How to build your lats and upper back without wrecking your lower back in the process.
One of my favorite T Nation article series is the 20-installment monster called Exercises You’ve Never Tried Before. I like it so much that I want to bring it back.
Rather than list a bunch of random exercises though, I’ll base my installment around a common theme: the backside of the body (aka the posterior chain). And more specifically, low back-friendly exercises to work the backside of the body.
Maybe you’ve hurt your lower back and can’t load your spine with the heavy basics like deadlifts and barbell rows but still want to strengthen your posterior chain. Or maybe you’re already banging away with heavy deads and squats and just want some accessory work that won’t hammer your lower back any further.
Either way, these exercises may be just what the doctor ordered.
For this chin-up variation, raise your legs until they’re parallel to the floor and don’t allow them to drop for the duration of the set.
Once you’ve established good body position, perform chin-ups as normal, pulling your upper chest to the bar on each rep. If you can, try to angle your torso so you’re leaning back slightly to further emphasize the lats. You can use any grip you’d like, but it’s best to vary it periodically.
This is a great one because it effectively kills two birds with one stone, functioning as both a back exercise and a core exercise. Having your legs raised in front of you also keeps you honest because you can’t use momentum from the lower body to propel yourself up.
You may initially lack the core strength and/or hamstring flexibility to do this with straight legs, in which case you can start with your legs bent and work on straightening them over time.
The position of the legs makes it difficult to add weight with a dip belt, so if you’re looking to make it harder, you can slow down the tempo, add a weight vest, put a small dumbbell between your feet, or use light ankles weights (absolutely brutal)!
Here’s one I picked up from Charles Poliquin, who refers to them as subscapularis chin-ups.
Using either a pronated or neutral grip, pull yourself up until your upper chest touches the bar. Your chest should be puffed out and your elbows pulled down and back – no rounded shoulders or sunken chests allowed.
Before you begin the descent, squeeze your lats, brace your core, contract your glutes, and begin to lean back as you slowly push yourself away from the bar. Use a controlled eccentric and continue to lean back as far as you can the whole way down.
Your torso should be at approximately 45 degrees to the floor. At the bottom, return your torso to an upright position and repeat for the desired reps.
Strive to keep your torso as straight as possible throughout the set. I recommend dorsiflexing the ankles to help lock the lower body into position. If you do these correctly, they’ll not only smoke your upper back and lats but fry your core as well.
If you type “sternum chin-ups” into YouTube, you’ll get a whole bunch of videos showing guys doing standard chin-ups where they simply pull their chest to the bar. That’s a great exercise, but I wouldn’t call that a sternum chin-up. I’d just call that a good chin-up.
Chin-up standards have become pathetically low. In my mind, a properly executed chin-up should always be pulled to the upper chest. It’s like saying a full squat: it’s redundant and shouldn’t be necessary. Sadly, I guess it is.
A true Gironda sternum chin-up (as prescribed by the legendary Vince Gironda) is a whole different animal.
Right as you begin the pull, tip your head back and try to look behind you as if you were attempting to do a backflip. Continue looking back as you pull while keeping your chest elevated and your lower body still. Depending on the length of your arms, you should contact with the bar anywhere between your lower chest and mid-abdomen.
Poliquin has referred to these as the king of upper back exercises, and for good reason. If done correctly, the contraction you get in your upper back will be unparalleled and your lats will be on fire after just a few reps.
This is an extremely advanced exercise, so make sure you’ve mastered other easier variations first before trying it. Furthermore, the arching required to complete the movement may be too provocative for extension-intolerant individuals, so if you fall into that camp and it causes you any pain whatsoever, choose something else.
Inverted rows are extremely underrated. Fact is, over the past couple years, they’ve become my favorite rowing exercise, especially for those with back pain. They allow you to attack the upper back without putting pressure on the lower back, and they also help to activate and strengthen the glutes, which are generally underactive in back pain sufferers.
If you have suspension straps – TRX, blast straps, rings, etc. – they’re also very shoulder friendly because they allow you to rotate your hands through a natural range of motion from pronated to supinated, which strengthens the rotator cuff. If you don’t have straps, you can use a bar in a power rack or Smith machine.
The reason most people blow these off initially is that they just seem too easy. However, I’d urge you to try them first before jumping to conclusions. Elevating the feet on a bench so that the torso is parallel to the floor increases difficulty. Lying plates across the chest or wearing a weight vest are further progressions.
Once you’ve mastered regular inverted rows, try using “1.5” reps. Row up, come halfway down, row up again, then come all the way down. That’s 1.
“1.5” reps help ensure that your form stays tight and allows you to concentrate on retracting your scapulae and getting a good contraction on every rep. If crappy form on rows has kept you from experiencing what an upper back pump feels like, you’ll quickly find out with these. And you know what Arnold said about the pump, right?
These are the mack daddy of all inverted row variations.
Set up as you normally would for an inverted row except hold only one strap. Extend the other arm straight up toward the ceiling and place your feet a little wider than normal for a more stable base.
To do these successfully requires extreme total body stiffness, so contract everything – glutes, core, lats, grip, the other arm – literally everything. When you’re ready, row yourself up and reach the non-working arm straight towards the ceiling.
