The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

HSS-100: Back Specialization


HSS-100 is a phenomenal bodybuilding training system guaranteed to put slabs of beef on your frame. The original program is a standalone routine in which each muscle group is trained once every cycle (once a week). This will provide for superb balanced development.

However, what if you want to emphasise a certain muscle group that may be lacking? Can the HSS-100 methodology be blended in with a specialization approach? You bet it can!

To develop a certain muscle group more rapidly, it's necessary to increase the amount of work performed for that specific muscle group. However, it can't be done by drastically increasing the training volume during one session as this would lead to counterproductive workouts.

The way to increase the workload for a certain muscle group is thus to spread the higher volume over more training sessions. I usually recommended three weekly sessions for the target muscle group. This allows you to increase the amount of stress you put on the muscle while maintaining high quality workouts. Frequency itself is also a great way to increase muscular development, so it's like killing two birds with one stone.

The problem seen when people start to specialize is that they increase the workload for the targeted muscle group but they don't decrease the amount of training that's being done for the other muscles groups. Remember that strength training has both specific (to the muscles being worked) and systemic (affecting the whole body) after-effects. There's only so much training volume your body can sustain and adapt to in any given timeframe.

If you want to grow on a specialization plan, you'll have to stay with the same total training time/volume as usual. Since you'll be doing more work for the targeted muscle group, this automatically means that training volume must be decreased for the other muscle groups.

Don't worry; you won't lose muscle! A specialization phase lasts only four weeks and you'll still be performing maintenance work for the non-targeted muscle groups, so you won't shrink overnight. You might even find that your non-targeted groups will actually grow because you're giving them time to rest and supercompensate.

To recap, here are the rules of specialization training:


The HSS-100 Back Specialization Routine

The first part of this specialization series will talk about how to build a monster back. Since 1983, the Mr. Olympia contest has been won "from the back." In that year, Samir Bannout won with the best conditioned back ever seen on the Olympia stage. Bannout's back was so impressive a new phrase was coined to describe his lower back development: the Christmas tree.

From 1984 to 1991 the Olympia title belonged to Lee Haney (at left below) who had the best chest/back combo of his time, arguably of all time.

Need I mention that the Olympia crown belonged to "Mr. Back" himself, Dorian Yates, from 1992 to 1996?

Finally, from 1997 up to now, another "decent" back dominator named Ronnie Coleman has been hogging the Mr. Olympia title.

Okay, so you might not have any intention of stepping up on stage wearing only a Speedo. Still, building a mighty back should be one of your priorities. First of all, nothing says "power" like a monstrous back. Plus, never forget that people see you from all angles; someone who has a good build from the front, but looks like a ballet dancer from the back will look kinda foolish.

A well developed back will make you look better from all angles, not just from the rear: huge lats will enhance your V-shape, making you look more aesthetic and athletic. A thick back will also add a lot of depth to your physique when seen from the side. As you can see, the back is really the cornerstone to any good physique.

And for you functional guys out there, here's a quote from Louie Simmons: "A strong man is strong in the back of his body." Enough said!


The Weekly Breakdown

Since we want to train the targeted muscle group three times during the week, we'll be training a total of five times per week. The back workouts are divided into regions:

The weekly breakdown is as follows:


Back Width Workout

A. (Heavy lift)
Option 1: Pull-ups (preferably weighted)

Pull-ups are a great back builder if you can do them properly. This means going all the way down, stretching at the bottom, and lifting yourself while keeping your torso perpendicular to the floor.

Why is the pull-up superior to the lat pulldown? After all, the motion in both is exactly the same (or so it seems). It's not a question of freedom of movement either since the lat pulldown utilize cables, which are basically much like free weights in that regard. So why is the pull-up seen as superior?

Because of one simple detail: the lower arms (forearms) stay perfectly perpendicular to the floor at all times and in line with the torso. If you want a wide back, this is one of the most important statements you'll ever read.

Most people do the lat pulldown all wrong: they bend their torso back at a 45 degree angle and don't pull straight downward (keeping the forearms perpendicular to the floor, elbows pointed straight down), but rather down and back (elbows end up pointing backward). While this isn't bad for back thickness development, it sucks as a back width movement because it basically takes the lats out of the movement!

So to recap, pull-ups are good because the line of pull promoted with the arm and torso position favors latissimus dorsi activation over middle back activation.

If you decide to perform pull-ups, you should be able to complete at least six in good form. Ideally you'd add weight to the exercise. If you can't perform pull-ups, move on to option 2.

Sets: 4

Reps: 6 to 8

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

Option 2: Technically Correct Lat Pulldown

To perform a technically correct lat pulldown, the important coaching points are:

1. Keep the elbows pointed straight to the ground at all times.

2. Keep the torso perpendicular to the floor while maintaining a tight lower back arch.

3. When you pull the bar down, try to touch your rib cage with the inner portion of your elbows. Most of you won't be able to do it, but try to do it and you'll stay in the proper pulling path.

Sets: 4

Reps: 6 to 8

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

B1. Straight-Arm Pulldown (pre-fatigue isolation)

While I don't use pre-fatigue (isolation before compound) too often, I've found that for building up the lats it's really effective. This method facilitates the use of the lats in the second exercise and makes sure that this hard-to-train muscle group is thoroughly trashed!

For this exercise you should maintain a "beach position" at all times:

1. Chest up

2. Shoulders back

3. Lower back tight

It's also important to use a grip that's as loose as possible. There's a thing called the "irradiation principle" which states that the harder a certain muscle group is contracting, the more "spill-over" contraction will occur in the immediate surrounding muscles. In our case, squeezing the bar hard with the hands will lead to greater forearm and upper arm activation. These muscle groups will thus take on more of the work and less emphasis will be placed on the lats.

