You’ll Never Have a Great Back

You’ll Never Have a Great Back

It’s kind of funny how much time and energy most bodybuilders and serious weight trainers put into training their chests while they relegate their backs located on the very same torso to second-class status. I see it all the time at nightclubs: young muscle studs proudly strutting around in their painted-on Lycra T-shirts and puffing out their chests like some species of bird trying to attract a mate (and that analogy isn’t far from the truth, when you get down to it). Usually they have a little bit of thickness in the chest, shoulders and arms, but if you see them from behind, nine times out of 10 it looks as if they totally forgot about back training.

You'll Never Have a Great Back

It’s too bad, because in my book a true bodybuilder always strives for proportionate development in all muscle groups. Without a rugged, thickly developed back, you’re nothing more than some knucklehead doing a half-assed job of training your body, focusing only on the muscles you can see in the bathroom mirror. Those guys would be demolished in bodybuilding competition, because back development has taken on a great deal more significance since Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman redefined what’s possible given enough heavy weights and ferocious training.

The fact is, of course, even among bodybuilders who train to build a great back, few seem to succeed. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that just about everyone is capable of building an impressive back, if he or she would only follow these 10 rules:

Perform at least half of your exercises with free weights.

Depending on where you train, you may have access to an almost dizzying array of fantastic back machines. One fitness club (I hesitate to call it a gym) of which I was a member had no less than two dozen pieces from Cybex, Hammer Strength, Icarian, Body Masters, Nautilus and Life Fitness. You could train your back every week for a year using different combinations of machines and cables. Sadly, at the end of that year your back wouldn’t look a whole lot different from the way it did in the first place.

Machine work is a great supplement to the core free-weight lifts, but if you don’t do at least a couple heavy free-weight movements on back day, you’ll never stimulate an appreciable amount of growth in your upper back and lats. Free weights are just plain harder to use. As the sage Arthur Jones was fond of saying, the key is to constantly strive to make the exercises harder, not easier. And bending over and pulling a 315-pound bar into your waist is a hell of a lot harder than sitting down on a nice cushy rowing machine with the pin set at 300 pounds. If you want a back that bulges with shapely knots of muscle, make it a point to do at least half of your back exercises with free weights rather than machines or cables.

Don’t substitute lat pulldowns for chins.

That echoes rule 1, but it’s important enough to warrant its own discussion. Chinups are an absolute must-do exercise for the back. They are extremely difficult to execute properly, and I’d estimate that perhaps only 10 percent of the bodybuilders who do chins are getting the most out of them. A quality chinup requires that you pull up all the way until your upper chest is just a couple inches from the bar, at which point you must pause for a moment, squeeze your shoulder blades together and flex your upper-back muscles hard. Following that, you must slowly lower until your arms are nearly, but not quite, straight always keep tension on the lats and repeat.

It’s not too hard to mimic that form with a lat pulldown bar, but that’s my point. I see tons of guys who can use good form at the cable station with the stack set at their own bodyweight or more, but they rarely have backs worth looking twice at. Show me a man who can do a strict set of 10 reps of wide-grip chinups with a 45-pound plate hanging from his waist, and I bet that dude has one jacked back.

Many trainees avoid chins because they can’t do many. That’s precisely the reason that they should be chinning at every back workout. Everyone can improve on chins if he or she diligently persists in doing them rather than succumbing to the siren song of that damned lat pulldown station. I give you my word that if you master the chinup and become very strong on it, your back will show it clearly.

Squeeze your back and feel it work.

You may be able to get away with never quite feeling some muscle groups work but still getting them to grow good examples being the arms and legs but the back is not so easy. If you never feel your back working during various vertical and horizontal pulling movements, there’s a good chance that your biceps and rear delts are actually doing most of the work.

I knew a bodybuilder named Steve who had biceps and shoulders that were almost too big for his body, but his back was flat as the Nebraska plains. Of course, whenever I saw him training back, his biceps were pumped up like balloons. Like so many others, he never developed a strong mind/muscle connection with his back. I found it useful when I was a personal trainer to have clients say the words squeeze and stretch in their head as they did the positive and negative strokes of each rep. You may need to use less weight to really feel your back doing the work at least until you develop the skill and that’s fine. For if you never have the ability to feel your back work and actually get a pump in it, the chances are it will never be anything special to look at.

Don’t be a yanker.

You see trainees using bad form with all muscle groups, but I happen to think the worst examples involve back training. Specifically, too many people have a tendency to yank the weight in a ballistic fashion on pulling movements. Take one-arm dumbbell rows. Very few men can use more than 100 pounds on them in good form, controlling the weight at all times over a full range of motion and getting a good contraction at the top. However, every jackass and his brother-in-law can take 120 to 150 pounds and do some spastic jerking motion that looks like they’re trying to start a lawn mower.

