Improve your back development!
Many people look for a magic formula when it comes to improving a particular body part. What is that secret workout or exercise that others seem to know about but I don’t? In reality, if you have a body part that is lagging then the way you train it and ensuring you are maximising the stress on the target muscle will do far more for you than changing the exercises, reps or increasing the volume. In this article I am going to focus on back development in particular so if you wish to improve your lats, then this article is for you!
Mind Muscle Connection
Many people suffer from letting there biceps take on a lot of the work and will feel more soreness in their arms after training back than in their lats. The key here is that mind-muscle connection! If you feel your arms are doing more work than the back, then close your eyes during those sets and focus on feeling the lats do the work! My back is now a strong point but it only started to became that after around 8 years of training due to working on this and the subsequent changes made to my back training as a result of improving that connection.
When you are doing a row for example, you need to focus on the range of motion of the lats and not just moving the weight. This means that you should not be full stretching the arms on the negative portion of the rep, if you focus on stretching the lats as you lower the weight (the low cable row is a good exercise to practice this on and then apply to other rows) you can still have a significant bend in the arms even in the fully stretched position. Once the lats become fully stretched you are only switching tension to the arms by continuing to lower the weight further. The same applies to contractions, it really is just a case of training your mind to work the lats and use the nervous impulses to those muscles rather than the arms. Keep your chest up and really focus on squeezing the lats, if you can not hold and squeeze in that contracted position for a split second then the weight is too heavy!
Another thing that really helped my own progress and is one of the best ways to improve mind muscle connection is posing! When I first competed I was taught the standard bodybuilding poses to practice and connecting effectively with some of the muscles at first was a struggle. For example, I noticed the left side chest was much harder to really hold and squeeze than the right and this corresponded well with training where at the time the right side was the side that I always found easiest to connect with during training. But when you practice these poses you are simply practicing mind muscle connection, you are holding and squeezing contractions in those muscles and encouraging all the muscle fibres to fire. So, learn how to do a front and back lat spread and practice! It does not have to be in the gym, you can practice those at home just for a few minutes most days and that will really help improve the mind muscle connection!
When training back, on most exercises I will use straps or Versa Gripps as unless you are training for "grip strength" you do not want to sacrifice the weight you can use on back exercises because of your grip strength! On most back exercises, straps or grips allow you to take the thumb out of the grip completely and then use the fingers as a hook with the grips. This minimises recruitment of the biceps and forearms and allows a greater focus on the lats.
I do this on most back exercises including pulldowns, low cable rows and any machine or hammer strength rows. It's not really possible on barbell rows or deadlifts due to the movement pattern. On other body parts, like biceps and presses a strong grip is needed, but here we are looking to maximise the stress on the lats and gripping the bar in this fashion is a great way to help do so!
Intensity and Failure Points
Personally, I like to go heavy on most back exercises most of the time, 3 plates a side on the final set of barbell rows for example, but I am still ensuring I maximally stimulate that muscle. On the earlier sets I will rehearse and get zoned in on feeling the lats do the work. But, for long-term progress, there is nothing wrong with cutting back on the weight temporarily and just focusing on working the target muscle. Try the principle of ensuring you can squeeze and hold in the contracted position for a split second, or even a brief 2 count initially and if you are unable to do that then the weight is too heavy.
Another thing that can really help providing you are training at high intensities is spotting. This is not really possible on rows but does make a huge difference on pulldowns! You will need to explain to the spotter exactly what you need them to do before starting the set as it is important that they only assist through the sticking point. When you perform the pulldowns and you still keep your chest up throughout even close to failure, you will notice you fail about halfway through a rep. This means you are able to start the rep but not get it to that point where you are fully contracted and squeeze. Because that mid part of the rep is the weakest point, when you fail there you won’t have failed at the start of the rep and more importantly the end of the rep where you squeeze the contractions. If someone helps you just push through that sticking point, you will notice you are able to get a good 3-4 more reps out before you actually fail at the final part of the rep where you are getting into the fully contracted position. Being able to reach failure here really does help you progress!
Whilst spotting may not be possible on some back exercises like barbell rows, here you can replicate it by using momentum at the right time just to help get you through the sticking point. This really is only for advanced trainees as it is very easy to use too much momentum or use it too early and therefore reduce the stimulus on the target muscle. But used correctly it is a great way to just get through that sticking point and get into the contracted position whilst still maximally stimulating the target muscle. Again this will allow you a few more reps than you would otherwise be able to perform as you are not stopping the set as soon as you fail at the weakest point of the rep.