Getting a stronger back

Every month I get an email from my gym, Fitness First, telling me I’m in the top 15% of members for attendance. One day in February, I was bored and feeling silly so replied, asking why I was only ever in the top 15% and not higher (sometimes I go twice a day – yoga in the morning or to have a steam at night). They replied saying that there was only one tier, so I wrote back suggesting they have more, and that they email members to let them know how they’re doing, thus encouraging them to go more often. It ended up with them offering me a free PT session – quite a good result from a few minutes activity. I actually got a call from Neon, the Deputy Manager who I already knew, and giggled about it down the phone to him as we set up my session.

Because of my shoulder injury I had cut back on upper body stuff that might aggravate it (still slowly adding stuff back in) and I explained to Neon that I wanted to get a stronger back without using the pecs and anterior deltoids, so as not to aggravate it. He showed me some exercises that have worked out well for me, and I’ve since learnt some more. Whilst I don’t generally share routines and so on here (I think it’s up to the individual to develop their own), I thought I would these – they’re perfect for a beginner to start building the strength to do pull ups but equally good just to boost strength, especially over winter when you’re stuck in the gym.

I’ll run through the exercises first – click the name to be taken to a more in-depth description and instructions on how to execute the techniques – then talk about programming and so on afterwards.


Scapular pull ups
Hang from the bar and pull your shoulder blades back and down whilst thinking about lifting your chest. Your arms should be locked out at all times. A good one for scapular stabilisation.

Lat pull downs
Using the lat pull down machine. I did two types – with a wide grip (I used a neutral grip) and with those weird plastic handles that are attached to nylon strapping, so they create a very narrow grip.

Seated Rows
Use the resistance machine or the cable (set the pulley low, sit on the ground with you feet braced against something). Straight back, pull your arms back so your elbows are close to your body, pull your shoulder blades together at the end of the motion and lower the way you came.

Bent-over rows
Tense your abs and keep your back straight on this. It really makes my forearms and the muscles round my elbows burn.

Single arm rows
Use a dumbell or weight plate (I find the 20kg plate more comfortable to hold than the 20kg dumbell), keep your back flat and think about making a box shape with your arms, legs and back (i.e. keep ’em all in-line).

Straight-armed lat pull-down things standing up at the cable machine
If you read my training logs, you’ll hear me talk about these a lot, but I actually have no idea what they’re called, or if indeed they’re a known exercise. Basically, use the cable machine, set the pulley high and attach a straight bar. Stand in front of it, grip the bar and, keeping your arms straight, pull it down. You should feel it in your back – not so much your lats but around your shoulder blades.

Inverse rows aka. Australian pull ups aka. supine rows
Keep your body tight and go slow and steady, rather than for speed. Feel the contraction in the shoulder blades at the top.

Programming and Reps
These are big topics all on their own and since this is aimed primarily at beginners, I’ll keep it light and just talk about the programming I used.

I never do all of these in a session – generally they’re mixed in with pull ups or other lat-based stuff, or done in supersets together, or just done as part of a light “rehab” session along with the resistance band stuff for my shoulder. If I was doing dips and push ups I’d probably devote half the session to them and half to these, just to keep the body balanced (i.e. front muscle development vs. back, pushing vs. pulling). Once you’ve done them a few times you’ll get a feel for which muscles they hit and how you can mix them in with your current routine.

With regards to the number of sets and reps, I’d say that it’s best to start with 3 sets of 10 – 12 reps. Do this for at least the first three sessions, just so you get used to them. Some of the exercises will use different muscles to what you currently do, some quite aggressively so – for example I found that bent over rows absolutely destroyed my forearms and the muscles around my elbows for the first few sessions.

Once you feel comfortable, you can either drop to 10 reps and stick with that, or cycle between 10 and 5 reps, depending. I find that within my training I go through cycles of intensity – some days I feel more for endurance stuff, and keep the weight lighter but the reps higher. Other days I really want to push for muscular growth and strength, so increase the weight and drop the reps.

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