Your back is complicated. Combining ball-and-socket joints that allow maximum arm mobility, a ribbon of snaking bones and nerves that divide the region down the middle, and a phalanx of muscles big and small spread from your butt to your neck, your back is your most complex body part. So it’s little wonder so many weight-trainers earn failing grades for training it. A lot of things can go wrong, but we’ve simplified the list to the top five. We examine the most frequent back blunders and lay out easy-to-follow solutions for getting your back on course.
BACK WORKOUT MISTAKE: MISSING THE TARGET
Because your back is such a vast and complicated muscle group there is much confusion about how to best train various areas. Many believe you simply need to pull your hands to the area you want to stimulate: low for lower lats, high for upper lats, etc., but it’s not so easy to hit the targets. We explain how to best target four different back areas.
🔹 For LAT WIDTH, focus on pullups and pulldowns with a grip wider than shoulder width. The pullup ranked #1 and the pulldown was #3 in our scientific survey of the Best Back Exercises.
🔹 For LAT THICKNESS, focus on free-weight rows: barbell, T-bar, and (one- or two-arm) dumbbell. In that same survey of scientific tests, the barbell row ranked #2 with two kinds of dumbbell rows tied for #4.
🔹 The key to LOWER LATS activation is keeping your elbows close to your sides and pulling them as far back as possible. Two good exercises are the underhand, shoulder-width pulldown and one-arm low cable row, both with maximum ranges of motion at contractions.
🔹 To hit your MIDDLE, UPPER BACK muscles, especially the rhomboids and lower and middle trapezius, do wide-grip rows pulled to your chest. Using a Smith machine or a low cable while seated instead of a barbell can make balancing easier when rowing to your chest. Face-pulls will also target this area (along with the rear deltoids). You can also target the lower traps specifically with the 45-degree shrug, Y-raise, and reverse shrug. (For more on these unique trap exercises see: Traps Workout: Ultimate Guide.)
BACK WORKOUT MISTAKE: LOWER BACK NEGLECT
One area not mentioned in our preceding rundown is spinal erectors. That’s because the most common problem here is not missing the target, it’s failing to even try to hit it. It is true that your lower back is stimulated during virtually any standing exercise, but to maximize the size and strength of your lower erector set you need to give this area some isolation time.
🔹 Do deadlifts at least every other back workout. Deads work your spinal erectors in conjunction with your quads, glutes, traps, and other muscles.
🔹 Do four to six sets of lower back isolation exercises at the end of each back routine. Back extensions (a.k.a. hyperextensions) are excellent erector isolators. Another is the reverse crunch, which begins like a back extension, but is a much shorter movement: Instead of bending at your waist/hips, contract your abs and curl your torso down (as if doing an ab crunch) and then rise back up by contracting your erectors.
BACK WORKOUT MISTAKE: INATTENTION TO GRIP
You know the truism that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It applies to every weight-training exercise, but is especially true of back work where several secondary muscles and muscle groups (hands, forearms, biceps, rear delts) work in conjunction with your lats and other posterior muscles. Typically, your hands are the weak link in this chain, and if your grip gives out first you won’t be able to maximally stimulate your back no matter how strong all the other links are.
🔹 An underhand grip involves the biceps more and can place you in a stronger position, allowing you to use more weight. Incorporate both underhand and overhand grips into your back routine.
🔹 Whether overhand or underhand, always wear training straps for any row, pullup, or pulldown.
🔹 For much more on grips, see “Grip Strength: Complete Guide.”
BACK WORKOUT MISTAKE: OVERRELIANCE ON MACHINES
Due to your back’s complexity and the great multitude of paths your elbows can travel when pulled backwards, most modern gyms have more unique rowing machines than any other single movement: high rows, low rows, unilateral rows, row/pulldown combinations, etc. This has led too many bodybuilders to forgo barbells, dumbbells, and pullup bars on back day and instead rely primarily on levers, pulleys, cams, and cables. Machines may be more comfortable and lock you into a safe position, but a freer range of motion is generally superior for muscle stimulation.
🔹 As mentioned previously, do deadlifts at least every other back workout.
🔹 Do at least one type of free-weight row—barbell, T-bar, or dumbbell—in each back workout.
🔹 In place of or in addition to pulldowns, do pullups (overhand) or chinups (underhand) at least every other back workout. If you’re not strong enough to get eight reps on your own, lighten your bodyweight by either having a partner lift up on your feet slightly, resting your feet lightly on a bench beneath the bar, or using a chin assist machine (okay, it’s a machine, but only to make this non-machine lift a little easier).
BACK WORKOUT MISTAKE: OVERUSING SECONDARY MUSCLES
Bodybuilders who have trouble isolating their lats tend to either go too heavy with sloppy form, thus over-relying on momentum and their spinal erectors, or they pull too much with their biceps and/or rear delts, thus never fully stretching or contracting their lats. Because you cannot watch your back while its working, it’s especially crucial to master proper form by feeling stretches and contractions during rows, pulldowns, and other posterior lifts.
🔹 Work the weight, don’t let it work you. Use a weight you can handle comfortably with strict form for 8-12 reps.
🔹 Pull with your elbows, bringing them back and/or down as far as possible.
🔹 If you feel your biceps doing too much work, utilize only an overhand grip, never underhand.
🔹 Focus on the targeted area of your back. Don’t focus on the weight or the path of the movement.
BACK WORKOUT LESSONS LEARNED
🔵 Utilize specific exercises to target specific back areas.
🔵 Do isolation work for your spinal erectors at the end of each back workout.
🔵 Use training straps to secure your grip.
🔵 Include free-weight and bodyweight basics in every back workout.
🔵 Minimize momentum, and feel the targeted area working throughout every rep.