The truth is, most people want to hit the ‘mirror muscles’ for all they’re worth when they step into the gym. Naturally, the things we see in front of us (like the muscles on the front of our bodies) will be the most concerning from a physical perspective. But it behooves us to think of the muscles we can’t see when we look in the mirror as the ones that are most important to train. Bench presses, curls, overhead presses and even squats are only half the battle to a balanced body and an impressive physique. If you don’t have a developed back, your physique and health will always lag. Here are three of my favourite pointers for proper back training:

No. 1: Pencil-Straight Pullups Won’t Hit Your Back

It’s often touted that the body should be kept as straight as an arrow when performing pullups or chinups. That means actively flexing the abdominals, posterior-tilting the pelvis, and pulling your face all the way over the bar. The problem is, although the practice will help you pull your weight over a bar, you won’t get too far with your actual back development using these cues. People always condemn the dreaded “arch” when performing exercise, without thinking of the body’s mechanics before doing so. In order to pull your shoulder blades together, your back must create an arch. It’s also the only way the back muscles will contract and shorten. There’s no getting around this. With that said, arching the back during a pull up is the logical way to involve the back muscles into the lift. Here’s a video that goes into more detail: 

No. 2: Be Mindful of Your Body Type

No two lifters are built the same, so it’s not reasonable to think that they should have identical cues across the board. Anthropometric differences will lead to very different results where lifting and development are concerned if proper care isn’t taken. For the case of lifters with shorter extremities versus lifters with longer extremities, the same rings true. If you’re a big guy with long arms, chances are a pullup, row, or pulldown will leave you just shy of what most consider “full range of motion” although your back is fully contracted. That’s where it’s beneficial to listen to your body and not the books. Check out the video below for my explanation:  

No. 3: Fix Your Spine Function First

If you want to make your back muscles work, the first step would actually be looking at the way your spine is functioning. Ensure that you have proper mobility and alignment of the lower and mid back. Things like lumbar and thoracic extension are key components to have control.  In my experience, many clients have come to me who are lacking proper thoracic mobility. If “turtleback syndrome” plagues your posture, then it would be a good idea to scale things back and focus on mobility drills to make changes happen. It may be an ego killer at the beginning, but you’ll be glad you did it in the long run. Use foam roller extensions, thoracic rotations, and trap three raises to zero in on spine mobility. Maintaining proper posture and using approaches like these are only half the battle if you are prone to slouching due to your bone structure.