Author: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Developing your back to the maximum is an absolute necessity if you want a massive upper body, because that’s where the largest muscles of the upper body, the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius, reside. Your back makes up almost one-third of your body.
Needless to say, bodybuilders who ignore their back, or never learn to train it properly, are no different from those who neglect their legs. They just never get the whole package together.
You may have fully developed pecks, but if your back is thin or your lats lack width, you’ll never stretch the tape past 50 inches. A very close relationship exists between the chest and the back. That’s why I always preferred to superset these two body parts. The back is an amazingly complex structure. Besides the very large muscle groups like the trapezius (traps), latissimus dorsi (lats), and the spinal erectors of the lower back, the back also contains a number of small muscle groups, such as the teres major and minor, the rhomboids major and minor, the infraspinatus and supraspinatus, the longissimus dorsi and spinalis dorsi, and the levator anguli scapulae, to name some of the better-known ones. But the list doesn’t stop there. Multiple layers of muscle comprise the back – five, actually – and all must be developed if you hope to ever have true thickness and density.Don’t forget that half of a 50 inch chest is back development.
The lumbars and spinal erectors can lift very heavy poundages. So can the lats and the traps. A bodybuilder with a weak lower back will never squat heavy weights. Neither will he be able to handle as much weight on such basic exercises as deadlifts, cleans, bent-over rows, T-bar rows and overhead presses. He’ll be limited by the amount of weight his lower back can handle, not by the strength of his legs, arms or shoulders.Next to the legs, the back is the main seat of power in the body.
Wide Grip Chins
These chins not only widen the lats, they also widen the shoulders by working the entire shoulder girdle. The scapulae (bones at the back of the shoulders) can be stretched, spread apart and made wider. The wide grip chin is one of the very best exercises for widening the shoulders and creating the potential for more upper back width and flaring lats. I suggest you do wide-grip chins first in your routine, when you are strongest. If you do them after you have already done some pulldowns and rowing exercises, your arms will be too exhausted to get many reps. If you find you too are too weak to chin yourself for sets of 10 reps, set a goal of 30 chins per lat workout. If you have to do 15 to 20 sets to get those 30 reps, so be it. Eventually, though, as you gain strength and development, there will come a time when you can get those 30 reps in only a couple of sets. By that time your lats should have improved tremendously in size, mass and width and your entire upper body should look more impressive and V-tapered.
You might need ten sets to get those 50 reps at first, but, believe it or not, eventually it shouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 sets. At this point you are strong enough to do sets of wide-grip chins with extra weights attached to a chinning/dipping belt which goes around your waist. That’s when your lat development and upper body width will really improve. For wide-grip chins, place your hands over the bar anywhere from 5 inches to a foot outside your shoulders, depending upon your size. (A man 6’5” has to grip wider than a man 5’5”.) This will be the point at which the bar begins to bend for most men on most commercial chinning bars. Experiment to find the grip width that allows you to stretch and work your lats the best.When doing 30 reps becomes possible in 2 sets, increase your chinning goal to 50 reps.
The biceps tend to take over whenever you’re doing chins, pull downs or rowing exercises, so try to eliminate the biceps from chinning, as much as possible by using an overhand thumb less grip – i.e. the thumbs are on the same side of the bar as the fingers. The more you hold the bar in the palms of your hands and less in the fingers, the less active the biceps will be in the exercise.Wide handed spacing promotes constant tension on the lats because you can’t lock your arms out even hanging at arm’s length. This is important, as the arms should not straighten completely. There should always be a small amount of bend in the elbows for best-lat building results. Keep your chest expanded and arched high, and your shoulders down and back. Your lower back should be arched (concave, not convex) throughout the exercise. Never let your chest collapse or your lower back round. Use a full range of motion and lower yourself as far as possible to give your lats a good stretch. Then pull your body in one smooth action until your chin is over the bar. Don’t kick with your legs or pull from the shoulders. Force your elbows wide as you pull yourself up, and feel your scapulae and last spread wide. At the top pull your elbows down, back and into your sides. Pause to tense and squeeze the lats. Then lower slowly back to the starting position to take advantage of negative resistance. Do not just drop.Use straps or sponges to reinforce your grip so that your hands do not slip.
These “burn reps” add extra muscle building power to your sets.Do 5 sets of as many reps as possible. When you can do at least three sets of ten reps with your bodyweight, add extra weight through the use of a chinning/dipping belt, and do some heavy sets of 6 to 8 reps. Altogether do 5 sets of as many reps as you can manage – a couple with bodyweight only and the remainder with extra weight.When you can no longer do full reps, do as many half reps as possible to keep extra tension on the lats.
Triangle Bar Chins
This is a great exercise for lower lats. It also strongly works the serratus. Hook a triangle bar over a chinning bar. The handles of a triangle bar force you to use a close grip, which works the lower lats. As you pull yourself up, lie back and try to touch your mid-abdominal area – not your chest – to the bar. Keep the action smooth and do not kick with your legs. Lower all the way down for a good stretch. Doing 5 sets of as many reps possible will do wonders on your lat length.
