Back and biceps go together like peanut butter and jelly. Most pulling movements, stimulate your biceps as a secondary muscle, therefore, back and biceps are often paired together on the same day. But what exercises do you need to perform on your back and biceps training day to maximize gains. We’re going to talk about how to get the most out of your back and biceps workout to maximize your gains.
Almost all exercises, even when performed in isolation still stimulate secondary muscles. When performing back exercises, you also stimulate your biceps, which is why back and biceps are traditionally paired together. For example, when you perform a seated row, you also pull with your biceps as the secondary or tertiary mover.
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The same principle applies to chest and triceps, hence why these muscle groups are also often paired together, since the triceps are stimulated when performing exercises like barbell bench press, or pushups.
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The muscles in your back can be divided into three groups; superficial, intermediate, and deep muscles also known as intrinsic muscles.
Trapezius The trapezius, or “traps” are a long, triangular shaped superficial muscle, which creates a trapezius shape on the upper back. The proximal region connects from the skull, with its most distal portion from the cervical to lower thoracic spine.
Latissimus Dorsi The latissimus dorsi originates from the lower part of the back, where it covers a wide area, and accentuates to form the desired V-shape. The lats have a broad origin – arising from the thoracic spine between T6-T12, thoracolumbar fascia, iliac crest, and the inferior three ribs. Back exercises such as the lat pull down, seated rows and bent over row, will target the latissimus dorse and middle back or rhomboids.
Levator Scapulae The levator scapulae is a small strap-like muscle. It begins in the neck, and descends to attach to the scapula.
Rhomboids Rhomboids are split into two muscles, the rhomboid major and mind. The rhomboid minor is situated superiorly to the major. The major starts from the spinous processes of T2-T5 vertebrae, while the minor originates at the bottom of the cervical spine at C7.
It’s important to understand which muscles you’re targeting, to during each exercise, to properly activate and focus on those muscles when performing each rep. With more thought behind your movement, you’ll perform each rep and each set with more efficiency, and have better outcomes.
Biceps Brachii The biceps brachii, or biceps for shorts have two heads and are located on the anterior (front) part of your upper arm between the elbow and the shoulder. Your biceps assist in elbow flexion (bending your arm at the elbow), supination (moving from palm down to palm up), and with shoulder flexion (raising your arm in front of you).
Triceps Brachii The triceps are located on the posterior (back) part of your upper arm between the elbow and shoulder directly below your bicep. Your triceps contain three different heads (short, medial, and long). Triceps assist in elbow extension (straightening your arm at the elbow) and shoulder extension
Brachioradialis The brachioradialis, or more commonly known as your forearm attaches slightly above the elbow to the humorous and near your wrist. Your brachioradialis assists the biceps in elbow flexion, and assists with supination and pronation of your forearm.
Brachialis The brachialis, is more distal to the bicep, (lies beneath) and assists in flexion of the elbow.
The pull-up could be the best back exercise eliciting full muscle contraction and optimal muscle growth. Each variation of pull up, either wide, narrow, or neutral grip, has its own distinct advantages in muscle development and range of motion. Pull ups, are a key back movement to include in your back day training split, to achieve better back strength and definition. EMG research shows that the concentric phase, or lifting phase of the pull up, results in significantly greater muscle activation of the lats, middle traps, and secondary muscle groups such as the pecs, forearms, and biceps [R].
How To Pull Up
- Jump and grab the bar with a shoulder width or narrow grip
- With an overhand or pronated grip pull yourself up until your chin reaches over the bar
- Hold at the top contracting your scapulae and release back to starting position
The single dumbbell row is a unilateral isotonic exercise, meaning only one side of the body is used in order to product muscle contraction. Traditionally, the single arm cable row is performed kneeling with one knee on a bench, however you can also bend with one arm resting on your knee while you row as well. The single-arm dumbbell row performed on a bench row will provide more stabilization to lift heavier loads by providing optimal core and spinal stabilization. The main targeted muscle group during a single arm dumbbell row is the latissimus dorsi (Lats).
How To Single Arm Dumbbell Row
- Place on knee on the bench, with your opposing foot firmly planted into the ground, with your back at a 90-degree angle.
