Best of the Best of the Back

Categorized under Training

It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

The year was 1989, and I was the only Canadian selected to work
at the L.A. Musclecamp, which was a huge deal back then. The
experience changed several lives in this industry, and launched a
dozen careers, mine included.

Once I settled in to life in Southern California, I started
training regularly at Gold’s Gym, but I didn’t like it there. Even
though I trained at 5:30 AM, I found the atmosphere too much like a
party, and not conducive to my level of intensity and focus. I
decided to try World Gym, just down the street. I’d heard the
stories, but I wanted a change.

I loved World Gym! No music, no chrome, just the weights and the
people coming and going, training hard, and of course Arnold’s
private parking spot!

Eddie Guiliani, Joe Gold and assorted World Gym denizens,
from a bygone era.

The first day I was there, I was greeted by the well-known and
always-smiling Ed Guiliani. He was very nice to me, and we were
just in the middle of a conversation, when Joe Gold came up to us,
looked me right in the eye and said, “You come to my gym, you drop
my weights, you leave, got it?” That was all he had to say that
day.

I saw Joe again about a week later. He walked up to me and
greeted me, his attitude completely different from that first day.
“You’re that Canadian guy from a couple days ago,” he said. I
started to respond but he cut me off. “You know, kid, the best of
the best train at my gym, and I gotta say that you’ve got
about the best back that I’ve seen in here, in a long time.
Keep it up.”

I think I just stood there with my jaw hanging down, saying
“Wow, an actual compliment from Joe Gold.” That scene has
stayed with me, vivid as ever, for nearly twenty years. I’d
found my home, and Eddie sealed the deal by supplying me with the
obligatory World Gym tanks and other attire.

Fast forward to now. A new era of training is upon us, yet in
many ways nothing has changed. I realized a long time ago that
Innervation Training went against the status quo, but the results
have been undeniable for nearly three decades. Our most recent
success is two class wins up here last weekend at the Canadian
Nationals, and a pro card for young Lou Joseph.

Scott Abel’s latest success story: Lou Joseph, new IFBB
pro

Innervation Training is a viable bodybuilding methodology in an
era where exercises are mistaken for programs, and programs are
mistaken for a methodology. Both of these are based on faulty
logic.

A Chinese proverb says, “To know the best way up the mountain,
ask the man who travels it every day.” In terms of back training,
I’ve been going up the mountain most of my life, so in this
article I’ll show you the best way up, and touch on some of
the principles of Innervation Training along the
way.

Muscular Skeletal Bias

Researchers in the strength game who fail to acknowledge the
neurological component to training adaptation can often miss
important variables, or use them within a context that’s
illogical in the grand scheme.

One example is “exercise bias.” There’s currently a bias
toward specific movements as the key exercises for
development. The best thing that can be said of this bias is that
it doesn’t work on an individual basis. The worst thing that can be
said is that it misses the point entirely.

A young lad recently wrote to me that he couldn’t do a single
chin-up. When I asked why he wanted a program to make him better at
chins, he said that he wanted to build his back. I told him that in
his case, his back development did not depend on his ability to do
chins. My advice was to stop wasting valuable gym time in a futile
attempt to master a single movement, and move on to a more
appropriate and viable program.

Unless you’re being tested on how many chins you can do,
there’s no reason to consider it a priority in your development.
Your precious gym time is better served doing other movements to
which your physique will be more responsive. Responsiveness is a
neurological biofeedback mechanism of great importance to the
training protocol.

Some Principles to Innervation Training

Neural Adaptations

The following are well-recognized mechanisms of neural
adaptations to training:

1. Increased agonist activation. This
means becoming more efficient at recruiting the largest motor unit
thresholds and increasing firing rates, within targeted
agonists.

2. Selective recruitment of motor units
within agonists. Specifically, rotation of motor units and PMS
(pre-movement silence) are important neural adaptations in advanced
trainees, indicative of this adaptive response.

3. Selective activation of agonists within
a muscle group. Staying with the right exercises produces a neural
response that I call “performance mastery,” which is a good thing.
This shouldn’t be confused with habituation, which occurs when
the same exercise is done in the same way, for the same reps, in
the same sequence, all the time. This would be a bad
thing.

These are quite general. There are other factors, such as
increased firing frequency, motor unit synchronization, altering
recruitment, reflex potentiation, cross education, and
co-contraction of antagonists, which are more applicable to sports
performance than to target training for bodybuilding purposes.

The picture gets cloudier when we consider many other studies
yielding results that go against the grain of modern training
approaches. Here are a few key points:

Excitation Thresholds

The biggest factor missed by most experts is the area of
excitation thresholds of motor units and recruitment patterns. The
fact is that motor units with lower excitation thresholds will be
preferentially activated in a given movement, regardless of the
intended targeted muscles. This goes beyond what most experts
address in explaining weak muscles, unresponsive muscles, and the
importance of exercises selection.

