Editor's note: Find all 10 articles in this series on the 10 Body Part Training Series Main Page.
Franco Columbu, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler all have something in common other than multiple Mr. Olympia titles - they have BACK! Big, thick, wide nasty backs. It is one body part that has seemed to become more important on the bodybuilding dais in the last couple of decades. If you do not posses a good back, you might as well settle for second place.
Now, all of us cannot posses an Olympian back such as these guys, but we can develop an impressive, v-tapered, thick and wide musculature that would not only turn heads but also bring balance and strength to our entire upper body. You’ve heard of the term “strong back” and “put your back into it” – there is something to this.
The back comprises some of the largest muscles in the upper body from the lumbar to the trapezius and aids in almost every movement that we do from stabilizing our torso during the bench press to supporting the barbell during squats. The back is so important in our training yet few genuinely give it the attention it requires.
Many trainees will do countless sets for chest, but neglect to put equal effort into their backs. One reason may be that it is difficult to see while standing in front of a mirror. Why train what you cannot see, right? It does not surprise me to see so many in the gym with great big pecs, biceps and quads but little to show for back, hamstrings and triceps. Their shoulders are rounded forward because their pecs are pulling the deltoids forward giving them that concave look.
The back has not been trained enough and/or correctly to pull the shoulders back and give a proportionate look. The name of the game is balance. You must create that balanced mass and strength in order to have an impressive, muscular, strong physique. Having balance will enable other areas to improve and will help you avoid looking “front heavy” from the side.
Quick Anatomy Lesson
With numerous muscles making up the back complex it can be a bit confusing as to which muscle does what, so let’s take a quick look at what comprises the main muscles of the back.
Giving you that coveted V-taper, the “lats” make up most of the mass on the back. The triangular lat muscle extends from under the shoulders inserting from the humerus down to either side of the small of the back covering the lumbar region. Its main function is to pull the shoulders down and toward the back.
Teres Major and Minor
The teres major is a thick, flat muscle originating from the dorsal surface of the inferior angle of the scapula and inserts into the medial lip of the intertubercular groove of the humerus. It adducts and medially rotates the arms.
Rhomboid Major and Minor
The diamond shaped rhomboid major muscle which is located directly below the rhomboid minor inserts on the medial border of the scapula. It holds the scapula to the ribcage. Its job is to retract the scapula, pulling it toward the spinal column.
These long muscles that run along the lumbar are divided into three columns: iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles. They all work together to side bend and extend the spine.
Barn Door Action!
Now that you know a little about anatomy and function, let’s delve into what makes an outstanding back. The movements and routines presented are designed to get the most out of each trip to the gym. Remember to always use good form and not to use too much weight to compromise your safety.
Wide-grip and narrow-grip pull-ups: For the wide grip version use an extreme grip beyond shoulder width. Start with your elbows slightly bent and pull up to your chest focusing on cinching your shoulder blades together behind you. Arch your back and squeeze hard then return to the starting position with the slight bend in your elbows again. This will develop that sought after width and sweep in the upper lats.
For the narrow version either grip the bar with a curl grip or with a parallel grip no wider than your shoulders, but at least six inches between your hands. Pull up in the same fashion as the wide grip pull up and lower yourself just prior to locking out your arms. This movement targets the lower portion of the lat giving you thickness where it inserts near the lumbar.
Quick hit: If you find yourself having difficulty doing this movement a good trick I like to use is pick a total number of reps – let’s say 40 – and try to reach that number no matter how many sets it takes. You may get 10 on your first set, 8 on your second, 7 on your third. Keep going until you total 40. When you are able to do three or four sets of 10 or 15 reps increase your total to 50 or so.
Barbell rows and T-bar rows: These are considered mass builders for the overall thickness of the back. For barbell rows grip the bar about shoulder-width. Bend over keeping your back in line with your hips and slightly above parallel to the floor, pull the weight into your stomach and squeeze the weight up. Lower the bar slowly and repeat.
For T-bar rows follow the same guidelines but try not to throw the weight up and round your back. Keep a straight back and let the lats do the work not your lumbar.
Quick hit: If you find you are lacking mass in the upper lat area try doing barbell rows with a wider grip and pull into the lower chest area. You will have to reduce the weight to keep good form.
Pulley and Hammer machine rows: To really pack on some mass in the lower lat area near the lumbar try one of these on for size. For pulley rows sit with your knees slightly bent and upper body tilted forward. Simultaneously pull the handle back while straightening out your body to be perpendicular to the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the handle into your abdominals. Return to the starting position and repeat.
The beauty of hammer machine rows is that you can work one side at a time. Use the same principles as above and make sure to squeeze when pulling back.
Quick hit: If you ever feel uncomfortable doing barbell rows, affix a wide handle to a pulley row cable and do shoulder-width (or wider) pulley rows in place of barbell rows.
Parallel-grip and wide-grip pulldowns: Nothing hits the teres muscles quite like the parallel-grip pulldown. Grip a bar that is just beyond shoulder width with a slight bend in the elbows. Pull the handle down to the mid chest level and squeeze hard. Return to the top position feeling the weight pulling your lats up and out.
For wide-grip pulldowns grip the bar with an overhand grip and pull down to your upper chest level and return keeping your elbows bent and allowing your whole shoulder girdle to rise with the weight. These are a great substitute for pull-ups.
Quick hit: When doing any pulldown motion try raising your shoulder girdle in the starting position. As you pull down, lower your shoulder down and back and stick your chest out. This will ensure your back is fully engaged.
Dumbbell pullovers and lat pulls: As two of the very few isolation moves for back pullovers and pulls are great for finishing off the back. For dumbbell pullovers lay perpendicular on a bench with just your upper back in contact with the pad and your head hanging over the side. Grip the inside of a dumbbell directly over your chest with a slight bend at the elbow. Lower the weight back and behind your head in an arch until you are at least in line with your head and with your lats only, pull the weight back up to starting position.
For lat pulls stand in front of a lat pulldown or other overhead cable machine. Grip a bar shoulder width where the tension in on your lats about eye level. Pull the weight down to your thighs without bending your arms and squeeze the lats hard. Return to eye level with the bar and repeat.
Quick hit: Either of these moves is great if utilized as a pre exhaust prior to the rest of your back work. A quick three sets of moderate reps will do the trick.
Deadlifts: The granddaddy of the back movements: deadlifts! This movement is for total head to toe thickness especially for the back. Load a bar on the ground and take a shoulder grip, bend at the knees keeping your back straight. Lift the weight off of the ground first with your legs and then straighten out you back until you are standing straight up. Return the bar to the ground in the same (but opposite) fashion.
Quick hit: If you find yourself having difficulty doing off the floor deadlifts, try doing partial deadlifts. Load the bar on a bench that is just below knee level and follow the above lifting principles. This will take a little strain off of the back if you are taller or want to take some of the leg muscles out of the movement.
Barn Door Back Schedules
Upper Lat Width
- Wide-grip chins (total of 30 to 40 reps)
- Barbell rows (to the chest) 3 x 8-12
- Parallel-grip pulldowns 3 x 8-12
- Hammer machine rows 3 x 8-12
Lower lat thickness
Overall mass and width
- Close-grip pull-ups (total of 30 to 40 reps)
- Barbell rows 3 x 8-12
- Wide-grip pulldowns 3 x 8-12
- Partial deadlifts 3 x 6-10