There's nothing quite as stunning as a well developed back: muscles twisting everywhere like a road map, wide lats like a jet plane, and the lower back lit up like a Christmas tree. For me, a defined, fully developed back is one of the most amazing things in all of bodybuilding.
Historically, people always say Samir Bannout was one of the first bodybuilders to clearly show the lower back, or erector spinae muscles, in competition: this would be 1982 and 1983, the year he won the Olympia. There's also a picture of Arnold from his peak years in the 70's in his Encyclopedia that clearly shows the erector spinae muscles, defined and reminding me of Christmas morning! In fact, his entire back looks amazing in that picture!
Both of these men men had great backs. Moving forward in history, quite a few top guys are known for great backs: Lee Haney, who was known for his great lat width; Dorian Yates, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, Dexter Jackson to name just a very few. In fact, a weak back, whether you compete or not, is a pretty serious weak point that makes a big difference in how you look. After all, what kind of bodybuilder doesn't have wide, flaring lats? Of course, the back has to be thick as well. And let's not forget the traps, what good is a weak most muscular pose?
Training the back can be quite a challenge, not as much because of the size of the back but more because many people cannot feel the back muscles working when they train. This is a very common reason why people have a weak back. You can't see the back when you train it so it's hard to feel, your biceps are heavily involved in all back exercises, so many times you get a great biceps pump and little else. The secret to taking the biceps out of the picture is to visualize them as hooks. The other secret is to begin all movements with the back muscles instead of pulling with the arms.
If you've been training long enough, you can flex any muscle at will. You start any back exercise by flexing the back first and pulling with the back muscles first. By doing this, you will feel the back muscles working. If this continues to be a problem, you can try two things: a thumbless grip and/or lifting hooks. Both of these options can take the biceps out of it, putting more stress on the back.
Another reason people have a weak back is they just don't train it hard enough with enough weight. If you need thickness, you need to use a heavy weight on rowing exercises. Width a problem? Other then an issue with insertion points which may result in “high” lats, you have to work pulling movements hard. Now, notice I'm saying enough weight – not too much. Train heavy but not so heavy you cheat to get the bar up and therefore take the muscles out of the movement.
Anatomy Of The Back
Knowing what a muscle does is critical to training it correctly. With that in mind let's take a look at the anatomy of the back:
The trapezius is a very wide triangular shaped muscle that covers almost all of the muscles at the nape of the neck and a large part of the back. It originates in the occipital bone at the base of the skull and is inserted in the scapula and clavicle. The fibers of this muscle provide pull in three directions: up, down and in. It's function is to turn the head and raise the shoulders.
Many people train traps with shoulders. I prefer this myself but for the purpose of this article I'll include it with back.
Rhomboideus Major/Rhomboideus Minor
The rhomboids originate on the spinal column and attach to the middle of the scapula. Their function is to bring the scapula in towards the spine, literally meaning to squeeze the shoulder blades together.
This muscle originates on the outer edge of the scapula and attaches to the humerous. It serves to pull the arm back.
This is the largest muscle of the back. Fan or “V” shaped, they provide force in a number of body positions. These same positions can be duplicated on a pull down machine using varying angles, that is, you can pull straight down, or in any leaning back position. They are attached to the upper end of the humerous and run down the vertebral column and pelvic girdle. The function of this muscle is to pull the arm downward. If the arm is in a fixed position, then the lats can pull the arm upwards.
A group of muscles that give support to the spinal column. These muscles are: the longissimus, the spinalis and the lliocostalis. The function is to extend the spine.
As you can see, the back is quite complicated. Yet, there are two main types of movements that work the back: pull down movements and rowing movements. Then there are power moves, like the deadlift, snatch and power clean. These moves are more of a whole body exercise; they work much more than the back. I've always been a big believer in including at least one of these in your routine, not only because of all the muscles they work, but also because of the fact they cause a dramatic increase in the body's natural production of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.
