Back Training Tips for Hypertrophy
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 09, 2017
Here are some helpful tips for your back training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
Simplify your training and let the experts take the guess work out of it for you with the Male Physique Templates!
Because the back is a large and multi-muscled bodypart perhaps around 8 sets per week are needed to keep back gains from slipping away. That should probably be split pretty evenly between vertical and horizontal pulling movements.
Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 10 sets of direct back work per week to make gains, and for some, it’s even more than that.
Most people respond best to between 14 and 22 weekly sets on average.
Most people seem to encounter serious recovery problems above 25 sets per week. But some people can train a bit in excess of that amount and still be ok. Especially when individuals are both well trained and still relatively light, they can often handle pretty high volumes.
Because “the back” isn’t a muscle or even several muscles but rather a large assortment of adjacent muscles, it’s best to think of back training by splitting it up into the exercises that require horizontal pulling and those that require vertical pulling.
2-4 times per week.
Because the back muscles are numerous and spread over a wide area, and because the moves that train them employ many of them at once, the back can take one hell of a beating in a single session or be trained with smaller, more frequent sessions. As you get stronger, you’ll notice that overloading the back generates so much fatigue that overload frequency might have to fall with time. My own back has (thankfully) gotten so big that I can only really train it super hard once a week, and the other session needs to be a lighter, less voluminous session so that I can recover.
Because the back is a complex series of muscles, many of them of different architecture, back training should be done through a variety of intensity and thus rep ranges. Reps as low as 6 for pullups and as high as 20 for pulldowns or machine rows are not uncommon in back training, and of course everything in between.
What makes back a bit different from most other muscle groups is that it needs BOTH vertical and horizontal stimulus within each microcycle. This means that if you train back twice a week (to keep the example simple), you should focus most of your exercises on one of those days in the horizontal plane, and on the other day in the vertical plane. What you can also do is include some of the alternate focus exercises in each session, but do them at the end of the session and for less weight and/or volume. This way, both vertical and horizontal components are hit each session, but each is prioritized one time and gets to recover a bit extra the next. Here’s an example:
Barbell Bent Rows 6 sets of 10
Pulldowns 3 sets of 15
Pullups Weighted 6 sets of 6
Machine Rows 3 sets of 10
Range of Motion:
Not only is it important to do full range of motion for full development on back moves, it’s also important to prevent cheating with momentum. Of all the bent rows ever done to date on this earth, perhaps only about 5% of them were done with actually good technique. The rest were done with some degree of swinging, and often that degree is quite absurdly high. Remember, the only thing you get from swinging is the involvement of your legs, and unless you’re training legs and back with one exercise (the deadlift), there’s no room for moving your torso up and down to help you lift. Also, the last LOVE peak contractions, so bring that pulldown bar all the way down to your chest with each rep. YES, you’ll have to lose some weight off the stack, but if you’re there to impress yourself with your strength, do it in the power rack, not on a pansy machine like the lat pulldown. And you’ll also see lots of people doing pullups with only the mid-range… they never go down to a dead hang or come up all the way to at least get their chins over the bar. While this can be quite rewarding for the ego, sparing it the insult of struggling with reps in the pullup you never thought you’d have to again… it’s not maximally productive and should be avoided.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
So far as I know, metabolite techniques don’t really do much for the back. Outside of giant sets for machine rows or pulldowns, most back training is pretty basic. You can try to superset back moves one after another (such as pulldowns to rows), and that might work, but for me personally it doesn’t do a whole lot.
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark) and higher reps. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process.
Deadlifting and stiff legged deadlifts can help build a massive back. Please see the training tips article on glutes to get some insight on deadlifts.