B.Y.O.B. (Bomb Your Own Back) With High Rep Counts

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Our series of articles on high-rep workout would not be complete without the back, the second largest muscle group, right? You were hoping to get away with it, weren’t you? No way: in this respect, the pleasures of back workout measure up to those of a leg workout. As the second largest muscle group, the back needs to be worked from several angles to ensure every little muscle fiber gets the stimuli it needs for growth.

Applying high repetition counts in back training

In the case of back training, generally the most difficult basic exercises are preferred, especially pull-ups and deadlift. However, most of you dear readers are presumably far from being able to do several sets of 20 or more pull-ups in a strict and isolated form, relying primarily on your back muscles. For this reason, we included the pull-down in this workout plan instead of the pull-up, because any of you can make it in a strict form (after you have put your ego aside).

The other exercise you may have to sacrifice is the deadlift. For two reasons: first, many skip this exercise or do it totally wrong. For them, a high-rep workout would be too much (even though this is still better than moving on to heavier weights too fast). And second: for those of you who do this high-rep workout plan on a regular basis, and for each muscle group including legs (with high-rep squats), it would simply be too much to do deadlift in this pattern.

Of course there are exceptions, as usual. If you are fit enough to do 3 sets of 20 pull-ups in a strict form (or there is reasonable chance for you to progress to that level), you should definitely stick to pull-ups.

Similarly, if you are good at deadlift, or you don’t work out with high reps for each muscle group, only for your back (because it is lagging behind, for example), you should not miss deadlift: do 3 sets of 15 reps or more at the end of your workout (and gradually increase it to 20).

In the following, we are trying to outline a plan that can be suitable for most of you. But whenever there is an exercise that can be exchanged for another, we will let you know. Now there will be wide-grip pull-down, close-grip pull-down, bent-over rows and machine rows on the menu, and some straight-arm pull-down for dessert!

{Related article: Arnold’s Back Workout}

The exercises

Wide-grip pull-down to the chest/pull-up

Description of the exercise

If you can do pull-ups as described above, start with that: 3 sets with 16 reps or more (the goal is 20). If you cannot make it, do some warmup sets, then pick a weight for the pull-down so that you can barely do 20 reps. Then do as many as you can (preferably more than 20). In the second set, increase the weight on the machine by one unit and try to make 20 more. If you can’t make it, keep the weight and do one more set. If you could do 20, increase the weight so that you can only pull less than 20 reps. And on your next workout, you should start from this weight after the first (20+) set. The rest break should be no longer than 90 seconds. If you rest longer, you cannot maintain the necessary level of intensity.

Let me warn you: you might have issues with feeling your biceps more than your back when doing this exercise. Lifting straps can be useful for eliminating this problem. This accessory is not very popular: many believe they make the exercises “easier”. But the truth is, they can improve the efficiency of your back training to a great extent. Because, eliminating the need to concentrate on your grip, you can take the load off your arms and let your back do the hard work. True: doing so, your forearms will work less. But now you are working out for your back and not for your forearms. So, using lifting straps is one trick. And the other trick is a mental one: you should not concentrate on your hands, nor on pulling the weight down; instead, concentrate on pulling your elbows as low as possible. Doing so, you can cut out your biceps from the move even more easily. In this case, your forearms should merely function as hooks to hold the weight. But they shall not get any of the load!

Close-grip pull-down

Description of the exercise

After you have worked your (upper) lats with the wide-grip pull-down, close-grip pull-down will go for the lower part of the lats, when done properly. Again, pick a weight so that you can do less than 20 reps. Again, the goal is to reach 20. And again, do 3 sets with no longer than 90-second rest breaks.

In the case of close-grip pull-down, strict form is especially important. “Crime” (cheating) doesn’t pay in this case. In order to get the point of this exercise, you should concentrate more on the peak contraction that occurs at the lowest point of the move. You can do this by consciously flexing your lats at the lowest point of each repetition. Don’t worry: after 10 reps or 15, you will feel what you need to feel for sure. And when your arms are stretched out, make sure your lats are stretched, too. This is a great exercise for stretching your lats in the negative phase!