Most people with a bodypart that’s unresponsive to training
usually have a highly responsive bodypart right next to it. Even
though the trainee is targeting one area, the more neurologically
dominant and responsive muscle takes on most of the work. The more
responsive muscles have lower excitation thresholds, and will
therefore act first. This is one reason you should exhaust your
best body parts early in training so they’ll be less likely to
“take over” the work later on.

According to Paton and Brown, the nervous system has a marked
ability to selectively activate segments of a muscle preferentially
over the targeted intention. Their research clearly showed that
angle of contraction, and joint angle, is more important than
intensity to recruiting the segments of a muscle belly targeted in
activity:

“… in the same study of latissimus segmented contribution to
contraction at both 0 degrees, and 90 degrees abducted position of
the shoulder, an increase in the level of contraction from 20% MVC
to 70% MVC decreased the contribution of segment 1 latissimus and
increased contribution of [the belly of the muscle].” (1995:306)

Different recruitment patterns are related more to central
command (CNS) than sensory feedback (afferent neuronal system).
“The recruitment thresholds of motor units of a muscle active in a
movement may also be affected by changes in joint angle.” (Tax et
al 1989, Van Zulen et al 1988, Paton and Brown 1995, Romeny et al
1982, 1984)

What all of this suggests is that angle of contraction and
exercise order are far more important than rep ranges and load
variance.

Back Training

The first mistake most trainees make and coaches ignore is that
the latissimus, like any other muscle group, receives the most
overload when the fibers are stretched with resistance. The
reason so many people lack back development is that they don’t know
how to put this in to action. Whatever back movement you are doing,
you must move counter to the movement of the weight. This means
that leaning into back movements is a good thing, and leaning away
is a bad thing.

Proper Rowing Technique

As important as all the variations of the row are to back
development, it’s sad that most trainees don’t have a clue how to
row properly. Even seemingly small mistakes invite other
muscles to take over, negating the row’s benefit for your
back.

Consider, for example, the “Yates row,” a 45-degree bent row
popularized in the 1990s by Dorian Yates. Of course Dorian was a
great champion, but this exercise was a mistake. Remember that range and plane of motion is everything. In that 45-degree
angle, there’s far too much trunk support to contraction base.
So while you can row more weight this way (and be that much more
impressed with yourself), your lats will not receive optimal
overload.

Yates: great big back

The Yates row is the upper body equivalent of the half-squat or
1/3 bench. Sure, you might be able to move more weight that way,
but hey, are we trying to build muscle here, or ego?

Yates row: great big mistake

Proper bent row technique means being bent in a parallel
position to the floor, knees slightly bent to remove low back
strain, and an elevated position standing on a block, box, or
platform. This reduces trunk support and puts the body in a more
favorable plane of motion to overload the muscles of the
back. The reason you row off a block or a platform is that the bar
should actually touch the toes at the bottom of the movement. This
is what stretching the fibers with resistance is all about.

So stand on a block, and get that weight down to the bar
touching the toes. You’ll also need to shift weightto
over the chest instead of back on your haunches. Again, the
solution is to create less base support, or what I refer to as joint stress transfer, which I’ll cover in a future article.

The following point is so important, you should print it out,
underline it with a red marker, and pin it to your gym shorts: keep
your elbows slightly bent at all times. If you unlock the
arms at the elbow, then your initial pull on the weights will be
with the brachioradialis and biceps muscles, negating the
all-important pre-stretch of the targeted latissimus.

Using a reverse grip for rows just exacerbates this problem, and
indeed, this is exactly how Dorian tore his biceps. The plane and
range of motion of the 45-degree row, combined with unlocking the
elbows with a reverse grip, was too much for the biceps in that
plane and range of motion with that load.

We see this in the seated row as well. First off, the starting
position of your torso should not be perpendicular to the
ground. You need a much more exaggerated forward lean than that. If
the foot plates of your seated row machine don’t allow for leaning,
then throw a box or a set of DB’s in front of the foot plates to
insure, more effective pre-stretch. (Watch my 5 Day MET Training
DVD for an example). You must lean intothis movement.
Remember, if you unlock the arms at the elbows, then the initial
pull of the row will be centered in the arms, negating your
targeted back work.

Scott Abel’s MET Training DVD set, available at his
website

I can hear the “experts” howling that leaning forward will risk
damaging your lumbar vertebrae. To them I say, phooey. If you
want results, then you must push the envelope of performance. I’m
not recommending that you throw caution to the wind, but rather to
engage yourself in proper lifting mechanics. Leaning into a lift is
no more dangerous than deadlifting or squatting butt to
heels.

