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Big-Back Awakening

I know that the author of The Seasoned Woman and Hillary’s Choice didn’t have bodybuilding in mind when she penned the above sentence. For that matter, I’m almost certain that the cultural observer and self-help author couldn’t name a single bodybuilder who’s not currently the governor of California. So you might be wondering why I chose that quotation to lead off a story about Derik Farnsworth’s philosophy of training back.

The answer lies in the story of how Derik trains back—where he came from, what he’s done and where he is now. As a lifetime natural bodybuilder the IFBB pro says that gaining mass didn’t come easy. What he does now is the result of years of experimentation with things that didn’t work, things that did and things that left him scratching his head.

“I started working out in 1988 or ’89,” he says. “When I started training back, I didn’t do so well because I couldn’t see it.” Like most bodybuilders, Derik started out emulating the workouts that he saw in magazines, throwing around incredible weights for his frame but not seeing the gains that he saw on the pages.

“Growing was slow—my hamstrings were always genetically gifted, but my back was not,” he relates. Nevertheless, Derik continued with the magazine routines until he saw a video that changed his life: Dorian Yates’ “Blood & Guts.”

“For around three years I tried to emulate Dorian. There I was, all 5’2”, trying to lift just like Dorian. It’s a miracle I didn’t kill myself,” Derik says, laughing.

Amazingly, it took him several years of training and experimentation to discover what it was that made his back grow. “It was around 2002 or 2003 that it finally clicked; I decided to try something different, and it worked.”

It may seem odd that a card-carrying IFBB pro had such difficulty building a bodypart. Too often we hear about the “next big pro,” who just started training three years ago and is genetically gifted beyond belief. That’s great for those guys, but probably not applicable to the rest of us.

Derik’s workout may not be for you either, but there are no doubt nuggets of wisdom in the following that you can use as a foundation for your regular routine or to break through a plateau that’s holding back your development.

Two Days per Week

“I’m a big believer in training the back two days per week,” Derik says. “I split it up over Tuesday and Friday, and on Friday I work the opposite muscles that I target on Tuesday.” The back is a big, complex muscle group, and there’s a growing consensus that training it once a week isn’t sufficient to fully stimulate it from all levels.

“A lot of hitting the back correctly is feel,” Derik reveals. “You can’t see it, so you have to learn to feel the fatigue.”

Feel can mean a lot of things. For bodybuilding purposes it usually means establishing the mind/muscle connection and understanding how contraction works and what the pump feels like. Of course, using the right exercises is important too.

100 pullups. You read that right: He does 100 pullups—behind-the-neck pullups with just bodyweight. That’s how Derik starts his Tuesday (or Friday) workout. “Some people do five sets of 20 or whatever. I just go in and do 100 over as many sets as it takes and then see how I feel.”

On some back days that will be it. If Derik’s not feeling good that day, he’ll just do his 100 and walk away. On the days when his back is strong, however, and if he doesn’t feel it’s sufficiently fried, he’ll proceed with the following exercises.

Bent-over rows. Derik alternates using a straight barbell and dumbbells on these. Either way he performs the rows with a full range of motion and a moderate rep speed.

“Just be sure to squeeze the bar up,” he says. “Don’t pull it up with your delts and biceps. This is where the mind/muscle connection and ‘feel’ come into play. If you aren’t sure your back is doing the work, think about how you feel afterward. Your back should feel it,” Derik advises. “If your arms and/or shoulders feel most of the work, then you’re not focusing on the back properly.”

Derik completes three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps—maybe getting only eight reps on the last set if he’s starting to feel gassed.

Three-quarter deadlifts. The deadlift is the staple of most pro-bodybuilders’ back workouts. It’s a simple, old-school compound move that’s great for exhausting all of the major muscle groups as well as the stabilizers, leading to a back that’s dense and packed with muscle. Derik loads up a straight bar with 400 to 500 pounds and then sets the bar on the long pins in a power rack at around midshin level. It’s a regular deadlift, but he doesn’t go all the way to the floor. The reason for starting at the shins? “If I start from the floor, it’s too easy for other muscles to take over,” he says.

He does three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps.

T-bar rows. “At 5’2” I can’t use the Hammer Strength row machine,” Derik admits. “My arm angle is all wrong, and I can’t feel the squeeze like I want to.” He also confides that he’s switched from 45-pound plates to 25s so that he can get a longer range of motion. “Of course, I have to use more plates, but I love that full stretch that I get with the smaller plates.” Derik also cautions lifters to focus on bringing the weight up by squeezing from the back and not hoisting with the arms. “It’s so easy to do rows incorrectly,” he warns. “Once again, you have to really focus on form and feel.”

He does three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Wide-grip seated cable rows. The point of including these is to fry the back—if it isn’t toast already. Derik does them with a bar and pulls all the way to his lower abdomen, focusing on squeezing his traps. “I really like to focus on the diamond of the trap muscles,” he says. “If you do it right, the traps are really burning by the end of the last set.”

As with the other back exercises—except for the pullups—Derik performs three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Wide-grip machine rows. He doesn’t perform this movement at every workout, but he’ll substitute it for seated cable rows to get an alternate angle of attack. “It’s probably the only back machine I’m comfortable using,” he says. The focus here is the same as on the wide-grip seated rows—the diamond of the traps. He squeezes the weight to the abdomen, focusing on isolating his back and not using his arms and delts.


While Derik is not a proponent of DoggCrapp, or DC, training, he does believe that its developer, Dante Trudel, is onto something when it comes to stretching. “I always stretch my back when I’m working it,” says Derik. “It could be something like hanging stretches or wide-grip pulldown stretches or something to lengthen the fibers.”

Derik is also an advocate of deep-tissue massage—he’s licensed as a massage therapist—and a relatively new method called Active Release Techniques (for more information visit “You see ART practitioners on the sidelines of NFL games all the time,” he says. “The trainers are right there working on the players when they come off the field.” Derik advises that techniques such as this and adherence to good form are the main reasons that he’s been lifting for so long without a major injury.

Looking Forward

After 20 years of training, 19 years of competing and six years as an IFBB pro, Derik isn’t sure where he’s going from here. “I’ll always keep training,” he says. “I might compete in the under-202-pound class at a couple of shows next year, but what I really want is my face on the cover of a magazine. [Laughs] Twenty years of training, and I haven’t had one. If I could just get one of those, I’d retire a happy man.”

If he does compete in 2009, it will probably be in the latter half of the year or in one of the two shows being held in Texas in August.

“I’ve really done a lot in bodybuilding—I’ve guest-posed around the world, trained legs with Mr. Olympia—and gotten Jay Cutler to do some of my leg workouts—and I’ve stood onstage against the best in the world. It was a long road getting here, but I love to train, and I couldn’t imagine living a day without it.”

Editor’s note: Derik Farnsworth is an IFBB pro and licensed personal trainer. To contact him for guest posing, personal training or other serious inquiries, write to [email protected]. IM

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