Posted 4 weeks ago

Designing your pull day

Let’s be honest: who doesn’t want to have a thick and wide back? Nobody, right?

This is why old school bodybuilders – or the “bros” – have historically followed a “bro split” program which had a set day for training their back. However, for the intermediate gym-goer (or the new school bodybuilder), a “pull day” may provide greater stimulus to grow their back in the early stages of their journey.

You might be thinking: isn’t a back day and a pull day the same thing?

Well, they are similar yes; however, on a pull day, we may be able to hit glutes/hams through deadlift variations, and also other muscle groups such as biceps, traps and typically rear delts.

The benefit of structuring your training in this way, particularly at the start, means that you can increase the volume and frequency at which you train those muscles in your back (and other), which will lead to more growth. For example, you might train “pull” twice a week, or have one pull day and one mixed day where you hit some of those lagging back muscles (e.g., push-pull, full body).

There are, however, many factors to take into consideration when designing your pull day. Therefore, the aim of this article is to break down those factors and allow you to program your session according to your individual needs.

Lower back loading
Lower back pain and injuries are incredibly common amongst bodybuilders, and I believe it has a lot to do with how workouts are programmed. Here, I’m not just talking about programming individual workouts – I’m thinking about writing programs with the whole week’s rotation in mind.

As such, one of the first key factors you need to consider when selecting exercises for your pull day is WHEN this day falls in relation to your other workouts, because it has implications for your lower back and the accumulation of fatigue in these large stabilising muscles.

Let’s consider the deadlift as an example. A deadlift could be programmed into both a pull and/or a lower day. In this case, imagine you want to deadlift on your pull days. This would be a reasonable exercise choice if your training week looked something like “day 1: lower”, “day 2: push”, and “day 3: pull”, as you could assume your lower back will be recovered from your leg day, and you’d be resting the day after. If, however, your routine had a pull day followed by a lower day without any rest in between sessions, you might want to consider avoiding any sort of lower back loading on your pull day; that is, avoid deadlifting at all costs.

This would mainly be due to the fact that the fatigue you’ll have in your lower back will have a direct negative effect on your subsequent lower session. Although leg moves might not necessarily challenge the lower back itself, they will involve it from a stability aspect. As such, having a fatigued lower back could compromise the safety and quality of your leg session.

In addition, it’s worth noting that exercises such as deadlifts and deadlift variations – which involve high lower back loading – can cause huge demands on your central nervous system, eliciting high levels of fatigue. This would then only be exacerbated by going into a lower body session the day after. Given that your leg days are arguably one of the most demanding sessions of the week, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot and risking a poor performance as a result of not enough recovery.

Therefore, before throwing the kitchen sink at the wall and deadlifting on your pull day, think about what’s coming next: if you’re training legs the next day, keep the lower back loading exercises to a minimal; but if you aren’t training legs the next day, then go ahead and deadlift or use a deadlift variation.

Width vs Thickness
Now that you’ve decided whether you’re going to load the lower back on your pull days or not, the next key question to ask yourself is the following: is your back lacking width or density? Width refers to how wide your lats are, whereas density refers to how much muscle mass you have in your upper back.

This is something that you may have not even considered before. For the most part, if you’re in the early stage of your journey, you’re going to need both. Therefore, the exercises you program will be included to meet those needs. However, as you get further and further into your journey, you’ll need to start getting specific. By that point, you’ll know that you’re a bit wider than you are dense, or vice versa. It’s very rare that you’ll meet someone in the early stages that has been able to develop both the width and density required.

Given that as bodybuilders/physique athletes we must have a balance, we cannot program “willie nillie” or be emotionally attached to exercises, and we need to program according to our weaknesses. And no, not every pull move targets every part of your back, so be mindful of your weak areas when it comes to designing your pull day. So, how should you go about this?

Exercise order
Your exercise order and exercise selection will depend upon your weaknesses, as alluded to above. So, let me talk you through what I would bear in mind when putting together your pull day program.

Before we get into it though, I’d always suggest wearing weightlifting straps (Figure 1) when doing any pull movement to take the focus away from your grip and not be compromised by a limited grip strength (relative to your back strength). You can buy VW Physique wrist straps here.

Figure 1

Example 1 – Not deadlifting on a pull day

If you aren’t deadlifting and you have decided that width if your weakness, I’d prefer to start with a pulldown variation where you can challenge the latissimus dorsi (lats) in their lengthened range – think hand above your head – and also short range – think elbow travelling down and in, towards the lower back. If you have accesses to hammer strength equipment, an iso-lateral front pulldown would be the best machine to start on. If you’re unsure of what I mean head over to YouTube to see our tutorial on it. However, if you do not have this piece of kit in your gym a standard cable single arm lat pulldown would work well.

Once you’ve finished pulldowns (width work), you’d then move onto your density work. A perfect example of this would be any machine-based chest supported row or a chest supported T bar row. What these will allow you to do is to secure your chest to the pad; in doing so, you’ll be generating more stability. This is important because the more stable you are, the greater your ability to produce force will be. Thus, as you drive your elbows out and wide to target that upper back musculature, you will keep your chest solely fixed onto the pad.

