Q: I’ve always been very impressed with the width and thickness of your back. It’s amazing for a natural bodybuilder. What’s your secret?
A: Thank you very much for your kind words! When I first started competing, my back was a real weak spot. It took years of very close attention to technique, along with persistent hard training, to build it into one of the strong points on my physique.
The first thing I had to do was look into the biomechanics involved in contracting the lats effectively. The key to getting a full contraction of the lats is to concentrate on pulling your shoulders back and down. You also need to pause and consciously flex your lats in the fully contracted position, and you want to be cognizant of performing the movement smoothly enough that you’re not using momentum to move the weight.
Quite often I see people in the gym making all of those mistakes. When performing rows or pulldowns, they rotate their shoulders forward instead of back and down. They are swinging their torso to get the weight moving, momentum takes over very early in the movement, and there is very little resistance through the rest of the rep. Plus, instead of contracting at the end of the rep, they relax and let the weight free-fall back to the starting point. All it takes to make the exercise more effective is to pay attention to the rotation of your shoulders, consciously flex the working muscles, and pull more slowly and smoothly.
The other thing that made a huge improvement in my back development was powerlifting. Before I got talked into training for powerlifting, I rarely deadlifted, but because it’s one of the three lifts performed at powerlifting meets, I had to deadlift regularly and deadlift heavy. Since I started competing in powerlifting in 1985, I’ve always included some form of deadlifts in my back workout—whether it’s full deadlifts off the floor or what I call “partial deadlifts” from the knees up. While the prime movers on the deadlift are the spinal erectors, glutes and hamstrings, your lats, traps, rhomboids and rear delts contract extremely hard, even if you don’t realize it.
If you have any doubt about how hard your lats work on deadlifts, try this. One week hit your deadlifts first in your back workout, and then follow up with wide-grip pullups. The next week do wide-grip pullups first in your back workout, and make a note of how many more reps you do.
The other awesome thing about deadlifts is the work that your traps get. For years I tried to do shrugs to build my traps. Unfortunately, whenever I got up to a respectable weight, I incurred an injury in my lower cervical area. When I finally gave up on shrugs and let my heavy deadlifting take care of my traps, my traps blossomed and I stopped having the upper-back injuries.
Here’s another interesting twist on deadlifting that will help build more lat thickness. Use straps (VersaGripps are the best on the market), and employ an underhand grip with both hands. Some people won’t have the flexibility to use the underhand grip, but, if you can do it comfortably, it will enable you to get much more lat contraction during your deadlifts. For readers who are men’s physique competitors, you don’t have to worry much about forearm size. So use the straps and the underhand grip on all of your deadlifts.
I stumbled across the underhand-grip deadlifts when a massage therapist pointed out that the right side of my back was significantly thicker than the left. I gave some thought to what might be causing that and realized that I always gripped my deadlifts underhand on the right side and overhand on the left. I figured that I could utilize the underhand grip with both hands to build more back thickness on both sides.
Here’s an example of my back workout:
• Deadlifts, 1-3 warmup sets of 8 reps; 2 sets max reps with 3-5 RM
• Partial deadlifts (from the knees up, with legs slightly bent), 3 sets max reps with 15 RM
• Lat pulldowns, 1 warmup set
of 10 reps; 3 sets max reps with 10 RM
• Seated cable rows, 4 sets max reps with 18 RM
• High-pulley rows or Hammer Strength high rows, 4 sets of max reps with 8 RM