Bent-over rows

Description of the exercise

Well, so much for warmup. It’s time to go hard: with bent-over rows! You might have to omit deadlift, but this exercise is inevitable: if you have never done it before, it’s high time to learn it, because this is one of the best back exercises beside deadlift. For the first time, pick a weight so that you can do 20 reps, and do as much as you can (preferably more than 20). In the second set, stack on some more weight and try to row 20 again. If you could make it, increase the weight again for the third set. If you couldn’t make it, keep the weight and try to do as many reps as you can. If you can do 20 reps in at least one of these sets, you can—and you must—increase the weight. Again, do 3 sets, and the rest break should be no longer than 2 minutes.

We cannot emphasize it enough: the point is not that you get comfortable with 20 reps: you can only enjoy success once you have reached 20 reps. And then, you shall not use the same weight ever again: you must increase load and set the goal of doing 20 strict reps with the heavier weight, and so on. Of course you should only increase the weight to an extent that 20 reps still remain a reasonable goal. For example, if you can do 20 reps with 70 kgs, don’t go for 100 kgs in the next set, because there is no way you can make 20 reps with that weight. Increase the weight gradually; you should still be able to make 15 reps with the heaviest weight; and you should increase rep counts to 20 from one workout to the other, using this weight. However, never use a weight that allows you to do 20. The goal is not to do what you can do already, but to get to a level you could only dream of so far!

Machine rows/deadlift

Description of the exercise

If you like it hard, continue with the deadlift now, as a last exercise. Because, with such a high rep count, if you did it at the beginning of your workout, you would not be able to do anything else afterwards, you can take it for granted. Now it will be your last exercise: After 3 or 4 working sets, you will hardly move, so you may skip the straight-arm pull-down. You should set the weights similarly. You might need longer rest breaks than 2 minutes, but do not exceed 3 minutes.

If you prefer the machine version, you are free to choose: do low pulley rows with a grip width you feel the most effective or the most efficient. Concerning reps, the same goes here, too: after a 20+ set, find the weight which will allow you to do no less than 14 and no more than 16 reps, and keep it until you gradually reach 20 reps with this weight from one workout to the other. The rest break should be no longer than 90 seconds.

In the case of machine exercises, you can use grips of different width depending on the areas of your back you wish to work. If you use a wider grip, you can approach your elbows more at the point of peak contraction. Doing so, the middle section of your back will get more load; while using a closer grip, the exterior parts of your lats will work more intensely. But let me highlight it: this does NOT mean that ONLY the interior or ONLY the exterior parts will “grow” from a respective grip. Although these rows improve the thickness of the back better, you shouldn’t fall for the common misconception saying that they will ONLY improve thickness. Similarly, pull-downs and pull-ups will not ONLY increase the width of your back: each back exercise works the whole back musculature; only certain exercises are more suitable for certain purposes than others.

Straight-arm pushdown

Description of the exercise

What you can profit from straight-arm pushdown in this system is that this will make it impossible for your arms to take over any of the load; so you don’t need to worry that your biceps will sabotage your efforts. 2 sets will be enough, with a minimum of 20 reps each. It’s NOT the amount of weight that matters. Here too, you should concentrate on the lowest point of the move: hold the weight and flex your lats consciously at the point of peak contraction. The rest break should be no longer than 1 minute!

In our article about shoulder workout you could read that the traps will be worked together with the back. For those who choose deadlift as a last exercise, I have good news for you: this exercise will kill your traps, too: the chances that you need a separate exercise for them are low, unless your traps are your weak parts. If you prefer the machine version and you feel it is necessary to work your traps separately (even though they get pretty much load by rows, especially with wide grip), 3 sets of dumbbell or barbell shrugs of 20 reps at the end of your workout will do the job.

Well, so much for the back workout. Again, choose your weights carefully. Don’t forget: what you can do is not enough; pick a weight that makes it a challenge to complete the target rep count, instead of one that you can take for granted.

Read our further articles on high-rep workout plans:

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