Powerlifters love to train the big three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
However, if I’ve learned anything in my 15-year powerlifting career, it’s that avoiding accessory exercises can lead to a whole host of issues and prevent you from reaching your full potential. This is why it’s important for powerlifters to train their back just as seriously as any other movement in the gym.
So how should powerlifters train their back? Powerlifters should train their back through a combination of compound and isolation movements. Exercises should target areas that will help improve low and mid-back strength for the squat and deadlift, and upper back strength for the bench press.
In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits of training back for powerlifting, some tips for how to structure back training, and 3 specific back workouts that powerlifters should add to their program. Let’s get started!
The Goal of Training Back For Powerlifting
When you structure back workouts for powerlifting, you want to make sure the exercises you’re doing have a high transfer effect to the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
In other words, you’re not just doing back exercises to get a more ‘aesthetic-looking’ back, like a bodybuilder.
But rather, you’re training your back muscles to ultimately improve your squat, bench press, and deadlift, either by increasing overall back strength or by preventing any potential injuries that might occur from not training your back.
This is why you cannot simply copy a bodybuilder’s back routine because the goals are different. Later, I’ll show you three powerlifting-specific back workouts you can do. But first, let’s take a look at the benefits of training back for powerlifting.
5 Benefits of Training Back For Powerlifting
There are 5 benefits of training your back for powerlifting. The benefits mostly relate to how training back will help your squat, bench press, and deadlift.
1. Allows For A Stronger Low-Bar Back Squat Position
In my article on Where Should You Put The Bar When Squatting, I mentioned that you want to find a position where the bar sits directly in line with the mid-foot when you’re at the bottom of the squat.
Depending on how much forward torso lean you have and your level of shoulder mobility, the bar position may change slightly. However, most people in powerlifting will assume a low-bar squat position where the barbell sits near the bottom of the rear delt.
In order to place the barbell in this low-bar position, you have two requirements for your back.
First, lifters who have greater musculature in the rear delt, rhomboids, and lower traps, will have an easier time finding a position on the back for the barbell to sit.
With a lack of musculature, the barbell has no tissue to rest on. If this is the case, squatting might feel painful or awkward. Some people with a lack of upper back musculature will say that a low bar squat feels like the barbell will slide off the back.
Second, when you’re attempting a max squat, the upper back is under a lot of stress from where the barbell sits.
If you lack strength in the upper back, you will begin to notice the upper back start to round under heavy weight.
While the risk is somewhat low for injury when the upper back rounds, the real issue is that as your upper back rounds your weight will shift forward.
If the barbell starts to shift forward, you will be fighting gravitational forces to avoid falling over. This will make the lift harder and might be the reason you fail the lift altogether.
2. Assists With Stabilization In The Bench Press
The back has an incredibly important role in the bench press.
Of course, the major muscles used in the bench press are the pecs, shoulders, and triceps.
However, other muscle groups such as the erector spinae, lats, and serratus anterior stabilize the bench press, including decelerating the barbell (on the way down) and restricting inefficient movement patterns.
In other words, if you find that you have a hard time ‘stopping the barbell’ on your chest before pressing the barbell upward, i.e. you come ‘crashing down into your chest’, then it’s likely you have weak posterior muscles.
In addition, one of the main goals of any lift is to keep the barbell in the same trajectory (bar path) each rep.
If you find that, for example, you do a set of 10 reps on the bench press and near the end of the set the bar path begins to change drastically, this might be a sign of weak back muscles.
Together, the prime movers and the stabilizing muscles in the back are designed to work in collaboration to help produce maximum force and a well-coordinated movement.
3. Prevents Back Rounding In The Deadlift
In my article on How To Keep Your Back Straight While Deadlifting, I mentioned that you need to have proper ‘breathing and bracing’ technique prior to lifting the barbell off the floor in order to keep your back neutral.
This is where you take a deep breath and contract your abdominal muscles in order to stabilize your spine. However, you can only ‘breathe your way’ into a neutral spine position to a certain level. At some point, you simply need strong posterior muscles to keep your low and mid-back rigid throughout the deadlift.
Based on your torso angle while deadlifting, the loading demand on your back will be more or less. If your torso position is more horizontal to the floor (less vertical) then your back will require more strength while deadlifting.
