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Spread Your Wings: Back Training Unravelled

Spread Your Wings: Back Training Unravelled
Written by Michael Garrico

Over the course of this article we’re going to explain why you might not have seen the kind of back development you’ve been looking for so far, and provide you with some essential solutions to make the changes you need.

You’re certainly not alone in your pursuit of a finely carved set of “wings” - this is one of the most sought after aspects of any physique and it can be very tough to develop.

A great deal of back development relies on having a strong mind-body connection, as this is going to ensure that you use the appropriate body positioning to achieve maximum results when performing an exercise.

It’s understanding this positioning that typically holds so many people back in the pursuit of a well developed back - even after several years worth of training, some people still aren’t completely “in tune” with their lats and how to engage them.

Read on now as we discuss the common issues relating to back development to assist in your understanding of this all important muscle group.

Section One: Common Back Training Mistakes

We don’t really like the word “mistake”, you can’t make a mistake if you’re not wholly aware of something in the first place - that’s certainly often the case when it comes to targeting the back effectively.

Where most people struggle really isn’t with their exercise choice, it’s instead their positioning whilst performing said exercises and often their will power in regards to persevering with their training through the initial development phase in order to come out of the other end with a solid back foundation.

TRX suspension training mistake

Everybody has those days...

It’s not uncommon for a trainee to not fully “feel” their back engaging for quite some time during the initial months of their back training, and this can continue for several months or even years afterwards.

As a result, back day can become one of those “back burner” training days that neither excites nor inspires you to put your best into the session and get the most out of it.

We really need to help you in regards to fully “feeling” the back in order for you to get the most out of your back training.

We’ll soon be discussing some of the best exercises and training principles bodybuilders like Dorian Yates used to develop their unbelievable backs, but first we need to get the following fundamental aspect of your back development locked down tightly.

Shoulder Position: Pinch The Blades!

You need to say the phrase “pinch the blades” to yourself at all times whilst performing a back exercise. This simple but highly effective integration will make all the difference in the world in regards to effectively feeling your back muscles work.

It’s also important that we state something perhaps obvious but still all too essential at this point: if you’re not feeling the area, you certainly aren’t integrating it to its fullest extent, as you should be.

This can be difficult if you’re inexperienced because, in fairness to you, this area won’t necessarily have developed quite enough for you to feel it fully yet - still, you absolutely must follow the points raised in this section to ensure that you get to that stage.

It’s not ideal, but you may need to act in faith, knowing that you’ll soon “wake up” your back muscles.

Man is pinching the shoulder blades

Pinch the blades!

Rather than just wading through the mist and blindly going through the motions though, you need to seriously work on your shoulder position and make sure that your posture is as close to being perfect as possible when performing these exercises.

Even as a beginner, this will almost guarantee that you feel something in the relevant area.

Study the position of the body religiously for each exercise, and squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly when performing them - this will help to expose the lat muscles and especially at the top of the positive part of the movement, you’re going to feel the lats fill up with blood, thus indicating that you’re targeting them precisely as you should be.

If you’re an experienced trainer, this could well be all that’s been holding you back - your position may have been completely off all along.

When you perform a back movement without making this one small change, your shoulders actually completely take over and almost entirely negate your back integration.

Be honest, how many times now have you seen someone in the corner of the gym performing a T-bar row with hunched shoulders?

One of the worst offenders is the lat pull-down exercise - many people either pull the bar down so low that the shoulders are forced forwards, or they start with a hunch in their back and don’t correct it. It’s these little details that make a world of difference.

So Is That It? It’s Just The Shoulder Blades I Need To Look Out For?

In conjunction with your shoulder blade position, you’re also going to have to keep a keen eye on your hips too.

The muscles you target when training your back almost seamlessly flow into your glutes and hamstrings - this makes it all too easy to fire off your hips to get the weights up when things start to get a little difficult towards the last few reps of a set.

Annoyingly, some of the world’s top competitive physique athletes actually use terrible form. Some are picture perfect, whereas others sling their way through every set thus setting a pretty bad example.

Man showing his back muscles

Pure perfection!

One thing’s for sure, this probably isn’t A: going to work for you, or B: how they actually developed their physiques in the first place.

If you’re serious about building the best back possible, you’re going to have to keep your hips locked in position and ensure your shoulder blades are tightly pinched back at all times.

This is largely going to rely on dropping your weight volume down, and that’s a good thing - it means you’ll grow.

