Guys are always pushing for getting a bigger chest, but don’t show their posterior back and bicep muscles the love that they should. Back, biceps, and shoulders should be put first, and here’s why.
- There are two things that internally rotate and mess up your shoulders: Sitting at a desk from 9-5, and bench press.
- Working out your chest too much makes you look like a Neanderthal, and not in a good way.
- Pulling movements and anterior deltoid recruitment will help you reset your posture by pulling your shoulders back where they should naturally rest.
- Having a full back and large biceps are better show off muscles, that work best for t-shirts and tank tops. They make you look like more of a spartan than 10 sets of bench will.
- Rule of thumb in weight training: you should be working on pulling movements more than pushing. Most of our work environments and lifestyles lead us to be strong pushers, but weak at pulling movements. This will lead to muscular imbalances, postural problems, injury, and maybe even surgery.
Why working a desk sucks for your body
I’ve never had more shoulder and back problems in my life then when I used to sit at a desk and work on a computer for 8 hours a day.
I’ve had a small tear in my shoulder for about a decade which has been nagging, but is nothing too serious. My doctor said that if I take care of it, it’s so small that I may never have to have surgery.
It wasn’t weight training that ever hurt my shoulder. I actually tore it in high school from overdoing it at a swim meet. It was having my right hand on a mouse for 8 hours a day that made it ache and hurt. My low back was weak and achy all of the time too, and before the job I had never had a problem wit it.
Since then, I’ve focused my programming around shoulder strength, back and bicep strength, scapular range of motion, and pulling movements to strengthen and balance out my posterior chain.
The Anatomy of Your Back and Bicep Muscles
You don’t have to be an anatomy expert to master working your back and bicep muscles, but it is good to know a little bit about how they work, so you can give them exactly what they need to grow.
Basic Anatomy of Your Back (Latissimus Dorsi)
The lats or latissimus dorsi are positioned laterally or diagonally across your back. Because of their shape and how they lie adjacent to your spine, they respond and grow best with a variety of horizontal and vertical pulling movements.
Here’s the real key to getting the most growth out of your horizontal and vertical pulls. To properly work your back for strength and growth, you need to learn how to isolate your lats. That requires removing the assistance of your shoulder muscles during pulling movements.
Horizontal rows and pulls: Before you start any of your horizontal pulling movements, retract your scapula and hold your shoulders that way for the entirety of each set.
Here’s how you do it…
- Grip the barbell or the handle that you are using for your barbell, dumbbell, or seated cable row.
- Retract your scapula by pulling your shoulders backward, as if you were trying to get your shoulder blades to connect across your spine. It should feel like you are trying to squeeze your shoulders back behind you.
- Keep your shoulders retracted, and pull your elbows backward so that your hands come to about your ribcage (or inline with your ribcage).
- While keeping your shoulders retracted, extend your elbows to return the weight to the start f the pull.
Your shoulders have now been neutralized! You will be able to focus on working your lats. Keep your shoulders retracted in that way for each set so that you can focus on working your back.
Vertical: Before you start any vertical pulling motion (lat pull-downs, etc.) make sure that your scapulae are depressed or lowered.
Here’s how you do it…
- In a lat pull-down, grip the bar overhead at shoulder width apart or wider.
- Pull your shoulders down, away from your ears and keep them their.
- Act like you are trying to pull your shoulder blades down, into your back pockets (or imaginary back pockets).
- Focus on pulling your elbows down toward your lats, so that you get your chin above the bar.
- Extend your elbows back to the start of the pull, while keeping your shoulders down or depressed.
*Before going straight into any of these exercise, start using weights to practice scapular retraction with horizontal pulls, and scapular depression with your vertical pull exercises.
Basic Anatomy of Your Biceps
Your biceps are two-headed muscles. They have a long head, which is the outside muscle of your bicep, and a short head which is the side of your bicep closest to your torso.
In general, there is quite a bit of conflicting information on the web about what the best ways are to train each of the two heads of your bicep muscles. For the most part, it appears that your long head, or outer bicep muscles, contribute to the height and peak of your bicep, while the inner, short head of your bicep is exhibited by thickness.
I’ll level with you here. Most of having those perfectly sculpted biceps you see on athletes is dependent on your genetics. The good news is, you can do a lot to take control of your size.
*I can empathize with that too. I’ve never had those perfectly cut lines that divides my bicep into two perfect regions, but I have mastered the volume I get out of my back and bicep muscles with variations in grip, weight, technique, and intensity (keep reading for more on that…).
In my personal testing, I get more inner bicep (short head) stimulation from using a close, underhand grip on my vertical and horizontal pulling motions. By rotating my palms to face my body and by keeping my elbows close to my torso, I feel more tension and blood flow to my inner bicep, therefore contributing to the thickness of my biceps brachii.
That leaves overhand grip and overhand wide grip for growing the all-mighty peak of your bicep.
If you want the most out of your bicep muscles, you need to use a variation of underhand, overhand, wide grip, and close or closed grip to get the most out of the height and thickness of those classic glory muscles.
How to Train Your Back and Biceps
Without further adieu, here are three of the most effective training techniques that I have used to develop bigger, badder, and stronger back and bicep muscles. Aside from the warmup, I’ve tested these in for the past 18 months, and have seen better back development, bicep growth, and strength gains than I have in the last 10 years of strength training.