If you’re the type of person who has long legs and a short torso, or if you have short arms generally, your torso angle will be more horizontal to the floor. If that’s you, you’ll definitely want to incorporate more back exercises into your powerlifting routine.
I don’t want you to think that back rounding in the deadlift is entirely a bad thing. World-renowned powerlifting coach, Steve Denovi, actually argues that slight rounding in the upper back while deadlifting is okay. You can read his complete argument HERE.
4. Improves Overall Posture
Training your back will improve your posture, which is important for overall movement efficiency.
One of the key positions to achieve in any of the powerlifting movements is to have the shoulders ‘down and back’. If you have poor posture, this position will be hard to obtain.
Here are some examples of when poor posture negatively impacts your powerlifting movements:
- In the squat, if you have poor posture, your shoulders will be rounded and it will be hard to recruit the musculature of your upper back to stabilize your torso position.
- In the bench press, poor posture can lead to shoulder pain. This is because the socket of the shoulder joint is quite shallow, so the ball that sits in the socket doesn’t have much room to play. If the shoulders are rounded, the ball starts to rise up and move forward causing shoulder impingement.
- In the deadlift, you risk not being able to pass a lift in a powerlifting competition with poor posture. This is because one of the causes for disqualification is “failure to stand erect with the shoulders back”. With rounded shoulders, you will have a hard time getting into the proper lock-out position.
5. Maintains Spinal and Shoulder Health
As a powerlifter, the longer you stay healthy, the stronger you’ll get.
So it’s in your best interest to avoid things like spinal rounding, poor posture, or instability while training.
It’s extremely hard to avoid these movement deficiencies simply by performing the powerlifting movements. Without direct back work, you won’t get the muscular development and strength needed to successfully execute the powerlifting movements.
Therefore, incorporating back training into your powerlifting routine will help maintain overall spinal and shoulder health, which will allow you to get stronger in the long-run.
Some powerlifters who don’t have a lot of musculature in their upper back can have neck pain while squatting. Check out my article where I discuss 6 tips to avoiding neck pain in the squat.
Tips For Training Back
When training back for powerlifting there are several factors that you need to consider, including the muscle groups targetted, type of exercise, technique, frequency, sets & reps, and load.
The back is made up of several muscle groups.
Also, not showcased here are the spinal erectors, which are deep muscles that run the length of your back on either side of your spine.
When you’re implementing back exercises into your powerlifting program, you’ll want to make sure to include exercises that target each of these muscle groups.
In most cases, one or two exercises can target most or all of these muscle groups at the same time. However, you’ll want to be mindful of not neglecting one area over another. For example, avoiding always training your upper back without incorporating lower back exercises.
Type of Exercise
There are generally two types of back exercises, which have to do with the direction and range of motion the weight is traveling: vertical pulling and horizontal pulling exercises.
- Vertical pulling exercises are when the weight is moving up and down (perpendicular to the floor).
- Horizontal pulling exercises are when the weight is moving side to side (horizontal to the floor), or when your torso is positioned horizontal to the floor and you’re pulling weight toward your chest.
If you incorporate at least one vertical pulling and one horizontal pulling exercise into your back workout then you should be using all of the muscle groups in your back.
Here are some examples:
|VERTICAL PULLING||HORIZONTAL PULLING|
|EXERCISES||Wide Grip Pull-Ups|
Single Arm Lat Pull-Ins
Barbell Upright Row
Cable Serratus Pulldown
|Wide Grip Seated Row |
Barbell Bentover Row
Inverted Bodyweight Row
Single Arm DB Row
Hammer Strength Row
When training back, keep these 3 technique points in mind (especially #3, which is important for powerlifting):
1. Range of Motion
Unlike the powerlifting movements where you’re trying to reduce the range of motion as much as possible to lift more weight, for any back exercises make sure that you take the weight through the full range. This will maximize your muscular contraction and increase hypertrophy (muscle growth).
2. “Cheater Reps”
As a general rule of thumb, you should try to avoid ‘cheater reps’ where you swing your torso to gain momentum on the load. This will inevitably cause you to compensate with other muscle groups (biceps and shoulders) and will slow down the strength progression of your back.
