It has been said that the pillar of a man’s strength and vigor is in his back. A man might have massive muscular arms, rugged formidable legs, superb abdominals, championship deltoids, and a powerful Herculean chest but without a colossal, powerful and fully developed back, he will be found lacking! It is not too much to suggest that he won’t be a complete bodybuilder in many ways.
He will lack that brute lifting power, be handicapped in certain selected athletic events and his physique will appear unbalanced. As a matter of fact, pain, discomfort, low energy and lack of virility can often be additional results of a weak or neglected back. Society in general suffers pain especially in the lower back of such epidemic proportion that it afflicts more than 80 million victims annually. In the face of the facts presented, it’s hard to believe that any intelligent bodybuilder could possibly overlook this important group of muscles, isn’t it?
Yet, at many of the bodybuilding gyms I visit and the physique contests I attend, I find ample evidence that a large number of bodybuilders consider a completely developed back of minor importance. At many of the physique contests I have attended either in the capacity as a spectator or that of a judge, the contestants posing routines reflect this attitude, with eighty-five or ninety percent of their poses covering the rest of the body and often only a single rear view back pose position is thrown into the posing routine as an after-thought! Still, nothing can be more impressive than a great back pose which depicts mass, depth, granite hard definition, separation, shape and symmetry. Do bodybuilders fail to understand this because they can’t see this part of the body so easily from a rearview, in the mirror?
Olympic lifters invariably have powerfully developed backs; the mere act of performing the snatch and clean & jerk lifts and the associated assistance exercises insures that. When powerlifters practice deadlift movements, they too are guaranteed superb results in back development and strength. I do believe, though, that many of today’s bodybuilders do not work on developing the back enough! I am sure that most bodybuilders would realize a satisfying gain just in the area of overall physical strength if they would devote some time to serious exercise of the back, instead of relying only on developing the lats at the exclusion of the other associated muscles in the back.
Similarly ignorant in this matter is the average athlete. He may be aware that he needs great legs, body power, fast reflexes, endurance and drive, but he may never realize that all of these existing qualities depend on his back! With a properly planned back program, the back can be made more flexible, more enduring, more capable in every way and much, much stronger. When the back is in perfect condition, an athlete can run faster, jump higher or farther, play the selected sport harder, twist more, move quicker and put more drive into each game. Why don¹t more coaches realize that their stellar athletes could be better and their best performance even greater, simply by giving them better backs?
Since I feel so strongly that proper back development is an important oversight by most bodybuilders, I would like you to stop for a moment to analyze your own back training program. How many different back exercises are you performing now? What are you specially doing for the lower lumbar (Erector Spinae Group) back area, for the posterior deltoids, for the lower lats, for flexibility, for endurance? Chances are good that you will have to admit neglect in your own case and, believe me, you¹re not alone! Take a good look around the gum during your next workout if you need any further convincing about the importance of the back and its neglect by the average bodybuilder of today.
As you may have noticed after looking at some of the bodybuilders in the gym, the lower back or lumbar section is probably the weakest muscle link in the entire associated back structure. The most remarkable thing about training this region of the back is that it can be improved 50-100% in just three to four weeks by doing such exercises as Power Cleans, Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Prone Hyperextensions, Regular Deadlifts and Close Grip “Sumo” Squat Deadlifts. There are many more good exercises which will stress the lower back but these are the top one percent with the Prone Hyperextensions and Stiff-Legged Deadlifts being my all time favorites. If I could recommend a program for bringing up the strength of the lower lumbar section of the back, it would have to be the Finish Deadlift Routine which was originated by Jaska Parviainen back around 1980. This particular program consisted of 3 cycles of 6-7 week durations with an exercise mix of Stiff Legged and Conventional Deadlifts utilizing rep schemes from a single to doubles, triples, fives and tens. Scope and space does not allow me to go into detail on this excellent program but if you would like to learn more about it, you can do so by reading “Finnish Deadlift Routine”, Powerlifting USA 14,8 (March 1991): 14.
Prone Hyperextensions would be another strategy I would suggest using for the lumbar region also while keeping the following commands in mind:
- Slowly arch (non-ballistically) up to where your shoulders are level with your pelvic girdle and down to a 60¡ã angle from a horizontal position to the floor.
- Hold the terminal point of contraction statically for 5 to 30 seconds.
- Lower slowly at a rate of 5 to 30 seconds.
- Keep the back flat, especially at the beginning of this exercise and never allow it to round forward.
Some excellent exercise selections for the long fibers of the upper Lats include the classic Pull-ups and Lat Pull-downs. On these particular exercises, taking a shoulder width grip on the bar tends to use more of the biceps of the arms but will develop the lower fibers of the lats, while a wider than shoulder width grip will activate the upper lat fibers maximally while using less of the bicep muscles of the arms. Pull-ups for many bodybuilders (especially those who weight over 175-pounds) or those who have bodyweight fluctuations from day to day) can become a complicated process because the upper torso must maneuver around the fixed bar. The opposite effect is experienced using the free floating lat bar.
The (late) Vince Gironda, “The Iron Guru”, keyed in the bodybuilding world many years ago regarding maximum stimulation of new lat growth and width when he strongly suggested (Vince didn’t suggest, he told us) doing pull-ups to the chest or sternum area. Vince’s theory regarding this was and is to this day that the lower the position of the bar, be it the fixed pull-up bar or floating free lat bar, relative to the chest or neck, the greater the stimulation on the lat muscles.
