Spartan Muscle Series: Two Exercises For A Bulletproof Back

So it is, and here we are. The third “chunk” of the Spartan Muscle Series – my “bread and butter” back movements. Because you can never have a back that’s too strong, or too jacked.

Meathead Mullan’s “bread and butter” back movements

Single Arm Dumbbell Rows w/Deadstop


Why Single Arm Dumbbell Rows make the cut as my “bread” back exercise:

There’s nothing quite like an exercise that when executed with gumption and ferocity, leaves you heaving for air at the end of the set, your target muscle on fire, and heart rate through the roof while hints of bile are burning your throat. It’s a raw, animalistic experience that will set the tone for the rest of your session.

Speaking from a more “technical” (bah!), point of view, one arm dumbbell rows – especially if you lead your session with them – do an incredible job of allowing your to isolate one side of your back at a time, and throw serious weight around.

I mean, I do love me a strong set of pulldowns or marathon set of snatch grip deadlifts, but nothing toasts my back quite like heavy, one arm dumbbell rows.

Here’s how to do ‘em:

  • Set yourself up with the back of an incline bench, dumbbell rack, or bench for support (this largely depends on your biomechanics, and is worth testing to see which feels best).
  • Stagger your stance so that you’re forming a Bermuda Triangle of gains between your supporting arm, and both feet. I prefer to have the foot on opposite side of your working arm as the forward foot. Speaking personally, it feels better. Again, test this.
  • Your starting point begins with the dumbbell on the floor, and a few inches in front of your face. Basically, you should be in position to row, and able to feel a moderate stretch throughout your lat.
  • As with much back work, one arm rows are about elbow drive, and your bicep should have little role in this movement. Practice initiating each rep with a strong contraction of your lat, while driving your elbow back towards your hip.
  • Depending on the tempo you’re using, hold that contracted position for a second or two before lowering slowly (think 3-4 seconds, maximize the time under tension).
  • As you lower the DB, ensure it’s headed back towards it’s starting position so you get a nice stretch from top to bottom of your lat. Since these are deadstop rows, you’re going to lower the DB to the floor, and let it stretch for 1-3 seconds.
  • Rinse and repeat for all reps on one arm, then switch.

Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns


Why Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns get the job done as my “butter” back exercise:

I mentioned a love of pulldowns above, and this variation in particular takes the sweet, sweet cake for being my favourite. Do these right, and you’ll get a mid-back contraction so wicked it feels as if you’re erectors are strangling your spinal cord.

While that may sound like a not-so-good situation, it’s a sure-fire sign that you’re executing things done proper.

Here’s how to strangle your spine (in a good way), and bulletproof your back with neutral grip lat pulldowns:

  • Test sitting with your back to the weight stack, or facing it. Depending on your pulldown machine, one will likely feel better than the other.
  • Open your chest up the handle above you, and maintain that strong thoracic extension.
  • Use straps so you can move some appreciable weight, and not have to worry about your grip failing.
  • Initiate each rep by thinking of driving your elbows down hard, and into your back pocket.
  • Hold the peak contraction for 1-2s, minimum (this is the spine strangling part).
  • Maintain control over the weight as you let it back out, and allow it to give your lats a good stretch at the top.
  • Do another rep like so, then another, then another, then….

Tying the two movements together

You’re in for a treat now…

Here’re are four different ways you can build a stronger, bigger, healthier back, using only these two movements, and keeping your time in the gym on the shorter end of things.


A1.  Single Arm Dumbbell Rows w/Deadstop 6×6-8

Start at the higher end of the rep bracket, and aim to keep your weight the same for all sets, dropping in reps if need be. Rest 20s between arms, then move right to A2.

A2. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns 6×10-12

Use an upbeat, pumping tempo here, while making sure to get a good stretch on each rep. Keep the weight under control, but let it pull you slightly off the seat as you move into the stretch position.


A1. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns 6×8-10

Jump up in weight every two sets, and focus on crisp, clean reps. Move right to A2.

A2. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows w/Deadstop 6×5-7

Adjust your weight as needed to stay within the rep bracket for all sets. These should be tough, grinding sets. Rest 90s before moving back to A1.


A1. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows w/Deadstop 8×8

By nature of the set, rep, and rest scheme here, the weight you use should be closer to your 12RM than your 8RM. Use this as an opportunity to practice initiating each rep with a strong lat contraction. Do 8 reps on one side, rest 20s, do 8 reps on the other side, rest 20s, and repeat like so until you’ve done 8 sets of 8 on both sides.

B1. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns 8×8

Similar to above, use a load that’s a tough 10-12 reps. Use an upbeat, pumping tempo, and rest no more than 30s between sets.


A1. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns 15,12,10,8,8

Increment up in weight over each set, aiming to hit two top sets of 8. Hold the peak contraction for 1 second on each rep, and let the weight stretch you for 2 seconds at the top. Rest 60s between sets.

B1. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows w/Deadstop 12,10,8,8,Failure

As above, increment up in weight, aiming for two top sets of 8. Then drop back to the weight you used for 10 reps, and cleanly rep out until failure. Rest 20s between arms, 60s between sets.


A final word, as you run off to the gym to take one of these glorious sessions for a spin:

It’s not necessarily what you do that delivers results. Rather it’s how you do it.

Execute the sessions above with focus, purpose, and intensity, and you will improve.


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