Continuing the Stronger Things series with a bad ass back workout this week. y’all! If you haven’t been keeping up, you can go back and check out Leg Day, Chest Day and Shoulder Day but there’s no real order requirement. Just pick up heavy stuff!
If we’re being honest, back day is one of my least favorite training days. Maybe my full-on least favorite. Ironically, my back is the one part of my body I’m not super thrilled with and have been working on defining over the last few months. I’ve seen quite a bit of progress on this plan, though, so stick with it for a while and I bet you will, too!
Just be aware that I’m not super creative on back day. Which is to say, brace yourself for row and pull-up city. Now, put something loud and heavy in your headphones and get ready to get buff.
You guys know by now that warm-ups are weird for me. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t and it’s no different here. If you just want to get the blood pumping a little, I’d suggest a short run or 3-5 minutes of skipping rope. If you want to go ahead and start getting your back muscles riled up, maybe superset some push-ups with some bodyweight rows under a barbell. You can also do a little stretching, which I’m always a big fan of. Now, let’s pick something up.
Pull-Ups, Set 1
1 set; x reps; No rest Primary:Lats — Secondary: Abs; Biceps; Shoulders; Upper Back
Bet you didn’t see that shit coming right out the gate. We normally “go heavy” on the first exercise and I guess we still are because guess what? Your body is heavier than you realize. One could even argue that true strength can be determined based on how efficiently one can move their own bodyweight around. Also, it’s back day and in my opinion, there aren’t many other moves that work your back like this.
I’ll also openly admit that I’m not great at them. In fact, I’ve only been able to do them for the last year or two. There are so many resources out there about how to start doing pull-ups, how to progress them, etc. While I won’t get into a lot of that in this post, I’ll pass you the progression I used and the program I’m currently using.
First of all, if you can’t do pull-ups, don’t stress out. If you stress out, that’s when you start doing dumb shit and dumb shit isn’t allowed.
If you can’t do a pull-up, do Band-Assisted Pull-Ups.
If you can’t do band-assisted pull-ups, do Negative Pull-Ups.
If you can’t do negative pull-ups, do Inverted Rows.
If you can’t do inverted rows, do Dumbbell Rows.
If you can’t do dumbbell rows, try a lighter weight.
If you can’t do the lighter weight, you’re lying.
I hope to detail the above flow in a post all its own eventually but for now, just know that there’s no reason to skip anything. If you can’t do something, modify it, regress it if necessary, knock that shit out and move on.
Now, you’ll notice above I have listed 1 set of x reps. That’s important and here’s why: I’ve been using a freaky program I found online made by TwentyPullUps.com that’s damn-near infinitely scalable. I follow the program three days a week doing exactly as it asks. If I can’t do it, I repeat the week until I can finish it and move on. The proper program has six weeks of programming with three levels of ability listed. There’s also weeks negative 1 and negative 2, each also having three levels of ability. If you start at absolute zero like I did, that means this program could last you as many as 24 weeks.
I’m currently using Week 2, Level 2 so I’ll illustrate how these pull-up sets fit into the workout with those numbers. You’ll be completing FIVE sets of pull-ups total, just thrown in between exercises. Since this is the first set, according to the sheet for week 2, level 2, you’ll simply perform 5 pull-ups. I take 30-45 seconds to rest and then move on to my first exercise.
Go Heavy: Barbell Rows
4 sets; 8 reps; Rest 90 seconds Primary: Upper back — Secondary: abs; biceps; lats; lower back; shoulders
Like all heavy lifts, I start out lifting the bar only then do a set at 50% weight. I use a short Olympic barbell for this (about 35 pounds) but you can use a standard bar. You could even get by using a Smith machine if that’s all you have available to you. For your warm-up sets, go with 10 reps total then load the bar with 50% of your intended working weight for the day and do 10 more reps.
For this lift, you’ll want to start off with your knees slightly bent, your hips back without curling or arching your back. I prefer a reverse grip on the barbell here but you can go overhand if you’d prefer. Starting with the bar just above the knees, contract the muscles in your back as you slowly lift the weight up your quads until it rests against your gut. Your elbows will be back and your shoulder blades will be drawn together. Slowly lower the weight and exhale. That’s one rep.
You’re going to do 8 reps before setting the weight down and taking a 90 second breather. After your 4th working set, we move on. You’ve done 52 rows and you’re just getting started.
Pull-Ups, Set 2
1 set; x reps; No rest
Back to these guys again. If you’re following along on the plan I linked to, set 2 = 4 reps.
3 sets; 10 reps; Rest 60 seconds Primary:Lats — Secondary: Abs; Biceps; shoulders; upper back
This will require a special machine but chances are your gym will have it. A lot of times you’ll have a bunch of fancy pants attachments you’ll put on a pulley system so you can push and pull in a variety of ways both sitting and standing for desired effect. This bar will look kinda like an EZ Curl Bar.
