Sculpt Your Back

Use this no-frills back-training workout to sculpt your flip side.

Photo: Robert Reiff

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Total-body training is a hot trend that strips body fat, increases endurance and saves time. But what if you want to add some muscle to your frame, bring up a lagging bodypart or create some slammin’ curves? Gotta go old-school and break it down, one muscle group at a time.

“The benefit of training individual muscle groups is that you can work areas that might need a little more attention, creating balance and symmetry in the body,” explains Abbie Appel, former IFBB Fitness competitor and current international fitness presenter and speaker. With straight-set training, you can focus on creating hypertrophy in muscles that need more attention and can even specifically train areas that are weak or overstretched, such as the shoulders and midback from sitting in front of a computer, according to Appel.

This program is designed to help you develop a beautiful back from top to bottom. Choose one of these workouts and perform the moves in the order suggested; next week, do the second workout to keep things fresh. Devote the first set of each move to higher reps and lower weight to etch the biomechanics into your body and brain.

For the next two sets, go heavy to encourage muscle breakdown, then for your last set do either drop sets or negatives to completely fatigue the muscle and cause it to fail. This strategy will constantly challenge your body and keep it guessing, encouraging progress. Do this program for four to six weeks and you’ll have a fit and fabulous flip side.

How to do…

Before you start this workout, there are a few terms you need to know.

Drop sets: Choose a weight and do as many reps as you can. When you can’t do any more, choose a lesser weight and do as many reps as you can with that one. When you can’t do any more, swap out the weight once more and rep it out to failure.

Negatives: Choose a heavy weight and do a quick and powerful positive contraction. Then as slowly as you can, lower the weight back to the start position. Repeat this pattern for reps. Shoot for up to 10 seconds per negative if you can manage it.

The Workouts


Barbell Deadlift



Action: Keeping your back straight, extend your legs and stand up, dragging the bar up along the fronts of your legs as you press through your heels and come to a standing position. Pause a beat and then reverse the motion, flexing your knees and hips to lower the bar just short of touching the floor.

Tip: The barbell should move in a vertical line; if it is wavering in and out, adjust your body mechanics so it moves straight up and down.

Wide-Grip Pulldown



Setup: Attach a long bar to a high cable pulley and adjust the seat so you’re able to sit with your feet firmly on the floor. Take an overhand grip on the bar, hands just outside shoulder width, arms extended, and sit down. Lift your chest and contract your shoulder blades.

Action: Drive your elbows down to pull the bar toward your clavicle, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pause at the peak contraction before slowly returning to the start.

Tip: Avoid leaning back and using momentum to pull the bar because it could cause injury to your shoulders and lower back.

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row



Setup: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and place your left hand and left knee on a flat bench, back flat and shoulders square. Allow your right arm to hang straight toward the floor with your head neutral.

Action: Keeping your arm in close to your side, drive your elbow toward the ceiling to pull the dumbbell up to your rib cage. Squeeze your shoulder blade at the top of the motion, then lower to the start with control.

Tip: Maintain the vertical movement of the dumbbell (straight up and down) while keeping your shoulders square.

Seated Cable Row



Setup: Attach a V-handle to the cable pulley and hold it with your arms straight. Sit up tall with your knees slightly bent, back slightly arched and chest lifted.

Action: Pull the handle in toward your abdomen by driving your elbows rearward and pulling your shoulder blades together. Keep your arms in close to your sides and your chest lifted. Pause a moment at the peak contraction, then slowly reverse the move to return to the start.

Tip: Don’t allow your body to be pulled forward as you lower the weight. Stay sitting tall throughout.




Setup: Take a wide overhand grip on a pull-up bar and allow your body to hang straight down. Cross your feet behind you, lift your chest and your chin, and tighten your abs.

Action: Drive your elbows down and pull yourself up toward the bar, coming as high as you can and aiming to bring your chin over the bar if possible. Slowly lower to the start, coming to a full extension of your arms.

Tip: If you can’t yet do free-hanging pull-ups, try using a large rubber band for assistance or look for an assisted pull-up machine at your gym.

Reverse-Grip Barbell Row



Setup: Take a shoulder-width, underhand grip on a barbell. Unrack the bar and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hinge forward 45 degrees, with your back and arms straight and knees slightly bent.

Action: Bend your elbows and pull the bar up toward your bellybutton, keeping your arms in close to your sides and squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top. Slowly lower to the start and repeat right away.

Tip: Imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades at the top of the move to make the most of the contraction.

T-Bar Row



Setup: Secure the end of a barbell in the corner of the room. Load the opposite end and secure a V-handle underneath the bar, sliding it up so it rests against the end of the barbell. Straddle the bar with your knees bent and your back straight and grasp the V-handle with both hands. Straighten your knees until they are only slightly bent to lift the weighted end off the floor, holding it with your arms straight, back flat and torso angled about 45 degrees.

Action: Drive your elbows up and back, squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling the V-handle toward your abdomen. Pause at the peak contraction, then slowly lower to the start under control.

Tip: Keep your abs and glutes engaged to stabilize your spine and pelvis as you perform your reps.

Barbell Pullover



Setup: Lie back on a flat bench with the top of your head just at the end. Have a partner hand you a light barbell and grip it overhand with your hands shoulder-width apart. Hold it straight up over your chest, arms perpendicular to the floor.

Action: Keeping your arms straight, slowly lower the barbell back and over your head until your arms come next to your ears, nearly parallel to the floor. Hold the stretch for a second, then pull your arms back up smoothly in an arc to return to the start position.

Tip: If you find your back is arching as you lower the weight, bring your feet up onto the bench.

Stretch For Success

Lifting heavy makes your muscles tight and stiff. Download this short stretching routine to do postworkout.

Download here (.PDF format)