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Build Backs Better

It's a very popular thing for men these days to desire having a big chest and arms, or lean, ripped abs. Truthfully, though, the most aesthetic thing you can do is build a big, strong, meaty back. A thick back that fills out your shirts creates a presence. It is is a signal of strength to everyone who sees you. It accentuates every other athletic thing about you. Seriously, is there a person you know with a muscular back that is not a strong person? Through the rest of this article, you'll get the complete guide on how Iron Habits builds backs better.


The Deadlift and it various variations

The deadlift is the king of all back exercises, for its ability to load your skeleton greater than any other barbell lift. It incorporates a tremendous amount of muscle mass, and creates a good foundation for all the other exercises in this list. Eventually, the deadlift gets too heavy to recover from in a 48-72 hour window, and becomes a 1x/week lift, and eventually even less than that. Some people report going several weeks or even months without deadlifting, as it's tremendous effects on the body cause adaptation. In the meantime, their are other ways to build the back in between deadlift sessions.

The images below come from this article on the Starting Strength website, demonstrating the technique and back muscles stressed in the deadlift. It is not a complete list of the muscles trained by the deadlift, as it does not include the forearm and leg muscles involved.


Once you've reach the point where you can't recover from a deadlift session week-to-week, the most popular way to oscillate Deadlift training is to create a three week rotation: Week A doing the original deadlift, Week B doing Halting Deadlifts (Deadlifts that go from the floor to just past the knee) and Week C featuring Rack Pulls (pulls out of the rack from just below the patella tendon to the lockout). Note that all three of these movements are heavy. Rack pulls and Haltings should feature more weight than can be handled on a full range of motion deadlift, thus building that movement for the future.



The important distinction between these variations of deadlift and others is that they are both 1) heavier than the regular deadlift and 2) can thus be substituted in for the heavy deadlift day during the week. Other deadlift variations like the deficit deadlift, snatch-grip deadlift, or stiff-leg deadlift could be swapped for the regular deadlift, however these movements require weight to be taken off the bar, and are therefore better suited as auxiliary deadlift movements at a different point in your training week.

Assisting the Deadlift in Building the Back

While the deadlift trains an immense amount of muscle mass, and with a lot of weight, some of the muscles of the back - the major players being the traps, rhomboids, and lats - benefit from additional, more targeted work.


Rows are a great way to build the lats and various rotator cuff muscles of the upper back, given that you do them heavy (are you noticing a theme?). To do this, using the barbell for your rows in a variety of rep ranges (from 3-12) on your supplementary deadlift day can help build tremendous lat strength and mass. Machines can be useful for rows, but using barbells add the elements of stabilizing the weight and efficiency in rotating between movements (meaning: you need less equipment). The preferred variations of rows are strict rows and Pendlay Rows, both taken from the floor. It becomes too easy to cheat the reps and lose all sense of standards for them when the bar floats off the ground. Secondarily, pulling your rows from the floor allows you to practice the set up for the deadlift.


Chin ups are another great lat-targeting exercise. Chins incorporate all sorts of other muscles too, including helping the muscles of the rotator cuff, similar to rows mentioned above. I tend to think a bit differently from conventional wisdom on how to train chins. As soon as the lifter is capable of adding weight to their chins for at least 5 reps, I believe they should. This means as little as 2.5 pounds can be added, as long as there is an acceptable amount of volume to start with (say 3 sets of 5 or so). Some training systems view chins as requiring different programming than other exercises. From my experience, I don't see this to be the case. While some of the muscles of the chin up are small, they are still muscles, and respond to appropriate loading and volume. These small muscles can recover quickly, so often the chin up can be trained twice a week, usually on both upper body days where the back and forearm muscles haven't already been exhausted training the deadlift or a variation.

Shrugs are a movement for advanced lifters in need of stimulating the traps, the meaty muscles just behind the neck. Shrugs can be loaded very heavy, and create an enormous stress for the forearm muscles as much as they can for the back. Typically, the forearm muscles become a limiting factor for shrugs at a point well before exhaustion of the traps. For this reason, the use of straps to help the lifter hold onto the bar is permitted. We do shrugs to train the traps, not necessarily the grip, although that is normally an additional benefit.


One of the more controversial training modalities currently undergoing social-media experimentation is the inclusion of round-back training. Different movements like the Zercher method of squats and deadlifts and other torturous cousins, as well as movements like Jefferson curl ups are being tested out using high loads (of note: I am currently experimenting with training Zercher Squats myself as of this writing). In regards to these movements, generally considered dangerous and injurious to the spine, it comes down to what you believe about the limits of human anatomy and the basic principles of adaptation. If you believe the body is highly adaptable, then you probably would see no issue with round-back training, given that load and volume are gradually applied. Proponents of this style of training see the rounding of the spine as part of normal human movement, anytime someone picks up a large stone, bag of fertilizer, or any other awkward object, rounding of the spine occurs. Many strength athletes and coaches have rallied against rounding of the spine for decades, believing it to be the cause of injuries when deadlifting and squatting. The debate rages on, and as I'm just experimenting with it now, I have no solid opinion on the matter. I believe the theory behind round-back training to be solid, but am reserving my judgement until I see it play out in practice. For now, I am training these as an assistance deadlift movement, so not on the heavy deadlift day.


Summary of the Programming (Sample ideas)


Beginner/Early Intermediate

Monday:

Squat Intensity

Deadlift Variation/Volume 3 x 5 (Snatch-Grip Deadlift, Stiff-Leg Deadlift, etc.)

Thursday:

Deadlift 1 x 5

Squat volume


Intermediate/Late Intermediate/Advanced

Week A

Monday:

Squat Intensity

Deadlift Variation/Volume 3 x 5 (Snatch-Grip Deadlift, Stiff-Leg Deadlift, etc.)

Rows 3 x 8


Tuesday:

Bench Press

Press

Weighted Chins 3 x 5


Thursday:

Halting Deadlift 1 x 6-8

Squat volume

RDL 3 x 6-8


Friday:

Press

Bench Press

Bodyweight Chins 3 x 5


Week B

Monday:

Squat Intensity

Deadlift Variation/Volume 3 x 5 (Snatch-Grip Deadlift, Stiff-Leg Deadlift, etc.)

Rows 3 x 8


Tuesday:

Bench Press

Press

Weighted Chins 3 x 5


Thursday:

Rack Pull 1 x 5

Squat volume

RDL 3 x 6-8


Friday:

Press

Bench Press

Bodyweight Chins 3 x 5

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