The gym I currently use for my own workouts is Fitness First Bishopsgate in the heart of the City of London, and it has some of London’s best personal trainers to swap ideas with.
Here’s the back workout I did today:
5 minutes on the elliptical machine, followed by limbering up the arms, rotations to limber up the back, leg swings, and marching on the spot. Every good personal trainer will tell you: warm up thoroughly before you start lifting any weights!
Seated Row Machine
Today I used the close grip, and started with a light warm-up set of 15 reps, followed by a medium-weight set of 12 reps, followed by two heavy sets of 10 reps each.
This is a great exercise for the muscles of the mid-back, particularly the mid/lower lats, the mid trapezius and rhomboids. Your rear delts (shoulders) and biceps also get a good workout.
Your waist should be almost completely still throughout this movement. Most people make the mistake of leaning forward then leaning back as they pull the weight towards their body, and compound the error by jerking the weight back.
However, the arms, shoulders and scapula should move back and forth, to allow a full stretch and then contraction of the back muscles. I hired a personal trainer in north London who was an expert at ultra-slow reps in this exercise, and his back development spoke for itself.
I performed one light warm-up set of 20 reps, then progressively heavier sets of 15, 12, 10 reps.
This is the king of exercises if you want serious muscle growth. It is a compound movement which recruits a whole range of muscle groups: lats, traps, rhomboids, erector spinae (the small muscles which stabilize the spine), as well as the glutes and hamstrings. Your forearm muscles also get a good workout, as this movement really tests grip strength.
A personal trainer in a gym in central London gave me a great tip on safety: never round your back during this movement, not even with a light dumbbell and certainly not when you go heavier. Most people get injured in the initial picking up of the weight from the floor. The best way to avoid this is to lift the weight off the waist-high horizontal bars of a squat rack.
Keep the bar close to your shins throughout the movement, and allow the knees to bend slightly in the downward phase. Keep looking straight ahead, shoulders back, and chest out. Keep your feet shoulder width apart, feet pointing forwards. Push your heels through the floor as you drive up the weight, to prevent any forward-lean.
Remember to use the power of your hamstrings and glutes at the start (and for the first half) of the upward phase, then your back gradually takes over for the second half of the upward phase. Keep your belly button sucked in to ensure a tight core. At the top of the upward phase, pull your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together and puff your chest out.
Make sure your knees don’t buckle inwards, and ensure also that your knees don’t move forward of your toes. Keep your weight on your heels, but the whole of your feet firmly planted on the floor.
Technically, as my personal trainer in central London told me (this was several years before I became a PT myself), the deadlift is the most complex technical movement in the gym, but well worth perfecting because the rewards are huge.
Lat Pulldown Machine
As the name suggests, this exercise primarily works your latissimus dorsi (particularly the upper lats), the back muscles which give you that broad V shape. It’s the only muscle which connects the humerus (the bone of your upper arm) to your spine. It also connects to your rear ribs and the top of your posterior pelvis. This exercise also hits your mid-traps, rhomboids, and biceps.
Today I performed a light warm-up set, followed by 2 heavy sets of 12/10 reps.
Pull the bar down to the top of your sternum, where it meets your clavicles (collar bones). Don’t round your back, and also don’t lean back excessively. The movement should be a vertical down/up movement of the bar you are gripping. Always pull down to your front, never behind your neck. Keep the movement slow and smooth throughout. When I did my personal trainer diploma in Islington, north London back in 2003, the instructors kept drumming into us the importance of slow and controlled movements. If you jerk the weight at the maximum contraction you risk injuring your rotator cuff muscles.
This is one of the easiest back exercises for a personal trainer to teach his clients, and my London clients who want a bigger back can get the hang of this exercise very quickly. Simply grab two dumbbells and smoothly shrug them up towards your ears, without rounding your shoulders. It should be a smooth straight up and down movement. This is a great exercise for the upper traps.
Today I performed 3 sets of 15/12/10, increasing the weight each set.
The elliptical machine is a great way to cool down after a back workout, as your back is moving throughout. 5 minutes at low resistance is enough.
I love the feeling of stretching back muscles after a good workout. Stretch for 5-10 minutes at the end, with particular emphasis on the lats, and also stretch your rear delts.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London, and author of the Fitness4London.com blog.