If you have trouble feeling your lats working with most back exercises, this one is for you.
There are two main things that hold people "back" when trying to train their back. The first is that they can't see it when they're training it. This makes it harder to really focus on and properly work AND, since it's not a "mirror muscle," it tends to get lower priority in the overall training workload.
The second thing is that people can't FEEL the back muscles actually doing the work. And if you can't feel the back muscles working, chances are, they're not getting worked very effectively.
Now, you can't fix the first problem of not being able to see the muscle while training it without having a double mirror setup that allows you to see your back in the mirror. It's rare you'll find a gym that has mirrors on two opposing walls - they try to avoid the "funhouse" effect.
It's CRITICAL to put effort into back training...MUCH more so than chest training. Your pecs don't hold your spine up.
However, we CAN address the point about feeling your back working. One of THE most effective exercises I've found for really teaching you how to feel your back working is the Stiff-Arm Pushdown.
It's an isolation exercise (defined as a single-joint exercise, in this case, the shoulder joint) for the latissimus dorsi, a.k.a. the "lats," which is rare. And even though it IS an isolation exercise for the lats, the long heads of the triceps are involved in the movement as well. The long heads of triceps perform a similar function in bring the arm down towards the waist and can't be removed from the movement due to their anatomy.
The Stiff-Arm Pushdown is also one of the ONLY back exercises that doesn't involve the biceps in some way, making it a great teaching tool for helping you feel what it's like for your back to work without relying on bicep assistance.
How To Do Stiff Arm Pushdowns:
To perform this exercise, all you'll need is a high pulley and an attachment (bar or rope).
Set a moderate weight on the pulley - you won't use a heavy weight for this exercise as it's all about feel. If you go too heavy, you'll have to resort to momentum to move the bar and that will defeat the purpose of the exercise.
Put both hands on the bar (overhand grip) about 6 to 8 inches apart. Take a big step back, bring the bar back with you. Lean forward so your torso is at about a 45 degree angle. You can have your feet set together or be in a lunge position - whichever is most comfortable to you.
Keep your abs tight and an make sure there is an arch in your lower back. In order for your lats to function properly, the lower back MUST be arched.
At the start position, your arms are in an overhead position and slightly bent but stiff. The cable weight is pulling up on your arms so your lats are getting stretched.
Now begin the movement, pushing the bar directly down and around in an arc. DO NOT bend your arms!! Keep them locked into that slightly bent position. All the movement should occur at the shoulders.
Push the bar all the way down to your thighs, squeezing your lats hard the whole time.
Pause at the bottom then let the cable pull the bar back up, keeping tension in your lats. As you come to the top, dip your upper body down a bit to increase the stretch on the lats.
For breathing with this exercise, you want to take a BIG deep breath at the stretch (top) of the movement. Inflating your lungs maximally at the top will increase the stretch on the lats and help you feel the lats working. As you push the bar down, exhale through pursed lips (like you're blowing up a balloon).
This exercise can also be done one arm at a time with a single cable handle as well.
This is not a power-based exercise but more a "feel" exercise that you need to really keep form tight on, so use light to moderate weight and higher rep ranges.
This exercise will give you a strong burning sensation in that lats because they don't really get any break in the tension throughout the movement.
I like to use this exercise as part of a pre-exhaust style of set, working it immediately before another exercise for the lats such as a variation of chins, rows or pulldowns. Do a set of 8 to 10 reps of the Stiff-Arm Pushdown then go right to the exercise. I can promise...you'll feel your lats working!
You see, because the Stiff-Arm Pushdown only hits the lats and leaves the biceps untouched, when you move to the other exercise for back (e.g. chins, pulldowns or rows) the lats will already be "pre-exhausted" and the biceps will help keep the movement going, pushing the lats harder.
It's a great technique and very effective if you have trouble feeling your back when you train it.
Give the Stiff-Arm Pushdown a try in your next back workout. If you've never done a true isolation exercise for the back before, it'll be a nice change of pace and help you get a lot more out of your back training.
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