Tri-sets are an extremely effective way to train for muscular hypertrophy. They work well for most body parts but they are especially effective for training the upper back!
- Routine #1: A Dorian-Inspired Tri-Set
- Routine #2: The 6/12/25 Method
- Routine #3: A Ronnie-Inspired Tri-Set
- Routine #4: Devil’s Tri-Sets
- Routine #5: A One-Arm Row Tri-Set
- Routine #6: Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
- Routine #7: A DC-Inspired Tri-Set
In this article I am going to provide you with seven of the most effective upper back tri-sets ever invented! A Tri-set is a series of three sets performed back-to-back for the same body part.
For example, here is the format of a typical upper back tri-set:
- Perform exercise “A” x 6-20 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise “B” x 6-20 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise “C” x 6-20 reps, rest 10 seconds
Tri-sets work so well for training the upper back because they significantly prolong the overall time under tension of the set and allow you to recruit and fatigue a large number of motor units with a diverse group of exercises.
In fact it’s hard to think of a bodybuilding training method better suited for training the upper back than tri-sets!
If you are prepared to train your ass off then these routines will bring you one step closer to building a back that even Franco Columbo would be jealous of!
Please note that all 7 of these routines are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then I recommend you consult this article first.
Now let’s get down to business…
Routine #1: A Dorian-Inspired Tri-Set
Dorian Yates was known as bodybuilding’s first modern-day “mass monster.” He had a very well balanced physique but he was best known for his unbelievably wide and thick upper back.
This tri-set routine features three of Dorian’s favourite exercises for targeting the upper back including the Nautilus pullover, the Hammer Strength pull down, and the bent-over barbell row.
Dorian was a particularly big fan of the Nautilus pullover machine. He went so far as to call this the single greatest bodybuilding exercise for targeting the lats!
Dorian may not have trained using tri-sets (he preferred forced reps and other post-failure training techniques) but we can still benefit from three of Dorian’s favourite upper back exercises. Let’s check out the actual routine:
Dorian Upper Back Tri-Set
- A1: Nautilus pullover, 3-5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Hammer strength bilateral pull down (supinated grip), 3-5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Barbell bent-over row, 3-5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
You can click right here to watch Dorian Yates demonstrate these three upper back exercises at the start of his back routine.
These videos feature Dorian himself demonstrating how to perform these movements. You do NOT have to train as hard as Dorian does in these three videos.
In the first two exercises Dorian is actually performing a few additional forced repetitions after reaching technical failure. This is completely unnecessary on a high-volume training routine such as tri-sets.
With our routine it is the volume and density of work that is primarily responsible for driving muscular adaptations. I do recommend that you train to 1 rep shy of failure (both on this routine and on the other routines listed below).
This means your last rep of each set should be a grinder but you will complete it without compromising your exercise technique.
Remember, even on a higher-volume training protocol such as tri-sets it is still important to train hard! If you are afraid of a little temporary pain then you are in the wrong sport…
Routine #2: The 6/12/25 Method
The 6/12/25 method is one of the most effective hypertrophy training methods that you have never heard of. The idea is simple: you are going to perform a tri-set where you perform 6 reps on the first exercise, 12 reps on the second exercise, and 25 reps on the third exercise.
- Exercise #1 x 6 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Exercise #2 x 12 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Exercise #3 x 25 reps, rest 2-3 minutes, repeat!
Remember, I said simple, not easy! In reality the 6/12/25 method is one of the most demanding hypertrophy training methods you can use. The wide rep ranges and short rest intervals combine to trap an absolutely horrible amount of lactic acid in your muscles!
If you have an above-average pain tolerance then you will grow like a weed with this method thanks to the heightened levels of metabolic fatigue.
