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Can’t Feel Back Muscles Working?

There’s a good reason that the muscles of the back often show signs of neglect – that is, poor development compared to other muscle groups – despite regularly training them.

The back seems to be one of those “problem” muscle groups for a lot of people… but there are a couple of simple solutions to developing a strong muscular back.

It’s all too easy to perform free-weight or machine rows and pull-downs without truly engaging, contracting, and getting those back muscles to work.

The trouble is that many people perform movements designed to build a thick back, but primarily use their arms. That’s great news for your arms, but not so much if you want a balanced physique.

The Biomechanics Behind The Problem

It sounds nonsensical – arm muscles taking over back muscles despite your best efforts, but there’s a biomechanical factor that will make this much easier to understand. See, the aforementioned back exercises all involve pulling a weight along vertical (such as lat pull-downs) or horizontal (such as rows) planes of movement.

The very nature of holding onto a weight with your hands and pulling on it with your arms means there is almost no chance of completely disengaging your arms from the process. The trouble comes from letting your arms completely override the back muscles you’re trying to build.

Why do the Arms Take Over?

There are three primary reasons:

1: You’re trying to lift too much weight.
2: You haven’t figured out how to pull with your back muscles.
3: Or it’s a combination of the above two reasons.

The Solutions

You’re Lifting Too Much Weight.

There’s nothing new about that. Since the age of dinosaurs and cavemen… okay, since our first athletic endeavours, the desire to be the best, win the day and get the girl has led people to lift too heavy.

Look in almost any gym and you’ll see guys with shaky arms struggling under the burden of too much iron. The thing is, that letting egotism take over will only hinder you from reaching your desired outcome.

Lifting too much weight is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make in the gym.

Trying to do a set of rows with 100-pound dumbbells when you can’t handle that weight is only keeping you from stimulating the very back muscles you want to grow.

Your form will suffer and your arms will take over. In addition, a too-heavy weight doesn’t allow for a full ROM (range of motion).

ALWAYS start your back exercises with minimal weight. Your first two or three warm-up sets should be light “rehearsals” so that you can feel your back muscles contract. Perform the exercise in strict, fluid form, before upping the weight.

You’ll know you’re using the right weight when you can perform the reps with correct form and do a static hold at the end position for a second. Bring your shoulder blades back and squeeze your back muscles.

If you can’t pull your shoulder blades back on your first few reps then the weight is too heavy.

Not Pulling with Your Back

Maybe the weight you’ve selected is perfect. If it is, and you still don’t feel like your back muscles are being worked, it’s because you don’t yet know how to engage them.

If that’s the case, don’t worry – it’s quite normal. The back is a muscle group that we can’t see working, and it’s difficult to “feel” these muscles contract.

Think about training your chest for example. You can see the chest muscles contract. You can feel the contraction and the “pump” during a set. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to training your back.

Here’s how to lift to train your back muscles properly:

Let’s say you’re doing a set of seated cable rows. Grip the handle and pull with your back muscles first, then pull the weight the rest of the way using your arms, keeping your shoulder blades locked back.

Read that again…

Pull with your back first, followed by your arms.

Begin by gripping the handle and pulling your shoulders back, squeezing your shoulder blades, and then pulling the handle toward your torso. When the handle reaches this point squeeze your back muscles hard. Don’t focus on moving the weight. Your primary focus should always be on contracting the muscle you’re trying to grow.

Let me explain…

Start with your shoulders in a protracted position. Pull the weight by retracting your shoulders back – then pull the weight towards your torso with your arms, finally squeezing your back muscles.

Shoulder Protraction and Retraction to activate back muscles

Lower the weight back to the starting position in a slow and controlled motion, and under tension.

First, pull by retracting your shoulders. Second, pull with your arms, driving the elbows back and contracting your back muscles hard. I might sound like a broken record here, but I’m trying to get the message across in a way that everyone can understand and implement.

seated-row-properly pull with back

The goal with every exercise is to contract (shorten) and relax (lengthen) the muscle under tension in order to make it grow. If you’re lifting too heavy, or you’re not performing the exercise properly then you’re not optimally stimulating the target muscle.

  • Don’t just attempt to bring the weight towards your body. Of course, we instinctively try to do just that when holding onto a bar and performing a back exercise. But you have to train your mind by focusing on the muscle contracting to move the weight.
  • …So don’t use your hands to pull. Say what? That’s right. You’re grabbing a bar with your hands, but you should only hold on to it with your hands – and…
  • … Use your back to pull! That right there is the biggest secret to performing back exercises correctly. Don’t just use your hands to pull the weight towards you; concentrate on bringing your shoulders back first, squeezing your shoulder blades together then driving your elbows behind your body – either imagine there’s someone you really dislike back there and you’d like to elbow them in the side – or that you’re trying to push something behind you away from your body. And if you’re doing lat pull-downs you’re doing the same thing but moving your elbows to the sides of your body instead.
  • Finally, consider using a pronated or neutral gripping position. When using an underhand grip, your biceps are heavily involved in pulling the weight, something you want to avoid. A pronated position (with your palms facing down) or a neutral position (with your palms facing one another) means your biceps can’t work as hard and your back (as long as you’re pulling properly with the correct weight!) gets maximum growth-stimulating tension.

That’s it! You’ve just learned the secrets to training your back muscles properly. More gain, less struggle and frustration.