*Notice that there is ZERO curling in this program. I recommend training your back and biceps together with compound movements exclusively for 4- 6 months. If you notice that your biceps are lagging after that period of time, then you can throw in 3 x 8-10 sets of curl variations at the end of your workout. Based on what I’ve seen with my clients though, your biceps won’t have any issue lagging on this high-volume, compound training program.
1) The Bigger Back Warmup
Warming up with the muscle groups with exercises you are about to use in your workout is a great way to get blood and oxygen flow to the joints and muscle groups that you are about to use for your workout. That will help prevent injury, improve performance, and enhance growth.
I’ve been testing this warmup for the past 2-3 months to make my back and bicep splits or upper body days, to get even more growth out of my back and bicep muscles. What I love about it most is that it’s all based around pull-ups, and it’s a lot more entertaining and challenging than warming up by running for 5-10 minutes.
Try this warmup before your upper body split, back and bicep split, or your arms day. Here’s a few different variations for mixing it up….
Bigger Back and Bicep Warmup Options
These are all 10 minute warmup options that will help you add size to your delts, back, and bicep muscles.
A) Straight pull-ups:
Do as many pull-ups as you can do in 10 minutes. Use as many sets and as much rest as you need. (*Pull-ups are overhand grip at shoulder width or a little wider than shoulder width apart.
B) Pull-ups and chin-ups:
See how many pull-ups and chin-ups you can do in 10 minutes. Alternate every set, pull-ups and chin-ups. (*Chin-ups are performed with an underhand grip on the bar, no wider than shoulder width)
C) Triple Pulls
Same as the others, but alternate every set using
- Pull-ups (overhand grip)
- Chin-ups (underhand grip)
- Closed-grip chin-ups (using handles so that palms are facing in at each other)
Skip the cardio on your upper body or back and bi split day for one of these warm ups.
Tip: Make a goal for how many pull-ups and chin-ups that you want to try to hit every minute.
For example, I try to hit a rate of 5-6 pull-ups or chin-ups every minute when I do this warmup.
2) Get Stronger
You can get bigger without getting stronger, but you won’t ever reach your full genetic potential if you don’t lift heavier. Getting stronger is a crucial and functional piece of getting a bigger back and melon biceps.
My strength phase is where I’ve been able to grow the most. 9 out of 10 workouts, I keep all of my working sets at 85%-90% of my one rep max. That one other day I reserve for higher volume training.
What does that look like?
Basically, I just keep my weights heavy, so that I either only have 1 rep left in the tank, or am completely fatigued (working to volitional muscle failure) by the end of each of the 4-6 rep sets.
Besides the 1-2 wamup sets that I do before my working sets, I do an absolute MINIMUM of 4 sets per exercise, and keep each set between 4-5 reps. When I can hit 4 or more sets of 6 reps, I raise the weight by 5%-10%, for that particular exercise.
Forcing your body to lift heavier weight with higher intensity demands more muscle fiber recruitment, which leads to better growth and hypertrophy. Force = Mass x Acceleration, and by lifting heavier weights with more intensity (using fast contractions, not slow reps) you are going to enhance muscle growth.
3) High Volume Techniques for a Bigger Back and Biceps
Growth is a game of strength and volume. Lift heavy, and lift often.
The best way to get lagging muscle groups to grow us by hitting them hard and hitting them often. You can definitely get some size by training with moderate-light weights in the 8-12 rep range, but you’ll get better hypertrophy and functionality by getting stronger, much stronger.
Instead of your average lifter’s 3 x 10 training plan to success, change up your workouts.
Since we are talking about growing significantly bigger back and bicep muscles, I’ll give you my training example.
The strength phase of my training for my compound lifts are
2 Compound Back and Bicep Exercises:
- 1 horizontal pull: barbell row, dumbbell bent-over row, seated cable pull.
- 1 vertical pull: overhand lat pull-down, underhand lat pull-down, weighted pull-ups and chin-ups.
I’ll use the following formula for both my vertical and horizontal pulls.
- 1-2 light warmup sets (10-15 reps, with plenty of rest in between each warmup set AND between the last warmup set and the first working set.
- 5-7 sets x 4-6 reps
So I train high volume (40-82 reps per workout for my back and biceps), and I’ll hit this split twice per week (80-164 total weekly reps). That’s not including the warmup.
Personally, I’ve noticed the best growth from my back and bicep muscle groups when I am hitting 120-180 reps per week. That’s essentially 60-90 total reps per workout, at 2 back and bicep split days per week.
Putting your Back and Bicep Training together
So now that this training plan for bigger back and bicep muscles is as clear as mud, let’s put all of this together in a nice, neat, easy to follow package so that you can start growing too.
Back and Bicep Split Training Day
- 10 Minute Pump-work Warmup: Select one of the 3 pull-up warmups that we discussed above.
- Horizontal Pull: Barbell row, seated cable row, one arm bent-over dumbbell row
- 1-2 warmup sets (10-15 reps with plenty of rest)
- 5-7 x 4-6
- Vertical Pull: Lat pull-downs, underhand pull-downs, weighted pull-ups or chin-ups
- 1-2 warmup sets (10-15 reps with plenty of rest)
- 5-7 x 4-6
If you want to learn more about building muscle and losing body fat, check out my free e-book The Ultimate Fat Loss Checklist here.