Creating a compelling mental stimulus in bodybuilding can sometimes be as challenging as the lift itself, especially if you’ve been at this for a while. One easy method I use from time to time is to take my routine and alter just one aspect of each exercise. Small changes allow you to achieve a slightly different training stimulus by shifting the muscle-recruitment pattern. That single change can relate to body, foot, or hand placement; grip width or stance; type of equipment; or the path of motion. For example, I might do a leg press with my feet at the lower edge of the sled rather than at the top.
Let me walk you through a sample back workout I typically do and show you how I implement this training strategy on each exercise. You can use this approach with any other body part, but it’s particularly of value on those days when your mental muscle becomes your lagging body part.
Inside A Back Workout
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the workout, let’s review some important considerations when it comes to back training so you can better understand what’s going on when you make a tweak. To start, back exercises can be divided into two groups: rows, in which you’re pulling at an angle about perpendicular with your torso; and pull-ups/pull-downs, in which you pull more or less in the same direction as your body.
While you can never completely isolate a particular part of a muscle, in general rows build back thickness (when viewed from the side) by hitting the middle-back muscles (middle and lower traps, rhomboids) in addition to the lats.
In contrast, pull-downs and pull-ups focus more on the lats and teres major, helping you improve the width of your back (sometimes called the V-taper, which is best seen directly from the back).
A routine should include both types of exercises, but their order and the number of each depends on your preferences or lagging areas.
One-Change Back-Building Workout
1. Front Lat Pull-down
Change: Wide, overhand grip to close, neutral grip
I need to warm up my shoulders thoroughly with several progressively heavier sets. I find the wide-grip front lat pull-down does this particularly well, because the long range of motion ensures I can do the movement fluidly without any aches and pains. Because that version of the pull-down has worked so well, I don’t make any changes in the warm-up sequence.
I might normally go right into several working sets of the same movement, but for today’s workout, I switch handles. Instead of taking a wide grip on a lat bar, I use a close one with a V-bar. The closer grip ensures the elbows stay tight by my sides as I pull. Unlike the wide grip, where my elbows are way out from my sides, the close grip focuses on my lower lats a bit more, and the range of motion is slightly longer, too.
Here, the working sets are a bit of an extension of the warm-up; I do several sets of about 10 reps, going just shy of muscle failure. I know I’ll be pushing far heavier poundages when I get to rows, so this movement prepares me for what’s to come.
2. Supported Dumbbell Row
Change: Supported to standing
The supported dumbbell row is a good move to hit your lats, because it’s difficult—not impossible, but difficult—to cheat when your chest is pressed against a bench. Do this movement standing in the bent-over position, which allows you to use more weight. Going from supported to standing keeps your elbow position relative to your torso the same, so it targets the same musculature, but you can go much heavier.
If you can find one, the machine version will allow you to do this movement with a wide grip, which is very difficult to do when using dumbbells. Follow it up with a standing T-bar machine in the bent-over position. The wide grip more effectively hits the upper lats than when using dumbbells.
3. Barbell Bent-Over Row
Change: Wide, overhand grip to shoulder-width, reverse grip
The bent-over barbell row is a staple in any back-building routine, so it’s first up after the shoulders are good and warm. This is also the movement you can push the most weight with, making it a great training stimulus. The wide grip ensures it hits the upper lats and middle-back muscles particularly well.
The change in grip does a couple of things. Reverse-grip back exercises recruit the biceps to a greater degree, so you may actually be able to lift a bit more weight. The range of motion is also slightly longer. A bit of the muscular emphasis may shift from the upper to lower lats as well.
While that’s not a problem per se, I’d rather not do two back-to-back exercises focusing on the lower lats, so in this changed workout, I’ll slot this exercise into the third position instead of second.
4. Seated Cable Row
Change: Close, neutral grip to wide, overhand grip
I started weight training in the 1980s, and I learned by watching the guys at my gym. Everyone seemed to be doing cable rows with the close-grip handle, so I did the same. I never even thought about using a different handle.
One day, I realized the lat bar you use with pull-downs can also be used with cable rows. The wide grip has a noticeable effect on the elbows as you pull. With a wider grip, your elbows are pulled out almost perpendicular to your sides, which largely determines whether the movement emphasizes the upper- or lower-lat region. Heck, you could even choose to do both versions in a workout, which I’ve sometimes done.
With the wide grip, I pull my elbows as far back behind the plane of my body as I can, pinching my shoulder blades together. I control the negative but try not to bend forward too much at the waist.
5. Single-Arm Row
Change: Dumbbell to Smith machine
The single-arm dumbbell row is a staple bodybuilding exercise that trains each side independently, which can allow you twin benefits of a greater range of motion and better focus.
The Smith machine offers a good change of pace. It’s trickier to get the hang of, because there are a number of smaller technique nuances you’ll better understand only with practice. Body positioning, where to grasp the bar, how to avoid hitting your hips as you pull, how to unhinge the bar when using straps—those are details that will need to be addressed. Still, I find it a welcome break from using dumbbells.
6. Straight-Arm Pull-down
Change: Cable to dumbbell
By now, you should be familiar with one of the few single-joint movements for the lats, a finishing exercise that’s typically done with fairly light weight, at least relative to other pull-downs. The lower lats are highly engaged on this one, especially over the lower arc as the bar approaches the thighs. That last point is especially important when looking for a substitute movement.
Try the same motion as a pull-over with a dumbbell, which follows a similar arc. But rather than doing it on a flat bench, try it on a decline. (This is commonly called a decline dumbbell pull-over.) Sure enough, there’s a greater tension on the lats as the weight approaches your thighs.
For an intense pump, hold the peak-contracted position for a long count of 5 on the last rep of each set.
The One-Change Back Workout
Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need, but never take warm-ups to muscle failure.
Choose a resistance that allows you to approach or reach muscle failure by the target rep.
The One-Change Back Workout
Or use close-grip (v-bar) handle
3 sets, 10-12 Reps
Take a wide grip on a lat bar.
3 sets, 8-10 Reps
Do this one arm at a time.
3 sets, 10-12 Reps
Perform with a single dumbbell.
3 sets, 12-15 Reps