I have a great deal of respect for Ronnie Coleman, but he sets a terrible example in his video ‘The Unbelievable,’ in which he performs barbell rows with 495 pounds. His form sucks, sucks, sucks. Ronnie yanks the bar up and bounces it off his torso before rebounding it out of the bottom. With that type of form, very little tension is ever placed on the lats, while the joints and connective tissues take a beating. At best, yanking the weight will keep your back from growing; at worst, you’ll severely injure your lower back or tear a biceps and lose who knows how much training time. Swallow your pride and use a weight you can actually handle properly. Your other option is to keep screwing around with more weight than you have any business using and have nothing to show for all your effort.

Hit all the angles.

The back is by far the most complex muscle group you’ll ever train. Biceps are simple all you have to do is some type of curl. With back you really need to hit it with at least one vertical pulling movement (such as chins), one horizontal pulling movement (a row) as well as with pullovers, shrugs and hyperextensions to cover all the various areas and functions. Advanced trainees also need to use different grip widths on their pulling exercises to reach different parts of the back muscles. So it’s important that you not do just rowing movements or pulldown-type movements but make a conscious effort to work the back from each angle it needs in every workout.

Stretch between sets.

Part of building a wide wingspan is getting your scapulae out away from your spine. Stretching the lats between sets greatly facilitates that. Grab a vertical upright with one arm, bend forward, with your head down by your arm, and push your butt back, stretching until you feel a full stretch of the lat on that side. Hold for five seconds before switching sides. Some in the fitness industry, such as John Parrillo, also believe that aggressive stretching like that while the muscle is pumped helps break up the muscle fascia and allows for more growth. Fascia is a very tough connective tissue that encases skeletal muscles, much like steel belting on automobile tires. To my knowledge, no formal studies have ever been conducted to prove or disprove the theory, but thousands of bodybuilders who have followed Parrillo’s advice swear by it.

Keep your lower back injury-free.

Injuries are always a hindrance, but should you incur a serious lower-back injury, certain productive exercises for the back will no longer be possible. You can forget about deadlifts, any type of free-weight row and heavy shrugs for the traps not to mention squats and overhead presses. The first step toward keeping your lower back strong and healthy is to never round it, especially during exercises like bent-over rows, deadlifts and stiff-legged deadlifts. Always keep a slight arch in your lower back, and that goes for all exercises. That’s the position where the lower back is most stable and least vulnerable to injury.

The second step is to strengthen your lower back as an insurance policy. Work hard on hyperextensions and good mornings, making an effort to use more weight over time. Once you get to the point where you can do a good set of 10 hyperextensions while holding 100 or more extra pounds, your lower back will be pretty solid.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to have regular adjustments by a chiropractor just to keep your spine in proper alignment.

Change your back routines regularly.

Don’t do the same workout for more than three or four weeks at most. Use different exercises, different grips and hand widths, different rep ranges and rep speeds, and shuffle the order of your exercises. Hell, even switch your training split every few months so you train your back on a different day of the week or with different bodyparts (though you never want to hit back the day after you train biceps, as they will be too damaged to properly assist on back work). Just remember this axiom: If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.

Do some type of deadlift.

Just about every bodybuilder who has superb back development credits deadlifts with playing a critical role in its development. Ronnie Coleman and Johnnie O. Jackson are two notable examples from the current crop of IFBB champions, but ’90s back kings like Mike Francois and even Dorian Yates regularly incorporated heavy deads in their training. Going back further, ’70s and ’80s stars Franco Columbu and Samir Bannout were big fans of the lift, and they had the best backs of their day.

I don’t believe that you necessarily have to pull from the floor to reap the benefits of the deadlift. Partial, or rack, deadlifts, from the knees up to lockout, can also force a lot of growth. In fact, I happen to favor partial deadlifts, as I feel they’re more of a pure back exercise, in contrast to regular deadlifts, which work the lower body just as hard as the back. Whichever variation you choose, it would behoove you to make deadlifts a mainstay of your back-training arsenal. Too many people have found success with deadlifts to ignore their benefits.

Care about the strength and development of your back.

The most important factor in building a great back is to really want one. Too many guys are obsessed with adding an inch to their arms or beefing up their chests while not giving their backs a thought. It’s safe to say that if they were as concerned about getting wider and thicker lats, they’d have a lot more development back there. Just because you can’t see your back doesn’t mean others can’t or that you shouldn’t care about it. Next month I’ll talk about what it takes to build shoulders so wide and round that people will assume you’re wearing shoulder pads under all your shirts.


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