How to use your back during back exercises.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one… you do a back exercise. Maybe barbell rows, or dumbbell rows, or seated cable rows, or t-bar rows, or some sort of chest supported machine row, or pull ups, or chin ups, or lat pull downs. And then, after the set, or even after all of the sets, your back doesn’t actually feel as though it did much, or even anything at all. Instead, your biceps feel like they did something, possibly even everything.

If the above situation sounds a bit familiar, don’t feel too bad. It’s an extremely common problem that many people have when doing back exercises, and I can tell you this both from first hand experience, and from watching it happen daily in my gym.

The way I see it, there are usually 3 causes for this:

  1. Too much weight is being used (mostly a guy thing).
  2. Your back is, well, in back of you, and this prevents you from being able to see the back muscles working or even really visualize the back muscles working.
  3. You just don’t know how to properly activate your back in the first place.

Whatever the cause, I’m going to tell you the solution that originally helped me fix my problem with back exercises. Chances are it will help you too.

Don’t pull the bar to you, and don’t pull yourself to the bar.

This is what makes the biceps do all of the work instead of the back. You don’t want to pull the weight to you. Most people do back exercises by trying to pull the weight (barbell or dumbbell or some kind of handle) towards them. Or, in the case of pull ups and chin ups, pull themselves towards the bar. This is the wrong way to think about it, and is what leads to the biceps taking over the movement. Instead…

It’s all about the elbows.

Instead of thinking in terms of pulling the weight to you, think in terms of trying to pull your elbows behind you. This is really the key trick to using less biceps and more back. Imagine that your hands and forearms are nothing but hooks attached to your elbows. These “hooks” are doing nothing more than connecting your elbows to the barbell/dumbbell/handle or whatever it is you are going to be pulling. Now, once “connected,” just focus on pulling your elbows back as though you are trying to hit someone who is standing directly behind you. In the case of vertical movements like pull ups, chin ups and lat pull downs, you’d imagine you are trying to pull your elbows down and slightly back.

This may take a small bit of practice for some people, but it’s worth it. Once you can teach yourself to pull through your elbows rather than your hands, you’ll notice a very big difference in what body part (back or biceps) is doing the majority of the work during back exercises.

Hold it for a second.

Once you reach the point of each rep when your elbows are pulled either back (if it’s a horizontal back movement like a row) or down (if it’s a vertical back movement like pull ups or lat pull downs), hold that position for 1 second and squeeze as though you are trying to make your elbows touch each other behind your back. Doing so will not only help get you to use your back even more, but it will also ensure that you aren’t using more weight than you should be. If you are, you’ll find it pretty tough/impossible to hold each rep for 1 second. If this is the case, just lower the weight a bit until you can do this correctly.

Some other stuff.

It’s pretty much impossible to do any sort of pulling exercise without the biceps being used at least a little, just like it’s impossible to do a pushing exercise (bench press, overhead press, etc.) without using the triceps. What I’m trying to say is, if you’re doing some back stuff, and you feel like your biceps did something, it’s perfectly normal and really unavoidable. In fact, it’s good. Heavy pulling (and heavy pushing) is what will add the most muscle/strength to your arms, not direct arm work. However, it’s when it’s mostly biceps that are doing the work during back exercises that it becomes a problem… and the above tips will definitely help you prevent that from happening.

15 thoughts on “How to use your back during back exercises.”

  1. I tried this out on pull-downs today. I can definitely feel the difference. A couple of things I noticed:

    1 – The motion itself seemed a lot slower (not that that’s a bad thing). That may be just because I was concentrating on a new form instead of just do-ing it.

    2 – The weigh I was able to use was down slightly (again, not necessarily bad). I’m attributing that to #1, the hold, or just needing to learn the move better.

    Overall – I like it and will keep using it. Thanks for the advice.

  2. MS: Regarding the speed, you’re probably right. Instead of just focusing on moving the weight from point A to point B, you’re now focusing on contracting the muscle against a resistance. And, unless you’re just a powerlifter whose only goal is to lift heavy things, this is a good thing.

    About the slight drop in weight, this is normal. Whenever anyone has any kind of form issue, the fix almost always involves a reduction in the weight being used. It’s also a good thing, though. Now just gradually work back up with the new and improved form… and then continue to progress from there.

    Glad to hear it helped.

  3. this is a great post, thanks! One of my biggest workout challenges is using and strengthening my back muscles, this article really sheds some light on it. I’m going to incorporate this advice to my future workouts!

  4. A veteran lifter once told me to “pull through the little fingers” in order to take biceps out of the pulling. It works. The tendons connected to the thumb and forefinger group activate more bicep during pulls. Concentrating on the pinky and ring fingers while performing bent over rows, pullups, etc., you can take some of the bicep out of the picture. Also helpful, focus on the shoulder blade movement at the start of the pull, “begin with the shrug.” Just my 2 cents.

  5. wow, i never really looked at it that way. as i was reading this i was doing the motions of how i would normally do it and the following steps occurred. my hands tighten up, then biceps. vs how you mentioned it my back tightened up right up. thanks for the heads up!

  6. Im really impressed with all your advice im a newcomer to weight training thankyou very much for your news letters with all the tips thankyou once again Paul

  7. Thanks a bunch for this advice. I’ve only recently started working out 4 months ago and I have yet to really feel that burn in my back muscles. And just by sitting here trying it out on my chair, I can’t wait for back and bi’s day.

  8. Oh my god! And I was thinking that these workouts are meant for the biceps and shoulders. How dumb of me ?

    Thanks for the article. Now I know that these are back exercises and I am doing them wrong.

  9. JB: Good advice. And, about your second tip, I was almost going to add something about “shrug backs” to this post, as they are a really good way of teaching yourself what muscles should be used during rows.

    Julian/Paul/Kevin/Hitesh: Awesome. Glad you hear it helped.

  10. Wow, this is a good advice. Usually I feel my biceps a little bit more than my back. Thanks for the advice. Can you give advice for the chest. That one seems a little hard for me too. Thanks.

  11. Nelya: What I’ve recently read somewhere about the chest is try to keep your shoulder blades squeezed together so that your shoulders are as far back as they can go. Then keep them in that position through the whole press until you can’t extend any further. This seems to give the pecks the largest range of motion.

    And of course, just imagine pushing from your elbows like the advice about the back exercise. Imagine pushing away from the bar.

  12. I really like your suggestion re concentrating on pulling the elbows behind you.

    Also – one thing i found made a difference was wrapping your thumbs around the bar puts more tension on the forearms, its much better to hook the thumbs over the bar

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