- Grab the dumbbell with your hand opposite of the knee on the bench.
- Place your opposing hand on the bench gripping the side outside of our knee
- Look straight ahead and let the dumbbell hand, stretching your lat and shoulders.
- Pull the weight back, with your hand placed firmly on the handle and pull keeping your elbow tight and tucked close to your body, keeping your back straight avoiding any additional movement.
- Squeeze your shoulder blade and contract, holding for 1-2 seconds.
- Return the dumbbell slowly with control, until you feel a stretch in your lat, and shoulder keeping your back straight, then repeat.
The T-Bar Row is an isolated movement strength movement. Although despite being an isolated movement, it does activate several muscle groups, such as the latissimus dorsi or lats, rear delts, and smaller secondary muscles such as the biceps and stabilizing muscles; hamstrings, glutes and abdominals.
How To T-Bar Row
- Add a manageable amount of weight to the t-bar machine
- Place your feet at shoulder width behind yourself on the back of the machine, on the foot plate
- Facing chest down, grab the handles of the t-bar machine and move over directly beneath you.
- Tighten and engage your core, then pull the t-bar row towards you (similar to a bench press in reverse).
- Retract your scapulae and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement, sweeping your elbows back.
- Reverse the movement and slowly extend your arms without allowing your shoulders or chest to roll forward as you extend maintaining good posture throughout the exercise.
The few studies which have been published investigating the effects of the lat pulldown, show that is it extremely effective for targeting and isolating the lats for further muscular development. The lat pulldown is not a compound exercise by traditional standards, however like many other exercises it does stimulate other muscles within the arms, back and shoulders such as the deltoids, rhomboids, and stabilizers such as the rotator cuff [R].
How To Lat Pulldown
Lat pulldowns are performed at a workstation using cables, and stackable plates for increased load and resistance.
- Start out by adjusting the lat pulldown machine to fit your body, with the seat and pads.
- Adjust the pads, so that your knees are placed securely below with your feet flat on the floor and the hips and knees at a 90° angle.
- Reach up and grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Draw in and brace your core, tightening your muscles for better spinal stability
- Slightly lean back your torso 20°-30° to match the line of the pull down with your latissimus dorsi
- Keep your spine in a neutral position and avoid excess lumbar extension
- Pull the bar down to your chest, bringing your elbows back focusing on your scapulae retraction/depression (squeezing your shoulder blades together).
- Lower the bar until you feel a slight stretch in the pectorals and your lats fully contract your scapulae retract together.
- As you let the weight raise back up, keep your trunk and core stabilized and avoid swinging through the movements, keeping good posture and fluid motion throughout the lift
- Maintain full control over the bar and weight when allowing the bar to rise, to enable an ideal eccentric muscle contraction.
Seated cable row utilizes a cable pulley workstation. Seated at a bench with your feet shoulder width apart in front of you, seated cable is an excellent all around exercise, which will help build the latissimus dorsi, forearms, biceps, and dynamic muscle stabilizers.
Studies use EMG (Electromyography), to determine the best exercises for each muscle group. An EMG device measures extremely small amounts of electric stimulation generated by muscles below the surface of the skin. Studies suggest that seated cable row, stimulates over 80% of the muscle fibers involved in this exercise, making it a must have in your back and biceps workout.
How To Seated Cable Row
- Sitting on the bench/platform place your feet shoulder width apart with your knees bent and grasp the cable attachment.
- Often times, the grip will be a triangle handle, for a close grip position, but it also may be switch out for a bar, in case you want a wide-grip variation.
- Brace your core with your feet firmly planted into the platform foothold and pull the handle and weight back.
- Pull the weight back, with your hands placed at the top of the attachment, towards your belly button or lower abdomen, keeping your back straight with a slight 10 degree angle and minimal movement.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together on the concentric (pulling) portion of the movement, and retract your scapulae
- Return the handle forward, until you feel a stretch in your lats, and shoulders keeping your back straight, until your arms are fully stretched in the eccentric phase, and return and repeat.
The dumbbell preacher curl can effectively isolate your biceps, inducing more stimulation directly to the muscle tissue, increasing muscle hypertrophy. More isolation, with better contraction, flexion, and full range of motion, will help produce bigger gains.
