Back in the Day
In my early days of competing, I modeled my leg training after Tom Platz as he had the best legs in the world. Not surprisingly, the Eagle's training philosophy served me well back then and continues to do so today.
For my back training, I tried to emulate the great Lee Haney. I performed a ton of the tried and true staples: chins, barbell rows, and dumbbell rows. Unfortunately, I didn't get the same incredible results that Lee Haney did.
I tried a few other routines from legends that had monstrous backs, like Dorian Yates and Bertil Fox, to name a couple.
Swing and a miss there, too.
I then started training with a few powerlifters at my gym. These were big, thick dudes, with symmetry to spare; two of them actually did bodybuilding and powerlifting shows on the same day !
These guys taught me that the singular best way to build a huge back was through the deadlift. Only one problem: that didn't work for me either.
My powerlifting partners and I did low volume, high volume, low reps, high reps, low frequency, high frequency, sumo style, conventional, on a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse, you name it, Sam I Am.
To add to my frustration, since I had "figured out" leg training, my legs were growing so fast it began to highlight my weak back even more. My contest prep coach would even tell me backstage at shows, "Now when you get into the overall, don't turn around, and don't let them see your back. During the mandatory poses, be the last guy to hit your back pose, and the first one to release it."
Man did that bite.
I finally came to terms with the fact that I was simply not genetically gifted for building back size, width, or density. If I was ever going to have a hope of hanging with the wide boys on stage, I was going to have to try exercises that were not the standard ones, or simply accept having a subpar back forever.
Many lifters never get to this point. They just keep pounding their head against the wall, doing the same thing over and over because, "Well, Lee Haney/Dorian/Ronnie did it this way!"
Get over it.
Like it or not, you have to realize that many of the best backs in the sport were built by guys at the top end of the gene pool, genes that you likely don't come close to matching.
Instead, look at guys like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, or Tom Platz; guys with medium back genetics but great work ethics and intelligent training philosophies. That's the type of working man's bodybuilder you should study.
Back to The Future
Fast forward to 2004. I've always been very creative, and I finally had some noticeable breakthroughs with my back training. I discovered some exercises that worked well for me and was also taught other great exercises by a very creative friend of mine. You'll see these exercises below, and trust me when I say they're gut busters, very effective gut busters.
Let's quickly go through the Mountain Dog core training principles I introduced to you in my leg-training article.
Mountain Dog training is what I call an intense collection of exercises, rep schemes, and techniques designed to push your body to new levels by not allowing it to adapt to old levels.
The number one prerequisite for training progress is increased intensity, and with back, increased intensity often requires creativity, even insanity!
Key Concepts, Exercises, and Stretches
For lat thickness, it's all about the angles
The lats are such a large mass of muscle that for complete size, detail, and separation, you need to use multiple angles. Just doing regular bent over rows or dumbbell rows will only take you so far, especially if you're not genetically gifted to begin with.
I've included some exercises below that attack the lats from different angles with different tension. These aren't just exercises I'm making up or that I do to look creative; these are the meat and potatoes of my back routine for the past six years. It should be noted that my back has improved more in this six-year period than in the previous 15 years.
I seriously doubt that I invented this exercise, but I've never seen anybody else doing them, so I'm staking my claim. I'm sure the joke is on me as somebody like Charles Glass was probably doing them in the 70's.
These are a modified version of a one-arm dumbbell row, using a T-Bar instead. Stand on the floor next to the business end of the bar, where you'd normally stand if you were adding another plate. Grab the handle with one hand and execute the row with it. Make sure you use straps.
To perfect this exercise, you need to learn how to position your hips to maximize the stretch and involvement of the whole lat, especially the lower lat. You kind of "kick" your hips away from the bar, which helps to increase the stretch. (When you do it right, you'll know.)
This exercise is more responsible for the mass and detail I've put on my lats than any other, and is a core exercise for anybody that comes to me for help with a stubborn back. Shoot for 4 sets of 10.
One-Arm Barbell Row
This is another exercise that I've found to be brutal and effective for lat development. Stand beside the loaded barbell, reach down and grasp the bar, and start rowing.
As with the Meadows rows, you really want to emphasize the stretch on the way down. Use 25-pound plates to extend the range of motion, allowing for the greatest possible stretch.
Now THIS is the way to do dumbbell rows! Get into a standard DB row position and perform as normal, except at the bottom of each rep, set the dumbbell down, pause for a second, and then drive your elbow up (along with the weight, of course) as hard as you can.
The dead stop at the bottom eliminates any momentum, and the explosion out of the bottom is killer. I do take credit for inventing these, so please don't ruin it for me if you know otherwise.
