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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 upper back and lower back groups, but in reality your back muscles are all one.
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 foot pads 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, meaning 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.