Ultimately what you’re going to be doing here is a pull-up only instead of pulling your weight up, you’re pulling a different weight down to you. The range of motion in the arms, shoulders and back are almost identical only you’re sitting down for this exercise. Take a wide grip and slowly pull the weight down toward your chest. Due to your arm positioning, the only way to do this non-awkwardly is to let your elbows flare out to the sides and contract the muscles in your back as your shoulder blades once again come together. Then, slowly reverse the motion until the weights on the machine rest. NEVER JUST DROP THE WEIGHTS ON A MACHINE, OTHERWISE YOU’LL RISK DAMAGING THE EQUIPMENT AND BE VIEWED AS A GYM ASSHOLE.
For this exercise, you’ll want to pick a weight you can successfully — though with a bit of effort — complete 10 reps. We’re going for 3 sets total and resting for a minute between each. Once you’re complete, find your way back to the pull-up bar because …
Pull-Ups, Set 3
1 set; x reps; No rest
On the sheet, set 3 = 3 reps.
3 sets; 10 reps; Rest 60 seconds Primary:Upper back — Secondary: Abs; Biceps; Lats; Lower back; Shoulders
That’s right — more rows! Told you creativity was going right out the door with this workout.
Either way, you can’t deny the importance of the trusty single-arm dumbbell row. It’s always a challenge and it’s always good for you.
Find a bench somewhere and bring over a single dumbbell of whatever working weight you’ve chosen. I usually start with my right side, so I put my left knee on the back of the bench, my left hand flat on the head of the bench, thereby making my back parallel with the floor as my right foot is flat on the ground and the dumbbell hands in my dangling right arm.
From this position, you’ll slowly “row” the weight up, basically until the weight grazes your boob. Your elbow will go straight back, your back muscles will contract and your right shoulder blade will move in toward your spine. Knock out 10 reps, then switch everything to the other side for 10 more reps.
A couple of notes on this exercise:
You can definitely do this bilaterally and standing if you want, just be sure to use dumbbells.
I sometimes superset this move with my lat pulls but be sure to get your extra set of pull-ups in before you leave the gym for the day.
Just like the lat pulls, you’re looking for 3 sets, 10 reps with 60 seconds of rest between sets. After your third set, guess where you’re going?
Pull-Ups, Set 4
1 set; x reps; No rest
On the sheet, set 4 = 4 reps.
TRX Rows, 2 Ways
2 sets; 15 reps; Rest 45 seconds Primary: Upper back — Secondary: Biceps; Lats
Good god, even more rows. These are kind-of fun, though. I think so, at least.
If your gym doesn’t have TRX bands, I’m certain they have something similar where you can do some kind of suspension exercise. If not, I’d suggest doing simple inverted rows since you’re only using bodyweight for those as well.
The TRX system is awesome because it allows you to do bodyweight exercises on a plane you can’t necessarily get to naturally with the added benefit of balance support. This doesn’t mean the TRX bands are going to take away the need for you to balance — in fact, balance can sometimes be a bitch with them, but that’s why they’re great!
I do these 2 ways just to shake it up and hit my back in a unique way. I start off leaning myself back until my arms are fully stretched out ahead of me, I’d say I’m about 45 degrees from the floor (or try to be, at least). You’ll start your first rep by pulling yourself up with your elbows shooting out at shoulder level, constricting your back muscles and drawing your shoulder blades together. Slowly reverse the motion until you’re back at your starting position. That’s 1 rep.
For the next rep, you’ll keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides and pull yourself up in a motion very similar to the one you used when you were rowing the dumbbell earlier only now it’s billateral and you’re the weight being pulled up. Slowly reverse the motion until you’re back at the starting position. That’s rep 2.
Continue doing every other rep this way until you get to 15. Rest for 30-45 seconds before starting again. In order to get an even number of each of the row variations, don’t start your second set with the same row you started your first set with. This way you can make sure you completed 15 of each row. We don’t want to show anybody any favoritism. Once you’re finished with your last rep…
Pull-Ups, Set 5
1 set; x reps; No rest
On the sheet, set 5 = 5 reps.
When you drop down from that 5th rep, whisper a dirty word under your breath and breathe a sigh of relief because you’re DONE.
I don’t have a proper cool-down to illustrate but I definitely recommend plenty of stretching here. Anything that hits your upper and lower back as well as your shoulders will benefit you. I sometimes supplement my back day with a few core exercises like sit-ups, plants and dragonflags before I leave for the day but since I do about an hour of pure core work every week during my boxing classes, I’ve been leaving it out.
No matter what you do for a cool-down, I know for certain that it works best if you’re sipping on a tasty protein shake while you do it.
I’m sure you’ll agree that back day isn’t the most exciting and I just about guarantee that you have a bigger, better program and a bigger, sexier back than me. And that’s okay. I’m working on it. We’re all working on it. Don’t be a dick, man.
If you think you may be interested in giving this a shot, though, I’ve gone through the trouble of making a one sheet for you guys like I have all the others up until this point:
JTF Strong’s Stronger Things Back Workout
You know the deal. Give it a go and let me know what you think. If you have questions, need modifications, need to be coached, want a pep talk or someone to go shopping with, I’m your man. Just say hey!