An experienced trainer might have stumbled across this article in the hope that they were going to get access to that “one” magical exercise to totally transform their back, but not only is that not going to be the case here - you’re not going to find that exercise anywhere else either.

This is one of those instances where you’re going to need to swallow your pride a little and go back to the drawing board if you want to make the kind of progress you should have by now.

You’re probably already training quite cohesively, but because you didn’t keep these two areas in check, your back simply hasn’t been targeted to the extent it needed to in order to evolve.

Many of the top level physique athletes are taking untold quantities of anabolic substances to achieve further growth - they can get away with pretty bad form practice and still grow as a result simply by placing stress on the area (as we stated, they probably didn’t build their foundations using this bad form either) whereas most people simply can’t. Always assume you’re the rule, never the exception to it.

What If My Body Positioning Is Already Great, What Else Am I Missing?

Don’t worry - you’re not destined to never develop the back you’re looking for.

Lack of progress is almost always down to a few reliable variables, and as soon as you isolate which one or several of them you may have been neglecting, it’s safe to say that you’ll kick start some serious progress again.

One of the most common mistakes made with every muscle group is a lack of variety - not only with rep ranges and sets, but exercise choices too. No two sessions should ever look the same on paper if muscular growth is your primary goal.

In order to ensure you continuously develop, these variables have to constantly change. If you’re performing the same session plan two weeks in a row, ensure that you change the order of exercises and rep count being used. Either that, or completely change the exercise choice.

It doesn’t matter how you play with these variables, but one element that is going to be crucial is that you cover every area of the back successfully throughout your session. Provided all areas are covered and you’ve adhered to the above variables; you’ve nailed a successful back session.

Latissimus Dorsi

This is considered to be the “main” back muscle and it helps to create the wide appearance that’s become so vital to the aesthetic make up of any would be physique model.

Strangely, the “lats” are actually no bigger in terms of their involvement with the back than many of the other back muscles on the whole - it’s just their placement at the furthest extremities of the back of the body that makes people associate them with being the most fundamentally important area of the back to train.

Regardless, targeting them effectively is a vital component of back training and you’re going to need to develop them fully if you want to create a killer wingspan.

Trapezius

Are you surprised that this muscle is listed? After all, it’s typically associated with the shoulders - rarely do people consider the traps when they speak of back training.

If we’re going to be as accurate about the traps as possible, then it’s safe to say that the only area of your traps you’re going to integrate fully during a shoulder session is the “upper” trap.

There are actually ”middle” and “bottom” sections to the traps that you’ll need to target if you want to ensure your back is as fully developed as possible. This will help to add “depth” and create “thickness.”

Trap muscles scheme

One of the most common mistakes made with every muscle group is a lack of variety.

Considering the traps aren’t often considered as part of a back session, this may already raise a few alarm bells in regards to why your back hasn’t developed fully.

Teres Minor And Major

These muscles run alongside the middle and lower traps and are sandwiched in between the lats and rear deltoids. They actually help to form the upper “half” of the “wings” we all recognise as being so desirable.

Your lat muscles essentially form the bottom half of this structure, whereas the teres minor and major muscles are stacked directly on top of them thus fully establishing the wing like shape.

Whilst you’re going to effectively target this area whilst performing any latissimus dorsi movements, some exercises will actually target this area more effectively than others, as we’ll soon discuss.

Rear Deltoids

Similar to the traps, the rear deltoids are often associated with shoulder day when really they’re likely better placed as part of a back session due to their close proximity to the back muscles.

If you want to maximise both areas, try training the side and front aspects of your deltoids on shoulder day and save your rear deltoids for back day - you face the risk of overlapping and overtraining otherwise which could be disastrous for your overall development in each respective area.

This area is important for not only fully rounding off and developing your shoulders, but also for adding depth and width to the back - remember that this muscle extends out and represents the furthest extremity of the back due to the distance from shoulder to shoulder being greater than the distance from lat to lat.

This means that, when it’s fully developed - it greatly enhances your overall back width.

Decisions, Decisions…

It’s safe to say that many people who have read up to this point may be a little shocked by the inclusion of either one or two of the muscle groups mentioned above in regards to back training.

When you combine these areas with the previously mentioned tips in regards to effectively targeting and incorporating the back - can you perhaps see where so many people are getting confused and stunting their development?

You’ve really got to take an all-encompassing approach to fully “round-off” your back, and if either one or typically several of these elements aren’t in place, your results will be diminished.

