You’ll find bodybuilders and coaches advocating just about every kind of body-part split you can imagine. But for my money, there are some classic muscle pairings that really can’t be improved on. Back and biceps is one of them. By starting with back, you ensure you’ve got plenty of energy to hit one of the biggest and most important muscle groups. But all that pulling also warms up and pre-exhausts your biceps, so you’re ready to finish them off with just a few movements in the second half of the workout.
This workout is definitely geared toward hypertrophy, or muscle growth. With that in mind, everything today is going to be slightly higher-rep, somewhere between 10-15, and you’ll keep rest periods low, ideally 45-60 seconds.
I recommend doing this workout at least once a week, but no more than once every four days. It’s definitely a taxing workout. But listen to your body. If you feel fresh and you’re not sore, then you’re probably recovered. You never want to train a sore muscle, though, because a sore muscle is an unrecovered muscle.
Straight-arm cable pull-down or push-down
These are just about my favorite back movements, and I’ve started just about every back workout with them for the last three years. It serves as both a warmup and a pre-exhaustion for the rest of the back workout. When doing these, you want your arms to not be perfectly straight, but have a slight bend through the entire movement. Maintaining that angle, bring your elbows as far back as you can while keeping your chest out. This will maximally activate and isolate your lats as much as possible.
I like to use the narrow V-handle for these, because it’s the optimal hand position to stretch the lats at the top of the rep.
Underhand barbell row
Underhand Barbell Row
I prefer to do these underhand rather than overhand, because I find I’m able to track my elbows along my body more naturally. When done overhand, there’s a tendency to “chicken wing,” or point your elbows out as you pull the weight up. All of the pull should come from your lats, and you can do that by concentrating on pulling your elbows back. Pretend you have strings tied to your elbows and someone is pulling those strings to get the weight up.
Wide-grip lat pull-down
I don’t believe in going super-wide on these; slightly wider than shoulder-width is enough. Any wider, and I think it puts more stress on the biceps than the back. Slightly wider than the shoulders positions you to have the optimal tracking and range of motion.
Body position is also crucial on these. I keep a big chest and my shoulders back, and I try to keep my upper body pretty near to 90 degrees the whole time. I may lean back just a little bit, but it’s only enough so the handle doesn’t take my nose off. When you lean far back, you’re targeting the traps and rear delts as much or more than the lats.
Low cable row
The goal with these is to get a good squeeze and engorge the upper back muscles with blood. You want to really tax your back and finish it off before moving to biceps. The cues I favor here are pretty much universal to everything you’ve done so far: back flat, chest out. And whenever you pull, do it from your elbows.
When letting the weight move forward, I let my shoulders roll all the way forward, then I contract them back before pulling with my elbows. That way, you get the best of both worlds—a full stretch and a full contraction—without using your biceps or comprising your form at all.
I’m a big proponent of rack pulls, where you start with the bar right below knee level, rather than standard deadlifts. Why? I train legs twice a week, so my legs are always really sore. By using the rack pull, I’m able to get the beneficial portion of the deadlift without doing the part that really taxes the hamstrings, glutes, and quads. These are a great finisher on back day, and they can have a big impact on your overall back development.
Seated alternating dumbbell curls
Seated Alternating Dumbbell Curls
Most people do these by alternating arms on every rep. I recommend performing five reps on one arm, then five on the other arm, and then another five on each. Doing five at a time helps build more time under tension, which is one of the major contributors to muscle growth.
Standing alternating hammer curl
As with the seated curls, you’ll do five of these at a time per side rather than alternating every rep. I like hammer curls, because they train your biceps, your forearm, and also a muscle called the brachialis, which is the muscle that runs under your biceps. It’s a critical movement for complete arm development.
Straight-bar cable curl
Straight-Bar Cable Curl
The goal here is to keep tension on the muscle the entire time, which the cable is perfect for. Keep your elbows pinned at your sides and your shoulders back, which will really help you to isolate the biceps as much as possible.
Rope hammer curl
All the basic cues from the straight-bar cable curl apply here. One difference is that I don’t put my thumb on the rope. Instead, it’s almost like a thumbs-up position. I also keep my wrists bent and hands flexed back, rather than keeping my wrists straight. Both of these customizations help to contract the forearm and brachialis, finishing them off while I squeeze the last little bit out of my biceps.