Your torso will want to rotate slightly towards the side of the working arm, which is fine as it allows you to achieve a greater range of motion on the row. Just don’t allow your hips to sag. Lower yourself under control and repeat.
Each rep should be performed under control such that you could pause each rep at the point of contraction if need be. That’s actually a good rule of thumb for all rows, but it’s especially important here – if you start to get sloppy, you’re putting your shoulder at risk of injury. You can also start with your feet on the floor if elevating them is too challenging at first.
While this is ostensibly a back exercise, it’s really a total body exercise because every muscle from head to toe must fire to stay tight or you simply won’t be able to do it.
I promise you that after trying this one, any preconceived notions you may have had about inverted rows being a sissy exercise will go right out the window.
Here’s a good alternative if you don’t have suspension straps.
Set up using a pronated grip with your hands slightly wider than what you’d use for the bench press. Pulling primarily with your right arm, pull yourself up towards your right hand until your chest touches the bar. From there, keeping your chest close to the bar and your torso level, slide yourself over to your left hand and lower yourself primarily using your left arm to bear the load. Alternate which side you pull to first on each successive rep.
Adding a unilateral element into the mix significantly enhances the difficulty of the row by forcing each arm to lift a greater percentage of your total bodyweight. Moreover, performing the slide at the top amplifies the intensity of the contraction and increases the core demands by forcing the torso to resist rotation.
Face pulls are an excellent exercise to promote good shoulder health and strengthen the middle and lower traps. They should definitely be a mainstay in your program, especially if you emphasize the bench press (i.e. 99% of you reading this).
The inverted face pull using suspension straps is a great variation because you get all the benefits of a regular face pull with the added benefit of core stability that comes from handling your own bodyweight.
What’s more, when you do these using cables or bands, you’re forced to stand in an asymmetrical split stance and brace yourself to keep from getting pulled in towards the machine. Using suspension straps allows you to be more symmetrical and focus your efforts completely on the task at hand since you aren’t being pulled off balance.
Set up just as you would for an inverted row, only instead of pulling your hands to your sides, pull just to the sides of your head. Control each rep and make sure to squeeze your scapulae together at the point of contraction. These are much tougher than they might look, so you’ll want to start with your feet on the floor.
This is a cool exercise that works both the back and the hamstrings at once.
It’s essentially an inverted row combined with an inverted hamstring bodycurl, which I discussed in Fantastic Hamstring Movements. I like both exercises on their own, but they work even better in tandem.
As a standalone, the hamstring bodycurl is much harder than the inverted row. However, because you must hold an isometric contraction on each rep of the inverted row while you perform the leg curl, the difficulty of the row increases greatly. You’re actually working both your back and hamstrings to the max. In terms of exercise economy, that’s hard to beat.
That’s all well and good if you do full body training, but where does it fit in if you follow an upper/lower split?
It depends. If you’re quad dominant and want to bring up your hamstrings, you could include these on upper body days for some supplemental work. Conversely, if you need more upper back work – which most do – you could use it on your lower body days.
I use it on lower body days, but it doesn’t really matter. While these are challenging, they won’t tap into your recovery stores too much so it shouldn’t throw off the rest of your training.
Speaking of combination exercises that work the whole backside at once, here’s another doozy. It’s a glute-ham raise, which I’ve written about extensively in The Glute-Ham Raise from A to Z, combined with an isometric band pull-apart.
Along with engaging the upper back and traps, holding the band in an isometric pull-apart helps ensure good posture and body positioning throughout the exercise. Some people have a tendency to slouch their shoulders and round their lower backs, but having the scapulae pinched together has a trickle-down effect throughout the body to help maintain rigidity and alignment.
If it’s too much to handle at first, you can always use some band assistance to make it more manageable.
Any time I mention the glute-ham raise, I invariably get the question: what about if I don’t have access to a glute-ham apparatus?
You might think my answer would be to revert to the “natural” glute-ham raise – otherwise known as the Russian leg curl – but I’m not a fan. It’s just flat-out too hard.
Very few people can do them without using a pushup for assistance at the bottom, and even fewer can do them with good form and hinging dramatically at the hips. They usually look ugly, so much so that I worry about the potential for a pulled hamstring.
Besides, I’m big on progressive resistance, and it’s nearly impossible to gauge progress on an exercise where you can’t even do one unassisted rep.
I think a better choice would be a 45-degree back extension, which is typically much more common in commercial gyms and can create a similar training effect as the glute-ham raise when done properly.
The problem with this exercise is that because it’s often referred to as back hyperextensions – people are under the impression that the primary movement should be initiated by the back, so they flex the lumbar spine at the bottom and hyperextend at the top. Not good.
Instead, think about it as a hip extension where the glutes function as the primary extensor and the lumbar spine stays in neutral. You want to feel these almost entirely in the glutes and hamstrings; if you feel it a lot in the lower back, it’s a sign you’re probably doing it wrong.
To include some work for the upper back and posterior delts, you can add a rear delt raise. It won’t take much weight to be challenging, but adding even a little weight to the arms in an outstretched position will significantly increase the challenge for the glutes and hamstrings by slowing down the movement and decreasing momentum, as well as slightly increasing the length of the lever arm.
It should go without saying that the vast majority of your training should be built around the simple basics. But when you hit a plateau or grow bored of doing the same old stuff day in and day out, here are some cool tweaks you can try to spice things up.