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The back is one of the most challenging body parts to train due to its size and the amount of muscles it contains. You need a plan containing plenty of variety to ensure that you are covering every angle. Step forward British men’s physique champion Charlie Francis, who has the kind of detail and development most guys aspire to.
Francis trains back once a week but doesn’t just repeat the same program. Instead, he adopts a four-week cycle that includes heavy and light workouts, which keeps his sessions varied and prevents his body from adapting to the same old mid-range routine. “Your body starts getting used to 4 sets of 12,” says Francis. “If you want to make a change and difference to your back, you need to make sure you change your approach.”
This is where his two weeks of heavy lifting followed by two weeks of lighter workouts comes in. “Heavy lifting will create thickness and going lighter for more volume will shape your body and bring in more detail,” he explains.
Francis speaks with authority, having won the British men’s physique title in only his second year of competition. He has striking all-round aesthetics but his back is probably his standout body part. It’s got plenty of muscle but he trains for more than that.
“I want to get the right balance and thickness across my back and maintain the shape and symmetry so when I hit a back pose everyone notices my back over the rest of the competitors,” he says. Try the Francis formula and reap the benefits of going heavy and light.
Francis begins every back session by pre-exhausting his muscles with three sets of 12 reps on wide grip pull-ups followed by three sets of 20 on biceps curls. The curls can be done with dumbbells, a barbell or on a cable machine.
“Pre-exhausting allows me to connect more with my muscles,” says Francis. “My aim is to get as much blood into the area I’m training so when I start my main workout, I can isolate my back better whilst maintaining form. A lot of people jump straight into their workouts, focusing more on how much weight they can lift instead of understanding that time and tension with less weight develops the body better.”
It may seem strange to include biceps curls in a pre-exhaust workout for back, but this is to guard against that most common back training mistake—letting the arms do the work. Hitting the biceps first fatigues them and allows the back to take the strain when the workout begins in earnest. Even then, you still have to take extra care to work the right area. “Too many people focus on pulling too much weight rather than engaging their back, then start complaining that they only feel it in their forearms and biceps.”
Correctly isolating the back and maintaining a strong mind-muscle connection is the secret to effective back training. “I relax my hand grip just enough to hold the handle, but I drop my shoulders and drag back through the elbows and squeeze my shoulder blades together,” says Francis. “Time, tension and control are key to back workouts.”
If you follow this cycle, you will perform 10 different exercises over a four-week period, which should be enough variety to stimulate growth and sculpt detail not only in the lats, which everyone targets, but also smaller muscles, such as the teres major and rhomboids.
Begin with a heavy fortnight working in the 8-10 rep range. “Heavy doesn’t mean compromising on technique,” says Francis. “I do go heavier than in weeks three and four, but I stick to 85-90 percent of my maximum weight and concentrate on time and tension. I also sometimes include a random superset to surprise my body and make me work that little bit harder.”
After two weeks, switch to the lighter, volume-based routine and work in the 15-20 rep range. “This part of the program gets blood to the working muscles and gets the shape and definition coming through,” says Francis. “Together, the two workouts will create growth. I use this approach during my off-season as well as before competitions.”
After four weeks, go back to lifting heavy for another fortnight and continue to switch between the two approaches every two weeks.
Stick to the basic plan, but feel free to change some movements. “I love doing all these exercises, but you do need to change a few of them every so often,” says Francis, who works at LAX Gym in London’s South Kensington. “For example, I remove rack pulls and bring in a behind-the-head pulldown, or do some supersets to shock the body.”
Always be mindful against over-using arms. “If during or after an exercise, you start to feel your forearms give up first, you are either lifting too heavy or you are gripping the handle wrong,” says Francis. “Relax your grip enough just to keep the handle in position, relax your arms, drag back through your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. This will allow full contraction of your back muscles.”
Francis, who played football before switching to bodybuilding, hopes his beefed-up back will serve him well in his rookie year as an IFBB pro men’s physique athlete under the guidance of coach Eddie Abbew, a former IFBB pro bodybuilder.
Francis is not a man lacking motivation. “Every day I wake up and think I will be better today than yesterday,” he says. “But I only compete on stage. I won’t compete with guys in the gym, as some will always be stronger or bigger then I am, but what I do is make sure I work hard through every repetition. I never leave the gym knowing I could have done more.”