You know the guy.
The one that has a back so wide he has to walk sideways through doorways.
Yeah, he’s cool.
And there’s a part of you that wants the same, but no matter how many deadlifts you do, the wing span doesn’t budge.
You’ve probably been taught that the best way to build a huge back is through the deadlift. Only one problem: it doesn’t work for everyone.
You are likely one of those guys who needs to think outside the box a little bit…
Get Freaky With it
Start incorporating things like 1.5 reps, partial reps, varying angles, and static holds to see what your back responds to.
Take static holds, for example.
Look at the back musculature of Olympic gymnasts (who largely train and perform with static holds).
Dr. Jacob Wilson and his team investigated the effects of weighted intra-set stretching on skeletal muscle size and strength.
Twenty-four recreationally trained subjects (around 20 years old) were randomly assigned to stretching and non-stretching conditions.
The training focused on calves, with muscle thickness effectively doubled in the group that used the stretching method (+23 mm ± 5.0 vs. + 9 mm ± 4.8) compared to the control group.
Both groups performed 4 sets of 12-rep calf raises on a leg press twice a week for 5 weeks. The first set was performed at 90% of subjects’ 1-rep max (1RM), followed by 3 sets in which the weight was decreased by 15% of subjects’ 1-RM per set.
The trainees in the stretching group let the weight from the leg press stretch their gastrocnemius (the big muscle in your upper calf) in the fully-stretched bottom position for 30 seconds between sets.
To apply this method to your back training, after completing a set of weighted pull-ups, fully extend your arms and hang. Keep your feet off the ground for maximal tension. Repeat using lighter weight (or bodyweight) for 2 or 3 additional sets of 30 second holds.
A word of caution: there’s a time and place for stretching. Doing them at the beginning of a workout has been shown to have a negative impact on training performance.
In a review published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 20 studies all found that an acute stretching session performed before training diminished performance.
Wait until you’ve completed all of your reps before finishing off the muscle with a static hold.
Too Much Body English
If you are dry humping the barbell with every rep, you need to check your ego at the door and start with the lowest weight possible.
Here’s one exercise to “force” good form. I call them Marriage Rows, because you can’t cheat on them. I doubt it catches on.
You simply get setup on an incline bench (in a smith machine or power rack) and keep your torso fixed to the bench with each rep. You can substitute a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells for the barbell here.
Another good exercise I recommend if you have trouble feeling your back or your arms take over on most exercises is a straight arm pulldown, which takes your lats through a full range of motion, forcing them into action.
Not Resetting Each Rep
You want to relax your scapulae on each rep.
In layman’s terms, you want to fully extend your arms on the eccentric portion of the lift, reach to the ceiling, before pulling the next rep.
Too often lifters will keep the mid and lower traps in an isometric position and pull through a partial range of motion with each rep.
One exercise to force that stretch are Meadows Rows (hat tip to John Meadows for these).
These are a modified version of a one-arm dumbbell row, using a T-Bar instead. Stand on the floor next to the thick end of the bar, where you’d normally stand if you were adding another plate. Grab the thick part of the bar with one hand and row.
This exercise (when done correctly) encourages a full stretch that the bottom, relaxing the scapulae with each rep, fully engaging the lats.
Notice how I have my hip closet to the bar hiked up a bit. This stretches your lower lats a bit more, and ensures they have to work harder as well. Use smaller plates (not 45 lbs) to increase range of motion.
One other outside-the-box movement that fits this category is one-arm T-bar rows. See video below for an example. I use smaller plates for the largest range of motion possible, and work in the 12-15 rep range for the best pump, generally pyramiding up in weight for 4-5 sets. Start with a couple plates and keep adding weight each set until you no longer hit your desired rep range.