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#7: Building the Back

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

201002_bodysculptingQ: Denis,

Thank you for the informative articles. They are some of the best I have ever read. I have a question about training the back muscles. I usually can't feel the back muscles when I train them like I feel other muscles in my body. For example, my biceps burn when I train them hard, but my back never does. My back muscles also don't develop the same. What can you suggest?

Thank you,

. . . Tom Ainsley

A: Hi Tom,

Thanks again for the comment about my articles. I know I say this every time, but I really appreciate it when people tell me that I helped them in the pursuit of their objectives.

Your question is very interesting, as many bodybuilders experience a lot of trouble developing their back adequately. The main reasons for this are lack of knowledge of anatomy and minimal understanding of the biomechanics of the human body. A lot of trainers and so-called fitness "experts" think they know their anatomy until you start using specific terms; you then quickly realize their limitations, and it’s amazing how fast you lose them! They prefer to go with intuition rather than investigation and rarely do they use a really scientific and logical approach, which is what kinesiology (the science of human movement) is all about.

To answer your question, I will illustrate my point by analyzing one of the problems many bodybuilders face (even at the professional level): let’s call it the "high lats" problem. To clarify -- the situation is that they will say that a certain bodybuilder will have "high lats" because the muscle belly under the armpit won’t go as low on the sides as that of a bodybuilder with a very great "V" shape (taper). They will then assume that the guy has either "higher lat attachment" or, even worse, that he has to train his "lower lats" more to overcome the problem. Well, this clearly shows that these guys have no idea what they’re talking about and need to go back to school if they want to be called "professionals." I’m sorry but it’s true.

Doug Schneider once sent me a copy of some of Vince Gironda’s articles. He did so because he told me that my articles (and my thinking) reminded him of the way Vince wrote. As I was reading the material, I quickly realized what he meant. Like me, Vince thought that you can literally "sculpt" your physique as long as you really understand how the human body works, and in order to do that successfully you need to be specific and severe about exercise form. Interestingly, he particularly referred to the chin-up as an example to illustrate his point. I found this amusing, as I do use this very example a lot with my students and in my seminars, so I will cover it once again but for the first time in an article. (Keep on reading as this may change the way you look at your exercises.) We will, thus, take the chin-up as an example.

200812_vince

In my previous articles, I was a bit worried about going too deep into details. But this time, I have no choice but to get even deeper in kinesiology terminology (this means though that you get a free functional anatomy crash course). I will try to simplify as much as I can, but you may need to refer to an anatomy book.

First with the big news: there’s no such thing as "high" or "low" lats as the muscle insertions are the same for everyone (with maybe some few pathological exceptions). If you are suspicious, open any book on anatomy and see for yourself. Now, I know some will tell you (as an excuse) that there’s always a genetic factor that comes into play (of course), but rather than just comparing yourself to others, you can always improve your own body composition by carefully selecting and performing your exercises. Personally, I’ve been training for 15 years and I still I feel my back muscles after every workout, and most of the time I’m even sore for 2-3 days.

Here’s the real picture: the fact is that there are two distinct muscles under the armpit that create that "V" shape: the teres major and the latissimus dorsi. The teres major is a single-joint muscle that connects your humerus (arm) directly to the scapula. It is thus only responsible for movements at the glenohumeral joint of the shoulder (movements of the arm). The latissimus dorsi inserts around the same place on the humerus, but covers the lumbar region and the lower half of the thoracic region by stretching all the way down to the sacrum making it the largest muscle of the upper body (isn’t that low enough?). Those two muscles execute the same movements at the glenohumeral joint: medial (inward) rotation, adduction, and extension of the arm. The only difference between the two is that only the latissimus dorsi expands outside the scapula and is thus also responsible for the depression (lowering) of the shoulder and lordosis (arching) of the lumbar spine (lower back).

One thing people don’t realize is that the teres major comprises much of the muscle volume you see right under the armpit, because at this point the latissimus dorsi is nothing but a thin layer of muscle fibres, as it has to circumvent the teres major and insert in front of it on the arm. This means that the bulk of the teres major is more related to shoulder width, and the straight line of the latissimus dorsi has more to do with a linear "V" shape. All this information should already give you a hint about what you need to do to overcome the above problem. But let’s go further in our analysis.

At first, make sure that you don’t have posture issues. If you’re like most bodybuilders out there, you probably don’t do any really specific stretching for the anterior region (mainly pectoralis major and serratus anterior) and can’t manage to open your rib cage efficiently. If you have restricted range of motion and can’t open the front of your body thoroughly, it will be impossible for you to successfully contract your back muscles. That’s a major factor people never consider right there.