Here is one way you might want to design an upper back workout using the 6/12/25 tri-set method. Check it out:
6/12/25 Upper Back Tri-Set
- A1: Supinated shoulder-width chin ups, 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Seated v-handle cable row, 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Seated rope cable face pull, 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
I want you to pay close attention to the tempos listed for each exercise. It is EXTREMELY important that you use a true 4-second eccentric phase for the first exercise, a true 3-second eccentric phase for the second exercise, and a true 2-second eccentric phase for the third exercise.
These tempos are necessary to accumulate an optimal amount of time under tension for each exercise. If you fail to lower your weights under control (like 99% of gym trainees do!) then you will get suboptimal results from this routine.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with training for suboptimal results if that makes you happy. Then again I have no idea why you are reading my material if that is the case.
After all, Revolutionary Program Design is about teaching you how to get the most out of your training and how to go from “point A” to “point B” as quickly as possible.
If you’d rather take the “scenic route” then my material is not for you!
Routine #3: A Ronnie-Inspired Tri-Set
Here is an upper back tri-set routine featuring three of Ronnie Coleman’s favourite exercises for developing a massive upper back. Ronnie is universally considered to have built the best upper back the bodybuilding world has ever seen.
I’ve studied Ronnie’s training program extensively trying to understand how he was able to develop such width and thickness in his backside. Ronnie Coleman proved to me one more time that there really aren’t any secrets to building a world-class back.
It’s about picking the best, most bang-for-your-buck exercises and lifting “as much weight as possible for as many reps as possible” over a very long period of time.
Here is the Ronnie-inspired upper back tri-set routine:
- A1: Wide overhand grip cable pull down, 3-5 x 10-12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: T-bar row, 3-5 x 8-10, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: DB pullover, 3-5 x 12-15, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
I want you to be careful with your form on t-bar rows. Ronnie used a very “loose” style on this exercise and it certainly did wonders for his back development. However, for most mortals it is best to stay slightly stricter with your exercise technique.
The risk of injury with t-bar rows increases significantly as you become stronger and the center of mass of the exercises drifts further and further out in front of your body.
Routine #4: Devil’s Tri-Sets
Devil’s tri-sets is an incredibly effective training method that I first learned about through the writings of the world-class strength coach Wolfgang Unsoeld. The basic idea is to perform a tri-set where you perform 6 reps on each of the three exercises.
Most people stick with higher repetition ranges when using bodybuilding training methods such as tri-sets. There is nothing wrong with this approach.
However, relatively lower set / rep schemes such as devil’s tri-sets also deserve their place in your long-term hypertrophy programming.
Devil’s tri-sets are perfect for increasing the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers which are often neglected by many bodybuilders.
Here is a Devil’s tri-sets routine featuring three different rowing exercises. If your back thickness lags behind the rest of your body then this would be an EXCELLENT choice for bringing it up to par.
Check it out:
- A1: Barbell dead stop row, 3-5 x 6, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Seated rope cable row, 3-5 x 6, 2/0/X/1, 10 seconds rest
- A3: 30 degree chest supported DB row, 3-5 x 6, 2/0/X/1, 180 seconds rest
I really want to bring your attention to the barbell dead stop row as demonstrated by the 4 x World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw.
The barbell dead stop row is probably one of the most effective rowing exercises ever invented. You perform the start of the movement just like you would a deadlift. You really want to get the bar accelerating as fast as possible off the floor.
However, as the bar approaches your knees you forcefully drive your elbows behind your torso using your upper back musculature. The end-result is that you are rowing a weight that is significantly above what you can strict row.
If you have the discipline to slowly lower the bar down to the ground then you get all of the usual benefits of accentuated eccentric training with this exercise.
If you want to learn about some more highly effective but underrated rowing exercises then I highly recommend this article.
Routine #5: A One-Arm Row Tri-Set
One-arm rowing variations are often times neglected by many bodybuilders. I don’t see why this should be the case as one-arm rows are unbelievably effective for overloading both the lats and the scapular retractors.
In fact the stretch that you get in the bottom position of many one-arm rowing exercises is extremely effective for stimulating hypertrophy.
