segments: the upper, middle, and lower traps. This is because each of these have different functions that must be trained using different means; the upper traps are going to elevate the shoulders, the middle traps will retract the scaps, and the lower traps will help to depress (as well as retract and resist upward rotation/“winging”). As much as we have the shrug ingrained in our visual imagery, effective trap training requires so much more.
For the upper segment, it’s often best to prioritize load and intensity—just move heavy shit and you’ll generally get to the right place. Spend time in contraction to shorten the fibers as much as you can—this can be done via shrugs or movements like machine lateral raises and upright rows. Perform heavy, anteriorly loaded deadlifts often and liberally of mountainous upper traps are a goal.
Targeting the mid-traps is actually a simple process—perform more pronated (or semi-pronated) rows. Anything that works through scapular retraction is going to also stimulate the mid-traps. Like their sibling, the upper traps, they crave mechanical tension. Load them up and move some heavy weight. Just don’t conflate the purpose of your exercise section. If you’re training to hit your mid back (I.e. traps), think about scapular retraction. But don’t get caught between a lat and trap intent—typically this just results in suboptimal results for each.
Now the lower traps are a bit tricky because their fibers actually have a vertical component to them meaning they will assist with scapular depression—the opposite of our notions of what “trap” training should be. In my opinion, thinking about specifically isolating the lower traps is a fool’s errand; they are going to get a sufficient stimulus from aiming to bias the mid traps and lats. If you’re rowing and pulling with reasonable volume and intensity, the lower traps will take care of themselves…But I would be remiss to not mention their contribution to scapular stability. Load that is held anterior to the body (especially with a pronated grip) will also try to pull the shoulders forward and down. We don’t want this if we’re at all concerned with strength, hypertrophy or injury prevention. And the low traps work magnificently hard to keep our scaps (and by default, our shoulders) in position through movements like deadlifts which require dynamic adjustments from the upper back musculature to prevent compromised posture.
The rhomboids are a group of muscles located in the upper/mid back and deep to the mid/low traps (i.e. under them). They are primarily responsible for retracting the scapulae.
Reverse Pec Deck, High to Low Cable Facepulls, High Cable Reverse Flyes
Notes on training the rhomboids:
It’s easy to forget about the rhomboids. They’re not visible, and they are overshadowed by their sexier cousin, the traps. But the rhomboids aren’t insignificant. They play an important role in our ability to train heavy and grow for the long term: namely, the rhomboids are responsible for healthy scapular movement.
But wait…Don’t the traps take care of moving the scaps through their primary patterns or movement?
Yes, but—the traps are going to be more responsive to high load and high intensity (i.e. mechanical tension). This is great for the bent over row and deadlift fiends in this readership but we don’t spend the majority of our days picking up really heavy shit. The overwhelming majority of time our peri-scapular muscles are only going to be acting as postural support. They make sure our shoulders stay back, our chest big, and our gait as far from Quasimodo as possible. The rhomboids aren’t going to be the prime movers for those max effort attempts but they will decide your fate the other 99% of the time. So unlike the traps, our rhomboids need to be trained with endurance in mind. The Type 1 fibers to the traps’ Type 2 of you will. It’s much more important to take them through their full active range for high reps and volume than it is to move as much load as possible from A to B. Focus on variations that allow the focus to shift towards this “pure” scapular retraction and protraction—the more isolated and the less dependencies, the better.
The spinal erectors are a left-to-right, mirrored column of muscles that run from the top of the pelvis up to the mid/upper thoracic spine. They are primarily responsible for maintaining postural integrity as well as extending the spine and rotating the trunk (though we will not focus on this latter function).
SSB Goodmornings, Conventional Block Pulls, Swiss Ball Hyperextensions, Jefferson Curls
Notes on training the erectors:
I’m not sure if there is a muscle group in the human body that is more misunderstood than the erectors. This can be exemplified in the go-to phrase for indicating negative feedback from an exercise: ”I feel it in my back”
Well no shit you felt those deadlifts in your back. Your back is working!
The erectors suffer from a mass inability to distinguish pain from discomfort; a negative consequence of poor execution or underlying weakness versus an expected byproduct of training. We’ve been conditioned to think that everything we feel in our low back is a bad thing and should immediately be avoided. But what if we applied this same logic to biceps training? Or even to the glutes? *GASP*
When performing any sort of axial-loaded exercise, you’re going to feel your back because your back (i.e. erectors) are working to support and stabilize the load and your body’s position. Ironically, the only way to NOT experience this unintended feedback is to directly seek it out through other means. The erectors are strong muscles capable of generating large amounts of force, but their primary role is that of postural support. When we’re deadlifting heavy, our erectors are working to resist flexion of the spine. When we’re scrolling Twitter on the treadmill, our erectors are working to resist flexion of the spine. Hell, my erectors are working to resist flexion of my spine as I’m sitting here typing this. Their biomechanical role is based on being able to consistently meet a sub-maximal demand.
As such, it’s a good idea to train the erectors like they’re going to be used—varying durations and intensities of resisted spinal flexion with sporadic inclusion of intentional, dynamic spinal flexion and extension. Most of the volume will come in supportive role where the job is to be an intermediary of force transfer: deadlifts, goodmornings, and bent-over variations. The rest should be movements that directly train the erectors through their active ROM with lots of time-under-tension: Swiss ball hypers, Jefferson curls, and flexion rows. The premise behind the latter group goes against most of what we think we know about training; that is, to avoid “rounding” our back under load. But I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit advice. Avoiding spinal flexion actually does the opposite of its intended effect—It makes you MORE injury prone in the long run by ingraining weakness in untapped positions and preventing healthy mobility of the independently-moving vertebrae.
Your erectors are muscles that need to be trained, and you should be feeling them.
Though contrary to what is often parroted online, muscles aren’t siloed and don't exist in isolation. Rather, they work synergistically to produce movement and provide stability for the body. There may not be a region of the body more symbolic of this feature than the “back”. As such, it's important to train the muscles comprising the “back” from a variety of angles and through multiple planes of movement in order to ensure balanced and functional development.
As we’ve seen through our anatomical journey from the traps to the erectors and (literally) everything in between, complex systems depend on complex interactions. And each link in the chain needs to be addressed if the whole is to function as intended.
Observe the directionality of the muscle fibers. Pay attention to what you feel and where you feel it with each variation. Heed the principles of biomechanics.
Don’t train your back—train your lats, traps, rhomboids, and erectors.