Training The Back For Thickness And Width

The greatest back of all time? That’s a tough one, but guys like Samir Bannout, Arnold, and Franco Columbu would probably be near the top of the list. Who can forget Dorian Yates? Training the back for thickness and width is what each of these guys have in common.

Before we talk about training the back for thickness and width, let’s talk about a great back. Any one of the guys mentioned, and countless more, have great backs. You can credit Samir and Arnold for being among the first to have a “Christmas Tree” lower back. And talk about width! Yates and Franco, now that’s width!

Training The Back For Thickness And Width – Working The Wingspan

Back width comes from the various overhead pulling movements-chins and pulldowns. Simple, right? Well, not when you think about all the variations. For example, wide-grip chins, narrow-grip chins, behind-the-neck pulldowns, or under-grip pulldowns. It can get confusing. Let’s narrow it down. The best width movement is the front chin-or if you prefer, the front pulldown. It should be done with a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip. You should be touching the bar to mid-chest level.

This “regular” chin-or pull-down is superior. Why? Because it allows a relatively full range of motion and forces the arms out to the sides. The pull is more lateral than with, say, under grip chins. In this exercise, you pull down, and your upper arms are out to the sides. They are away from your body as your elbows travel in an outward arc until you reach the contracted position. Here, the inner triceps are touching the lats. Or at least they should be. The elbows are behind the torso. Also, the head is back, and the lower back is slightly arched. The bar is touching the middle-chest area. And don’t forget about peak contraction. Hold it for one to two seconds each and every rep.

Training The Back For Thickness And Width – More Width

We’re talking multi-angle training here. We can’t neglect a front-pulling exercise for the lats. It should be one that causes the elbows to travel in forward arcs in front of the torso. The under-grip pulldown works this position best. This exercise puts the biceps in their strongest position. This allows you to work your lats hard from this angle.

For best results you should take a slightly narrower-than-shoulder-width, underhand grip. As you pull down, your torso should begin leaning backward. At the finish position, your torso is almost parallel to the ground and the bar is touching your upper abdomen. Although this is a lot of torso movement, there should be no swinging. The lean should be slow and smooth, not jerky. This full-range action works the entire length of your latissimus, including the hard-to-hit lower area.

Let’s Talk Upper Lats

The upper lats (infraspinatus, teres major, and teres minor) can be worked in combination with the middle back (trapezius and rhomboideus major). The exercise is the medium-grip behind-the-neck pulldown. Use a grip about one hand-width outward from shoulder-width. Pull the bar down behind your neck. Keep your head forward, torso erect, and lower back slightly arched. In the contracted position your arms should be back behind your torso. You should be flexing your mid-back (trapezius) hard. This is the perfect transition movement to take you into direct thickness work.

Training The Back For Thickness And Width – Density Plus Detail

The best thickness movement for the back is the infamous cable row. It’s infamous because not too many bodybuilders do these without back-bending momentum. The same goes for bent-over barbell rows. This is another excellent thickness exercise. However, too many people can’t help but cheat or simply can’t do the exercise because of lower-back strain. This latter reason is why cable rows move slightly ahead of bent-over barbell rows on the list of best back thickeners. They allow for much less lower-back involvement.

Here’s how to do this movement. Grab the parallel-grip low-pulley handle and begin while moving your torso to the upright position. As your hands touch your abdomen, your torso should be perpendicular to the ground. Your shoulder blades should be squeezed together. If you have to lean back, the weight is too heavy. From here lower the weight and your torso to the stretched position. Keep your head up. Don’t let the arms go limp. You should still maintain muscular tension. This not only keeps the back muscles from resting but also prevents shoulder joint injury.

Incline Dumbbell Rows

After cable rows, you should work your mid-back from a slightly different angle. An inclined angle. Incline dumbbell rows fit the bill nicely. For this one grab a pair of dumbbells and lie facedown on an incline bench set at about 30 degrees. Make sure your hips are down. Then start to row. Pull the dumbbells up to the front delt head. Keep your elbows out. You’ll get an incredible contraction in the center of your back. A spot that’s very hard to isolate. You can make this exercise even more of a mid-back burner. How? Try a set of shrugs in the same incline position after each set. Talk about trap cramps!

Back Blasting

By this time, you should understand what training the back for thickness and width involves. You should have an understanding of the actual movements involved in multi-angle back training. It’s now time to formulate some routines. Let’s start with the beginners (less than six months of training). These trainees should do only two exercises for the back-one for width and one for thickness. Here’s a good beginner back program:

Beginner Program  
Medium-grip front pulldowns 2 x 8-10
Parallel-grip cable rows 2 x 8-10

Intermediates (more than six months of training, but not competitive) would use the following program:

Intermediate Program  
Medium-grip front pulldowns 2 x 8-10
Undergrip pulldowns 2 x 8-10
Behind-the-neck pulldowns 1 x 8-10
Cable rows 2 x 8-10
Incline dumbbell rows 2 x 8-10

That’s nine sets of intense multi-angle work. That’s enough to keep the intermediate’s back growing. For a quick back blast, intermediates can use the beginner program. Just add one to two sets to each exercise.

Advanced Training

Once you reach the advanced stages of development, the listed intermediate routine will still do nicely. Yet you may want to move to the chinning bar for the first three exercises to add a slightly new dimension to your back training. No matter what anybody tells you, chins are much harder than pulldowns and probably more effective. That is if you can get the necessary contraction. Remember to keep the elbows down and back throughout the movement. Also, you can add a few sets to the exercises that affect the areas of your back that need the most work. But try to avoid going over 14 total sets for the back. Intermediates should never go over nine sets. The back should be trained from many angles for complete development. Still, remember that overtraining is always a distinct possibility. Don’t let it hamper your progress.

Training The Back For Thickness And Width – Isolation Movements

You may be asking, “Nice routines, but where are the isolation movements?” If you think about it long enough, you’ll probably answer your own question. Isolation movements are usually used to achieve the peak contraction effect that the compounds tend to neglect. There’s no such neglect in back training. Each of the listed compound movements incorporates peak contraction. There’s no lockout in the contracted position. Therefore, isolation exercises aren’t really necessary.

What if you want to use an isolation exercise to enhance the feel of working your back? Don’t just add one to the routine above. You’ll be doing too many sets. Instead, substitute. But make sure you substitute an isolation exercise that has a similar angle of pull as the movement you’re dropping. The elbows should travel in approximately the same arc. For example, you can substitute pullovers-preferably on a machine. This ensures a full range of motion for under-grip pulldowns (elbows travel in forward arcs). Or you might want to use the Nautilus behind-the-neck torso machine. Do this in place of behind-the-neck pulldowns (elbows travel in outward arcs). For incline dumbbell rows you might want to substitute bent-arm rear laterals either with dumbbells or on a machine.

If you do decide to use back isolation, try to limit it to one exercise per back area. That is two per back workout at the maximum. Compound movements are the key to big gains. Isolation will help carve in the detail.

Training the back for thickness and width means compound exercises, heavy weight and multi-angle training. By the way, don’t forget your pilot’s license. You’ll need one to go with your new set of wings.


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