Building a Better Physique WITHOUT Screwing Around

Hot on the heels of my recent posts regarding how not to lift and what not to do in the gym comes a post from Mr. Honey Badger at Return of Kings about how to build a big back:
Now that you know the reasons for building up your back, I’m sure you’re wondering how to go about doing it. First off, any gym rat knows the importance of deadlifts and chins so I’m not going to belabour the point on those exercises beyond the fact that you should be doing them. However, one exercise that has not garnered nearly as much attention is the heavy, high rep dumbbell row.
A heavy, high rep dumbbell row is the perfect addition to your back routine. I first came across these a few years ago while reading some articles over at elitefts. Credit goes to powerlifter Matt Kroczaleski for popularizing the movement. Matt had discovered that when he included a heavy, high rep dumbbell row into his routine that his upper back strength improved tremendously, which in turn improved the lockout portion of his deadlift. Since his popularization of the movement, a heavy, high rep dumbbell row (aka a Kroc Row) has now become a staple in many lifters’ routines with much success.
A simple and effective way to add Kroc Rows to your routine would be as follows:
Deadlifts: Working up to a heavy single, double or triple or 5×5
Weighted Chins: 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps (vary the grip if you want).
Kroc Rows: 1-2 sets of 15+ reps. 15 reps here is really the bare minimum. Guys were doing as many as 20+ reps.
Do this 2x per week (although I would vary the intensity on the deadlifts with one lighter session and one heavier session in the week).
This is not generally a bad idea, but I do have one major problem with it: I used to do these at the gym, and they never did anything for me. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of "targeting" specific muscles here while never really building true strength. Dumbbell exercises are, in my opinion, a giant waste of time if you are trying to build strength- they are useful for building tone, not strength. If you aim for strength, keep things as simple as possible- concentrate on form and power, not on flashy exercises or complex routines. Here are some really powerful alternatives that you should consider:

  • Chin-ups are about the single best exercise you can ever use to build your back. To his great credit, Mr. Honey Badger points out their utility above and recommends that you add them to your routine. If you've been lifting for a while, you should be able to do a minimum of 10 chin-ups at body-weight without problems. In my case, given sufficient time between sets, I can do 100 chin-ups without problems and I regularly do between 50 and 70 once a week.
  • Overhead presses are designed specifically to work your entire upper body, hard. Combine these with the next exercise in the list and you will be well on your way to building a strong and powerful back to support your overall frame.
  • Deadlifts are my single favourite exercise. I love deadlifting, and I always look forward to my Sunday workouts where I deadlift 425lbs or more LIKE A BOSS. However, make no mistake- deadlifts are bloody dangerous if you don't do them correctly. NEVER lift with a rounded lower back- it's a guaranteed way to destroy your spine. If you do them right, though, deadlifts are an incredible exercise. They work out every single major muscle group in your body, and they build strength and character like nothing else on Earth.
  • Finally, consider incorporating barbell rows into your workout. These are actually not that different from the Kroc Rows mentioned above- the difference is that you're using a barbell, not dumbbells, and you're positioning yourself over the bar to use your back, your arms, and your core all at the same time. Instead of working out one side of your body at a time and keeping your legs relatively static, barbell rows are a full-body exercise, like all of the other fundamental exercises such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and power cleans.
Let me make it clear that I am not trashing Mr. Honey Badger's idea. It's not a bad one. I just don't think it's an optimal one for most men. The majority of men who want to learn how to lift properly would be best off learning how to do the four exercises noted above- and never, ever forget to squat. There is no exercise other than deadlifting that builds and maintains muscle more quickly or more profoundly than the good old barbell squat.

The secret to building strength- as opposed to just tone and muscle- is to engage every single major muscle group in the body with every rep. Keep adding weight until you hit failure, then dial it back and slowly add more.

Totally unrelated metal track that just sounds freakin' awesome when lifting:

STORMWARRIOR- Iron Gods!

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