Man showing his back muscle

“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” - Thomas Jefferson

Another tough element is of course making the right exercise choices, and here you have a genuinely varied array of exercises to choose from. That might seem great in theory, but in practice it often leads to further confusion in regards to which ones to choose.

As ever, the first point to establish is that there’s no “best” choice for an effective back exercise - the “best” choice will always be a choice of several exercises that serve to completely develop your back as a whole.

With that said, there are a couple that are going to help develop the foundation for which all other back exercises are built upon.

Remember though, they’re just two components of a vast sea of exercise choices that all hold their own relevance - you just need to ensure you include them all on a regular basis.

Bread And Butter

As previously stated, there are two exercises that you’re really going to have to perform in order to fully develop the foundations of your back - they aren’t by any means the “best”, but they are certainly crucial as part of a well balanced routine as some of the world’s leading coaches like Charles Poliquin know.

These exercises are of course the deadlift and the wide grip chin up.

At this point, many people say “but isn’t a deadlift a leg exercise?” - and they’d be somewhat right. It heavily involves the glutes and hamstrings as assistor muscles, though primarily it’s the back that serves as the driving force behind the movement as a whole.

For any women reading, you may be worried about performing the deadlift being that many females (and males) regard it as being a waist “thickener” - don’t worry though as this is a myth and the exercise is truly essential for your development in a number of areas, not least the back.

A well-executed wide grip chin up will not only integrate the latissimus dorsi when performed effectively, it also targets all aspects of the traps and teres array. These two exercises alone cover every muscle in the back, and they will need to be performed with precision and intensity for both high and low rep counts in order to establish a strong back foundation.

Be honest, how many people do you know who either don’t perform chin ups, or believe that the wide grip pull down serves the same function? Equally with deadlifts, how many people do you know who completely avoid them too?

Grip chin up workout scheme

A well-executed wide grip chin up will not only integrate the latissimus dorsi when performed effectively.

Are you beginning to see why back development is a tricky subject? You’ve no doubt read through one or several of the points listed so far and identified some flaws in your own training patterns. Don’t worry though, that’s what the article is here for and this simply means you’re now in a position to make changes.

Back training is of course going to be a hopeless pursuit if your nutrition isn’t in check too, but provided you’ve got that locked down in conjunction with the above elements - it’s safe to say that you’re on a one way train to winville.

Hmm...This Seems Like A Lot To Remember, Is There Anything Else?

No one said it was going to be easy. As a matter of fact, there is actually something else you’re going to need to keep in mind if you want to develop an amazing back.

This one really will raise a few eyebrows, but it’s completely true - you’re going to need to start performing dumbbell pullovers regularly as part of your training either in conjunction with straight arm push downs or instead of them.

Over the years, and potentially owing to Arnold Schwarzenegger - the dumbbell pullover either gets used for the chest, or often not at all.

Whilst this exercise is important for developing the serratus anterior aspect of the chest, it is actually a lat isolation exercise.

You’re unlikely to find another exercise that can stretch and engage the lats quite like the dumbbell pullover can, and the sooner you stop performing it on chest day believing that it’s having more of an effect than it really is, and start integrating it into your back routine - your lat development on the whole is going to skyrocket.

Arnold Schwarzenegger doing dumbbell exercise in gym

"You have to remember something - Everybody pities the weak, jealousy you have to learn."

This is going to be difficult for some to come to terms with due to existing programming and wide spread belief, but you should just throw it into the mix and let the results do the talking. You won’t regret it.

If your gym has a rare “pullover” machine, then you’re incredibly lucky because this is equally if not more effective than the dumbbell pullover (though it does integrate less stabilisation muscles.)

Now that we’ve discussed the many common errors in relation to back training and hopefully opened your eyes in regards to how best to progress - it’s time to focus on the exercises themselves and enlighten you as to which ones represent some of the most effective choices out there.

Section Two: Some Of The Most Effective Back Exercises

These exercises are literally some of the absolute best out there for creating the most incredibly developed back possible - you’ll need to include them all as part of your routine on a regular basis, and at the very least you’ll need to ensure every area listed is targeted during the course of every back workout you perform.

Latissimus Dorsi Exercises

These exercises all target the latissimus dorsi successfully thus enhancing the overall width of your back.

Man creating latissiumus dorsi exercise

Creating the most incredibly developed back!

Wide Grip Chin-Ups

Areas Covered: Latissimus Dorsi, Rear Delts, Trapezius, Teres Minor And Major

In order to perform a wide grip chin up, find a pull up bar and grab it with a double overhand grip just outside of shoulder width apart.

