Build a Barn-door Back: My Number One Go-to Exercise


While every guy seems to care only about building a big chest and arms when he hits the gym there’s very few achievements more visually impressive than a big back. Have a wide, thick back will add depth to your physique, widen you out, and give you more of a presence when you walk into the room. Not only does having a well-developed back look bad-ass as hell, but it also increases your stability on all of your lifts, improves your posture (which makes you look taller and more dominant), and keeps your shoulders healthy. All of these add up to mean that you need to be putting some serious effort into building up your back!

All of my clients develop a bad-ass back very early in their training with me because I feel that it is one of the biggest keys to success in lifting. If they’ve got a big, strong back then they can learn and develop all of the other stuff much faster because they’re starting from a secure launch pad.

Despite how awesome a big back is, you rarely see one, especially in public gyms or out at the club. There’s a few reasons for that. First of all, building a back takes time and a lot of hard work. The back doesn’t respond to lots of light “pump” repetitions like your favorite bicep exercise. You’ve got to lift heavy and put in the work, which few guys are willing to do. I’ve puked from back training before, which I don’t necessarily recommend, but when was the last time you heard somebody talk about getting sick, seeing God, or having a breakdown from some wrist curls?

Even a lot of the hard-training guys can’t get their backs to grow and that’s because there’s a neurological component to this, too. You see, in order to use our muscles efficiently and make them grow, we need to actually use the muscles that we’re trying to work. This is that “mind-muscle connection” that you hear old school bodybuilders talk about. Now, I’m not going to tell you to learn to flex just one muscle of your body on command and what-not (save that for the competitive bodybuilders), but think about it for a second: The muscles that you see in the mirror like your pecs, front delts, and biceps are pretty much under your control, aren’t they? You can flex your bicep or your pec on command. This is because it looks awesome and you’ve spent a lot of time flexing them in front of the mirror (hopefully without being a tool in public or every time a hot chick walks by). You’ve got pretty good neurological control over these muscles and when you do a curl or press you know what muscles are supposed to be firing and your body knows it, too.

Now flex your lats. A lot of you won’t be able to, or if you can, it’s a pretty weak contraction. This is because you don’t train them as much and with the same connection. When you can’t contract your lats well then you will have a much harder time developing them. It’s this connection that we’re going to fix, and by fixing that connection you’ll have a bigger back, be able to do more pull-ups, look more complete, and have a stronger launchpad for your bench and overhead pressing (so those lifts should go up as well).

Ok, you’re going to learn the Lat Shrug. From the stretched position you’re going to pull your shoulder blades down and back. This is how all rowing (vertical or horizontal) exercises should begin but most guys miss the boat on. Most guys don’t do this and thus end up doing all of their rowing by pulling with their biceps. As a result, they don’t strengthen and improve their back much and are limited in their strength as the biceps are obviously much smaller muscles.

The Lat Shrug:

Begin by grabbing either a pull-up bar or a lat pulldown bar and really stretching your lats out. This is where you’ll start your pulling from. Feel your shoulder blades spreading apart. Now keep your arms straight and pull your shoulder blades down and together while bringing your chest up towards the bar. Remember that you’re not bending your elbows, so this is a pretty short range of motion. Hold that as tightly as possible for 2-5 seconds and return to the stretched position. Repeat for a total of five reps. Rest for a minute or so and repeat the set a few more times. You’re trying to educate the muscle, not necessarily build it (although if you’re really under-developed you can see some growth from this alone), so don’t worry about trying to hit failure or even really deep fatigue.

Perform this 3-5 sessions per week before your back training to start to dial in this connection. When you perform any type of row be sure to try to pull the shoulder down and back before you bend the elbow.

Extra Tips:

1. Have a partner “tap” gently on your lats when you’re trying to contract them. This helps you develop this connection sooner. Don’t use your training partner if they’re a dick and just going to punch you in the side. Funny, but painful and ineffective.

2. Use an overhand or neutral grip for a while on most pulling exercises. The underhand grip has a tendency to bring more bicep into the movement, which is good at times but something that we’re trying to avoid at this point in your learning curve.

3. Use mental trickery. There’s a couple of mental tricks that can really help to engage the lats while avoiding overuse of the biceps. The first is to imagine that your hands are just hooks holding onto the bar. Grip the bar hard enough to hold onto it (obviously) but don’t over-grip the bar. This has a tendency to get the biceps going.

The second trick I use with my clients to really get the back fired up is to imagine that you’re pushing your elbows back throughout the movement, rather than pulling the weight towards you. As strange as this sounds, it helps engage the muscles of the back better.

Developing a strong, athletic, and attractive physique involves a lot more than just “going to the gym to lift weights”. Unless you’re genetically blessed then you will spend a lot of time pounding away ineffectively if you don’t start learning the most effective methods for developing muscle that both shows and goes. I know you’re a busy guy and don’t have time to waste on things that don’t work, so I’m here to provide the fastest and most efficient way to build the body you need.

What’s your favorite training tip?

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April 14, 2011

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