A strong back is foundational to healthy living. The good news is that building a strong back is not complicated – actually, it’s rather simple. In this article, I want to share with you a basic, yet complete back exercise program for working your entire back.
First though, let’s understand your back’s basic functions. To my pedestrian mind, your back does 3 things:
- It keeps you upright and head up – in conjunction with your shoulders, hips, glutes, and hamstrings.
- It pulls your elbows back – in all planes
- It protects your ribcage – and obviously your backbone
While these are rudimentary statements on the back’s function, it does capture the overall gist of what your back must do. It must keep you upright and protect your vital organs and ribcage. It allows you to pull back, pull down, pull up, and pick up. When climbing a tree to escape a bear or a rocky face from a sabre-tooth tiger; it is your back that gets the job done.
Okay, so maybe the sabre-tooth tiger is not such a big worry of late.
This simple, yet hard routine will increase your strength – if you need it – to get up that tree or close that window for your significant other. It will protect your vitals by building a dense layer of muscle around your spinal cord and ribcage.
Wide Grip Pull-ups: Is it a chin-up or a pull-up? Who cares? You grab a bar about half a foot wider than shoulder width on both sides. You pull up as far as you can, but at least get your chin over the bar. If you work out at home and are using a door pull-up bar, then you are limited on the width – work with what you have. If you’re not strong enough to do a pull-up, then you can start with the lat pulldowns. But I rather you stay with the pull-up, even if you can only to 1 rep. Instead of doing 3 sets of 8 reps or whatever, you need to pick a number. I’ll give you the number; it’s 30. You must do 30 reps in as many or as little sets as it takes.
T-Bar Rows: This is a classic. In the old days, I’d stick one end of a barbell in the corner of the basement. I’d loaded the free end, grab it behind the plates and pull the stack to my chest. I’d keep my rear lower than my shoulders and push back as I pulled up to keep the one end firmly in the corner. Your gym should have a T-bar machine. I loved seeing those old pictures of Franco or Arnold doing it with 5 to 7 45lb plates. You should perform 4 to 5 Sets, pyramiding from 12 to 6 reps.
Stiff Arm Pull-downs: On the lat down machine, grab the bar shoulder width, and while keeping your arms stiff (basically straight with a slight bend in elbows); pull the bar down to your upper thigh area. You don’t need to actually touch your legs. Imagine that you are reaching up and putting your hands on the top of a window that is open, and then closing it. As you perform this exercise, you will feel it in your outer lats (and a bit in your triceps – most back exercise involves your biceps, except this one). You should perform 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
This routine does 3 things:
- It builds overall lat and back strength with the pull-up. There is something about bodyweight movements that really stresses the body – think dips and leg raises.
- It builds muscle along your spinal cord and lower back with the T-bar row. It also ties in your lower back and lats with your hips, glutes, and upper legs (statically)
- The stiff arm lat pull-downs builds functional strength along a different plane, while integrating your lats with the ribcage and core muscles.
This routine is simple but hard. If you give it your all, at the end; your back will feel 3 feet wide. And who knows – after 3 months, you may even look it.