Morgan MacDonald's back muscles

Why Your Back Is Small and How to Fix It

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It never ceases to amaze me how many gym goers poorly train their back. Not surprisingly, their back muscles (or lack thereof) reflects their training habits.

The tough part about back training is that you are usually not able to look at the muscles working as you would be on chest and arm days.

Truth is, we aren’t as good at back movements as we are at front movements because we can’t see the muscles and can’t watch them work while lifting.

Once we learn to close our eyes and just focus on what we feel in the back, we can begin to learn how to target certain areas more effectively.

This skill will clearly transfer to other muscle groups that could very well be on the front side of the body.

What Creates Training Weak Points?

jacked factory shaker bottle at the gym

Basically, we have weak areas because:

  1. We do not perform exercises that engage the said muscle group very well, if at all.
  2. We innately have dominant muscles that carry the weight of the work on the exercise, causing a build-up of neglect to the weaker areas.

Essentially, their natural strong points keep becoming stronger and leave the rest of their body behind.

Having a large imbalance between muscle groups is a sure path to injury down the road.

Thus, the actionable tips in this article will help you finally get that barn-door back and more balanced physique you’re after!

Build a Better Back with These Simple Training Tweaks

When training any weak area or lagging muscle groups, or even just training to keep gains coming and to keep things interesting, one should focus on:

  • Grip style
  • Angle
  • Range of motion (ROM)
  • Fractionated training

For instance, performing a basic seated row or bent-over row may seem straightforward, but depending on how you hold the weight, what angle you pull the weight towards your body, and the ROM you focus on, you can put a majority of emphasis on just about any muscle in the back.

That’s right, a simple rowing exercise can target the lats, teres major/minor, rhomboids/traps/rear delts or the erector spinae if you really want it to. So hitting weak areas doesn’t always equate to more exercises or even different exercises, just different execution.

The Case Against Heavy Bent-Over Rows

When you see guys doing extremely heavy bent-over rows and only managing to bang out half reps or swinging the weight to their hips rather than their chest, they are doing a disservice to their total back development.

Haphazard bent-over rows like that engage only the lats in the movement and maybe some of the teres major/minor. But someone who leaves their ego at the door will eventually have a back that appears to be 10″ thick because they lighten the weight and squeeze the bar up to the chest area and hold the weight there. Just try doing a bent-over row that way, and you’ll be amazed at how little weight you actually need to stimulate your entire back.

To have well-rounded back development, you’ll need to also implement “fractionated training.”

Fractionated training entails completing a set using full ROM for each rep until failure is reached, then doing partial reps on the top half of that movement only allowing the weight to fall maybe 6″ from the top of the lift. This is especially useful in back training since the rhomboids get the “final squeeze”; that little half inch movement that separates the boys from the men at the top of that heavy lift you just did.

The tension should be felt right in the center of the back, almost like your spine getting a wakeup call because your rhomboids just bear hugged it.

Recapping the key training tweaks

  1. Leave the ego at the door
  2. Use fractionated training
  3. ROM, grip style, and movement angle are all key variables to manipulate

Great Back Exercises You’re Not Doing

Lu Xiaojun and Dimitri Klokov are two well-documented lifters. There are some good videos of them, especially slow motion videos, doing less common exercises that can propel back development.

This video is a perfect example of the overhead squat and engaging the back muscles you’re looking to target. It also helps that he is a walking anatomy chart.

Please note his mobility though, where his head is ‘through the bar’; this allows the weight to be central and stabilized by just back muscles.

Most may find it a little hard to start off, but with some stretching and persistence, it is a great exercise. It will also benefit your posture and core strength.

Unlike limbs, though, it isn’t the best policy to train the individual back muscles as you see them on anatomy charts.

Your back is a cohesive network of muscles that more or less all serve to stabilize your spine and pull objects towards the body. Therefore, even good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, and reverse hyperextensions will all help you achieve a back that looks like a set of train rails.

Kettlebells may also come in handy for things like hi-rep deadlifts and kettlebell swings.

jacked factory athlete doing lat pulldowns

How to Totally Develop a Back

To clarify, trying to target the rhomboids solely isn’t a productive way of lifting for back muscle development.

However, there can be an emphasis put on certain muscles within a group of muscles, similar to what we see with upper and lower chest muscles, various heads of the triceps, and so on.

Also, like most things in life, there is more than one way to your destination. Back training is no exception.

Heavy deadlifts, snatches, bent-over rows with varying grips are all examples of exercises that help build an exceptional back. 

The real problem isn’t exercise selection, but that we all have habits to utilize some muscles over others, thus imbalance ensues. Use the tips in this article to stop those poor training habits in their tracks and build a well-rounded back!

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Elliot Reimers

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