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The Fitness Zone

4 Quick Tips for Training the Back
May 30, 2014 | by Josh Pullman

There are many benefits to having a functionally strong, healthy back, says Josh Pullman, Australian Institute of Fitness WA Fitness Master Coach. Here are 4 important tips to help you next time you're training your client's back.

People who know how to train their back in a safe, effective manner often experience perks such as:

  • Reduced predisposition to lower back pain
  • Improved static posture
  • Improved upper and lower body movement patterns
  • It even helps achieve the legendary V' shape in the trunk that many gym-goers are striving towards!

To put a scope on the article today the back' will be referring to all dorsal muscles above the hips and below the head.

1. Latissimus dorsi = medial rotator

Many Personal Trainers believe the best way to help remedy a client's rounded shoulders' (tight muscles around the shoulders that medially rotate the humerus and cause the palms of the hands to face posteriorly) is to include any extra back exercise. Unfortunately the solution is not as simple as that, due to the latissimus dorsi being a medial rotator of the humerus as well! If your client presents with rounded shoulders, it's a good idea to include extra stretching for the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi, and perform shoulder external rotation work with the rotator cuff (which help to externally rotate the humerus), as well as choosing exercises that put your client in a position of safe shoulder external rotation under load (to encourage rotator cuff activation).

2. Don't overload postural muscles

As our collective understanding of the core' muscles has progressed, many variations of the back extension' exercise have become increasingly popular. Whilst this is a great choice when performed correctly and in the right context, muscles like the erector spinae do not respond to heavy load in the same way as muscles like the quadriceps or the pectorals do. A common error with the back extension is to continue progressing the load with heavy plates and added external load to increase the training stimulus! The erectors of the back are postural muscles, primarily designed to help hold the body upright, so should be trained using light weight and moderate to high reps. Using weight to add resistance to the back extension can lead to extended periods of back tightness, and potentially even injury.

3. Chin-ups set up to succeed!

The chin up is often viewed as a polarising exercise you either love it, or you hate it! A large reason for the latter is often attributed to the feeling of failure associated with clients and Personal Trainers alike being unable to do them. If your client sets a goal with you increase their maximum number chin-ups, avoid getting them to do maximal efforts (i.e. 1-2 reps then fail) early on. Use equipment like the assisted chin-up machine, practice eccentric reps, and strengthen the key supporting muscles (deltoids, rotator cuff and lower trapezius) before you get them attempting sets of their own bodyweight. This way they'll feel a lot stronger and more confident, and will quickly learn to love them!

4. Use slings where and when you can

When doing unilateral exercises like the one-arm dumbbell row, it's a good idea (once your client has mastered the correct technique, range of movement, stability, and has successfully progressed the load) to progress the exercise to a standing version. If you cue the client to transfer most of their bodyweight to the opposing glute max, the latissimus dorsi will benefit from a strength boost via the posterior oblique sling (fascia based connection used to communicate and transfer load). This will help them move better, feel stronger, and lift more.

There are many great training tips and cues to apply when training the back these are just a few that should prove useful when you're helping your client with their goals.

Keep in touch with the research around the trunk by checking out professional development opportunities such as Rehab Trainer, and always ensure your top priority is to train safely and effectively.


With over 12 years' of coaching experience, Josh is a Personal Trainer, certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, and a semi-professional footballer. He is also the Master Coach at the Australian Institute of Fitness WA.

This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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