John Gaglione, from Gaglione Strength, makes a compelling case for using a supinated (underhand) grip for your back exercises. This is because it will help promote shoulder extension during your pulling movements, which will prevent your shoulders from rounding.
While I agree with this, I would also argue that you should do some exercises in a pronated (overhand) grip because it can be more specific to exercises like the bench press.
For example, if you want to directly work the back muscles responsible for stabilizing the bench press, perform a wide grip pronated row and pull the barbell directly to your touchpoint on the bench press. Some people like to call this the ‘reverse bench press row’.
The point here is to mix the type of grip you use, not exclusively doing an overhand or underhand grip.
You can generally handle a higher frequency of back movements because while the spinal erectors are used quite a bit while powerlifting, muscle of the mid and upper back are not used as much.
Owner of West Side Barbell and top powerlifting coach, Louie Simmons, has said that his athletes do an “enormous amount of back work” and the do “rows of all types 3 times per week”.
This is not unusual among powerlifters. In fact, most of my athletes will do some back movement three times per week as well.
I also take it one step further for my bench press specialists and I try to implement a 1-to-1 ratio of bench press to pulling exercise at a minimum.
For example, if I have an athlete bench pressing 4 times/week, then I will incorporate 4 times/week back exercises.
One more thing you should understand about how often you should train your back is the type of exercise you’re doing will impact the frequency.
More compounded movements like pull-ups and bent-over rows will require more recovery, so you should only do them 1-2 times/week. However, isolation movements like single-arm lat pull-ins and reverse dumbbell flys can be done 2-3 times/week.
Check out my article on how many times per week should you bench press.
Sets & Reps
You want to keep your reps lower for strength work and higher for hypertrophy/stability work.
- For strength work: 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
- For hypertrophy work: 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps
- For stability work: 2-3 sets of 12 to 20 reps
No matter the goal of your back work, you should not be pushing to failure.
There is too high of a risk for injury if you’re consistently lifting at or near your max on a regular basis.
- For strength/hypertrophy work: You only need to push 1 set to near failure one-time per week, and keep all other sets within two reps of failure.
- For stability work: Keep all weights sub-maximal
Putting It Together: Sample Powerlifting Back Workout
When you program back, you have two options:
- You can have a dedicated day for all your accessory movements. For example, having your powerlifting days where you squat bench press, and deadlift, and then having a separate day to do all of your back work.
- You can do a few of your accessory movements, like your back work, following your powerlifting workouts. In this option, the number of exercises would be limited on a single day, but you do them multiple times per week
The following are three examples of a back-focused powerlifting workout, where you’ll do some powerlifting movement, followed by the accessory movements:
Powerlifting Back Workout #1
- Band Pull Aparts (Warm-Up): 2 sets of 20 reps
- Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70-75% of 1 rep max
- Wide Grip Seated Row (Pull To Touchpoint): 4 sets of 8 reps
- Single Arm DB Row (Pause 1-sec): 3 sets of 12 reps
- Bentover Reverse Dumbbell Fly (Lead with Elbows): 3 sets of 15 reps
Powerlifting Back Workout #2
- Incline Dumbbell Scapular Shrug (Warm-Up): 2 sets of 20 reps
- Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70-75% of 1 rep max
- Wide-Grip Pull-Up: 5 sets of 5 reps
- Low-to-High Rope Upright Row: 3 sets of 12 reps
- Incline Powell Raise: 3 sets of 15 reps
If upright rows hurt your shoulders, check out my article on what to do if upright rows cause pain.
Powerlifting Back Workout #3
- Seated Rope Face Pull: 2 sets of 20 reps
- Deadlift: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70-75% of 1 rep max
- Barbell Benover Row (palms up): 4 sets of 10 reps
- Dumbbell Serratus Pullover: 3 sets of 12 reps
- Inverted Bodyweight Row: 3 sets of 15 reps
The benefits of training back for powerlifting is having a more functional squat, bench press, and deadlift. You will have greater muscular strength to control the barbell under heavy load and prevent injury from poor posture or lack of back stability. If you are going to implement back exercises into your training program, make sure to include both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises multiple times per week.