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Building the Ultimate Physique: Back Specialization

Advanced bodybuilders have presumably exposed themselves to very intense training stresses for some time and will likely need an unusually intense stimulus to induce further growth.

his month we’ll focus on the muscles of the back. Generally, when you think about the back, you envisage the latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, the muscles responsible for the highly sought after V-shape that Steve Reeves popularized. There are, however, other back muscles. The trapezius, infraspinatus, rhomboideus, teres minor, teres major and erector spinae muscles’when fully developed’lend an aura to the bodybuilder’s physique.

To work the back adequately, you have to stress all those muscles in some way through progressive-resistance exercise. That’s what this month’s routine is all about. First, though, You need to know how the muscles function so you can select the best exercises for them.

The Back’Function and Design

The back is made up of many divergent muscle groups, yet some, like the teres major and the lats, have parallel functions. That’s important because the proper performance of one exercise will affect related muscle groups and save you much training time.

The trapezius muscles rise from the base of the neck, extending outward toward the shoulder blades and down to the middle of the back. Their function is to elevate the shoulders and to abduct the scapulae. They’re also activated whenever you draw your head backward and to either side. The best exercise for the traps, as they’re called, is undoubtedly shrugs, which duplicate exactly the trapezius’ major function. The rhomboids’ function is to pull the shoulder blades up and inward. That makes them functionally parallel to the traps during shrugs.

The lats (the showpiece muscles at the beach) and the teres major muscles are both activated whenever you draw your arms downward, backward or inward. The exercises that best correspond to their function are any type of rowing motion’Nautilus pullovers, lat pulldowns, bent-over rows, T-bar rows and so on.

As its name implies, the lat is the broadest (latissimus) muscle of the back (dorsi). Its origin extends from the sixth thoracic vertebra downward until its lowest fibers are attached to the upper edge of the ilium (hip bone). The broad triangular muscle inserts along the front of the humerus (upper-arm bone) close to its head. Whereas the deltoid raises the arm and draws it forward, the latissimus dorsi pulls it downward and backward. The infraspinatus and teres minor are both activated whenever the upper arm is abducted, or moved out and away from the midline of the body. Any wide-grip pulldown or chin directly stresses those two muscle groups. Although the Nautilus behind-the-neck machine is the only one to stress them directly, other exercises, such as parallel-grip pulldowns on the lat machine or any exercise that keeps your elbows out from the midline of your body, will effectively stress them, including bent-over rows.

The erector spinae muscles are activated when extension of the trunk takes place, as in hyperextensions, deadlifts, good mornings, side bends and the Nautilus hip-and-back and lower-back machines. So much for anatomy and physiology. On to the routine.

The Routine

Chins 1 x ISR
Dumbbell pullovers 1 x ISR
Undergrip pulldowns 1 x ISR
Wide- or parallel-grip
pulldowns 1 x ISR
Barbell shrugs 1 x ISR
Upright rows 1 x ISR
Hyperextensions 1 x ISR
Hack squats 1 x ISR
Leg curls 1 x ISR
Seated calf raises 1 x ISR
Wide-grip parallel-bar
dips 1 x ISR
Lying dumbbell
extensions 1 x ISR

You’ll note that there’s no direct biceps work in this month’s routine. Actually, the biceps are worked very thoroughly (and, in most of the exercises, very directly) from all the back exercises that you perform at the beginning of the workout. That’s good for several reasons: 1) there will be no reason to ‘hold off’ from performing an all-out effort on each of the back exercises, as they will be the only stimulation your biceps will receive this month; 2) any direct exercise after the all-out sets involving the biceps would constitute overtraining; 3) physiologists have recently found that the muscles not worked directly can sometimes, however briefly, hypertrophy because of the indirect effect of exercise and the extra time for growth and recovery. ALL Removing the Weak Links

Whenever you train the larger muscle groups’like the legs, lats and chest’with compound movements, other, weaker muscles’such as the lower back, biceps and triceps’are also involved and, consequently, give out before you reach a true state of failure in the larger muscle groups. You can head off that problem by using the preexhaustion technique. That’s performing an isolation exercise before the compound movement and moving from the isolation to the compound movement with all speed.

This month the weak link is the smaller biceps muscles of the upper arms, which will give out before pure muscular failure has occurred in the lats of the upper back. By performing dumbbell pullovers first, however, you isolate the lats and thereby save the strength of the smaller biceps for your next lat exercise, lat pulldowns. That will help push your lats beyond a state of normal muscular failure. The biceps will be temporarily stronger than your prefatigued lat muscles.

The same principle applies with shrugs and upright rows. If you perform the upright rows first, the biceps will give out before the traps, but if you perform shrugs (an isolation movement) first in the cycle, you save the strength of your biceps to carry the prefatigued trapezius beyond a regular state of failure with the upright rows (a compound exercise). It’s important to remember to move quickly from one exercise to another in a cycle. Ideally, there should be no rest at all between exercises, as even three seconds’ rest lets temporary muscle recovery occur and can negate the preexhaustion principle.

While the preexhaustion technique does have its shortcomings, you’ll be using it in order to inject some variety’an important psychological spur’into your training.

The Routine Explained

1) Chins

To begin the exercise, reach up to the end of a wall- or ceiling-mounted chinup bar so that your hands are near its ends, slightly wider than shoulder width, and your body fully extended beneath the bar. From a position of full extension, begin to contract your lats, raising yourself until your hands touch your chest. Hold the fully contracted position for a two count before lowering yourself slowly (in four seconds) back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR. When you hit failure in the movement, have your partner assist you enough to help you complete four more reps, or give yourself forced reps by standing on a stool or chair to assist your ascending to the fully contracted position. Rest for one minute, and then begin your next back exercise.