One of the first bodybuilding coaches that I saw who really started highlighting the benefits of these exercises was the mad genius John Meadows.
This routine features three of John’s favourite unilateral rowing exercises that he used to build a lat spread good enough for the professional bodybuilding ranks.
Check it out:
- A1: Meadows row, 3-5 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: One-arm barbell row, 3-5 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Seated unilateral cable row, 3-5 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 180 seconds rest
On all three of these exercises you want to do everything in your power to really, really stretch out your back in the bottom position. It should feel like your scapula is “winging out” and being pulled away from the mid line of your back.
Any experienced bodybuilder will immediately know what I am talking about here.
You may even want to pause for 1-2 seconds in the stretched position to emphasize the stretched position even more. Don’t get me wrong, getting a “full contraction” on these exercises is still critical, especially for targeting the scapular retractors. But the stretch is truly where the action is.
Routine #6: Mechanical Advantage Drop Set
Mechanical advantage drop sets are an unbelievably effective way to train. They are also very convenient to perform in a busy commercial gym.
The basic idea behind a mechanical advantage drop set is to perform several different variations of an exercise back-to-back with 10 seconds rest between each variation.
You are going to use the exact same load for each of the exercise variations. In our case we are going to use wide pronated grip pull ups, medium supinated grip chin ups, and narrow neutral grip pull ups.
You are much stronger as you move from one grip to the next which should enable you to continue busting out reps after approaching failure on the first exercise.
Check it out:
- A1: Wide overhand grip pull up, 3-5 x 5-7, 5/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Medium supinated grip chin ups, 3-5 x 5-7, 5/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Narrow neutral grip chin ups, 3-5 x 5-7, 5/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
Here is Charles Poliquin coaching a client through this exact mechanical advantage drop set:
This routine is very difficult. You should be able to perform AT LEAST 8 full range of motion wide pronated grip pullups before you attempt it. Remember, a full range of motion pull up involves your upper chest making contact with the bar in the top position.
If you stop short of this then you are never going to maximally stimulate the scapular retractors and depressors. If you do have the requisite strength levels to perform this routine then you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Routine #7: A DC-Inspired Tri-Set
This last routine features a few exercises that are frequently used by adherents of the “DC Training” bodybuilding program. Dante Trudel once said that you can always pick out a DC trainee by the size of their back.
Whatever your opinions are regarding Dante’s master thesis on bodybuilding training I am confident that the following upper back tri-set will help you build slabs of muscle all over your backside.
Check it out:
- A1: Rack chins, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Rack deadlifts (mid-shin height), 3-5 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Dante rows**, 3-5 x 12-15, 2/1/X/1, 180 seconds rest
**Performed as a seated cable row with your entire back rounded forward. The movement itself is somewhere in between a pull down, a pullover and a row. See the video below for more details.
You may not be familiar with rack chins or “Dante rows.” Rack chins are essentially a modified version of a wide-grip pull up. The fact that your feet are supported on a bench in front of your body completely changes the movement.
Your upper back is actually rounded forwards which places a very powerful stretch on the lats through the entire movement. Dante Trudel often referred to this exercise as his “lat width pronto” exercise.
The other unusual exercise is the “Dante row.” Marc Dugdale is seen giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise here. The basic idea is to round your upper back throughout the entire movement.
The exercise itself becomes sort of a hybrid between a row, a pullover and a pull down. OK, a hybrid means only two exercises are joined together. Perhaps a Frankenstein creation is more appropriate!
Whatever you want to call it this exercise is unbelievably effective for increasing the width of your lats. Many former DC Trainees such as Justin Harris, David Henry, and Dusty Hanshaw all used this exercise as a staple in their “back width” exercise selection.
You are now fully equipped with seven of the most effective upper back tri-set routines ever invented. I am confident that many, if not all of these routines will give you some of the best hypertrophy gains of your entire life!
Always remember: the mind is more important than the body. Where the mind goes the body will follow. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
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