Get Freaky With It: Back Training Tips for Dummies

Ah, back training day. It’s a love-hate relationship, but there are few times I feel better in the gym than when I’m grinding out a back workout.

Admittedly, though, getting my back to grow was a struggle in my early training days, lacking in relation to my legs and chest despite training it in much the same fashion. I thought if I trained it hard and heavy, with deadlifts and other compound movements, it would magically grow to the size of Ronnie Coleman’s. But no matter how much weight I deadlifted, the lat width didn’t seem to budge much!

So instead of pounding my head against the wall, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I figured I needed to change my approach to back training. Hitting my back in the low rep range that worked for my chest simply wasn’t working, so I needed to think outside the box.
Basically, I “got freaky with it.” What does this mean, you ask? Answer: Changing angles, rep schemes and exercises as often as possible, and pumping up the volume (16-20 sets a workout). Change is the name of the game, so no one workout should be the same.  I found if I focused on movements that allowed me to really feel the lats contract with each rep, and didn’t focus so much on the weight I was using, my back rewarded me with more width and definition.
Exercise Selection
I start every back day with rows. One outside-the-box movement that fits this category is one-arm T-bar rows. You want to emphasize the stretch on the negative portion of the lift (slow and controlled) and explode upward. 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.
YouTube video
Another rowing movement I favour is dumbbell rows—single arm or at the same time. For bent-over rows, grab a pair of dumbbells and bend until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Arch your back with your butt out and your head forward, and pull the dumbbells upward to the side of your body, maintaining strict form with a pause at the top. You’ll need to check your ego at the door and use lighter weight than you’re used to, but this really isolates the lats. Use a neutral grip (like you’re making a fist punching the floor). Props to former IFBB pro Phil Hernon for this one.
After you’ve rowed your lats into submission, it’s time to stretch that fascia! Triple Ps – pulldowns, pullups and pullovers – are the name of the game here.

Start with pulldowns. I like using a heavy weight with partial ROM – emphasizing the negative, stretched position of the movement. Lock your knees under the pad and start by pulling the weight down to the top of your head, then slowly fight the negative to full extension at the top, pausing there for an extra stretch. If your butt pulls out off the seat a few inches, so be it, just make sure you’re staying in control of the weight as best you can. John Meadows at gets credit for this one.

Pullovers are a great movement for lat width as well, but form is key here. Lie on a flat bench with your head hanging off the end. Lower the weight slowly and feel the stretch at the bottom. On the concentric portion of the movement, only pull up to a point where the bottom half of the DB is parallel to the top of your head. If you feel it in your triceps you’ve gone too far. Three sets of 10 with a fairly heavy weight will work wonders here.
YouTube video
I also like to spend some time working the lower back and traps for overall development. I usually throw these in at the end, but they can be inserted anywhere. Unlike the exercise selection that came before, I keep it simple with these two targeted areas. Any shrug variation using DBs, machine or barbell, with a three-second pause at the top, hits your traps well. Lower back gets plenty of work with hyperextensions and deadlift variations—nothing fancy here. Happy lifting!


Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.