It takes quite a while to master the patented Gironda pull-up to the sternum so while a bodybuilder is working that exercise to perfection, he (or she) can do Lat Pull-downs where the bar touches the sternum or low pec line. Remember that the upper body is inclined back at 30 degrees from vertical, high arched chest, and try to drive the elbows into the sides of the ribcage. A secret is to keep the elbows out to the sides to activate more lat and less bicep action. If you opt to do the Lat Pull-downs Behind the Neck, be sure not to drop your head forward or hunch your upper torso forward in an effort to touch the bar to the back of your neck.
If you find yourself doing this, generally it will mean that the exercise poundage is too heavy. There are a couple of techniques you can apply o this exercise or any exercise for a particular muscle group which will keep you from using too heavy a weight and having to cheat your way to a completed rep. If you want to make each set of lat exercises 200% more intense, you can do so by:
- Performing 3-5 second contractions and extensions. Both the contraction and extension of the resisting movement should take 3 to 5 seconds on each and every rep in the full range of the muscle action. It is a very good idea to do super low reps from time to time at the rate of 10 seconds in the contraction phase and 5 seconds in the lower phase.
- Total Stop Pauses. On each and every third rep, stop the rep at some particular range of the movement. If you can’t, then the poundage is too heavy.
Exercises for acquiring incredible thickness and density in the middle back would include those movements in which the elbows are allowed to travel back, behind the plane of the upper body. These exercises include Barbell Bent Over Rowing (Always pull elbows higher than leveled flat back arched position.) and it’s variations. Seated Horizontal Long and Short Pulley Rows with Handles, and Leverage (T-Bar) Rowing. With these particular exercises, there is a slouching effect which is caused by a phenomenon known as flexion-relaxation especially when the body is bent over and not supported.
Ideally, the upper body should be kept at a high angle of flexion during rowing motion type exercises. Another situation that will cause a slouching forward effect while rowing is if the lumbar region is pre-fatigued from previous lower back exercise such as the Close grip “Sumo” squat deadlift. Therefore, to maintain proper exercise form, it is a very good idea to adapt the interdependency of muscle group principle where you work the lats, and middle back at the beginning of your exercise program and then finish off your back routine last by working the lower lumbar (Erector Spinae Group) with deadlifts and hyperextensions etc.
I have talked to quite a few bodybuilders and they have told me that they just can’t get the proper stimulation and pump from their lat exercises. After watching them, I can see why. Most bodybuilders use their biceps too much when doing lat work and should learn to pull with the lats exclusively, bending the arms only when they have top. This can be accomplished very efficiently by using a “false” or thumbless grip, Conway Lat Straps, Power straps or Joe Meeko Power Grips. These items will take direct bicep action out of the movement (by keeping the palms high on the bar) and allow for more pure pulling with the strength of the lats only.
Another way to arouse lat width and thickness is to arouse lat width and thickness is to hold each contraction for a count of six seconds on perhaps every third rep (on Lat Machine Pull-downs, hold the bar at the base of the neck for six seconds), while mentally visualizing yourself squeezing an apple between your rotated shoulder blades. One of the tricks to force the lats to do more work is by performing what is called scapular rotations. Larry Scott, two time Mr. Olympia describes this rather unique exercise in his new best selling book Loaded Guns.
I will now outline a few back training programs for unlocking the Secrets to Rapid Development for strength, width and thickness.
If you are a beginner and lack depth in the spinal-erectors and mid-back, here’s a program that will remedy this problem.
- Seated Long Pulley Rows 2 X 10-12
- Barbell Bent Over Rowing with a curl grip 2 X 6-8
- Stiff-Legged Deadlifts 2 X 15
- Wide Grip Pull-ups to the Sternum 3 X 8-12
- Bent over Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raises 3 X 10-12
- Close Grip (4′ thumb to thumb rip) Bent Over Rows 3 X 8-10
- Prone Hyperextensions 3 X 10-12
Advanced Back Program:
- Wide Grip Pull-ups to Chest (on completion of the positive phase, the bar should touch 3″ below the clavicles. Grip width should be just wide enough so that the forearms are never parallel during any phase of the exercise execution)
- Lat Pull-downs to Chest (as described in the article)
- Seated Long Pulley Cable Rows
On exercises 1 and 2, your hands are forward utilizing a “false” or thumbless grip in order to put more stress on the lats and not the biceps. Alternate all three of the exercises for 8 reps and 5 burns on each set. No rest at all between sets and only minimum rest of 30 to 60 seconds between series. You can finish of this program with one set of prone hyperextensions, going to positive failure. Another variation of a pump out set at the conclusion of the 3 back exercises would be to do the Lat-Pull with expander cables. Hold them by the handles overhead, arms straight, palms facing; then pull sideways, stretching the cables until they touch the upper clavicular chest (collar bone), arching the back and looking up at the ceiling. Use a cable resistance which will allow you to do 15-20 reps.
If you wish to structure some of your own personal variations from the back programs presented in this article, be sure to reassess your present development. If you are getting width, but not enough density, or lower lumbar strength and development, then use more of the exercises that will bring the problem area into proportion (“balance”). Don’t forget that Herculean trapezius development is important to total back development. Dead Hang Cleans, Shoulder Shrugs, Upright Rowing and High Pulls are some of the best direct movements for “attacking” this area.
Intermediate bodybuilders should do 8-10 sets for the back, and advanced 12 to 15 sets. Back development and strength grows very quickly when cultivated. You may have sincere best wishes in your quest for a flaring “V-Shaped Back” laced with granite hard muscle and super human strength. Stay flexed!