Incorporate intense stretches into your exercises for lat width and detail
The lats and shoulder girdle can get tight and bunched up from a lot of hard training, resulting in adhesions within the muscles that can keep it from "gliding" at its peak efficiency.
Certain exercises are perfect for applying an additional stretch – provided you're careful. This stretching is a great way to create muscle separation while loosening up some connective tissue and soft tissue, resulting in increased shoulder flexibility.
This exercise has loosened up my shoulder girdle more than any other exercise. Stand facing the lat pulldown machine with one of your feet on the bench. Using a close-grip handle, do a sort of row with the weight. Fully straighten your arms, and duck your head down at the extended part of the rep.
This will feel really uncomfortable in the shoulders the first few sets. Next, pull the bar in to your mid-ab area and arch your back while squeezing your lats forcefully. You'll notice that you start to loosen up as you go, resulting in a kick-ass lat pump.
Lat Pulldowns with a Forced Stretch
I absolutely love this exercise for upper lat width. You need to make sure you do this right (a good training partner is gold) or you can hurt yourself.
Perform a regular pulldown, but as you go through the negative, let your arms straighten out. Your partner then forces the weight down for extra pressure; he/she should increase the pressure as your arms get close to being totally straight.
No three-second negatives here – stretch, and then relax at the top for a second while the spotter applies pressure.
Heavy Partial Pulldown
Use a heavy weight that's going to be impossible to do full range of motion reps with. Pull the weight down to only the top of your head, then let it stretch you at the top; relax your scapulae, and reach.
The weight should literally pull you out of your seat a few inches. Again, be smart and don't get sloppy.
Mountain Dog Pullover
Most people do these lying across a bench. Try it my way. Lie on the bench with your head hanging off the end. Lower the weight slowly, and only pull up to your forehead. Your lats should get looser and looser with each set, and you'll get the side benefit of some great serratus work.
Shrug with a pause and retract with a pause for trapezius and rhomboid development
Your traps actually run in three different directions. Shrugs work primarily the upper traps; here are the types of shrugs that I've found to be the most effective, yet seldom performed.
Dumbbell shrugs with a 3-second pause/flex at the top
This will destroy your traps. The pause and flex kills all momentum and forces your traps to work much harder than the standard bouncing up and down method. Grab a pair of 100 lb dumbbells and do 12 reps with 3-second pauses – you'll see what I mean.
Barbell shrugs with a 3-second pause/flex
Same as above except with a barbell.
You also have a middle and lower section to your traps. The middle portion of your traps pulls your scapulae in toward the spinal column. They work in concert with your rhomboids. To nail this area, the main thing to remember is elbow alignment: You have to keep your elbows up higher, so that your lats don't take over. This will also engage some rear delt.
Any type of supported row allows you to focus on elbow alignment and squeezing, so for this reason I choose to use a machine.
Supported rows with a 1-second flex at top
Get a good stretch on these too! Elbows up, pull the weight back, and flex. You can use many different angled machines; you can be sitting straight up, tilted down on a pad, etc.
We won't discuss the lower part of the traps and rhomboids as this area is hit by pulldowns (pulls the scapulae downward).
Go old school for spinal erectors
Nothing fancy needed here. The following three exercises allowed me to develop thick, deep spinal erectors. The main thing was to just be consistent and do them every week.
This is Louie Simmons' baby. When I trained over at Westside in the 90's, this was our bread and butter lower back exercise. This is my absolute favorite for lower back, and if you have one of these machines, I advise you to work the ever-loving hell out of it.
Deadlifts didn't give me huge wide lats, but they definitely did help with my lower back development. You can do these off the ground or out of the rack – just do them. You'll find that I place lower back exercises last in all my back routines; it's brutal to crank out deadlifts after all the other back work you've done, but it works.
Last but certainly not least, I love hyperextensions. They leave no doubt in your mind as to if they're working or not: Do 30 reps of hypers and then get up and try walking around with that insane spinal erector pump – you'll see what I mean. I do these every week. They are rehabilitative as well, and there's nothing wrong with a healthy low back.
As with leg training, exercise sequence means a great deal on back day, but it's not as critical as on leg day. There are some general rules that I do like to follow, though.
Train you lats first with rows while you're at full strength and can push like a rabid animal through the sets. The modified rows described above are perfect for batting leadoff.
Stretch exercises follow rows
Once you get a lot of blood in those lats, they're ready to be stretched. Use the stretching exercises outlined above, and again, do NOT perform these first; I think these can actually hurt you if you do this out of order. Although I can't prove this scientifically, my street knowledge tells me these work best after rows.
