Despite what myriad fitness novices may insinuate, there are no male- or female-specific muscle groups. Here’s what we mean: Guys should be hitting their quads and glutes just as hard as the ladies. Ladies shouldn’t avoid training their pecs for fear of making their boobs disappear (one of our personal favorite muscular misconceptions). And one more example: Serious, intense back training isn’t reserved for men only, and it’s not just for competitive bodybuilders, either. Ladies, you train your legs, arms, abs and delts with fervor, and for good reason, but don’t ignore those muscles that aren’t so easy to see in the mirror — namely, the lats.
“A nicely sculpted back can really define a woman’s shape,” says Kisha Wilson, a national-level NPC Figure competitor and Optimum Nutrition-sponsored athlete. “Women should train back not necessarily to get huge and super-wide lats, but because some width will help offset wide hips on women who tend to carry weight in their bottom halves. Having a nice V-taper is super sexy and looks fabulous in tank tops and backless dresses. Show that back off!”
Back to Basics
The musculature of the back covers a relatively large area and is pretty intricate. The huge latissimus dorsi muscles overlap the smaller trapezius, rhomboids, rotator cuffs and erector spinae. That said, back exercises can be separated into two basic categories: pulldowns/pull-ups (different exercises but basically the same movement), which are best for creating width in the back, and rows, which develop thickness. A third, more minor category would include isolation exercises like straight-arm pulldowns and pullbacks.
But within those two major types of exercises exist countless variations of each. For instance, pulldowns and pull-ups can be performed with grips wide to narrow, overhand and underhand, and at various different body angles. Likewise, rows can be done with any number of grips, as well as with virtually any type of equipment — barbells, dumbbells, machines, cable stations, even bodyweight only.
The key is to use as many of these different options as possible to attack the back muscles from all angles for balanced development and to minimize training plateaus. “Keeping variety in your back routine will help you build a better back,” Wilson says. “Try using underhanded grips as well as different machines, and don’t be afraid to go heavy. I love training back because I feel super strong while doing it, and I can just really squeeze and feel those muscles going to work.”
The following routine covers all the bases of effective back training: three compound exercises that maximize muscle-fiber recruitment and provide great “bang for your buck”; a mix of pulldowns and rows with varying grip widths; a smattering of different training implements (cables, dumbbells and bodyweight only) to keep the muscles guessing; drop sets and supersets to increase intensity; and one isolation move to finish off the workout and zero in on the tough-to-reach lower lats. Set counts and rep ranges are courtesy of Wilson’s recommendations of slightly higher reps (12 to 15) for “accessory” movements — in this case one-arm cable rows and pullbacks.
Oh, and one more piece of advice from Wilson: “As always, leave your ego at the door and don’t be afraid to ask for a spot.”
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
One-Arm Bent-Over Cable Row
Dumbbell Straight-Arm Pullback
*On your last set, perform one to two drop sets.
Back Extensions:The lower back shouldn’t be neglected. Include some form of back-extension exercise one to two times per week — either on a 45-degree or hyperextension bench or lying on the floor (“Supermans”) — for two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps. Experienced trainees can hold a weight plate across the chest on back extensions for additional resistance; otherwise, bodyweight only is sufficient. The lower back can be trained at the end of either your back or leg workout.
Adjust the bar of a Smith machine to about waist height, then position your body under it. Holding on to the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip, hang straight down with your arms extended, shoulders directly below the bar and your body in a straight line. The backs of your heels should be the only thing in contact with the floor. Imagine that you’re doing an upside-down push-up and contract your back muscles and bend your elbows to lift your body straight up. Touch your chest to the bar, then slowly return to the start position.
Training Tip: To make the exercise easier, bend your knees 90 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor. To make it more advanced, put your feet up on a bench or box.
Substitute: Inverted rows also can be performed using a squat rack or power rack. For those training at home, use a suspension trainer (like TRX) or a bar at a nearby jungle gym.
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
Adjust the machine so your knees fit snugly beneath the pads. Grasp the bar with a wide (greater than shoulder-width) overhand grip, sit down on the seat and begin with your arms fully extended overhead and your torso more or less perpendicular to the floor. (You might need to lean back slightly to clear the bar in front of your face.) Contract your lats and bend your elbows to pull the bar straight down. Touch the bar to your upper chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together for one to two counts, then slowly return the bar to the start position.
Training Tip: “Try curling your thumbs over the top of the bar with the rest of your fingers and making your hands almost like a hook,” Kisha Wilson says. “This will force you to take your arms out of the movement and really concentrate on using those lats.”
Substitute: Lat pulldowns also can be performed on plate-loaded (Hammer Strength) or selectorized machines.
One-Arm Bent-Over Cable Row
Place a D-handle attachment on a low pulley. Stand facing the weight stack and grab the handle with one hand. Bend forward slightly at the waist and begin with your working arm (the one holding the handle) fully extended toward the pulley, palm facing in, and your nonworking hand on your thigh for stability. Keeping your legs and torso completely stationary, pull the handle straight up to your side, just above your waist. Concentrate on leading with the elbow and squeezing your back muscles hard at the top. Slowly lower the handle back to the start position. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Training Tip: To work the muscle fibers in a slightly different manner, as you pull the handle toward you, rotate your forearm so that by the top of the rep your palm faces the ceiling.
Substitute: One-arm rows also can be performed with a dumbbell or an isolateral Hammer Strength row machine.
Dumbbell Straight-Arm Pullback
Hold a light dumbbell in one hand and lean forward at the waist so that your torso is close to parallel with the floor. Begin with your working arm hanging straight down toward the floor, palm facing behind you, and your nonworking hand on your knee for stability. Keep your legs slightly bent. Contract your lat muscle to pull the dumbbell up and back behind you. When your arm reaches parallel with the floor, slowly lower back down to the start position. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Training Tip: This is an isolation movement that requires intense focus on the lat muscles to be most effective. It’s not an exercise meant to be performed at a fast pace; keep the tempo of each rep slow and deliberate.
Substitute: Pullbacks also can also performed using a low-pulley cable with the same body position. With this variation, you can use either a D-handle or just hold on to the rubber ball at the end of the cable.
Pull Your Weight
Looking for more great exercises to work into your back routine? NPC Figure competitor Kisha Wilson offers these two classics. They’re as basic as they come, but sport and physique athletes everywhere swear by them.
“In my opinion, it’s the single best back exercise you can do for strengthening and shaping the entire back. If you can’t do a pull-up, use a giant band or a partner for assistance. You’ll get there. Take your time with each rep and squeeze with each contraction — this will help carve out detail and make those muscles pop.”
“These will really add some size to your back as well as shape nice glutes and legs. It’s like a full-body workout in one exercise. You’ll feel this one from your neck to your calves the next day. Try using wrist straps when lifting heavy to help with your grip.”