Whether your goal is to be a 250-pound menace or a 185-pound work of art, developing a V-shaped back is key to your muscular progression and overall strength. But building a powerful back is no easy task, especially because back musculature is complex and hard to see. Lots of lifters will complain that when they try to work their lats, they end up getting better pump in their forearms and biceps—and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be frustrating when you want to focus on your back.
If you feel like your back development is stuck in a rut, don't get frustrated. Analyze your training routine to make sure you're not making these eight mistakes—and once you clean up your act, you'll see big gains in no time.
1. Using Too Much Weight
Without a doubt, the #1 culprit for restricting the development of big backs is using too much weight. While there's certainly a powerful correlation between the strength of a muscle and its eventual size, there is an even stronger one between keeping the target muscle under tension and the ability to “feel” it doing the work. The mind/muscle connection is real, and more important than you may think.
That's especially true when it comes to back training. Going too heavy will reduce your target muscle tension and prevent you from reaching the level of focus necessary for maximum stimulation, thereby disrupting your gains.
2. Not Using Wrist Straps
Lots of guys dismiss wrist straps as “wimpy.” They'll say that if the weight is too heavy for you to hold, you shouldn't be using it!
But here's the truth: Back training depends on big pulls. For a lot of guys, their grip strength will fail before their back/lats do on many sets. When that's the case, not using wrist wraps is counterproductive. Unsurprisingly, once guys swallow their pride and fix this issue, their back development took off.
3. Incomplete Range of Motion
As a coach, I am a huge proponent of using a complete ROM, from full stretch to contraction on every exercise. Partials have their place, but you should only utilize them once you no longer have the strength for perfect reps. Trainees rarely take every rep from deep stretch to intense contraction when training their back muscles—and that's a major reason why they fail to fully develop this area of their physiques.
4. Not Holding the Stretch
One of the most powerful ways to trigger muscular hypertrophy is to cause “trauma” in the muscle fibers themselves. This trauma sends the dramatic signal (anabolism) to the body that growth and repair are necessary to prevent more injury in the future.
Done correctly, most lat exercises should put your arms through a deep stretch under tension. It can be tough to endure, but if you don't hold that stretch, you'll cheat yourself out of much more efficient progress.
5. Incorrect Torso Positioning
Even if you're using the proper weight and moving it carefully through a full range of motion, you won't fully realize your full potential for back development unless you hold your torso in the proper position for precision targeted muscle engagement. Make sure that when you stretch you do so by “releasing the shoulders,” and not by swaying forward.
Furthermore, as you pull toward full contraction, keep your chest out, lower back slightly arched, and shoulders back, so you can completely squeeze the scapulae together.
6. One-Dimensional Training
Lots of guys do the same moves with the exact same grip every workout, meaning they're only developing parts of each back muscle.
During every back workout, try to engage all motor unit pools in the various back muscles with three different movements or angles: A vertical movement, such as pulldowns or pullups; a horizontal movement, such as seated cable or machine rows, and a bent-over movement such as barbell or dumbbell rows. You should also use varied grips—wide, underhand, and neutral/close— to force the back musculature to engage slightly differently every time.
7. Misplaced Thumbs
This simple “rule of thumb” can make a big difference in whether you are getting the most out of back movements. If your thumbs are placed on the bar/handle separately from your other fingers, your biceps can pick up a lot of the load, effectively robbing you of potential gains in back muscle mass.
If it's safe to do so, and you're comfortable with a "false grip," try placing your thumbs alongside your fingers when you do a pullup or pulldown. The positioning will force your back to do far more work, and therefore help your muscles get bigger.
8. Missing the Basics
While there are many excellent machines out there that work the back hard, you can't ignore fundamental free weight muscle-builders.
Sure, it can be tempting to hit the lat pulldown machine at the gym. Everyone does that one, right? But a truly focused lifter will always build his routine around free-weight moves: barbell rows, dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, various pull-ups, deadlifts, and barbell/dumbbell pullovers. After all: How many times have you seen guys in the gym rip through what look like epic amounts of weight in a pulldown, only to fail miserably before he can do a single pullup?
Only with free weights—supplemented by machines, if you want—can you develop the kind of width and thickness that makes it necessary to turn sideways to successfully fit through most doorways.