Why is it that out of all the bodyparts, even legs, the one that gets the most neglect is back? Basically, when most guys turn around, there’s not much development. Even among serious bodybuilders, great backs are pretty rare. Why is that? There are a few reasons that all contribute to the general lack of back.
1) Neglect. When most of us started lifting weights as young walking hormones, the muscles we were usually interested in building were the arms and chest. Most young guys do a lot of bench-pressing and curling and not much else in the early stages of training. I don’t think I’ve ever met a kid who had the goal of building a wide, thick back. It’s pretty much also a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Our backs are behind us, and without a double set of opposing mirrors, we can’t see them. I did a lot of chinups as a teenager, so my upper back did get some stimulation early on and had some width, but as far as any kind of rows to build thickness, that all came later. My back was behind in development for years, shallow and two dimensional, simply because I hadn’t been training it. I’ll bet most guys have similar stories.
2) Difficulty establishing a mind/muscle connection. What’s the hardest muscle group to train properly? Legs would be the correct answer if we’re talking about pure effort and energy expenditure. In terms of being able to feel the muscle work, however, the lats are by far the most challenging muscles for most people. I am sure that there are plenty of guys who have never really felt their lats working and never will. It takes a long time and a concerted effort to establish and then master a solid mind/muscle connection with your back. Often guys tell me they feel everything in their biceps. It does help to think in terms of the arms being nothing more than a pathway to the back and to pull with the elbows, but, really, you have to spend time with lighter weights as well as flexing and stretching your back before you can activate the lats during back work. Many people either lack the patience or give up in frustration and simply decide they can live without a great back.
3) Going too heavy. Overdoing the poundages is a major issue in general that prevents many from ever building the physique they’re capable of, but it’s even more so when it comes to the back. When you yank the weight and use very loose form, the lats never get the stimulation necessary to break down the muscle fibers and grow. If you can’t squeeze your lats and feel them contracting, you need to lighten the load. It’s a macho thing to want to pull the heaviest dumbbell your gym has for rows or pile on as many plates as possible for barbell and T-bar rows. If you can do it right, that’s fine, but most guys just throw and bounce the weight and hardly stimulate their backs at all. One example I love to reference is the great eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. Lee had the best back of his era, and even though he competed at 250 pounds, he rarely used more than 225 for barbell rows or a 75 for dumbbell rows. “But I went all the way up,” he noted. As I have said before, weightlifting, or moving as much weight as possible, is not bodybuilding.
4) Avoiding the most productive exercises. What are the exercises that will give you the absolute best results in terms of back growth? I would say the list includes barbell rows, deadlifts, chins, T-bar rows and dumbbell rows. Yet what do you see most guys doing in the gym? Lat pulldowns, usually, or seated cable rows and machines. Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates, Lee Haney and Johnnie Jackson all built their backs with plenty of heavy free weights. Some of them, notably Dorian, did use machines as well, but no one I know ever built a great back with machines and cables alone. Free-weight rows, deads and chins are a lot tougher to do than smooth machine movements—but the payoff is that they work much better.
5) Treating back as an afterthought. I see guys who will spend well over an hour on bodyparts like chest or arms. but when they train back, if they ever do train back, it’s as if they are all on the same exact miniroutine: three sets each of lat pulldowns and seated cable rows. Depending on how much they are socializing, they run through the back work in about 20 minutes. If you treat your back as an afterthought, that lack of attention will show in the form of poor development. It’s too bad that more guys don’t give their backs the required priority and work. Though I’m sure many people wouldn’t notice or care, when I see a physique that has great shoulders, chest and arms and no back or legs, I immediately think, “beach body.” Hey, if that’s what you really want, who am I to judge? Still, a lot of guys out there do wish they had better backs. They just don’t know what they’re doing wrong. Well, now you know!
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years in the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.