There is a belief among some fitness experts that you cannot get in great shape without deadlifting, this also goes for squatting, pull-ups, and many other exercises. But deadlifting is seen as a deal-breaker.
If you’re not deadlifting then you’re never going to be strong. This is not true.
Whilst deadlifting is indeed one of the best exercises out there, it is by no means essential to gym success.
This article is going to look at how to build a strong back without using deadlifts at all.
Anatomy of the Back
The back is made up of a large number of muscles, there are the muscles around the lower back such as the Erector Spinae.
You also have big muscles in the upper back such as the Latissimus Dorsi and Trapezius, with smaller muscles surrounding them (Rhomboids, Teres major and minor).
People tend to separate these muscles into the upper back and lower back groups, but in reality, your back muscles are all one.
How to Balance Your Back and Chest
It is commonly believed that your pecs are the muscles that need to be built up.
After all, they are the most visible of the muscles you work on at the gym. They certainly seem to be the show-stopper when you look in the mirror.
However, that’s where their gloriousness starts and ends. If you really need something that can do wonders for your size and strength, its time to focus on your back.
The back is considered one of the most complex parts of the body’s muscular system and for good reason.
It houses your spine and is home to rhomboids, lats, spinal erectors, traps and a host of tiny yet essential connective muscles that make such an important part of your anatomy.
The source of all the power you have been packing, it all comes from here. A bigger and stronger back is going to make your wildest dreams come true.
Sure, you can go focus on those biceps and triceps to move some weights about but here’s what most people don’t know. A stronger back actually makes you more powerful and that translates to more power.
Whether it is bench-pressing, squat, deadlifts or just about any other movement that requires a herculean level of body balance and stability. A powerful back can do more than any other routine.
Fitness experts believe chest training is fine and dandy but it is something that shouldn’t be favoured too heavily over back training.
A balance between both must exist. Otherwise, you are just asking for some serious pain down the road.
The reason why this happens is that the shoulders happen to be one of the most delicate and truly mobile joints and they don’t deserve to be stifled. Just because somebody forgot to balance their workout.
Pressing and pulling movements focussing on one part of the body are detrimental to the overall body and you run the risk of tearing them to pieces.
Shoddy form on your overhead press or the bench is all it takes for your body to unravel.
It doesn’t matter if you have already got a good set of shoulders on you. Emphasising chest training over your back is an absolute no-no.
ou may end up looking silly with an underdeveloped back and to the most eagle-eyed of fitness buffs, your physique may look superb from the front but not from the back.
How to Train the Back
Usually you would have deadlifts as one of the major exercises for strengthening the back, but obviously, we are not including this exercise. Instead, we will add back extensions and good mornings into your program.
To perform a back extension you will need a back extension machine.
Place your feet underneath the footpads and make sure that your upper thighs are supported by the seat.
With your legs straight your body should be lying in a straight line with your hands crossing your chest. Squeeze your glutes like crazy and extend your back out until your chest is raised above parallel. Pause, and then lower yourself back down again.
To perform a good morning you should have a barbell resting on your shoulders with feet shoulder-width apart.
Make sure that you are using a light load as this is a very challenging exercise.
Bend your knees slightly and then keep them in that position whilst bowing forward at the waist. Keep your chest pushed out and your shoulders back throughout as you lower yourself down to around parallel. Pause, and then raise yourself back up again.
Once you have your lower back sorted you will want to target the smaller muscles around your shoulders and scapular.
The face pull is an excellent exercise for improving posture and strengthening those muscles.
It also helps injury-proof you for chest and shoulder movements such as bench or shoulder press.
Stand in front of a cable machine with a rope attachment placed on the highest setting. Hold one end in each hand, and then keeping your elbows high pull the ropes towards your face.
Try to keep your back straight throughout. Pause when you have the rope pulled back as far as you can, and then return the rope to the original position.
If you want to recreate the benefits of deadlifts for your upper back then the best bet is heavy barbell shrugs, well technically rack pulls would be a better option but they’re a bit too close to deadlifts for the purposes of this article!
To perform a proper barbell shrug hold a heavy bar at waist height and keeping your arms straight shrug the bar up as high as possible, pause and then slowly lower the bar back down.
Other exercises that would be effective for the upper back would be ones that focus on the Latissimus Dorsi.
These are the large muscles on the outside of your upper back that some people describe as their wings. The best exercises for working these are pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and different types of rowing exercise (barbell, t-bar, single-arm dumbbell row).
To perform a pull up grab a pull-up bar with a wide-grip and hang from the bar. Keeping your elbows flared, pull yourself up until your collar bone is in line with the bar. Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back for best results.
Pause at the top and then slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position.
If pull-ups are too difficult then you can look at assisted pull-ups (if your gym has the machines required).
Another alternative is the eccentric pull up. This is where you use a box to climb up to the top position for a pull-up and then only perform the lowering phase. To make this effective you need to exaggerate the lowering phase and perform it as slowly as possible. Once you reach the bottom climb back on the box and restart.
If even this is too difficult then the Lat Pulldown machine is a great alternative.
Sit at the machine with your hands in a wide grip, your chest pushed out and your shoulders pulled back. Take a deep breath and then pull the bar down to chest height, pause, and then slowly raise the bar back up again.
If you want to build a bigger back then hypertrophy is your goal. This means that the rep ranges that you aim for should be in the 8-12 area.
You can mix this up with a few lower rep and higher rep sets thrown in (make these suit the exercise type e.g. pull-ups could be low rep due to difficulty). Perform the lower back exercises last, and the face pulls first.
Our final tips would be to ensure you are giving 100% when training, that you get adequate rest between workouts and that you are eating enough/the right kinds of foods.
The following article will ensure you are getting correctly for muscle growth.