Now proceed to bend at the elbows whilst elevating the body and pulling the chin towards the bar, extend the arms and return to the starting position but without touching the floor and ensure a slight bend is kept in the elbows at all times.

Dumbbell Pullover

Areas Covered: Latissimus Dorsi

To perform this exercise, lie flat on the back and elevate a dumbbell above the body - hold it in line with the head by stretching the arms out and grabbing the base of the top section of the dumbbell with a “diamond” shaped grip so that both palms are facing outwards towards the ceiling around the central handle.

Dumbbell pullover exercise

Now proceed to stretch the arms backwards and away from the body whilst lowering the dumbbell until it is in line with the top of the head, then return to the starting position and repeat the movement.

Seated High Row

Areas Covered: Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major And Minor

To perform this exercise, sit on the high row machine and grab both handles with a double underhand grip. Proceed to pull the handles towards the armpits whilst keeping the shoulder blades tightly pinched together. Return the arms to the starting position and repeat the movement.

Teres Minor And Major

These exercises will help to emphasise the teres minor and major muscles in order to enhance your overall back width.

Seated Middle Row

Areas Covered: Teres Minor And Major, Latissimus Dorsi

To perform this exercise, sit completely upright and grab both handles with a double overhand grip. Proceed to bend at the elbows until they reach 90 degrees and bring the handles back towards the body until they rest just in front of the armpits.

Extend the arms and return to the starting position before repeating the movement.

Underhand Barbell Row

Areas Covered: Teres Minor And Major, Latissimus Dorsi

To perform this exercise, grab a barbell with a double underhand grip just outside of your hip width. Proceed to bend the upper body forwards to a 45 degree angle whilst keeping the back straight and the legs totally still.

From here, stretch the bar out in front of the body, and proceed to bend the elbows whilst pulling the bar up to the stomach. From here, extend the arms and return to the starting position before repeating the movement.

Seated Lat Bar Row

Areas Covered: Teres Minor And Major, Trapezius

To perform this exercise, first attach a lat bar (a bar featuring a singular neutral grip handle at each end meaning the palms face each other throughout the movement) to the seated row machine.

Man doing seated lat pulls

Include this exercise in your daily routine.

Proceed to sit and grab each lat bar handle with the arms fully outstretched, then bend the elbows whilst bringing the bar into the body just below the sternum until both elbows reach a 90 degree angle. Extend the arms and return to the starting position before repeating the movement.

Middle And Lower Trapezius Exercises

These exercises will effectively target the middle and lower trapezius - keep in mind that the upper traps will be integrated slightly too but this area may be better integrated on shoulder day should time allow with some upright shrugging movements.

T-Bar Row

Areas Covered: Middle And Lower Trapezius

To perform a T-bar row, grab the row handles with a double overhand grip just outside of hip width apart. Proceed to lower the upper body until it reaches a 45-degree angle, and then with the arms outstretched, pull the bar into the stomach (just below the sternum) by bending the elbows to a 90 degree angle.

T bar row exercise scheme

Extend the arms and return to the starting position before repeating the movement.

V-Bar Seated Rows

Areas Covered: Middle And Lower Trapezius, Rear Deltoids, Teres Major And Minor

For this movement you will need to attach a “V” bar to the seated row machine. From there, start with the arms outstretched with both hands firmly gripping the handle, then proceed to bend the elbows and bring the bar into the body (just below the sternum.) Extend the arms and return to the starting position before repeating the movement.

Deadlifts

Areas Covered: Upper, Middle And Lower Trapezius, Teres Major And Minor, Latissimus Dorsi, Glutes, Hamstrings

To perform a deadlift, start with the bar at ground level and proceed to place the body in a seated position by bending the hips and knees to 90 degrees. Now place your hands on the bar just outside of shoulder width with a grip of your preference.

Proceed to pull the bar up and away from the ground whilst keeping the back straight until the bar rests at hip level, then return it to the ground before repeating the movement.

Rear Delts

This all-important area is vital for your overall back width and thickness - make sure you integrate it into every back workout you perform.

Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

Areas Covered: Rear Deltoids, Middle Trapezius, Teres Major

To perform a rear dumbbell fly, grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at hip height then proceed to lean the upper body forwards to a 45 degree angle.

Man doing reverse dumbbell flies

Outstretch the arms in a double neutral (palms facing each other) grip, before raising the dumbbells backwards and away from the body until they are in line with the shoulders.

Keep your back straight throughout the movement - proceed to return the arms to the starting position and repeat the exercise.