How To Do A Dumbbell Preacher Curl
- Grab a dumbbell and place your elbow flush on a preacher curl, or incline bench at 55 degrees.
- Slowly lower your arm, and contract your muscles, effectively isolating your bicep.
- Raise back up squeezing your bicep as you curl the dumbbell
The incline dumbbell curl can be a great addition to your arm day workout split. While performing an incline dumbbell curl, your arms tend to move behind your body, increasing the range of motion and creating a deeper stretch, which is why it’s one of the best bicep exercises.
How To Do An Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Position the incline bench at 55-65 degrees.
- grab two dumbbells are let your arms hang at your sides, slightly behind your shoulder.
- Using a supinated grip, curl the dumbbells towards the shoulders.
- Once your biceps are contracted, lower the weights back down, and repeat.
The EZ Bar curl is one of the most tried and true bicep exercises to build bigger biceps. Electromyographic studies have shown that EZ bar curls generate more activity of the biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing them when compared to other bicep movements such as the straight bar or barbell bicep curl[R].
How To Do An EZ Bar Curl
- Grab an EZ bar at a comfortable weight.
- Start with the EZ bar at your thighs, with your hands positioned on the knurled grip of the bar,
- Standing shoulder width apart, fully contract your arms all the way to your shoulders and curl the EZ bar, and lower down the bar slowly with control, keeping your elbows tucked at your sides.
One of the best and most popular bicep exercises, is the twisting dumbbell curl. The twist activates your forearms, and the head of the bicep, for a more effective arm workout.
How To Do A Twisting Dumbbell Curl
- Grab two dumbbells at a comfortable weight.
- Positioned at your sides with your palms faced in, begin to curl one arm towards your shoulder
- Twist the dumbbell, so that your palms face your chest, as you contract your bicep.
- Once you get to the top of the curl, keep twisting slightly to isolate the bicep and contract your muscle for 1-2 seconds
- Release, lower the weight back to your side, and repeat.
The Zottman curl Is it very effective bicep dumbbell exercises that combines a conventional bicep curl with a reverse curl.
This strength training movement is an exceptional exercise to add to your training day split to help fully contract your bicep while also progressively overloading your forearms on the eccentric phase of the lift.
How To Zottman Curl
- Standing holding a dumbbell in each hand
- Rotate your wrists into a supinated position (palms facing upwards). Arms fully extended and resting by your sides
- Place your feet shoulder width apart to establish a solid base
- Contract and isolate your biceps as hard as you can and curl the dumbbells upwards as you bend your elbows
- Pause at the top of the movement.
- Rotate your wrists into a pronated position (palms facing the floor)
- Slowly lower and deload down until your arms are extended
- Twist the dumbbells back into the starting position as described at above (palms facing upwards) for the next rep
- Repeat for the desired number of reps
With any resistance training program, the goal is to build more muscle, more strength, and better muscular endurance. When you start, your program should incorporate a standard 3 sets for each exercise, starting with 15,12,10 rep scheme, to build more muscular endurance.
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After the first four weeks, try and increase the volume, to 4 sets per exercise, using progressive overload, and increasing the weight overtime. As your goal transitions into building more strength, increase the weight and lower the reps to 12,10,10,8.
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To stimulate muscle growth and achieve consistent progression your body needs added physical stress (resistance training) to increase muscle mass and strength, by way of adaptation.
The human body will not change unless it’s forced to do so. With greater demands placed on your body, it’s essentially forced to adapt to those changes, to add muscle gain and growth.
Although the back and biceps work together on almost all compound upper-body pulling movements, the amount of volume and work, is vastly different. The biceps are a small muscle group and therefore, do not need as much stimulation as the back. Five to six exercises for your back is ideal, where 3-4 is ideal for your biceps. Using a 2:1 ratio for back to biceps exercises total in a given workout, is an easy way to designate how much work you should be performing.
You’ll get the most out of your training split, by working back and biceps together. Since the biceps are the secondary and tertiary mover in all pulling movements with the back, it only makes sense to train them together for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. With progressive overload, high intensity, and proper nutrition, you’ll stack gains and a more defined physique quickly.
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