There’s a fine line to walk on those one or two days a week you find yourself hitting back and/or biceps: Don’t overthink it by getting too cute with novel exercises, but don’t be so predictable that your workouts become stale and boring and cease to deliver results within weeks.
The below workout, designed specifically for upper-body pulling days, strikes the ideal balance between meat-and-potatoes training and muscle-shocking variety. There are no machines involved—only free weights and bodyweight—yet all necessary angles and anatomical planes are accounted for.
2X Mr. Olympia Men’s Physique Champion
Exercises: Push-ups, pull-ups, lunges
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The back portion of the session focuses mostly on rowing with three different variations (T-bar, inverted, and one-arm dumbbell rows) that will help build dense, thick upper-back muscles, namely the lats, rhomboids, and middle traps. Bodyweight pull-ups, however, will accentuate width for a better V-taper, and high-rep dumbbell pullovers are a nod to bodybuilders of yesteryear who loved this isolation exercise for hitting the lats as well as the hard-to-reach but beautiful-to-look-at serratus muscles.
The volume prescribed for back is sufficient—14 sets on paper, though the 50 reps of inverted rows will count for at least three sets for most people—and rep counts go from relatively low on the first two exercises (depending on how strong your pull-ups are) to fairly high by the end. You’ll be in a hypertrophy sweet spot here, with just a slight emphasis on strength development during T-bar rows and pull-ups.
The biceps piece of the workout is all about covering the necessary angles for promoting maximal development in both the long head and short head while also stimulating the smaller brachialis and brachioradialis muscles to spark growth in the forearms.
Research on muscle activity during training shows that curling exercises where the upper arm is behind the body (drag curls in this workout) stimulate the long head of the biceps to the highest degree due to the increased stretch in this position. The biceps short head, on the other hand, is targeted to a great extent when the upper arm is in front of the body. This is seen most often with preacher curls and the spider curls that are part of this program. Finally, reverse EZ-bar curls target the brachialis and brachioradialis, and hammer curls hit both the biceps long head and brachialis.
Plug this back and biceps workout into your training split between chest/shoulders/triceps and legs, or split the two body parts into separate workouts if you prefer to train them apart. Just make sure you’re finding that happy medium between being creative in the gym and banging out the basics. IM
Exercise Sets Reps
T-Bar Row 4 6-8
Iso-Hold Pull-Up 3 to failure
Inverted Row 5 0 total*
One-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 12
Dumbbell Pullover 3 20
Spider Curl 4 10-12
Dumbbell Drag Curl 3 12
Reverse EZ-Bar Curl 3 12
Dumbbell Hammer Curl** 1 8-10+
(Down The Rack)
*Complete 50 reps in as few sets as possible,
breaking those reps however you need.
**See dumbbell hammer curl description for instructions on going “down the rack.”
Setup: Stand on the platform of the machine with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Lean forward and grab the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and begin with your arms extended below you and your torso about 45 degrees with the floor.
Execution: Pull the weight in toward you by contracting your back muscles and bending your elbows, keeping your chest out and lower back flat. At the top of the rep, squeeze the contraction for a beat, then slowly lower the weight back to the start position and repeat for reps.
Setup: Grasp an overhead bar with a pronated grip (palms facing forward) and your hands spaced at least shoulder-width apart. Start from a hanging position, arms fully extended and feet off the floor.
Execution: Pull yourself straight up until your chin clears the bar. At the top of the rep, hold the position for an isometric contraction for one or two counts. If you’re approaching failure before the prescribed rep count, finish with partial reps.
If you can’t do bodyweight pull-ups, try elastic band assisted pull-ups, where the band is attached to either end of the pull-up bar and goes under your knees to assist the movement.
Setup: Set the bar in a squat rack to about hip height (a Smith machine will work, too, if you want an extra challenge), and place a bench or plyo box a few feet in front of it. Lie faceup underneath the bar and grasp it with a wide overhand grip, palms facing forward (pronated). Place your heels on the floor (or up on the bench or box), and start with your arms fully extended and your body in a stiff plank.
Execution: Contract your back muscles to pull yourself up to the bar until your chest touches it, maintaining a plank through your torso and legs. Lower yourself down under control until your elbows are fully extended, then repeat for reps.
ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
Setup: Place one bent knee and same-side hand on a flat bench with the opposite foot on the floor and that hand holding a dumbbell. Bend over at the waist with your back parallel with the floor, eyes pointed downward, and the dumbbell hanging straight toward the floor with your arm extended and palm facing in.
Execution: Keeping your torso facing down toward the floor, pull the dumbbell straight up to your side by contracting your back muscles and bending your elbow. At the top of the rep, with your hand just below your chest, squeeze the contraction in your back for a count, then slowly lower the dumbbell to the start position. Complete all reps with one arm, then switch arms and repeat.
Setup: Lie back on a flat bench with your head just off the end of it, holding a dumbbell with both hands. Keep your knees bent and feet on the floor. Begin holding the dumbbell straight up over your chest with your arms extended but just shy of full elbow lockout.
Execution: Keeping your elbows slightly bent, lower the dumbbell back and behind your head in an arc until you feel a stretch in your lats. At this point, focus on contracting your lats to return the dumbbell to the start position, then repeat for reps.
Setup: Lie facedown on an incline bench with your feet on the floor behind you and chest against the top part of the pad. Hold a set of dumbbells with your palms facing each other, and start with your arms extended straight down toward the floor.
Execution: Keeping your upper arm perpendicular with the floor (don’t let your elbow move forward or lift up), curl one weight up through a full range of motion without letting your elbow flare out. At the top of the rep, your hand should be right in front of your shoulder. Slowly lower the weight back down to full elbow extension, then repeat for the other arm. Alternate arms every other rep until the set is complete.
DUMBBELL DRAG CURL
Setup: Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward and arms fully extended toward the floor. Keep your back erect and head up.
Execution: Pull the dumbbells straight up the sides of your body by raising your elbows behind you, keeping your palms facing forward and focusing solely on contracting your biceps. Raise the dumbbells as high as possible, which should be somewhere around lower-chest height. Squeeze your biceps hard for a count at the top, then slowly reverse the motion to return to the start position and repeat for reps.
REVERSE EZ-BAR CURL
Setup: Stand holding an EZ-bar in front of your thighs with a pronated grip (palms facing down or behind you) and your hands shoulder-width apart. The elbows should be fully extended and in tight to your torso.
Execution: Keeping your upper arms stationary (only the forearms should move), curl the weight all the way until your biceps are fully contracted and the bar approaching shoulder level. Hold the contracted position for a second as you squeeze the muscle, then slowly lower back down to the start position. Repeat for reps.
DUMBBELL HAMMER CURL (Down The Rack)
Setup: Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with your arms extended toward the floor and palms facing each other (neutral or “hammer” grip).
Execution: Curl one dumbbell to the top of your range of motion, keeping your palm neutral throughout, then slowly lower back down to the start position. Keep your elbows pinned to your sides the entire time. Complete a rep with the opposite arm, alternating sides every other rep.
For the “down the rack” technique (aka drop sets), start with a pair of dumbbells that will elicit muscle failure at eight to 10 reps. When you reach failure, immediately set those dumbbells down and pick up the next smaller pair of dumbbells on the rack (the ones five pounds lighter). Go to failure with those, then continue “down the rack” in this manner until you’re using the lightest dumbbells possible. During the set, don’t take any rest between drops—only as long as it takes you to switch dumbbells.