Fitness: The chest and back workout

CLB-6 Marines, sailors enjoy food and fun during field meet

I was recently reading a post from a woman who writes a rock climbing blog where she talked about a problem she and many other climbers face: Shoulder issues linked to their pulling muscles overpowering their pushing muscles. She can pull her weight up the rock, but admitted she had a hard time doing a single push-up.

Oh, for this to be the problem for the rest of us. For the vast majority of people, the problem is just the opposite, even if they never go to the gym. What most people face is their anterior upper body muscles overpowering their posterior upper body muscles. This also leads to shoulder injuries as well as troubles with the back.

For non-exercisers, it has a lot to do with posture. Most people slouch a little when sitting naturally. We hunch over keyboards at home and at work. Or do the same with smartphones and iPads.

Then there are those who regularly exercise. Non-lifters put additional stress on their backs by working harder, but not addressing pre-existing weakness in the back. Then they end up suffering other injuries that often work their way down to the hips, knees and ankles.

Lifters get it in spades. This is partially due to our modern-day propensity to slouch; but a lot of it is the bias people have on working those muscles that we can see in the mirror. This is particularly bad for the guys, who are on a quest for big guns and mondo pecs. The back muscles get some attention, but not nearly enough. Success comes fast when you start stacking plates on the bench press. But it fades away when the inevitable shoulder and back injuries start to creep up.

I’ve been guilty of this. So in much the same way the climbing blogger is now trying to balance out her upper body strength training, I’ve been doing the same.

For a while now, I’ve been living on the theory that for every set of chest work I do, there has to be a set of back. For every push, there’s got to be a pull. Balance, right? Now I’m hearing that may not be good enough.

A fitness expert named Mike Robertson of Roberston Training Systems recommends something different. Seeing that people’s posterior chain (back, hamstrings, etc.) is often so overwhelmed by their anterior chain (chest, quads, etc.), the equal set theory builds you up, but does not help your body pull itself into proper alignment. He recommends doing TWO sets of back for every one set of chest (should that be your split).

I’ve had chronic back issues for some time now. Nothing debilitating, but years of imbalanced weight training, one weightlifting injury and years of abuse training in jiu jitsu did eventually catch up to me a few years ago in a skiing accident. It left me to where I could barely move. I’ve been able to prevent similar injuries from recurring, but I still have some back soreness and pain, as well as Achilles and heel stress from running. I believe a lot of this has to do with poor postural alignment caused by imbalanced strength training, among other things.

For now, I’m tackling the strength training issue. So I’ve retooled my lifting to reflect these needs. Here’s how I’m working it now:


Bench press: Three sets, 12 reps, 10 reps, 6-8 reps. (145, 175, 200). I make sure it’s a two-count going down, a pause when the bar is touching my chest (strict powerlifting-style) and then press. You’ll notice that the weight is light. That’s intentional, because at the speed I lift, it makes it impossible to go too heavy.

Incline dumbbell press: Three sets, 10 reps, 8 reps, 6 reps (60s, 65s, 70s). Again, slow on the way down with  good stretch to the pecs, then press up. Do not clang the weights together at the top. Stop just before they would touch. This keeps tension on your muscles and prevents you from annoying those around you.

Incline dumbbell flies: Three sets, 12, 10, 8 (25s, 35s, 45s). Nice and slow, with a good pec stretch at the midpoint of the lift, concentrating on squeezing the pecs together when lifting the weights back up (no irritating clanging!). Unlike the press, you have your arms extended, with a slight bend at the elbow (this takes some of the stress off the shoulder joints).


Pull-ups: Three sets, as many reps with as good form as possible. The key: Dead-hang pull-ups, not freakin’ kip pull-ups. If you want to brag about lots of reps, go ahead and kip. If you want to get strong and build up your lats, DO NOT KIP.

Lat pulls: Three sets, 8 reps, 115, 140, 155. Notice the weight is not that heavy. I go slow, focusing on pulling down with my back muscles, like trying to force my elbows down toward my hips. It’s a mental trick that prevents you from turning this exercise into a bicep thing.

Reverse rows: Three sets, 10 reps. Like pull-ups, this is a bodyweight exercise. Find a bar you can set about 30 or so inches off the ground, maybe a little less. Hang from the bar underneath, with your legs stretched out and your heels on the floor. Then pull yourself up to the bar. Again, focus on squeezing your back muscles together, like you’re trying to trap something between your shoulder blades.

Seated rows: On the machine (I know, I know, machines blow. But this is a good one), three sets, 8 reps, 90, 110, 130. Slow reps, focus on the back squeeze. If you can do seated cable rows, even better.

Chin-ups: Three sets, dead-hang, as many reps as you can get per set. NO KIPPING.

And for a bonus…

Dumbbell rows, or lawnmower pulls: Three sets, 8 reps, 50, 60, 70. With one knee and one hand on the bench, the other leg braced on the floor for a stable platform, pull the weight from a vertical hanging position up toward your hip (not your chest), mentally focusing on making your back muscles do the work pulling it up. Go slow both up and down.

I’ve already noticed a difference. I stand a little straighter, and the strengthening of my back is opening up my chest more. And that’s a double-win, because the more my chest opens up, the more potential it has to gain strength and (if I want it) size. And I can press barbells and dumbbells without the shoulder twinges I’d gotten used to. It also helps me maintain posture when walking, hiking and running.

Some of you may not be able to use this much weight; many others of you can crap more than I can lift. In other words, adjust this plan accordingly – it’s totally scalable. Challenge yourself (don’t go too light), but not to the point where you sacrifice form (don’t go too heavy).

Also, feel free to substitute different exercises. Try a dumbbell pullover for chest. Or sub out a back exercise with three sets of deadlifts. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

If you’re suffering from postural/muscular imbalance with a heavy bias toward your front-side muscles, give this a try for a month or so, then tell me what you think.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


2 thoughts on “Fitness: The chest and back workout

  1. Hey man the new site looks nice. Is that you on the cover and if so maybe you should think about something prettier or sexier. HAHA! Just kidding.

    • That is me! And in order to put a sexier shot of myself self up there, you would have to assume I actually HAVE a sexier shot! That’s from about 2 years ago, and at that time, I was not in the best of shape. I actually wrote about the trip when that picture was taken. It explains a lot. Do a search on the blog for ‘Huron Peak.’

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