Bent Over Barbell Row
Do this exercise for lat and mid-back thickness. Take a shoulder-width over hand grip on the bar. For a greater range of motion do bent-over rowing standing on a block or bench, keep your head up and your knees flexed, and your lower back arched(concave – never let it round). Bend at the waist so your upper body is parallel – or just slightly above parallel – to the floor. I always tried to keep my back straight so that my lats did the work. Keep your glutes lower than your torso as you row the bar. Do not duck your head down and drop you chest to meet the bar as you pull it up because this action raises the glutes. When that happens your back rounds over. You can’t contract the lats with a rounded lower back, so good form is essential. Stay down over the bar and row it smoothly in to your abs, not to your chest. Five sets of 6 to 10 reps of bent-over barbell rows, pyramiding up in weight each set, will do the job of building slabs of muscle on your back.
One of my favorite thickness exercises, this one adds thickness to the outside and lower lats. Use the same form as for barbell rowing: knees flexed, head up, back straight and slightly above parallel, lower back arched. Keep the glutes below the level of the torso throughout the set, and keep the torso down and over the bar. Do not stand up with the weight. It’s a row, not a deadlift! You need to get a full range of motion to get the lats a good stretch and a good contraction. Use a weight that allows 5 reps in good form without excessive heaving or cheating. Then with some extra body motion do another 5 reps. You can involve some rhythm, but always try to get the contraction at the top and a stretch at the bottom. Do 5 sets of 6 to 10 reps, pyramiding up in weight each set so that the last set is the heaviest.
Seated Cable Rows
For mid-back and lat thickness I preferred to use a triangle bar in a close, parallel grip. To start, reach forward and grab the bar. Keep some bend in your knees. The foot brace should be set back far enough that the plates of the weight stack cannot touch when you extend your arms. Let the weight pull your body forward until your chest is over your thighs. At the same time maintain a concave arch in your lower back. Do not let it round over. Feel the stretch in your lats. As you are pulling the bar into your midsection, sit up until your torso is perpendicular to the floor. Arch your chest and drop your shoulders as the bar hits your abs. In the fully contracted position your lower back should be arched, not rounded. Many people just pull the bar to the stomach but keep their shoulders rounded and their chest flat. This style is wrong because the lats cannot contract in this position.
This is another good exercise for lat width. Sit beneath the overhead pulley so that you can pull the bar straight down to your traps. Make sure your thighs are wedged beneath the thigh bar. Chose a wide, overhand grip, using straps or sponges to reinforce it. Pull the bar smoothly down to your traps. As it hits the traps, pull your elbows down and back as far as possible. Pause for a second or two to squeeze and contract your lats, and then slowly return to the overhead position, feeling the stretch in your lats all the way. Your elbows should not lock out at the top. There should always be a bit of bend on the elbows to keep constant tension on the lats. As the reps get harder, you can use a bit of body motion to help drive the bar past the sticking point, but always try to get half your reps in good, strict form. If you lose the feel of the muscle – or all you feel is in your biceps – the weight is too heavy. Do 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps.
I learnt early in my career that regular lat stretching quickly increased lat width and flexibility. While standing next to a vertical pole, your feet at the base of a pole and your hands gripping the pole at lower chest height, lower your body backwards until your lats are at a full stretch. Then pull back to the starting position while spreading and flexing the lats until you touch the pole with your chest. Repeat for 12 reps. I always did these stretches after every two sets of back exercises to improve their sweep.
The most basic exercise for the lower back is the deadlift. When done with heavy weights, deadlifts involve more muscle groups than any other exercise. The traps, upper back, glutes, hamstrings, thighs, forearms and grip are all used in deadlifting. Deadlifts build back thickness and overall body power. A strong lower back developed from heavy deadlifting will allow you to use more weights on squats, t-bar rows, bent-over dumbell rows, and standing overhead presses.
The most common mistake I see people make when deadlifting is rounding their backs and pulling up with too much arm strength instead of keeping the lower back arched (concave), the back flat, and using the legs, glutes and lower back muscles to help drive the weight up.
To do a proper deadlift, stand over a barbell loaded with the weight you plan to use. Bend your knees, lean forward and grasp the bar with a medium wide-grip. With your stronger arm, hold the bar with an underhand or curl grip. Use an overhand grip with your weaker arm. Keep your head up and your back flat. A rounded back invites injury. Begin the lift by driving with your legs. Straighten up, and then at the top of the movement throw your chest pout and your shoulders back. You should be standing erect with the bar at the arms’ length at mid-thigh height.
Lower the bar under control while maintaining a flat back and arched lower back. Then mentally get ready for next repetition. Do about 4 sets of 4 to 8 reps.