A common mistake you will see is athletes letting their chest come away from the pad, that movement is coming directly from their lower back. Thus, tension is being lost in the place you’re trying to target- upper back- so keep your chest fixed again the pad and be mindful about keeping movement in your lower back to a minimum.

Once you’ve finished your upper back movement, then you’d go back to width, and then density thereafter. So, it would run like this (for example):

-Width (iso pull down)
-Density (chest support t bar)
-Width (d-handle pulldown)
-Density (chest supported machine row)

If your weakness was thickness then you would simply flip that around:

-Density (chest support t bar)
-Width (iso pull down)
-Density (chest supported machine row)
-Width (d-handle pulldown)

Your session will be more than 4 exercises long, of course, but this outline just provides you with the thought process that goes behind the order/selection of those exercises.

Example 2 – Deadlifting on a pull day

So, what happens if you are in fact deadlifting on a pull day? Well, the good news is that not much changes and the same principles apply. In short, identify your weakness, and perform this style of exercise/move first after deadlifts, followed by its alternative.

As such, if your weakness was back width, your pull day exercise order might look something like this:

-Lower back (deadlifts)
-Width (iso pull down)
-Density (chest support t bar)
-Width (d-handle pulldown)

And of course, if the weakness was density, then you’d flip it around as above.

What I hope you can see here is that when you have a specific goal, and/or when you’re looking to develop a balanced physique, there is quite a bit more to think about than just rushing to the gym and smashing whatever pull movement inflates your ego. Exercise selection and order really matters, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you weren’t considering these factors when programming for your pull day.

Frequency
As I mentioned at the start of the article, the benefit of moving away from the bro-split back day is that you can increase the frequency at which you train the muscles in your back. This is especially important for males in the early stages of their journey, as the higher frequency positively impacts upon overall muscle growth. Typically, I’d have my clients training pull twice a week. However, each one of those pull workouts will look quite different, because we always try to apply the principles explained above. Let’s talk you through two different examples.

Example 1 – weekly rotation

Day 1: Lower
Day 2: Push
Day 3: Pull (deadlift variation)
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Lower
Day 6: Upper (no deadlift variation)
Day 7: Off

As you can see from this example, we would include deadlifts in the pull workout and follow this by a rest day. A day off scheduled right after performing deadlifts, and the day before lower body, really do complement each other well. The upper session performed on day 2 could still include 2-3 back movements, but these would require minimal lower back loading, as fatigue from the lower body session the day before is still high and we don’t want that to also carry over to day 3.

Example 2 – weekly rotation

Day 1: Pull (no deadlift variation)
Day 2: Lower
Day 3: Push/Arms
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Pull/Legs (deadlift variation)
Day 6: Push/Arms
Day 7: Off

In this example, we would start the week off with a pull workout but not program any deadlifts / lower back loading, as the workout is being executed the day before training legs. Because there hasn’t been a deadlift variation added on day 1, this would be incorporated on day 5: in this way, the back and legs session could include a deadlift right at the start of the session, and you’d be coming into it fresh from the day off.

Of course, these are just two standard examples of how you could go about training pull twice a week to increase your back training volume, as opposed to being constrained to the “bro back day”. For our own clients, all programs are tailored to their individual needs and current physique goals.

Other muscle groups
Going back to the start of the article, I mentioned that a pull day is different to a back day because we can target additional muscle groups. Typically, these include (but are not limited to): rear delts, traps, and biceps. You might be wondering, then: “aren’t these muscles targeted anyway when performing pull exercises?” And yes, you’re right, they are! However, let me talk you through why we’d perhaps still choose to work them in isolation.

When it comes to rear delts, some people might have already developed these well and in balance with the rest of their physique. However, I’ve found that most people don’t have well developed rear delts, and thus, these will need to be worked accordingly. Similar to the medial delt, this is a muscle group that will need to be worked at a much higher rep range to note a response; therefore, you should opt for sets of 12-15 and then 15-20+ reps with a drop or a rest/pause set at the end.

In all honesty, I very rarely program trap work in, but this is mostly because my clients don’t want or need big traps for their goals. However, I’d argue that on any row variation, we probably already get a lot of trap recruitment, so it’s getting hit there. Nevertheless, if you want big traps, you’re going to need to isolate them, so a mix between low and high reps would work well for that goal.

Finally, when it comes to biceps work, this will (as always!) be completely down to the individual: are your biceps big or are they small? Do you need to add more size to them? Like every other muscle group, these are questions you need to ask yourself when considering whether to isolate them or not. If you are training them, then most of your biceps work will come at the very end of your pull session.

In summary, designing your pull day can be fairly complex. You must take your weekly training routine and rotation into consideration, to decide whether you’ll be deadlifting or not on your pull day. Similarly, you’ll need to establish whether your back muscularity weaknesses pertain more to a lack of width or a lack of density. With these factors in mind, it would be favourable to your muscle growth to train pull twice a week, always bearing in mind that this session has to fit in and complement the rest of your program.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons