Training the Superficial Back Muscles with Marc Hector

PharmaFreak , Jun 16, 2017

This article will focus on the superficial back muscles and how best to train them for hypertrophy. The superficial back muscles are classified as extrinsic muscles and are associated with movements of the shoulder. They are located underneath the skin and superficial fascia. The muscles that make up this area are the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae and the rhomboid minor and major.

When training the back I make sure that I target all of these muscles equally to ensure a balanced workout, using my energy and time effectively with moderate repetition, high load sets, as a higher set volume with moderate to heavy weight loads are associated with greater hypertrophy responses (Kraemer et al; 2003. Hormonal Mechanisms Related to the Expression of Muscular Strength and Power, in Strength and Power in Sport, Second Edition, Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford, UK).

Also, keeping it fresh and changing my workouts periodically helps to keep my muscles guessing and my mind focused on the task at hand. The wide, thick back with aesthetically pleasing definition requires the maintenance of a small waist and following workouts to increase hypertrophy, to sculpt a symmetrical, mass stacked physique with a monstrously defined V-Taper.

In order to increase the superficial back muscles in size, hypertrophy needs to take place. Hypertrophy is an increase in muscle size. This arises from a sustained excess of muscle protein synthesis over muscle protein breakdown over a period of time, leading to net protein accretion. The three primary mechanisms involved in hypertrophy are mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. These mechanisms work adjacent to training variables. Hypertrophy has been linked to resistance training in great detail (Tan, 1999; Hunter et al. 2004; Wernham et al. 2007; Adams and Bamman, 2012).

To create the maximum amount of ‘stress’ on the back muscles, my workouts are always focused on horizontal pulling to increase the thickness, and vertical pulling to increase the overall width. Prioritising compound movements such as bent over rows and deadlifts first in the workouts also aids the release of testosterone and stresses the biggest amount of muscle fibres due to its multi joint and muscle recruitment. This initial anabolic boost also creates the best neuromuscular response possible for a hardcore session.

It doesn’t end there! No muscle is made up the same, fibre type composition differs with each muscle and the genetics of each person. Ever heard the phrase ‘he has good genetics’? Well, by tailoring your workout to factor in the fibre types you are on the right path for maximum results. (Schoenfeld, B et al;  2014, Regional Hypertrophy; the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research).  This effects both time under tension and volume, so as the latissimus dorsi and other back muscles contain a balance of slow and fast twitch fibres, they respond better to medium volume. 

The fact that the back muscles are both slow and fast twitch and larger in size, means that the back needs a significantly higher volume in order to hypertrophy efficiently.  With this in mind I execute 4 sets per exercise, often including dropsets into my periodisation. The reason behind this, is that in a straight set (8 to 12 reps with one weight), all muscle fibres may not be fully fatigued.  However, by including dropsets you shock the muscle by adding additional stress, stress to an already tiring muscle. This induces major anabolic responses over an even larger cross sectional area… What does this mean? The answer is hypertrophy.

Now that this is established we can look at tempo.  Negative repetitions, or eccentric training, allows the muscles to push even further through the point of fatigue by slowing down the lengthening phase of the movement. At a moderate volume and a high load we can aim for a pace of approximately 4-6 seconds per repetition, with a range of 20-70 seconds (4 seconds x 5 reps) to 72 seconds per set (8-12 reps). This is the optimal range to cause a hypertrophic reaction, and make sure those bulk building hormones are secreted.

Mechanical tension should also be considered in the workout design. When you train a muscle, you need to stretch it eccentrically to create controlled, passive tension, contract it concentrically and flex and pause at the top of the movement to illicit active tension.  Passive tension produces a hypertrophic response that is thought to be fast twitch fiber-type specific (Prado. LG et al. 2005; Isoform diversity of giant proteins in relation to passive and active contractile properties of rabbit skeletal muscles. J Gen Physiol 126: 461– 139).  Perfect!  As the back muscles are comprised of a mix of fibre type for hypertrophy we want to favour fast twitch, meaning that this piece of information is invaluable!  The key here then is to lift weights through a full range of motion, so that the muscles are placed under a combination of both passive and active tension. This gives the back muscles anabolic potential for rapid mass gains using stretch induced overload.  This is yet another reason why negative repetitions are included in my training.

In keeping with all the above factors for back training, below is an example of my back routine which incorporates the methods mentioned earlier.

1. Chin ups – 3-4 sets x 8-10 reps
2. Front latpulldown – 4 sets x 10 reps
(Time under tension with the negative part of the exercise lasting 5 seconds)
3. Underhand Barbell bent over row – 4 sets x 8-12 reps
4. Dumbbell row – 4 sets x 10 reps
(Time under tension with the negative part of the exercise lasting 5 seconds)
5. Cable seated row – 4 sets x 8-12 reps
(Time under tension with the negative part of the exercise lasting 5 seconds)

Finally, in concluding the superficial back muscles can enhance the overall look of a physique. However, it is important to change your routines to bring variation to your training and so you do not hit a plateau. Personally I change my routines every 8 weeks, but the core training mechanisms mentioned in this article remain.

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