Here’s another important principle. To better isolate a muscle you have two options: either you choose to respect its vector (line of fibres) by doing the exact movement it is responsible for, or you choose to bring that particular muscle (or group of muscle fibres) into its fully stretched position, forcing it to react and become the primary mover. By the way, research showed that stretching plays a major role in muscle hypertrophy. This means that selecting the chin-up with a supinated (underhand) grip in the first place will have better targeted the two muscles, because doing so will have brought a better stretch by placing the arm in maximal flexion and lateral rotation (opposite of extension and medial rotation).

You must also take into account that a single-joint muscle is usually stronger than a multi-joint one and that the body will always use its best player(s) to get the job done when performing an exercise. Basically, this means that every time you do a pulling exercise, there’s a good chance that the teres major muscle will do most of the work at the shoulder joint. You see where I’m heading to? This situation will never allow the latissimus dorsi to be fully stimulated unless you bring a slight "twist" to your exercise, which would be to either elevate the scapula (shoulder) and/or bring your lower back in kyphosis in the stretch position. This will bring the muscle into its fully stretched position and force it to react. For the upward motion, instead of pulling dominantly with your arms (like most guys you’ll see in the gym), start by pulling your shoulders down and roll them backward as you try to bring your elbows back and close to your body (extension and adduction of the arm). Once at the top, voluntarily open your chest and arch your back to further bring the latissimus dorsi into its fully contracted position (lordosis). To make it easier for you to understand, I made some drawings to illustrate this particular motion:

Start

200812_chin_start

On the left, the picture illustrates the way most people start the motion at the bottom position, with arms fully straight and shoulders down. The teres major is highlighted because much of the movement is performed at the glenohumeral joint. To really stretch all the fibres of the latissimus dorsi, you need to slowly go deeper into the stretch by allowing an elevation of the scapula to a point where you literally feel "trapped" between your shoulders (under control, of course). It is at this point that you could get an even better stretch by rounding your lower back (kyphosis).

Finish

200812_chin_finish

Here again on the left, you see the usual way people end the chin-up with the bar as close as possible to the chest. On the right, is the movement you should be doing past this point, where you slightly bend backward in a circular way, bringing the lower back into an exaggerated lordosis (arch). Stop that motion when you really feel the contraction low in the back. You want to really focus on your back, so don’t strive to pull with your arms either; just think about bringing your elbows together behind your back to force the adduction.

You should be conscious of all the phases of the exercise as you perform it, which means neither bouncing nor swinging. If you don’t pay attention to those details when performing a chin-up (or any back exercise for that matter), then you’re probably one of those bodybuilders who have great shoulder width but complain about their "V" shape, which you now know is in almost every case an overdeveloped teres major as opposed to an under-stimulated latissimus dorsi.

200812_backshotRemember that the back comprises many muscle groups that work in different ways. This was just an example for one vertical motion for the back muscles. To fully develop your physique, you would have to apply the same logic to all the movements that work the muscles of your back. Think about the difference it would make if you did this to all your exercises. Look around and you’ll rarely see people actually paying attention to any of these details, which is why a lot of people have trouble developing a well-balanced physique.

Concentration is another factor you need to consider. When training your back, you really need to be focused as you don’t actually see the muscles working. The most you can do is "feel" them and the chin-up is really the best exercise you can do for your back. One of the reasons is that the function of the latissimus dorsi is to maintain the stability of the glenohumeral joint when the humerus is hanging. By selecting the chin-up instead of an exercise like the pulldown machine, you will have made a better choice, because having to hold your bodyweight onto the bar will activate that muscle even more. By the way, don’t use the gravitron machine (the one with the lever that helps you with supporting weights) as it takes most of the eccentric mechanical stress and, incidentally, your much anticipated results away! The eccentric part of the exercise plays a critical role in hypertrophy. I even suggest that you use heavy weights (that you can still handle properly) when training your back to increase the negative part of the exercise. I also have all of my clients pause for a second or two at the top and at the end of the movement to fully contract or stretch the targeted muscles.

I think the only other exercise that can come close to the chin-up in terms of stimulation and results is the upside-down row. You don’t see that one performed very often and I think the only time I saw it was in Vince’s books. I use it a lot in my own training and it’s definitely my favourite back exercise. I would be more than pleased to discuss it in detail but I think that’s enough for now with the quick functional anatomy crash course. Maybe in another article.

Have a nice time training!

Sincerely,

. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006

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