More than any other body area, the back has always fascinated me. I've met some overall weak people with an inflated arms or chest, but I haven't met a weak person with a strong back. In fact, very few old time strongmen had big chests, but almost all of them consistently had strong backs.
From Sandow to Hackenschmidt, Bruce Lee to Mas Oyama, gymnasts, martial artists and lifters alike all display immensely powerful backs at the highest skill level. I like to think of the back as the dashboard of the body. It's the control center; if you master the control center, you can direct and facilitate the other body parts.
Think about it. So many muscles of the body run through the back; 17 muscles are attached to the shoulder blades alone, with even more connected to the neck, and the upper and lower spine. Having back strength means that your body is stable, coordinated, and functional.
I think of the back in three sections: the wings, the yoke, and the tower. The wings include all the muscles and tendons connected to the shoulder blades. I won't list them all, but this includes muscles that control your chest, stabilize your arms and shoulders, or support the shoulder blades themselves.
Building on the muscles and tendons around your wings will make both your pushing and pulling movements stronger. Your overall arm speed and shoulder mobility will get a power boost. Training your wings will help you fly.
Pullups are the king of wings. Bar none, knowing how to do a proper pull up will build your wings perhaps more than any other exercise. When you approach the pullup bar, make sure you use a wide grip to target the back instead of the closer grip for biceps.
You want to pull up with your scapula before you begin you actually pull up. This sounds complicated, but all you really have to do is arch your back. That's it. When you arch your back while holding the pull up bar, that ensures that your back gets the most that it can from the pull.
If you're a beginner to pull ups, try arching and un-arching your back to build up your scapular strength a bit, also known as scapular pull ups. It may look a bit odd, but I don't care about looks here, I'm teaching for functionality. The stronger your wings become from doing this, the stronger your pull ups will be.
Rows are also a great exercise for building the wings, but again the wider grip is better for back strength than a close grip row. A proper workout of training rows will leave your muscles burning, and you'll see and feel the benefits in due time.
A personal tip for rows: I find that rowing is more difficult, but gives faster benefits, when performed with a barbell instead of a machine. While the machine gives strength, the movement is very linear; when rowing with a barbell, you can work circular movements, side to side movements, and other movements that contribute to real world, functional strength. Bud Jeffries, a world record powerlifter and performing strongman, calls this 3D Strength and he has a program that goes into much more depth about this and other exercises for real world strength.
Both rows and pullups also help to develop...
Training the yoke means that you are serious about getting strong. The yoke is the diamond shaped area that starts at the nape of your neck, spreads out to your traps in between your wings, and ends at your spine. It's been said “you can fake big arms, but you can't fake a strong yoke”, and I'm inclined to believe it.
Martial artists, football players, powerlifters, and many of the power and strength athletes of the world sport strong yokes. The yoke adds power and stability to the neck, acts as a shock absorber for the upper spine and neck, and gives strength to the wings as well. Training the yoke will make you strong and resilient.
Shrugs are often the go to exercise when people think of training the yoke. That thick trap look is one that many strength trainers desire, and separates the “pencil necks” from “the strongmen”.
In other words, one of the things that separates the people who preach strength and the ones who practice it is this difference in trap and neck thickness. Shrugs will help quite a bit with this. Grab a pair of free weights, or load up a barbell and hold it with both hands behind your back. Then shrug like you don't know the answer.
Now, I have a bit of a problem with shrugs. It only really trains the upper trap muscles, but the traps don't just sit on the sides of your neck. Your trap muscles extend halfway down your back. To work the lower traps, I tweaked an exercise a bit.
I call this exercise The Seal, because it looks a bit like a seal poised on a rock. Don't let the name fool you, it can really challenge your mental and physical strength, and it can build up your wings, yoke, and tower simultaneously. The Seal is just like The Superman, which I'll get into later, except that your arms are extended straight behind you instead of straight in front of you.
If you do this while also lifting your legs from the floor and holding them in the air, you will feel your yoke, wings, and tower burning pretty quickly. Don't just casually hold the position; try your best to curl your body as hard as you can to really feel The Seal. You can do this for reps while holding weights in your hands, or do an isometric hold with it training up to 30 seconds.
The tower is the central support of the back, well, the whole body. The longitudinal muscles that run down from the back of your neck all the way down your spine to your erector spinae make up this tower. This is essentially the center of upper body mobility. There are so many joints in your spine that it's really easy to injure it, but if you instead train all the tendons, muscles, and ligaments that support the spine, you'll be as near to invincible as a human can reach. Simply put, training the tower will make you invincible. Ish.
The deadlift is your best friend and will supply the power for your tower. I almost don't trust a back training regimen that doesn't include a good deadlift; it's that crucial. A proper deadlift will build the power of your spine from top to bottom, and help you get that elusive 'Christmas tree' back that happens with the combo of a thick erector spinae and tapering lats.
Partial lifts are your friends when it comes to deadlift training and building up the tower. Doing a partial lift means instead of doing a full-range deadlift, you only pull the last few inches of the lift. Not a lot of people support partial lifts, but that's because they're either flapping their gums and haven't tried them, or their doing it wrong. Plain and simple.
Partial lifts are a secret weapon of true strongmen. One of the biggest mistake that a lifter can make is ignoring the power of partial lifts. What's so different about only lifting the weight a few inches from lock out and doing the full range? Quite a lot actually. Partial lifts, because they're done in the strongest range, allow for a lot more weight than a full range lift. You may only be able to full range deadlift 220lbs, but you can quickly train your partial deadlift up to 800lbs or more. Not only will this tremendous weight help to strengthen the muscles at the top of the lift, but it teaches the muscle to be more comfortable at handling max weight.
The heavy weight also helps to develop the tendons and ligaments all along the movement, so that contrary to popular belief, partial lifts DO transfer strength to full range lifts. You won't get as much tendon and ligament development from a weaker full range lift as you can from a heavy partial lift.
Will you go from a 220lbs full range deadlift to 800lbs with partial lift training? Maybe not, but you'll definitely make much faster gains and have a head start on everyone else who doesn't train partials. If you want more detail about how to do partial lifts properly, how the strength transfers to full range, and exactly how they'll make you stronger, I recommend you click here.
There are some supplemental, and slightly more advanced exercises that help to build all three areas of the back. This includes the wrestler's bridge, which is my personal favorite back exercise, and the Superman. I cover both of these exercises in more detail in another article, so click here now to read more about it.