Reverse Pec Deck Flyes

Areas Covered: Rear Delts, Teres Major, Middle Trapezius

To perform this exercise, sit on a pec deck facing inwards, and grab both handles whilst stretching the arms out in front of the body. Proceed to extend the arms and stretch them out by the side until they are in line with the shoulders (the body should be in a crucifix position.) Return the arms to the starting position and repeat the movement.

Face Pulls

Areas Covered: Rear Deltoids, Upper Trapezius, And Middle Trapezius

Start with a cable pulley set roughly two notches above the middle setting, and attach a cable rope handle.

Now grip the rope at each end with a double overhand grip and proceed to bend the elbows whilst pulling the middle of the rope towards the face until it rests roughly one inch short of making contact.

From here, return to the starting position and repeat the exercise. Ensure your shoulder blades are tightly pinched together throughout the movement.

Section Three: Back Workouts That Really Work For Any Goal

These workouts are going to deliver the back results you’re looking for regardless of your current training goal.

Man doing kettlebell workout

“A year from now you may wish you had started today.” - Karen Lamb

Simply follow these routines and remember to vary the rep and set counts being used at least every two weeks should you choose to perform the same routine a few weeks running.

You’ll also need to completely change the exercise order to keep your body guessing.

General Mass Building Back Routine

All exercises to be performed for between 6-8 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of three sets each with a 120 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • check
    Wide grip chin ups
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    Deadlifts
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    Seated mid row
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    Seated V bar row
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    Face pulls
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    Dumbbell pullovers

Ensure you fully stretch the back at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Back Isolation And Toning Routine

This routine is designed to help in the development of the general muscle tone in the back area and further develop the foundations created by exercises such as the deadlift and chin up.

All exercises to be performed for between 10-12 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of four sets each with a 60 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

  • Seated high row
  • Dumbbell pullovers
  • Underhand barbell row
  • Seated lat bar row
  • T-bar row
  • Pec deck reverse flyes
Man doing dumbbell pullover exercise

Ensure you fully stretch the back at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Back Strength Development Routine

This routine is going to send your level of back strength skyrocketing within a short time frame provided you perform all of the below exercises with perfect technique.

All exercises to be performed for between 3-5 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of five sets each with a 240 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 2 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 2 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

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    Deadlifts
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    Weighted chin ups
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    Underhand barbell rows
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    Dumbbell pullovers
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    Dumbbell reverse flyes (perform this exercise for between 10-12 reps)

Ensure you fully stretch the back at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

An Entirely Machine Based Routine For General Back Development

This routine is for those who struggle with their body positioning on some of the free weight movements and need the assistance of machines in order to avoid back pain and injury (especially in the lower back.)

All exercises to be performed for between 8-10 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of four sets each with a 90 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 3 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 3 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

Man using the rowing machine

This routine is for those who struggle with their body positioning.

The exercises are as follows:

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    Seated high row
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    Seated mid row
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    V bar cable rows
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    Face pulls (seated if need be)
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    Reverse pec deck flyes

Ensure you fully stretch the legs at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

Endurance And Conditioning Based Leg Routine

This routine is for improving the endurance of the back and assisting with its overall conditioning - this in turn will also impact muscle tone.

All exercises to be performed for between 15-20 reps unless stated otherwise for a total of five sets each with a 30 second rest period in between sets.

Focus on performing a 2 second negative (on the way down), 1 second hold (at the bottom) and 2 second positive (on the way up) count for each movement.

The exercises are as follows:

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    Wide grip chin ups (use an assisted pullup machine if it’s needed)
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    Deadlifts
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    Dumbbell pullovers
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    Underhand barbell row
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    T-bar row
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    Face pulls
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    Reverse dumbbell flyes

Ensure you fully stretch the back at the end of your session to avoid blood pooling.

These back routines will provide the blueprint you need to follow in order to create the most amazing back possible - follow these workouts, incorporate all of the exercises listed and above all else perform every single one of them in accordance with the tips listed at the beginning of this article.

Whilst you won’t know absolutely everything there is to know about training the back just by reading this guide, you now have more than enough material to go out there and tackle your next back session on the right track.

What are your favourite back training exercises? Do you have any tips you’d like to share with the community?

If you feel that this article helped open your eyes in regards to some of the mistakes you were perhaps making with your own training, please share this information with as many people as possible on social media - you could play a huge part in their future back progression.

Go out there and enjoy your next back session.

This post was last updated on January 5th, 2018 at 08:33 am

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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