So for all rows, lean into the movement, and keep a slight bend
in the elbows and lock that position. You wouldn’t hyperextend your
knees when doing stiff-legged deadlifts, right? So don’t
hyperextend your elbows in the row. Remember my maxim:
“Rowit, don’t throwit!”

Finally, if you’re biceps dominant, then chins more than
likely are not for you. Once again, Innervation Training research
means looking at “movements” and exercises differently. If you have
very responsive low excitation thresholds in your biceps, then more
than likely they will absorb or share too much of the load for you
when doing chins. Once again, there are no special exercises (other
than compounds); there are just exercises that work best for you.
Technique and sequence become everything.

Cadence

For me “tempo training” is a result of misinterpreted research,
but that’s for another article. Duration of overload implies that
very low reps are useless for hypertrophy goals. (Behm 1995) Tempo
training also negates individual “overload” and is faulty logic at
best for hypertrophy concerns. I’m only concerned with two
cadences: the explosive or power cadence, and the pumping or bodybuilding cadence.

Being explosive is all about how fast you are trying to move
the bar
, not how fast the bar actually moves. (See Behm 1995,
and many others) Obviously the greater the load the slower it will
move, but your intent should always be to move it as fast as
possible. This means paying close attention to performance to
insure not to use momentum, torque, or leverage to help lift the
weight. Doing this will only bypass the crucial range of motion
where overload is maximal. This is also another reason why no
one
, not your spotter, not your girlfriend, not even God,
should be touching the bar while you’re lifting
it.

A bodybuilding cadence is just pumping reps without stopping at
the bottom or top of a movement. The movement should be purposeful
throughout the entire range of motion, and your intention should be full contraction of the muscles, not just completing the
rep. The bodybuilding cadence is all about squeezing for
every inch or every rep of every set, top to bottom with no pausing
between reps. You can vary speed here as in going slower but it
does not need to be gauged by a clock. This is all part of keeping
the program alive, which we’ll discuss in a bit.

The way my programs work is that the first two exercises
(depending on level of development and intra workout biofeedback
from exercise one) in a traditional program are done explosively
using a weight to reach failure within the rep range indicated.
From there, as you progress down the workout, you approach
exercises with a bodybuilding cadence, which you can manipulate
from workout to workout as part of keeping the program
alive.

The first exercise on my programs are not determined by
isolation vs. compound movements, which is limited thinking.
Remember that Innervation training is all about joint angle,
anatomical leverage, and speed considerations. So if a pulldown is
the first movement of a workout, it will be done explosively. If it
is last, or in the middle of the sequence, then it will be done
with a constant tension cadence. This approach is simple and
effective. It takes the thinking out and puts the concentration in!

Rest Intervals

All training for hypertrophy should involve some degree of
oxygen debt. This is something misunderstood by most trainees who
do a set, and then walk around and chat on their damned cell
phones. It amazes me to see people without a drop of sweat on them
at the end of a workout, thinking they’re somehow building
muscle.

Rest intervals are dictated by biofeedback, and two things need
to be self-assessed. The first is oxygen debt recovery. When
your breathing returns to “almost normal,” then you’re ready
for your next set. The other factor is your psychological
assessment of performance readiness. What this means is, if you can
look at the bar, see the weight and feel you can perform the
movement at least that well again, then do your next set, even
before your breathing is totally back to resting level.

After that set, this is when load becomes informational. If you
weren’t able to do the same weight for the same reps, then you
didn’t rest long enough. This is how to gauge proper rest intervals
using rep ranges as performance guidelines.

Lou Joseph assesses his performance
readiness.

You can also keep the program alive by focusing on fewer rest
intervals and proceeding to your next set further and further into
oxygen debt. Mixing this up from workout to workout keeps the body
guessing, but also keeps you honest about your own performance
levels by gauging biofeedback, and not meaningless cues like your
wrist watch or how much weight you lifted. Self-assessment is a key
tool in the Innervation Training protocol.

Sample Workouts

Using traditional back training as an example, I’ll give
you a sample workout from one of the 700 or so template
programs I’ve designed. Keep in mind this is not etched in
stone. While this workout is geared more toward someone who’d
benefit mostly from rowing, another program may be oriented toward
various upright positions, pulldowns, chin variations, etc. It’s
important to not think one dimensionally. Remember, a workout does not constitute an entire program, nor does a collection of
workouts.

What you do today for back should be based on what you did last
time for back. It should also be based on your current needs state,
on what you may have done yesterday in and out of the gym, and on
what you’ll do tomorrow. This is where the art of program
design makes the difference.

The magic is not in fancy exercises with fancy names, and crazy
tempos. It’s all about the individual, and exercise sequencing, and
proper rep ranges, which get bastardized all the time by so-called
strength researchers.

