If you’re reading this, I assume you want to get strong.
So I won’t beat around the bush (you’ve got work to do after all.)
The real key to being really strong (and by strong I mean strong in a way that makes you useful and resilient!) is to have a strong back.
A strong back is the foundation to a powerful and injury-proof body.
It’ll help you push, pull and carry anything you can lay your hands on and It’ll also make you look like you can too!
A strong back looks fantastic whether you’re a 6ft 6 bloke or a 5ft lady (or a 6ft 6 lady or a 5ft bloke!)- It exudes strength and confidence.
So why do so many people neglect to train their back?
Many folk (mostly male I have to admit…) are in the gym for ‘aesthetic’ reasons. They want arms and chest to fill out a t-shirt. They want to look strong when they look in a mirror or pose for a selfie.
And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that! (bet that surprised you….)
I wish I had bigger arms and chest too.
But, there is something wrong with putting more time and effort into the muscles on the front of your body than those on the back.
And one exercise is more to blame than any other.
Too many people judge their strength by their bench press (Arguably the least practical of the compound lifts). Ask them what they bench and the answer will be instantaneous.
But do they know what they’re capable of on a pull-up bar or in a dumbbell row?
I doubt it.
This is where it becomes a problem.
You’re not strong if your back isn’t strong.
Ever heard the adage “you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe”?
(I’d argue you can shoot the cannon out of the canoe personally- but eventually the canoe get’s wrecked…)
It’s basically saying that without stability, you can’t generate power.
Your back musculature is responsible for providing the body with a huge degree of stability.
The muscles of your back act to stabilise your spine, your scapula, your shoulders and even your hips. It’s also a prime mover for any movement that involves pulling an object closer to you (so quite a few!)
What this means for you when you’re exercising, lifting things and just generally going about being a strong human is that your back is almost always involved in what you’re doing!
Let’s just hop back to talking about the bench press- traditionally thought of a movement to train your chest and triceps (i.e to fill out t-shirts and look jacked).
Remember our cannons and canoes?
Well the bench press works similarly.
If you’re not stable, you can’t create power.
Stability is also hugely important to avoid injury- especially when the main joint that’s in motion is the complex and fragile shoulder…
(my point about the canoe getting wrecked eventually is hopefully ringing some warning bells now… - your shoulder is the canoe. It’s getting wrecked.)
Unless your back musculature can stabilise your shoulder girdle and scapula you’re not in an advantageous position for strength production or to avoid an injury.
I highlight the bench press because it’s most often the people who bench press all the time who need to hear some advice about having a strong back.
But it’s not just bench press that relies on a strong back.
Here’s a quick round-up of how a stronger back is going to help some more, both in the gym and in day to day life-
Squats- creating a solid ‘pillar’ for energy transfer from the legs to the bar. Lats form a cross-brace with your glutes to stabilise the lumbar spine. Stops you caving over due to the weight on your back to name a few!
Deadlifts (AKA picking things up off the floor)- Very similar to squats it’s vital for energy transfer and stability of the lumbar spine. In deadlifts your back also stops your back bending and you resembling a startled cat. Your upper back also holds your shoulders in place, stopping them from falling out of their sockets!
Rowing- Surely this one is obvious?
Carrying things- Whether it’s a farmers walk or the sofa when you move house, your back is going to be hugely involved stabilising your scapula and the rest of your shoulder girdle as well as protecting your spine from flexion, extension and torsion.
Posture- You know that classic hunchback posture? The one that everyone sits in as they drive, work and watch TV? Well that’s both a symptom and a cause of a weak back. Strengthening your upper back pulls your shoulders back into natural alignment and stops the muscles of the upper back being ‘stuck long’- meaning stretched and weak. It’ll counteract that round back, slump shoulder posture that’s plaguing so many of us!
I could keep going on, but it’s basically going to be nearly the same answer for every activity!
The take away point is that your back is hugely important for whole body strength and stability. So it’s well worth your time to put some effort into making sure your back is up to the task at hand!
You might now be thinking “how strong should my back be?” or “how much work should I do for my back?”
Don’t worry, I have a simple answer for both.
How strong should your back be?-
I Like a simple test for back strength, it’s one I’ve raided from one of my favourite influences, Dan John (look him up).
You’ll know your back is strong enough if it can pass this test. Don’t worry if you can’t pass yet, if you’re training your back hard then you’re heading in the right direction. Just focus on getting your back stronger.
The first test is simple- Can you do a pull-up or chin-up with as much weight as you can bench-press?
Pick either your 1 rep max, 3 rep max or 5 rep max for a bench press. Can you do chin-ups with the same weight combining bodyweight and load on a dipping belt?
Let’s take Joe Average as an example.
Joe’s bench 3 RM is 90kg.
Joe weigh’s 78kg and can do 3 chin-ups with a 5 kg weight totalling 83kg as his chin-up 3 RM.
This means Joe needs to do some more back work to bring up his strength in relation to his pressing strength. If he allows his pressing strength to keep getting further away from the strength in his back he’s drastically increasing his risk of injury.
However, it doesn’t matter if the ratio is skewed the other way.
So if Joe benched 90kg for 3 but could do weighted chin-ups with 20kg (98kg total) it doesn’t matter that his pulling strength in his back is stronger than his pressing strength. The implications for injury risk aren’t the same for having a stronger pull than a press. Plus, having a stronger back is way more useful than a strong push!
The problem with this test is however that it relies on the fact that you do bench press and pull-ups or chin-ups.
To that I say this-
If you don’t do bench press and don’t want to, then don’t start. But if you’re not doing pull-ups or at least working towards being able to- why not?
Make sure your pull-ups and chin-ups are as strong as possible and always aim to be improving them.
If you want to aim for an arbitrary standard then I’d say being able to 3 reps with a quarter of your bodyweight added by either a weight vest or a dipping belt. If you want to overachieve then aim for the platinum standard of the double bodyweight pull-up!
I’ve also been asked if this test is the test for females too. It is.
Women who train to do them can be just as good at pull-ups or chin-ups as men. Just ask Marisa Inda…
(A lot of people will say this test is too hard. I know that pull-ups are something a lot of people struggle with, but that’s what makes them so worthwhile- they really show you where you stand in terms of your strength-weight ratio. If you’re not good at pull-ups it tells you 2 things- You might be overweight and you need to train your back more.)
How much work should you do for your back?
As a rule of thumb- you should do twice as much pulling as you do pushing.
So if you’re doing 10 sets of bench and overhead press combined each week then you need to be doing 20 sets of rows, chins and pull-ups.
I’d skew most of your pulling volume for your back training towards horizontal rows too. So make 60-70% of your back work about dumbbell rows, trx rows, barbell rows and their variations.
Back work is also the place where I do advocate the use of some machines if you have access to them. If you’re doing a high number of sets per week then reducing the intensity by using a machine is acceptable for some of your sets!
If you stick to this ratio your shoulders will thank you! They’ll sit more comfortably in their natural, neutral position and those nagging shoulder aches will probably start to dissipate too!
So there you have it! Hopefully you’re going to go off now and start training your back, hard! I promise you’ll reap the rewards if you do! Not only will you be stronger, but you’ll be less fragile, aching shoulders will stop aching and your posture will improve.
Keep your eyes peeled for part 2- where I’ll break down how to train your back the most efficiently.
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Until next time!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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