Biceps Strength Overtaking Back Movements

I just started working with a guy who has some extreme imbalance likely due to working nothing but chest and biceps for years. He’d literally come into the gym and do bench and a few other exercises for chest and then various curls, and repeat 1-3 days a week with cardio.

I’ve got his diet and trianing straightened out now, but his back is extremely weak, and any exercises he performs only leaves his bi’s exhausted and he says he can never feel any work on his back. Rows, bent rows, lat pulldowns, he simply can’t seem to isolate his back due to his bi’s, even when decreasing the weight to near nothing.

Are there any exercises that anyone could recommend that could help him to isolate his back and not rely on bicep strength.

Rack pulls - half deadlifts in the rack where the bar starts just above the knees. No bi’s, great back builder. Make sure he emphasizes the lockout.

He just needs to learn how to control his body. when doing any back work tell him to imagine that he is pulling the weight with the back of his elbows. Also the wider the grip on pulldowns for example takes more of the bicep out of the exercise. Straight arm cable pulldowns is another good one, and lat pulldowns using the “cable crossover” machines with him kneeling will help too. Besides this, tell him to stop doing all bicept exercises and just concentrate on compound lifts.

I second everything prisoner#22 was saying. He needs to learn how to ‘connect’ to the back muscles and proper form will help him with that (chest out, shoulder blades retracted and envision pushing the elbows back, NOT pulling from the hands). If you keep your fingers pressed on his lats it gives a reference point to focus on and you’ll be able to feel if he’s contracting them or not.

As far as exercises to help him isolate, I like the straight arm pulldowns and the dumbbell pullovers. And as much as I like going heavy, I would start very light so there’s no urge to compensate with assisting muscles.


I say lighten the load until he can feel it working the target muscle groups. Or maybe try some pre-fatigue methods to wear out the biceps before the back training. I also second the deadlifts and pull variations.

What everyone else has stated is correct sir.

Have him try and mentally control and use the back muscles, feel them. Go WIDE on rowing and other pulling movements. Try to limit movement at the elbow totally to learn this. One great movements would be reverse flies. This should get him to know what a back muscle feels like.

Emphasis on form. Go slow tempo and really get those muscles burning until he can recognize when he is doing a movemnet correct.

Hope this helps,


You might also try some pre-fatigue techniques check out CT’s Violent Variations III article for more info…

I just thought of another great movement that has helped me isolate the upper back.

Try full rom pull downs. These are done on a cross over fly machine. You cross the arms and grab the right pulley with the left hand and vise versa with right hand and then perfom a pull down movement trying to limit the movement at the elbow joint. Really nails the back.


One other suggestion would be to have him pause in the contracted position, and realy work on flexing his back muscles in that position.

i’m not sure why he wants to isolate his back. if he’s that imblanced, start him from scratch. squats, deads and maybe cleans ( and press) if he can figure that out. and get him to start doing pullups (palms facing away). teach him good form on those exercises and keep him away from the curling rack. no need to do all those cable things, IMHO. maybe some mentally challenging things such as overhead squats which is good for the back and abs, and is really hard work in general.

good luck, hope this guy has an open mind and can learn new stuff!

I agree with almost all of the advice given already. One other thing you might try is to superset two exercises, the first with minimal movement at the elbows(pullovers, straight-arm pulldowns) and the second some kind of row or chin. The first will pre-fatigue the back so during the second exercise the fresh bi’s will allow the back to be worked even harder. Just make sure there is no rest between the first and second exercise.

I’m not sure if it would work or not, but possibly try doing half reps from the fully stretched position with rows, chins, pulldowns.

Awesome, thanks guys! I’m jotting all of this down, also emailing him the link to the thread. Wow, I posted that thread pretty late, check it first thing in the morning and have a long list of great replies, very cool.

P22 and CR already jumped all over my comments. Pull from the back of the elbows and it sounds like some “touch training” is in order to help him visualize which muscles should be doing the work.

Another thing that I have found to isolate the right muscles is to use straps gasp using only a single wrap which is held in place with just the finger tips. Light weight and essentially pull through the elbows then out the wrists.

Here’s a tip that helped me.

When you’re doing lat pull-downs or rows, don’t bend the elbows right away. Try to do sort of like a shrug with those muscles. Then when you can’t pull down/back any further, bend the elbows and completed the motion.

You could even have him do a warm up set or two where he’s doing just the ‘shrug’ motion so he can feel what muscles to focus on.

One thing I have seen done was the use of some type of strap around the arm preventing you from gripping the bar so tight with your hands. Like for Lat pulldowns it would be right around the elbow on the tricep side of the upper arm. This would take the biceps out of the picture. It may not make sense but think about it for a minute and you will see the logic. I’ve never used this but understand how it can benefit. What I do for Latpulldowns is lean back a little and try to press my shoudlers and shoulder blades together. He’ll have to get over the mental thing of not feeling his back muscles. He seems to have been able to do this with his bi’s. Good Luck.

pre-fatiguing sounds good but it wont allow you to put up big numbers in the compound lifts like rows, deads, pullups, chinups. i would just focus on progressing on those big lifts and forget about doing any direct bicep work. also grip is very important in these excercises when you want to put up high intensity so don’t do anything to compromise it. Do heavy deads and hold the position on top. do rows and hold the dumbells up top. i like to use a pause at the bottom of chins and pullups. laters pk

Have this guy start off with on arm dumbbell rows with his elbow away from the body. He needs to emphasize his shoulder rolling back as his elbow goes above parallel. Also when gripping the dumbbell, he needs to have a loose grip. When he tightens the grip on the bar, the forearm and biceps become flexed. Lastly, the lower back needs to be arched down.

I agree with seminole chick! After building his back, his NEXT imbalance will be top to bottom! He probably needs to forget about isolation for a while and try to over-all body development with emphasis on the posterior chain. Hopefully he will find Compound lifts and Olympic lifts interesting long enough to improve his conditioning. If you assure him that it is only temporary, perhaps he will give it the time he needs

Step one is too educate the guy on his postural imbalances…the latest article by EC and Mike Rob., as well as MR’s Heal that Huntchback artilce would be great for him. It seems like you are cutting back on his chest work which is a good thing. His horizontal pulling to pushing shoud be 2:1 or even 3:1 in this phase. Work on one plane of movement for the back to start. Horizontal pulling movements (rows, face pulls, prone horizontal abduction, external rotation, ect.) should dominiate the program since this is prob where his major imbalance lies. If he’s having a hard time “feeling” his back try static stretching the opposing muscles prior to doing a row. This will help inhibit the tight muscles and let the lengthened/weak one work. His tight chest/internal rotation muscles are inhibiting his upper back muscles. The other suggestions of using lighter weight, and extended pause in the contracted position, and touching the muscles that need to be working should all also be used. For example, when i have a client who can’t “turn on” his external rotators when doing cuff work i stretch his internal rotators, then have him hold the contracted position for a 5sec with my hand on the muscle. It takes some time and practice, but it will work.

Quick Update:

We started applying some of the suggestions here tonight, the only thign that I can say is that this is going to be a long road and I’m sure by the time the imbalance it toally fixed we’ll have gone through all of your suggestions.

Thanks again for the help guys.