Below is a sample of one of my 5-day programs, which I designed
for a bodybuilding client with unique individual leverage
advantages and disadvantages. Long arms mean one is better at
deadlifts, and worse at chins. Or at best, chins are less efficient
for back development. Chins, therefore, are eliminated from this
program. This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. Once again,
there are hundreds of variables and options, and it really takes
experience and a good deal of knowledge to apply proper
programming.

Traditional Hypertrophy Program
  Sets Reps
Workout 1:
1. Partial deadlifts, top
1/3
warm ups,
then
 
  5 3
2. Reverse grip
pulldowns
1 warm up, then  
  1 6-8; 8-10; 12-15
3. One-arm dumbbell
rows
4 12-15 (each side)
4. Supported seated
rows
4 10-12
5. Pulldowns to
front
4 10-12
Workout 2:
1. Bent over
rows
warm ups (3-4 sets),
then
 
  4 8-12
2. Close grip
pulldowns
4 12-15
3. One-arm hammer
rows
4 12-15 (each side)
4. Partial deadlifts (top
1/3)
4 8-10
5. Reverse grip
pulldowns
4 15
Workout 3:
1. Partial
deadlifts
warm ups (3-4 sets),
then
 
  5 8 (constant weight)
2. Supported bent
rows
5 12-15
3. One-arm hammer
rows
4 12-15 (each side)
4. Reverse grip
pulldowns
3 12-15
5. Seated cable
rows
3 10-12
6. Straight arm
pulldowns
3 15-20 (slow execution)
Workout 4:
1. Bent
rows
warm ups (3-4 sets)
then
 
  4 8-10
2. Reverse grip
pulldowns
3 8-10
  1 10-12
3. One-arm dumbbell
rows
4 10-12 (each side)
4. Seated cable
rows
4 10-12
5. Partial deadlifts (top
1/3)
4 12-15

This is a five-day program, so this represents approximately one
month’s worth of workouts. As you see in this particular case, most
of the exercises stay the same, but the sequence and rep schemes
change constantly. Remember that with Innervation Training this
will also determine rep cadence, which once again changes the
training effect.

Changing sequence also means adhering to the importance of
changing joint angles for better training effect. Doing one
movement before another one week, then varying its sequence,
cadence, and rep range the next week is the most efficient way to
train for hypertrophy.

If I had a trainee with similar leverage structure, for example,
but less development and muscular maturity, then I would modify
every other back workout to look like this:

1A. Dumbbell
cleans
Warm ups (3-4 sets) then  
  5 10-12
1B. Straight-arm
pulldowns
5 10-15
2A. Two-arm dumbbell snatch, stick lockout 4 10-12
2B. Straight-arm
pulldowns
4 15-20
3A. Bent over
rows
4 10-12
3B. Straight-arm
pulldowns
4 10-12
4A. Deadlifts from
floor
4 10-12
4B. Straight arm
pulldowns
4 15-20 (slow execution)

*cleans and snatches are done from the hang
position

This alternating workout creates huge neural demand, and
followed by straight arm pulldowns it concentrates recruitment in
the fibers of the lats. The straight-arm pulldown shows that form
follows function. It is a great movement to use in such supersets,
because it demands low loads, and has specific recruitment with
little systemic exhaustion.

So there are plenty of ways to modify any program based on the
needs of any trainee, advanced or not. Which brings us to our next
topic:

Keeping it Alive

I prefer biofeedback over periodization. Biofeedback training is
a good way to keep a program alive by modifying it in three ways:
First, the exercise sequence and rep sequences change. Next, rest
periods can be altered, within reason, to change adaptive stimulus.
Finally, within the actual program there’s always room to
maneuver and change things up. Remember that subtle changes are
always better than grand ones, once you have a productive program
suited to your own specific needs.

For example, in the workouts above you see ranges of 12 to 15
reps, which gives you plenty of options. You may want to train at
the high end of that rep range for all sets. You may want to try to
pyramid within that rep range for all sets. You may want to train
at the low end of the rep range for all sets. Or you may want to
stagger back and forth one set at 12, the next at 15, and then back
to 12. You may want to go to failure or use a recovery day within
the rep schemes indicated.

Combined with the above options and cadence changes, this allows
a trainee to always keep a program alive and thereby avoid
habituation. I have used “keeping it alive” to stay on one program
for as long as 30 weeks, and still self-assess consistent progress.

We need to kill the notion that for a program to be brilliant,
it must be complicated. There must be room to make a program your
own at any time, during any phase of the training cycle. My
coaching clients know this well, as their biofeedback reports
always reflect which way they kept their programs alive, during the
week or weeks of application.

So you can see that Innervation Training is a departure from the
standard protocol. I’ve been employing this methodology for
almost 20 years now, which is a long time to be going against the
grain. I would like to expand on these concepts and principles in
future articles. Give this back approach a try for one month as
written. You’ll feel the difference.