Downsides of bodyweight routines: back muscles

I originally planned to write a single post on some of the downsides of bodyweight routines, but as I started collecting notes and writing I realised that it was probably better to write individual posts, each focusing on areas where bodyweight routines seems to be inferior or at least needs some attention to compete with good ol’ weight training.

Having done individually exclusive bodyweight, bodybuilding and to some extend strength routines – I feel I have gained some quite useful knowledge on the strength and weaknesses of each. In this post I will focus on areas where bodyweight routines can fall short on back training. They are little tweaks but can really make a big difference.

On paper bodyweight routines can look like they give pretty good bang for the buck as far as back training goes. There is usually quite a lot of pull-up variations and for the advanced bodyweight athlete there may additionally be levers and strict muscle-ups. But in my experience there are two areas where they seem to fall short.

First is horizontal rowing to get some good volume for your upper back. I know you can do feet supported rows in rings, on bars etc. but my experience is that your arms seems to get tired before your back muscles gets a real good beating. If you’re more advanced you can even try your luck with front lever-rows. They are incredibly hard, but again they seem to activate more supportive muscles that gets tired before your back really gives up. You’ll end up breaking good form before you really hit the back muscles.

Your lats can certainly get a good workout with bodyweight exercises, but your upper back will most certainly be underdeveloped. So in order to pull(pun intended) yourself out of this compromised state add some heavy rowing to your routine. This can be bent over rows, cable rows, dumbbell rows or whatever – just go heavy on those and high volume to make up for what most bodyweight routines ends up being; rather front dominant.

The second area where bodyweight routines fall kind of short is your lower back. You can do hypers and in a lot of the static levers you need to keep your entire core tight, but if you want a bulletproof back I would seriously consider doing some deadlifts. Deadlifts should in my opinion be a stable of just about any bodyweight routine. They tick so many of the boxes where bodyweight routines seems to fall short. They hit the upper back, as I mentioned as a weak-point earlier. They hit the lower back and they hit your legs once you start pulling some serious weights. They won’t hit your legs as squats, but if you’re seriously into bodyweight training and want to do advanced stuff – then the last thing you want is really heavy legs. But this is not the same as to say that you should not work them at all. Get a knowledgeable individual to show you the right technique and then start pulling from the ground!

Deadlifts can further more act as a measuring tool for something that can be a bit hard with bodyweight – a measure of progress. You can add good old progression on the deadlift to measure whether you are going in the right direction or not. I know it won’t say anything about your ability to perform bodyweight exercises but it will tell you whether you are getting stronger, are close to a burnout or are stagnating. Just program it with something real simple as Wendlers 5/3/1 for instance.

From my own experience the upper back is certainly the place where I lost most of my muscle mass when I did exclusive bodyweight routines. It is one of the things I keep telling people when they ask me for input on their bodyweight routines. And generally people needs to up their pulling whether we talk bodyweight or old school weights. There is a clear tendency to focus more on the front – which of course you can see more easily in the mirror – than the rear. The average lifter would probably be better off with a 2:1 ratio on exercise selection, in favor of pulling instead of pushing.

There are way more impressive fronts than rears – be the guy/girl who stands out in the crowd.

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