Getting Freaky With It: Outside the Box Back Training

The back is a large muscle group that can’t be neglected. For athletes, including powerlifters, doing the proper assistance work is vital. Here’s how I keep my routine interesting and productive.

Ah, back training day. It’s a love-hate relationship, but there are few times I feel better in the gym than when I’m grinding out a back workout. Admittedly, though, my back was a constant point of contention in my early training days, lacking in size in relation to my legs and chest despite training it in much the same fashion. I thought if I trained it hard and heavy, with deadlifts and other compound movements, it would magically grow to the size of Ronnie Coleman’s. But no matter how much weight I deadlifted, the lats didn’t seem to budge.

The back is a large muscle group that can’t be neglected – even if you’re focusing on more sport-specific training and not looking strictly for size, or you’re a powerlifter who just wants the weight on the bar to go up above all else, the back needs to be a focus of your training. A strong back is behind every touchdown pass and every long throw from the outfield.

Even as a powerlifter, though your focus will be on compound movements like the deadlift, you can still benefit from additional accessory work to target those neglected secondary muscles. You will likely find your deadlift weight starts to climb by incorporating some outside-the-box movements into your weekly routine.

So how did I force my back to get bigger and stronger? Instead of pounding my head against the wall, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I figured I needed to change my approach to back training. Hitting my back in the low rep range that worked for my chest simply wasn’t yielding results, so I needed to think outside the box.

Basically, I “got freaky with it” when it came to building my back. What does this mean, you ask? Answer: Changing angles, rep schemes and exercises as often as possible, and pumping up the volume (16-20 sets a workout). I found if I focused on movements that allowed me to really feel the lats contract with each rep, and didn’t focus so much on the weight I was using, my back rewarded me with more width and definition.

One-Arm T-Bar Rows

I start every back day with rows. One outside-the-box movement that fits this category is one-arm T-bar rows. You want to emphasize the stretch on the negative portion of the lift (slow and controlled) and explode upward. See the video below for an example. I use smaller plates for the largest range of motion possible, and work in the 12-15 rep range for the best pump, generally pyramiding up in weight for 4-5 sets. Start with a couple plates and keep adding weight each set until you no longer hit your desired rep range.

Dumbbell Rows

Another rowing movement I favor is dumbbell rows – single arm or at the same time. For bent-over rows, grab a pair of dumbbells and bend until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Arch your back with your butt out and your head forward, and pull the dumbbells upward to the side of your body, maintaining strict form with a pause at the top. You’ll need to check your ego at the door and use lighter weight than you’re used to, but this really isolates the lats. Use a neutral grip (like you’re making a fist punching the floor). Props to former IFBB pro Phil Hernon for this one.

After you’ve rowed your lats into submission, it’s time to stretch them. Triple Ps – pulldowns, pullups and pullovers – are the name of the game here.


Start with pulldowns. I like using a heavy weight and utilize partial range of motion – emphasizing the negative, stretched position of the movement. Lock your legs under the pad and pull the weight down to the top of your head, then slowly fight the negative to full extension at the top, pausing there for an extra stretch. Be sure to reach, and if your butt pulls you out of the seat a few inches, so be it. Just make sure you’re maintaining good form. John Meadows at Mountain Dog Diet gets credit for this one.


Pullovers are a great movement for lat width as well, but form is key here. Lie on the bench with your head hanging off the end. Lower the weight slowly and feel the stretch at the bottom. On the concentric portion of the movement, only pull up to a point where the bottom half of the dumbbell is parallel to the top of your head. If you feel it in your triceps you’ve gone too far. Three sets of 10 with a fairly heavy weight will work wonders here.

Lower Back & Traps

I also like to spend some time working the lower back and traps for overall development. I usually throw these in at the end, but they can be inserted anywhere. Unlike the exercise selection that came before, I keep it simple with these two targeted areas. Any shrug variation using dumbbells, machine, or barbell, with a three-second pause at the top hits your traps well. The lower back can get plenty of work with hyperextensions and deadlift variations – nothing fancy here.

In conclusion, compound movements should still form the foundation of your back workouts, but don’t be afraid to get freaky with it and mix up the angles and exercises once in awhile. You may find you become a better, more well rounded athlete, and that’s ultimately what we all want, don’t we?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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