As I always say, when lifting to build muscle you're not lifting weights; you're contracting your muscle against a resistance. This is especially true of a pre-fatigue exercise such as the straight-arm pulldown.

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 to 12

Special tempo/technique: 303 (3 second negative, no pause, 3 second concentric)

Rest intervals: none

B2. Rope Lat Pulldown (pre-fatigue compound)

This is my favorite exercise for building wide lats! The key points are as follows:

1. Keep the torso slightlyinclined forward.

2. Pull the rope toward your abdomen while keeping the elbows straight down.

3. Complete the concentric portion of the movement by executing a scapular depression, which is basically the opposite action of a shrug (bringing the shoulders down instead of up).

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 to 10

Special tempo/technique: 3 second squeeze in bottom position

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

C. Seated Rope Rowing, torso bent forward (special exercise)

While horizontal pulling exercises are normally seen as back thickness builders and not lats/back width movements, this one is different. The bent forward position allows you to put more emphasis on the lats, and the rope allows you a more natural rowing motion. To make this exercise effective you should respect these guidelines:

1. Keep the torso bent forward during the entire exercise.

2. Pull from high to low. This means that at the start of the movement the hands should be in line with the shoulders (high position) and you row toward the top of your hip bone (low position). This is a more natural lat movement.

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 to 12

Special tempo/technique: 303 tempo

Rest intervals: 60 seconds

D. Straight-Arm Arc Dumbbell Row (100 rep exercise)

Sets: 1

Reps: 100 (You can take some short pauses if truly needed, but don't do this much!)


Pillars Workout

A. Power Shrugs (heavy lift)

This exercise will hit both the traps and spinal erectors nicely. It's basically a rack pull/shrug combo in which you can use your lower back and legs to move more weight.

The important thing to remember is to keep your lower back tightly arched and to really squeeze hard at the top of the shrug. We're using momentum to move more weight, but in the peak contraction position we want those traps to contract as hard as possible.

Sets: 5

Reps: 4-6

Special tempo/technique: Explosive but with a 1-2 second hold at the top

Rest intervals: 120 seconds

B1. Haney Shrugs (post-fatigue compound)

To make the most out of this exercise, you should initiate the lifting portion by shrugging the traps then completing the pull.

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 to 10

B2. Calf Machine Shrug (post-fatigue isolation)

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 to 12

Special tempo/technique: 3 second squeeze at the top

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

C. Old-Time Standing Row (special exercise)

This used to be one of the most popular exercises among old-time strongmen. It's very similar to the Haney shrug except that it's performed with dumbbells. Stand up with a dumbbell in each hand (by your side), then bend your torso slightly forward. Row the weight up and back (trying to bring your elbows pointing directly behind you) while keeping the elbows as close to your body as possible.

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 to 10

Special tempo/technique: Drop set (complete the 8-10 reps, drop by 10lbs and rep out)

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

D. Rack Pull from Mid-thighs (100 rep exercise)

Obviously you'll need to use very little weight here. Even though the range of motion is very short, it'll give you one of the craziest lower back pumps you'll ever get in your life! Wear straps if you want to be able to complete your set without your grip giving out on you.

Sets: 1

Reps: 100


Back Thickness Workout

A. Power Barbell Rowing (heavy lift)

A power barbell row is to the barbell row what the power shrug is to the regular barbell shrug: you increase the range of motion slightly and allow some auxiliary muscle groups to come into play.

Start the bar on the floor (like in a deadlift, but with the hips higher) and then row the weight up to your navel by using your back and a slight lower back action. At the start of the movement the torso should be perpendicular to the floor; in the completed position it should be at around a 45 degree angle.

Be careful though: yes, we want to use a little lower back action to allow for bigger weights to be lifted, but we still want the upper back to do most of the work. After the initial lower back drive, you should focus on squeezing your upper back hard.

Sets: 5

Reps: 4-6

Rest intervals: 120 seconds

B1. Fat Man Pull-Ups (post-fatigue compound)

A very underrated exercise! Really focus on pulling yourself up by squeezing your upper back muscles. Note that you don't have to place your feet on a Swiss ball; you can use a bench instead.

Sets: 3

Reps: maximum

Special tempo/technique: Hold the peak contraction for 3 seconds

B2. Chest Supported Incline Shrug (post-fatigue isolation)

Sit chest first on a bench inclined at a 45 degrees angle and shrug a pair of dumbbells up and slightly back to place the bulk of the work on the rhomboids and middle portion of the traps. Focus on your mid-back region; try to avoid using too much upper traps (this will lead to shrugging up and forward).

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 to 10

Special tempo/technique: Rest-pause (complete your 8-10 reps, rest for 10 seconds, then rep out)

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

C. Spider Rowing (special exercise)

The use of cables here places an optimal resistance to develop the rhomboids and mid-traps. The resistance is from down and outside, thus you have to exert strength up and inward; this is an optimal pulling line to work the desired muscle groups.

Sets: 3

Reps: 21's

Special tempo/technique: 21's (7 full reps; 7 reps from mid-range to fully contracted; 7 reps from start to mid-range. That last one is basically a horizontal shrugging motion.)

Rest intervals: 90 seconds

D. Cable Scapular Retraction (100 rep exercise)

This exercise is much like the chest supported incline shrug: you're basically doing a horizontal shrug at the cable station. The important points are:

1. Get a full stretch in the bottom position.

2. Shrug back by bringing your shoulder blades together.

Sets: 1

Reps: 100


Conclusion

If you want a back of steel then this is the best program you can perform. You'll be able to not only build a monster back, but one that's complete and devoid of weaknesses. Give it a shot if you think that you have what it takes!

In the next installment of this series, I'll talk about chest specialization using the HSS-100 system. Until then, happy back blasting!

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