If you spend enough time in the gym, you’ll eventually run into sticking points, where your body just refuses to grow. At times like these it’s important to mix up your training routine, and shock your body into growing. With back training, the most common thing I see at various gyms is people going for heavier and heavier weights – ego lifting, if you will. People throw on the lifting belt, grab their straps, and start swinging heavy weights around.
There’s a time and a place for this, but unless you want to train like Branch Warren every session, there are other ways. Training for strength should always be part of your program, but if size is your goal, these tricks could be just what your workouts have been missing.
What follows are three training methods that I’ve seen work very well for adding back size, when simply pulling heavier weights won’t do the trick. These training methods are geared towards pure hypertrophy. If you want to get stronger, you may need other specific methods, but if you want to get huge, keep reading.
Pre-exhaust training is an old-school training method, with quite a few benefits. You want train you major muscle groups using isolation movements before you get to your compound lifts. By doing this, you are fully warming up the muscles you will train. Most of you reading this know to do some warm-up sets anyway, but doing actual working sets with your back will make sure it is 100% fired up before you hit the big movements.
This changes up your routine by making the compound movement much harder. It will also allow you to fully engage the lats on your compound lifts, as they will already be working. You’ll have a much easier time using them to initiate your heavy movements, instead of letting your biceps or traps do too much of the work.
For back training, good options for pre-exhaust exercises would be dumbbell pullovers, single-arm machine rows, single-arm pulldowns, or straight-arm pulldowns. If you can, use lifting straps on the rows or pulldowns, to minimize bicep and forearm recruitment as much as possible. You want to make your lats work.
Do 3-4 sets utilizing anywhere from 8-15 reps. Your goal is to push a lot of blood into the muscles, and work them pretty hard. After your pre-exhaust sets, you can move on to heavier compound lifts, such as weighted chin-ups, Pendlay rows, or whatever else your program calls for.
Paused reps may be the best way to ensure perfect form, maximal mind-muscle connection, and increase time under tension. I’m referring to pausing mid-rep, not at the bottom of the movement. Pausing at the bottom of the rep is great for strength athletes, but we are looking for muscle recruitment and time under tension, two key factors in hypertrophy.
While these shouldn’t be a main movement in your session, they work great towards the end of the session, or as a finisher. You’ll be using lighter weights than you normally would, but the reps will still be very challenging.
To perform a mid-rep paused set, use around 50-70% of the weight you would normally use. Your tempo should be slow and controlled the whole time. Remember, you are trying to contract your lats as much as possible, not move the most weight. This is about control of the movement, and learning to fully engage your lats.
Start the rep, pausing for one second halfway through. Complete the rep, squeeze your lats as hard as you can, and pause at the mid-point again during the lowering phase.
This may seem like a weird tempo, but remember, the goal is to engage the lats as much as possible. It’s very easy to let your arms do most of the work when training your back, and it’s even easier swing and use momentum. Pausing your reps like this eliminates any swinging or momentum, and is a very easy way to ensure perfect form.
Paused rep training like this works best with lat pulldowns and cable rows. Use lifting straps if you can, and think about starting the movement by engaging your lats and pulling your elbows back or down.
Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
We all know what traditional drop sets are by now; you simply reduce the weight once you hit failure to perform more reps. Mechanical advantage drop sets also allow you to perform more reps, but they work by changing the angle of the movement, rather than the weight. Traditional drop sets work great, but this a new way to mix up your training and try something new.
My favorite way to use this is with Smith machine inverted rows. Yes, the Smith machine can be useful! You can also do this if you have access to a suspension trainer, like a TRX.
Start with the bar very low, and do as many as inverted rows as you can. This should be a workout finisher, but if you still find these too easy, try using chains to add resistance, or performing these with one arm at a time. Your entire body should be straight, with your core braced.
Once you can no longer complete any rows, raise the bar one or two notches, or stand up a little taller if using a TRX, and do more rows to failure. Repeat for a total of 3-4 sets. As you get more and more upright, the angle makes the movement easier, so you’ll be able to perform more repetitions with your bodyweight.