Q: After looking at the photos from the shows you won last year, I realized that what quite often separated you from your competition was your back development. Particularly impressive was the fullness of your lats from top to bottom and the separation between your lower lats and your spinal erectors. Did you do anything different last year? Can you give me some tips for building a back like yours?
A: That’s an interesting observation! You’re the first one who’s mentioned that to me. When I looked at the photos—wondering how the hell I beat some of those great bodybuilders—I thought the exact same thing. There were guys who had an edge on me from the front, but from the back it wasn’t close.
Before I talk about training, I have to give credit to my parents. Although photos of my dad show that he was very lean and muscular—wiry; that is—before my mom’s great cooking got to him, my mother claims that I got the good genetics from her. When I brought the early pics of my dad up, she said, “Yes, he was lean and muscular, but he’s always had bird legs and no ass. You got that from me!” So I don’t really know who I got the good muscle bellies in my back from—I’m sure my mom will claim it—but genetics definitely plays a big part.
I’ve been very pleased with improvement in my back over the past two years, and I can definitely point to two things that have made a significant difference—deadlifts and chins. Due to a knee injury I was unable to deadlift off the floor for eight years. I could do deep squats, but I got a severe stabbing pain during deadlifts. Because of pain from posterior labrum tears in both shoulders I was unable to do any type of pullups or chins. Thanks to time and prolotherapy for my shoulders from Dr. Bradley Fullerton, I was able to resume deadlifting and chinning in 2008.
I know that a lot of bodybuilders shy away from deadlifting because they fear it will give them a big waist. I always point to myself and Amanda Harris—a.k.a. Barbie Barbell—as examples demonstrating that deadlifting and squatting do not give you a big waist. Mike O’Hearn is another great example of a powerlifter who sports a very small waist.
It’s eating poorly and/or doing too much oblique work that will make your waist bigger. Just wear a good powerlifting belt—I use a lever belt from Inzer—when you’re doing your heavy sets, and you’ll have no worries about your waist growing.
Now, before I go any further, I should discuss technique for chins, pulldowns and rows. Proper technique is crucial if you want full lat development, and I see so many trainees missing the boat on this one. When performing any type of chins, pulldowns or rows, you should focus mainly on squeezing your shoulders back and down. Let me repeat that: Squeeze back and down. Get a brief pause in the fully contracted position and feel your back contracting all the way down to your lower lats.
I often see lifters allow their shoulders to rotate forward on back exercises. If you do that, not only will you miss out on lat contraction, but you will also eventually develop a major imbalance in the shoulders that will make it difficult to do lat spreads or even grasp your hands behind your back for a side-triceps pose. I’ve seen it many times. My coaching points on the back exercises are always these:
1) Chest up.
2) Pull smoothly.
3) Squeeze the shoulders back and down.
4) Pause in the contracted position.
I was able to start doing chins again in the spring of 2008. The prolotherapy did wonders for my shoulders, but I still had some discomfort doing wide-grip pullups. So I switched to close-grip chins, using a handle with the grips eight inches apart and with my palms facing each other. As long as I use the close grip and don’t relax my lats at the bottom, I can perform the chins pain free. I keep my back arched and pull my chest to the handle, squeezing my shoulders back and down and pausing at the top to flex my back. I usually do a light warmup set on the pulldown machine and then do three to four sets of close-grip chins, going to failure on each set.
Just one more recommendation before I give you one of the back workouts I used while training for the NPC Team Universe and the IFBB World Championships last year. Don’t use lifting straps until your grip starts giving out. Doing as much of your back workout as you can without straps will help you build solid forearms and a powerful grip. When you start struggling to maintain your grip, though, put on some straps. My personal recommendations for straps are the Flex-solate straps and Versa Gripps.
Remember, always employ smooth, controlled movements in both directions. Keep your chest up and pull your shoulders back and down, and always pause and feel the contraction. Let me know how the program works for you.
Deadlifts (warmup) 1-3 x 8
(work sets; 6RM) 2 x max
Partial deadlifts (from the
knees, with legs slightly
bent; 15RM) 3 x max
Pulldowns (warmup) 1 x 10
Close-grip chins 4 x max
Seated cable rows (10RM) 4 x max
High-pulley rows or
Hammer Strength high
rows (10RM) 3 x max
One-arm dumbbell rows
(12RM) 3 x max
Train hard and eat clean!
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To contact Dave directly, send e-mail to [email protected]. IM