Trap/Rhomboid work can be inserted anywhere in your workout
Don't be afraid to do these first if this is an area that needs focus.
Spinal erectors go last
You simply can't do and feel the rows for lats if your lower back is pumped full of blood. Always save these for last! There is one exception, though. If you can deadlift without your lower back burning or tightening up, you can move movements for spinal erectors anywhere in the workout as well. Doing hyperextensions before Meadows rows though? Bad idea, young Patawan.
You may recall from my MD leg article that I love intense leg stretching. This also applies to back, but should be done when the lats are fully pumped. Make sure the stretch is intense and that you hold it for 30-60 seconds minimum.
Pump Up The Volume
My 12-week program looks like this, volume-wise:
Weeks 1 through 3, use a medium volume approach.The set total ranges from 11-14 sets. You won't need a ton of sets as the exercise angles and intensity will work well with more of a medium-volume approach.
Weeks 4 through 9, use a high volume approach. Now we start to build in volume each week. Your body will be adjusting to the intensity you threw at it in Phase 1, so we'll keep it off balance by slowly adding more volume over the course of the next 3 weeks.
Sets will typically go to 16-20, with more high intensity sets added each week. You're going to grind it out hard for 6 weeks during this phase.
Weeks 10 through12, use a low to medium volume approach, with almost all high intensity sets (preceded by a proper warm up). Set ranges will be around 8 – 10 sets; so overall volume now goes down, but the sets you do will be the hardest you've done in your life.
2 weeks. As with any hard program, there's a period of deloading that will benefit you in the long run with the rebounding effect from the cumulative neural fatigue that accompanies high intensity work. Two weeks of light training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks; everyone is different, though.
How do you know when you need to take the 2 weeks? You'll experience one or more of the following:
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor mood
- Difficulty generating much force on heavier compound exercises
If you read my leg article, you might've noticed that I use things like 3-second descents, drop sets, etc. Some of those techniques are also applied to back, but many are not.
For back, I like to use:
These work well with dumbbell dead-stop rows and Smith Machine bent over rows (setting the pins about mid-shin).
You should focus on squeezing the target area on almost all back exercises. Sometimes it's hard to get a "mind-muscle connection" with the back muscles, so this is the best way to overcome it.
I like these on certain back exercises. You can apply these to any pulldown or chin variation at the stretched part of the movement. On any cable or machine row, you can use them at the contracted part of the movement.
Intensity techniques I do not like for back include:
I find the arms fail or strain too much during the drops – even with straps – so they fail to deliver much bang for the buck. Great for legs, not on back.
Again, great on legs, not on back. Doing a low cable row or a pulldown with a slow 3-second descent just doesn't work well; the arms and shoulders seem to take over for the lats.
Now that you have read the "high level" view of my approach to back training, let's take a look at a sample workout. Here's a typical Phase 2 back workout (19 sets total).
A) Meadows rows
2 warm up sets followed by 3 sets of 8. Watch the video, get the form correct, and then don't be afraid to work up to a heavy weight. Remember the correct hip positioning – play around with it until you find the spot that allows you to feel your ENTIRE lat working.
B) Dumbbell deadstop rows
3 sets of 8. Use a heavy weight, challenge yourself, but don't get sloppy.
Fascia Tissue Stretch for 1 minute on each lat – do it twice
2 sets of 12. Remember the form. Let your arms straighten, and duck your head as shown in the video.
D) Heavy partial pulldowns
2 sets of 8.
Fascia Tissue Stretch for 2 minutes on each lat – do it twice
E) Supported rows
3 sets of 10. Remember to keep elbows up as shown in the video.
F) Dumbbell shrugs
3 sets of 12. Hold and flex each rep at the top for 3 seconds.
Do one set with medium weight to failure, then drop the weight and get a few more reps. The next set, cut the weight in half and repeat. On the third set, just do bodyweight for as many reps as possible.
For example, hold a 50-pound dumbbell and do 15 reps; then drop it and try to gut out 10 more. On the 2nd set, hold a 25-pound dumbbell and do the same reps; on the 3rd set try to get about 25 reps. This is brutal.
There's one other exercise that I love for lower back and traps: It's a modified version of the old "Reeves Deadlift." This is done explosively and is absolutely nasty – I love them. Watch the video and give them a try!
I hope you can appreciate where I'm coming from on back training. I'm not saying barbell rows, chins, and deadlifts won't give you a massive back; I'm saying that for me, they didn't, and I had to get creative.
These exercises may seem unique, but if you think about it, they're still very basic, and I would contend that all of my exercises are very basic in nature.
And it's the basics, repeatedly performed with intensity, which delivers results.
Good luck, and shoot any back-related questions my way!