While it's common to put chest and back together on the same training day – Arnold used to do this – it makes more sense to work back on its own day, especially if it's a weak point, followed if you want by biceps and forearms. This allows you to focus all of your energy on back training only instead of “sharing” energy with another big muscle group like the chest. Since the biceps are actively involved in all back exercises it does make sense to work biceps after back. I like to include forearms with this workout but there is a theory that forearms are a little like abs in that you can work them more often then other muscles. While they are high endurance muscles that are involved in every exercise you do because of the grip required to hold the bar, I prefer to work them hard once a week with biceps.
If you know my writing you know I believe in one workout per week per muscle group. This is because of my age and recovery ability and because I'm natural. Age and steroid use can change everything, however, so I imagine younger guys and guys on steroids use more typical splits, hitting each muscle twice a week. That's fine if it works for you, just be sure you are fully recovered. Remember growth only happens when you recover, not from how often you hit the gym.
Here are the routines:
- Deadlifts – Use this pyramid scheme: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6. Start with a light weight, add weight with each set, the 8 rep set and 6 rep set are your main working sets. At the top of the movement, do as many reps of shrugs as possible to hit the traps.
- Pull Ups – 25 reps over as many sets as it takes. If you can do this in one set, do two sets of 25. Use a fairly wide overhand grip, a full range of motion and no cheating.
- Bent Rows – 3 sets of 12 reps, using a weight you can get for 8 reps. Rest pause your way to 12. Do this on all 3 sets.
Performance notes: Deadliftss should be explosive but under complete control up and slow on the way down. Use a full range of motion on pullups, concentrating only on the back, not the biceps. Remember, they are hooks, nothing more. On bent rows, explosive up, hold and squeeze at the top, lower slowly.
- Power Cleans – Same rep and set scheme as deadlifts.
- Seated Cable Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Lat Pull Downs – 4 sets of 10 reps, medium wide overhand grip for 2 sets, a wide grip for 2 sets.
- Shrugs – Use this rep scheme: 12, 10, 8, 6. All 4 sets are working sets so use a weight that allows to just get the suggested rep count.
Performance notes: Power cleans are an explosive exercise. Be sure you understand the movement and keep the rep under control at all times. Even though I suggest explosive for this and all power based movements, as the weight gets heavier the bar's not going to be moving all that fast. Seated rows should be continuous tension, squeeze and hold for a 3 count when you bring the bar in to your chest. If you can, use a 4 count on the return movement. Use the same rep method on pull downs. When doing shrugs, pull your shoulders straight up towards your ears, hold and squeeze. This applies each time you do shrugs in any of the routines.
This is a width heavy routine:
- Pull Ups – 30 reps over as many sets as it takes. If you can do this in one set, do two sets of 30. Use a wide overhand grip.
- Close Grip “V” Handle Pull Downs – 3 sets of 12 reps.
- Behind The Neck Pull Downs – 2 sets of 8 reps, medium wide overhand grip.
- T Bar Rows – 3 sets of 12 reps.
- Dumbbell Shrugs - Use this rep scheme: 12, 10, 10, 8. These are all working sets.
Performance notes: On the close grip pull downs, you're pulling the bar to your upper chest. On this and behind the neck pull downs, use continuous tension style reps, holding and squeezing at the top for a 3 count. On T-bar rows, do your reps explosive up, slow and controlled down.
This is a thickness heavy routine:
- Deadlifts – use this rep scheme: 15, 12, 10, 6-8, 6-8, 4.
- One Arm Dumbbell Rows – 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Seated Cable Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Lat Pull Downs – 3 sets of 10 reps – or - chins: 20 reps.
- Shrugs – 3 sets of 15 reps.
Performance notes: Go heavier than usual on deads, explosive up, hold at the top for a 3 count and lower slowly. On dumbbell rows, use the same rep performance. Seated rows and pull downs: this time use continuous tension, hold at the top for a 5 count. Stop halfway on every rep of every set on these two exercises and hold for another 5 count.
- Power Cleans - Use this rep scheme: 15, 12, 10, 8, 8.
- Deadlifts – Rep scheme: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4.
- One Arm Dumbbell Snatch - Rep scheme: 8, 8, 6, 6.
Performance notes: Any time you do a routine like this, you're really working the entire body. You will see tremendous natural hormone release from this routine. Be sure you completely understand how to do each exercise, and go for heavy weights on your top sets. Rep performance should be explosive but under control up and slow down.
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