Back to the Rack

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The Great Pyramid of Giza. The statue of Zeus at Olympia. The lighthouse of Alexandria. These and the other Seven Wonders of the World are renowned and celebrated for their architectural splendor, unfathomable scale at a time of limited technology and sheer magnificence.

Admittedly, it may be blasphemy, especially to those who revere classical antiquity, to compare these inspirational edifices to something as seemingly banal as weight equipment. But in the same timeless sense at the very least, you could compile a list of exercise equipment that astonishes — on a lesser scale than the Mausoleum of Mausolus, to be sure — with its near-perfect simplicity and versatile functionality. Such a list should include the barbell and dumbbells. The Roman chair and adjustable bench could stake a claim. Among machines, the Smith and the upper/lower pulley cable station merit consideration. And, to that list, we would vociferously argue for one more: the power rack.

The rack is basic, almost primitive in its design. It consists of four pillars, forming a box that you step inside, and it includes two poles, or “safeties,” that can be set at various heights. But within this straightforward structure, you can perform a breathtaking array of exercises in relative safety. With a rack, you can push yourself beyond your physical limits and make any number of movements more challenging and effective just by manipulating the angles of a pull. You can do partial reps or work through a specific range of motion to improve strength, or you can even make use of isometric contractions by pushing a bar against the safeties. To the experienced gym vet, the possibilities are limitless.

The following workout takes full advantage of what the rack has to offer, with six movements to sculpt the cornerstone muscles of the back, from the traps at the top to the lumbar region at its base. With it, we hope you can construct a back that withstands the test of ages.

The Workout, Step by Step

You’ll begin with a must-do staple of any complete back routine, the pull-up, which many power racks have built-in handles for. For each set, do them until you can’t muster another rep. For some of you, that may not be too many, but don’t get discouraged — just keep track of your totals and strive to improve them over time.

Next are two rock-solid rowing movements: the bent-over barbell row and the T-bar row. Both take aim at the same overall muscle groups, but the change in grip, from just outside shoulder width in the first exercise to a close hand-overhand grip in the latter, will equate to a slight variation in the muscle-fiber recruitment patterns.

From there, you’ll do a variation of the traditional deadlift, working through a lesser range of motion. Once you learn the technique and become comfortable with the exercise, you’ll find that you can move an impressive amount of weight, even though it falls later in the workout. Just remember that textbook form is always more important than the amount of plates you lift — that mantra will help you stave off injuries that can result from sloppy, ego-driven sets.

Once you finish your rack deads, move on to the barbell shrug, which targets the traps. We included them to ensure a comprehensive workout that covers the major areas of the back, but it’s also an option for you to slate shrugs on a different day in your training program, as many bodybuilders do.

Finally, you’ll wrap up with inverted pull-ups to failure, which — if you’ve been giving everything you’ve got up to this point — will come quickly. Here, as throughout this routine, you’ll want to rest anywhere from one to three minutes between sets, on the lower end of that if your goal is to get leaner and refine your physique, and on the longer side if you’re in full-on mass-building mode.

Rack Up the Gains

This regimen is particularly useful if you train at home (and you’ve smartly equipped your space with a rack), but don’t think that a variety of equipment to choose from at your typical health club is a reason to stray. While you’ll benefit from switching movements in and out of the rotation from time to time — such as a pulldown, cable row, hammer-strength row or pullover machine, to name a few — this workout can serve your muscle-building goals admirably for months, even years. Yes, earthquakes and the folly of man may have felled all but one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but a structurally sound workout can have the fortitude to survive forever.

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Targets: Latissimus dorsi (lats), teres major and minor, rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus

Start: Take a wide overhand grip on a pull-up bar, thumbs wrapped for safety. Hang freely, elbows fully extended and feet crossed with your knees bent.

Action: Contract your lats to raise your chin over the bar, focusing on keeping your elbows flared outward as you “pull” them down to your sides to raise yourself. Hold the top position for one second before lowering yourself down to the dead-hang position and repeat.

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Bent-Over Barbell Row

Targets: Lats, teres major and minor, rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus

Start: Take a shoulder-width stance in front of a loaded barbell, and lean forward at your waist until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor, knees slightly bent. Grasp the bar just outside the outer edge of each foot. Tense the muscles of your core, and keep your lower back tight, maintaining its natural curve.

Action: Without bouncing or raising your upper body, pull the barbell toward your abdomen, tracking just inches from your legs, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back, then slowly lower the bar along the same path. Don’t touch the weight down to the floor between reps.

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T-Bar Row

Targets: Lats, teres major and minor, rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus

Start: Place an unloaded end of a barbell in a corner of a wall or, in this instance, a power rack. Load the other end with weight, then straddle it, grasping the bar hand-over-hand about a foot below the plates on the weighted end. Keep your head neutral, chest up and flex your core and lower back to maintain the natural curvature of the spine.

Action: Pull the bar toward you, keeping your elbows close to your body. Do not allow your upper body to rise in the effort to pull the weight upward. Hold the top position momentarily, then lower the weight under control, stopping an inch or so off the floor and starting the next rep.

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Rack Deadlift

Targets: Lats, teres major and minor, rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus, erector spinae

Start: Inside a power rack, place a barbell on the safeties, set just below knee level. With your head neutral and back flat, bend your knees to grasp the bar just outside your legs — your shins should be flush against it.

Action: Keeping your abs and back tight, arms straight and chest up, press through the floor with your heels and extend your knees to drag the bar up your thighs as you reach a standing position. Lower the bar along the same path, allowing it to rest on the safety bars for a moment, then repeat for reps.

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Barbell Shrug

Targets: Trapezius

Start: Stand with your chest up and abs tight, grasping a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip.

Action: Shrug your shoulders straight up toward the ceiling, squeezing your traps hard at the top. (It may help to think of trying to touch your ears with your delt caps.) Slowly reverse the motion to full stretch, and repeat.

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Inverted Pull-Up

Targets: Lats, teres major and minor, rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus

Start: Place a barbell on the safety hooks, set about ab to lower chest high. Get into position underneath the bar so you’re hanging from it using an overhand shoulder-width grip, heels on the floor, body straight like a plank. Your back should be hovering a few inches off the floor in the starting position — if not, read- just the safeties.

Action: Pull your chest up to the bar by bending your elbows and driving them back behind you, keeping your body tensed in the plank position throughout.

Back Training Tips

  • Don’t stop short. To fully engage the many muscles of the back, you want to work through a full range of motion. Too many lifters go too heavy when training their back and, to compensate, shorten their range of motion to be able to move the load. Concentrate on a full stretch and complete contraction on every rep.
  • Pump up your pull-ups. If you’re struggling to improve the number of pull-ups you can perform, try this: Pick a challeng- ing goal — say, 20, 30 reps or 50 reps depending on your experience level — and dedicate an entire back workout to reaching that total, stopping for rest as many times as you need to. (So if your goal is 30, your sets may look like this: 10, 6, 5, 3, 3, 2, 1.)
  • Unstick yourself. Sometimes, a sticking point in an exercise can be overcome by training through a very limited range of motion for a couple of sets. For instance, if you find yourself parked at the same poundage on the bent-over barbell row for weeks on end, place the safety bars about halfway between your knee and hip level, load the weight you’re having issues with, and do eight to 12 reps through that lessened range as part of your regular session.