You’ve been training for a year or two, your lifts have been going up slowly, but your back doesn’t seem to respond as well as it did in the beginning. You wrestle with whether or not you’re training frequently enough, performing the right number of reps, or executing the lifts effectively. You do a bit of research and, as you suspected, everything checks out.
It’s not an issue of frequency, volume, or intensity and your form seems to be dialed in, too. You’re hitting your macros consistently, so it can’t be your nutrition. You’re getting enough sleep each night so recovery isn’t the issue. Now you’re beginning to wonder if your genetics are the reason for your lack of growth.
If this sounds like you, you’re in luck. In this article I am going to reveal 3 of the most effective exercises for sparking newfound back growth, fast.
If you’ve been training for a while and the same old bent rows and lat pull-downs aren’t doing the trick, consider adding any of these 3 exercises to your back training arsenal.
3 Advanced Back Workouts for Serious Gains
It’s no secret that the deadlift, despite being an extremely powerful lower-body movement, is one of the most effective exercises for building a wider, thicker back, and mountainous traps.
You see, when you deadlift your back acts as a crane. And your upper-back and traps stabilize the upper portion of that crane. So when you’re pulling 400+ pounds, the isometric contraction necessary to keep your back rigid—you know, so your shoulders aren’t pulled out of place—is bound to strengthen your back much more effectively than a 50 pound dumbbell row.
Because the traps are semi-responsible for supporting the arms (i.e. help keep them attached to your body), the heavy stretch at the top of the deadlift is placing a ton of stress on that function. And before you say that the stretch, alone, isn’t enough to build the traps, I have two words for you: farmer walks.
Alain, I get it, deadlifts are number one on the list of best back exercises for serious mass!
Not so fast, my friend.
Imagine an exercise where you could load the upper-back and traps to a greater degree than the deadlift. One where you could remove the lower-body from the equation completely and place all of the load on the target muscle. This would be, by far, the greatest mass builder for your back and traps, ever.
Lucky for you—and me—such an exercise already exists. It’s known as the Rack Pull—specifically when performed from pins at or above the knee.
1. Rack Pulls
The rack pull is essentially a deadlift variation that allows you to (1) limit the range of motion (thus allowing you to use a greater load) and (2) remove leg drive, forcing you to place more emphasis on the portion of the lift that targets the back. It’s not uncommon to see guys pulling 2x more weight on the rack pull than they could on the deadlift—not only placing more stress on the mid/upper-back, but now your traps have to fight twice as hard to keep your arms from ripping clean off your torso like Jax’s fatality on Moral Kombat II.
Personally, I prefer a variation where the pins are at the knee; however, they all have their pros and cons. The higher the pin, the lesser the range of motion, and thus the more weight you’ll be able to pull—this is probably best for building the traps (due to the heavier stretch at the top). At the knee may involve your hips a bit more, and by increasing the range of motion you’re limiting the amount of weight you can pull; however, you’ll still be able to go heavy enough to really stress your back (in a good way).
2. Pendlay Rows
The Pendlay row is a little-known, yet extremely powerful, barbell row variation. Rather than moving the barbell through space, you’re pulling the bar off of the ground from a dead stop (similar to a deadlift). Because you’re resetting at the bottom of every rep, you’re eliminating momentum and thus forcing the target muscles to do the work.
Now although the strict nature of this lift will limit the amount of weight you’re using, because you’re using more muscle and less momentum, you end up doing less total work for far greater results. Think of it as digging for gold with a spoon vs using a shovel. You may be able to get 10 scoops of dirt with a spoon faster than you could get 1 scoop with a shovel, but which scoop makes a bigger impact?
Not only are you placing more stress on the target muscle, but the Pendlay row will also:
• Allow for a better range of motion than a traditional barbell row
• Place less stress on your lower back
• Strengthen the core
• And more.
3. Cheat Rows
I am a huge advocate of training with proper form, no doubt. But sometimes in life, you’ve got to cheat to get what you want—particularly when what you want is a bigger, thicker back.
The barbell row, in my opinion, is a great example of a lift where, when done intelligently, one could cheat a bit without increasing the risk of injury. (Read This: A Strong Case for Cheating to Build Bigger Biceps)
Doing this will allow for a better and more effective stretch on the back and traps by allowing you to use more weight than you could otherwise.
Another benefit of cheat rows is more volume. For example, say you’re able to row 225 x 8, max, with strict form. Well, adding a few additional reps by using slight body English would be a viable option for increasing workload.
Now this is not to say that we should load the bar and jerk away, but picking your torso up a bit to aid with the lift can be helpful.
And although I just made a huge stink about why barbell rows are inferior to Pendlay rows because they allow for momentum, let’s contextualize a bit. The lifts I’ve outlined in this article are simply, potentially, more effective alternatives to the exercises you’re currently doing. Also, there are always going to be pros and cons to each lift. The con of the Pendlay row, for example, is that it limits the negative portion of the row, while the pro is that you’ll get better engagement of the target muscle. With the cheat rows, on the other hand, it’s quite contrary; you’ll get less engagement on the pull but you’ll be able to load the negative to a greater degree.
If you’ve been training consistently for 12 months or longer and you’re looking to up the ante, include anyone of these workouts—or all of them—to take your back to the next level.
If, however, you’re still in the novice stages of your training, focus on progressing on the basics in order to build a solid foundation before incorporating these more advanced variations.