know that some bodybuilders are very effusive in their “love” of training this body part. But, believe me, no such simile comes to mind when I’m engaged in an all-out set of lat pulldowns or strongest-range, max-overload deadlifts. Let’s face it, it’s painful work, and putting yourself through the kind of vigorous training sessions required to build maximum muscle mass to the back can leave you pretty wiped out.
Many people look at my back development and comment that I must have had a Hercules in my family tree that resulted in my favorable genetics for such development. However, I’m not a big subscriber to the genetics theory. Here’s why: My grandfather used to be a wrestler in the army. He took me to the gym when I was 13 and got me interested in health and fitness. His father was also into fitness. In fact, my grandfather, who’s now 70, still does three aerobics classes a day and trains in a gym. Yet, despite the fitness conscious individuals in my family tree, none of my relatives ever displayed much in the way of muscle mass or, more specifically, back development.
Fortunately, I found a way to counter this genetic paucity through bodybuilding. If I had done all the calisthenics that my family did, then I would be built like they are, as opposed to the way I am now. My point is that people who say, “If you don’t look big before you start bodybuilding, then you don’t have the genetics to go very far in this sport,” are wrong. The application of heavy basic movements (and, occasionally, a shaping movement as well) and hard-ass work will result in all the muscle-mass gains you’ll ever want.
My reps on the basic movements are always in the six-to-eight range, unless I’m doing seated pulley work like cable rows, in which case I might go to 12. But even before a contest, I’ll stick with six to eight reps for most of my basic compound movements.
ON TO THE BACK
I will typically train my back as part of a five-day-on/one-off schedule that consists of the following breakdown.
- 1 chest, calves
- 2 shoulders, calves
- 3 back, calves
- 4 arms, calves
- 5 legs, calves
- 6 off
- 7 repeat
Here are the exercises that I feel are the most efficient for building width, density and thickness into the entire back complex.
Lat Pull Downs
I begin with pull-downs to the front. I’ll start with 200 pounds and work my way up to 400 over four sets with a reverse grip for six reps per set. I make sure to get a solid stretch at the top of the movement and a nice firm contraction in the finish position of the exercise. I became so strong using this movement that my gym had to build special hooks onto the lat machine so that I could add additional weight.
After my last set of behind-the-neck pulldowns, I’ll head over to a flat bench for some one-arm dumbbell rows. The dumbbell typically weighs 140 pounds, and I’ll bang out five sets of 10 reps in this exercise, making sure to bring the dumbbell all the way up to my lower ribs and squeezing the contraction for a two-count. Then I’ll lower the dumbbell all the way down to the floor, once again making sure to get a pronounced stretch in the fully extended position.
I work up to three 45-pound plates per side for these. Again, it’s a full movement for me; all the way up and all the way down. I also make it a point to sustain the fully contracted position for a two-count with every rep I perform. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stronger, I’ll work up to four 45-poundplates per side, but I feel more comfortable staying at the three-plate mark. My reps are the same here: six to eight.
Lat Pulldowns (behind the neck)
This is a great movement for the entire belly of each lat. The stretch at the top is the key. I’ve seen many trainees sell themselves short by not getting a full stretch at the beginning of each rep. Get that stretch, and your Iats will reflect the benefit of having done so. I’ll work up to whatever the stack holds, which is typically 200 or 300 pounds (depending on the brand of machine) for four sets of eight reps.
I always finish off my back training with this movement, performed on a power rack. I find these to be highly effective for two reasons. First, the heavy weights I can employ in the strongest-range position really stimulate fibers into growth that I wouldn’t normally be hitting. Second, because I have short arms, doing deadlifts from the floor is really hard for me, as the bar keeps hitting my knees. With the rack, however, I can bypass my knees while still giving my erectors all the weight they can handle. With dead-lifts, I’ll typically work up to five or six 45-pound plates per side for five sets of six to 10 reps.
- Lat pulldowns to front: 4 x 8-12
- Barbell bent rows: 4 x 6-8
- Behind-the-neck pulldowns: 4 x 8-12
- Dumbbell rows: 4 x 6-8
- Partial deadlifts: 4 x 6-8
VARIETY IS THE KEY
I’m a big believer in varying my workouts; no training session is ever the same. Sometimes I vary them by forgoing barbell rows and concentrating on seated cable rows, using the stack for 10 to 12 reps. Sometimes I might do more than that. It all depends on how I feel.
Sometimes I like to use slightly higher reps, usually on the pulley movements, as I feel that doing so brings into play muscle fibers that otherwise would lie dormant. It’s good to continually shock your muscles to prevent them from getting too used to any certain type of exercise.
TRAINING PRINCIPLE ASSESSMENT
|INSTINCTIVE TRAININGI’ve always been instinctive, so I’m naturally inclined to train that way.
FORCED REPSI’ll do forced reps nearly all the time, typically two or three at the conclusion of each set.
PRE-EXHAUSTIONI don’t pre-exhaust that often, only occasionally with legs or chest.
STRONGERT-RANGE REPSI’m quite keen on partial reps. I use them on several exersices or at the end of a set of full-range reps to really blast the hell out of my mucles.
SUPERSETSI don’t like super setting too much. I’ll sometimes do it before a contest, but not all that often.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the importance of nutrition in not only building my back, but for all other muscle groups. To ensure growth, I make sure to eat adequately and frequently. To serve as a guideline, here’s what I’ll consume during the course of a typical day.
For breakfast, I’ll have a bowl of some sort of cereal, usually oatmeal, either Quaker Oats or Star Brand. Then I’ll have two blueberry muffins and a cheese omelette consisting of 10 egg whites and two whole eggs. Sometimes I’ll also have sausage and a glass of orange juice and aprotein drink. After I train, I’ll have pancakes and a chicken breast. For lunch, I’ll have steak and vegetables. For my mid-afternoon snack, I’ll eat almost the same meal that I had for breakfast before I train again, so I get carbs and protein in my system before I hit the gym. After that, I’ll have chicken or steak again with rice or pasta. If I’m not dieting, I’ll also consume some ice cream or yogurt.
In the offseason, when mass is my priority, I’ll take in between 5,000-8,000 calories a day. Before a contest, that number will drop down to about 3,500-4,000. (Sometimes I’ll even sneak in a little chocolate or ice cream on the side!)
As long as you get enough of the proper foods, you won’t run the risk of overtraining. I don’t fear over-training as much as not getting enough rest or sleep. As long as I get enough food and sleep, I don’t feel overtrained. Admittedly, I get tired some days, and the last place in the world I want to go is the gym. But after the workout, I feel rejuvenated and glad that I made the effort instead of staying home and watching TV.
THE ROLE OF SUPPLEMENTS
Another dietary component that needs to be discussed (but seldom is) is supplements. I’ve found that desiccatedliver tabletsand aminos are great for building mass. In fact, when I’m in hard mass training, I’ll take up to 30 to 40 a day of each, with each milligram count in the neighborhood of 10,000. I’ll take five liver tablets and five aminos with each meal. I take them that way so that I have a constant nitrogen balance throughout the day. The liver tabs help keep your body in a positive nitrogen balance and facilitate high energy levels.
Does such a training and nutritional marriage work? Let me put it this way. When I last taped my chest and waist, my chest was 50 inches, while my waist was 28! I honestly believe that intermediates can benefit from my back routine just as well as advanced trainees. The only differential would be in the amount of weight used. Obviously, an intermediate hasn’t the same strength level as an advanced trainee.