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:
- Too much weight is being used (mostly a guy thing).
- 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.
- 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.