We often spend too much time focusing on the muscles we can see in the mirror. Pecs, biceps, etc…. The “Beach Muscles”.
We naturally neglect muscles that are harder to see, especially the muscles of the BACK.
Ironically, to build impressive beach muscles, we must first build a strong back.
Think of your back as the foundation of the rest of the upper body. If you don’t have a strong “foundation”, a strong back, you’ll never be able to build the great upper body your want.
From a strength standpoint: a strong back is a prerequisite for impressive bench and shoulder presses.
From a physique standpoint: without a thick, muscular back, you’ll always look thin and wispy.
So a strong, well developed back is a MUST. How do we build it?
Include Vertical AND Horizontal Pulls
The muscles of the back and biceps are your “pull muscles”. Anytime your pull something towards you, you’re activating the muscles to some extent.
Back work can be split up into two different types of pulls:
Although any type of pulling will activate most of the musculature of the upper back, the two different pulling patterns can be used to focus on developing specific muscle groups.
Vertical pulls will active more of the lats, the “outer back” muscles. Incorporate vertical pulls to develop back “width” (side to side).
Horizontal pulls will activate more of the rhomboids and traps, the “inner back” muscles. Incorporate these to develop more back “thickness” (front to back).
Horizontal pulls strengthen the “posture muscles” (rhomboids, rear deltoids, etc.) that hold you in correct posture, prevent shoulder injuries and pain, and prevent neck pain; so a special emphasis should be put on these.
As a general rule: pull horizontally to vertically on a 2:1 ratio. Two sets of horizontal pulls for every set of vertical pulls.
Use AT LEAST the same 2:1 ratio for pulling:pushing (I often recommend a 3:1 ratio, especially if your back is underdeveloped). This will keep your upper body, especially shoulders, pain-free throughout your training career.
Scapular Retraction & Depression
To build an impressive back, you must first be able to activate the back muscles. Since we can’t really “see” the muscles of the back when training them, it is much harder to visualize and feel what should be working.
An extremely common issue when training the back is little to no back activation, with the biceps doing the majority of the work.
The most common cause of this is failure to retract and/or depress the scapula when pulling.
Sounds a bit complex, but just follow these simple guidelines:
WHEN PULLING FROM OVERHEAD (vertically): Initiate the movement by pulling the shoulders down first, as if “pulling your shoulders to your back pockets”. Pull your shoulders down towards your lower body as far as possible, without letting your elbows bend at all.
Once the shoulders are completely depressed, cue “pulling your elbows towards your hips.” This will effectively engage the lats.
WHEN PULLING FROM IN FRONT OF YOU (horizontally): Focus on pulling the shoulder blades “together and down” as you pull towards your torso. At the back of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together, as if you were trying to crush a pop can between them.
On the way forward, the eccentric part of the movement, allow the shoulder blades to relax and be pulled forward by the weight to achieve full range of motion on the movement.
Train Your Lower Body
Your back-building doesn’t have to be limited to just the traditional upper body rows and pull downs.
Many lower body movements require a huge amount of work to be done by the back.
My two favorites for developing an incredible lower body AND back at the same time: deadlifts and front squats.
Training lower body also helps create an extremely anabolic environment that leads to muscle gain throughout the entire body.
Neglect back training, and you’ll never achieve the physique you want. Use the above, and you’re well on your way.