2) Dumbbell pullovers

Grasp a moderate-weight dumbbell with both hands and lie crosswise on a flat bench so that only your shoulders are touching the bench. Extend the dumbbell beyond your head so that it’s almost touching the floor. From that full stretch’and with a slight bend in your arms’slowly, with your lats as the prime movers, pull the dumbbell in an arc to above your breastbone. Pause in that position, and then lower the dumbbell back to the starting position in four seconds. Repeat for your ISR and (if possible) have your partner give you two forced reps, followed by two negative reps. Then release the dumbbell and immediately move to your next exercise.

3) Undergrip pulldowns

Grab hold of the pulldown bar with an undergrip. From an arms-extended position, slowly contract your lats by pulling the bar down to your chest. Hold that position for a two count before returning the weight to the starting position, which should take four seconds. Repeat for your ISR. After a two-minute rest move to your final lat exercise.

4) Wide- or parallel-grip pulldowns

This exercise hits the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles of the upper back, in addition to the latissimus dorsi. If you have a choice between a bar that gives you a parallel grip and one that gives a wide grip, choose the parallel-grip bar. A parallel grip puts your biceps in a fully supinated position (their strongest pulling position), so they aren’t as much of a weak link in your back training as when you use the pronated grip. Pull the bar down to your chest, keeping your elbows pointed out to your sides. Hold the fully contracted position for a two count before lowering the resistance back to the starting position in four seconds. Repeat for your ISR and have your partner force out three more reps.

5) Shrugs

Don’t make the mistake of letting your ego dictate poundages on this exercise. Form should always take precedence over weight because if your muscles aren’t responsible for moving the weight, they won’t be adequately stimulated. You will, however, be able to handle some fairly heavy weights, as your trapezius muscles are among the strongest in the body. Grab hold of a heavy barbell and straighten your back so that the weight is in front of your thighs. Slowly begin to contract your traps so that your shoulders begin to ascend toward your ears. When you’ve raised the weight as high as it can go, hold the contraction for a two count and then lower the weight slowly, returning it to the starting position, which should take four seconds. Repeat for your ISR, and then proceed immediately to the following compound movement.

6) Upright rows

Select a moderate-weight barbell’your strength will be approximately 50 percent less than it would be if you were fresh’and place your hands no more than six inches apart. Slowly, begin to pull the barbell up toward your chin, keeping your elbows pointed out. Once you’ve reached the apex of the bar’s ascent, hold the position of full muscular contraction for a definite pause, and then slowly lower it under control to the starting position, which should take four seconds. Repeat for your ISR, and then have your partner force out two more. Rest for one or two minutes, and then begin your next exercise.

7) Hyperextensions

Use a hyperextension bench for this one. If your gym doesn’t have one, lie facedown, crosswise, on a high bench so your torso is over the edge of the bench. Have your partner hold, sit, or in some way place resistance on your legs to counterbalance the weight of your torso. Place a light weight behind your neck and bend over at the waist. Slowly, raise your torso using your erector spinae muscles until you’ve come as high as possible. That should activate the greatest percentage of momentarily available muscle fibers, but to ensure that they and not momentum were responsible for raising your torso, hold the fully contracted position for a distinct pause before lowering yourself slowly, in four seconds, back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR, and then decrease the resistance and perform four more. 8) Hack squats

A tremendous front-thigh developer, this exercise shifts the resistance to that too-often-neglected area of the thigh’the vastus medialis at your lower-inner thigh. To begin, lean back under the shoulder pads on the hack squat machine. Slowly push your legs until they’re completely locked out. There will be no resistance on your thighs at that point, so don’t pause but rather begin an immediate descent as soon as your legs have locked out. Lower yourself slowly, in four seconds, back to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR, trying to maintain a constant cadence with your reps.

9) Leg curls

The action of the last exercise was entirely front thighs. Now let’s concentrate on working the antagonistic muscles on the backs of the thigh, the hamstrings: the leg biceps; the semitendinosus, a slender muscle on the outside rear of the thigh; and the semimembranosus, which is beefier and located more toward the center of the thigh. It’s important to always work the antagonistic muscles if you want to avoid tears, pulls and related discomfort due to disproportionate stress on the target muscles. Lie on your stomach on a leg curl machine and hook your heels under the roller pad. Slowly contract your hamstrings, curling your legs, until your heels almost touch your buttocks. Hold the contracted position for a two count before lowering to the starting position, which should take four seconds. Repeat for your ISR, and have your partner help you force out four more reps.

10) Seated calf raises

This exercise primarily works your soleus and the outer head of the gastrocnemius. To begin, sit in a seated calf machine and place the resistance pads over your knees. Release the locking mechanism, disengaging the weight, and slowly rise on the balls of your feet until your calves are in a fully contracted position. Pause for a two count, and then lower the resistance slowly back to the starting position, which should take four seconds. Make sure to really stretch your calves by trying to touch your heels to the ground whenever you lower the resistance. Repeat for your ISR.

11) Wide-grip parallel-bar dips

Ideally, you should have a V-shaped dipping bar with a base of at least 36 inches. It you don’t, get as wide a hand spacing as possible on whatever bars or chairs you’re using for your dips. Keeping your elbows pointed out, slowly lower yourself from an arms-locked position. It should take four seconds for you to reach the bottom position, where your knuckles should be in contact with your armpits (or as low as you can possibly stretch). Hold that for a brief pause, and then, with your elbows still pointed out, push yourself back up to the starting position. Repeat for your ISR, and then climb up on a chair and perform at least two more.

12) Lying dumbbell extensions

This is a terrific isolation exercise for the triceps. Grab two moderate-weight dumbbells, one in each hand, lie on a flat bench, and push the dumbbells over your chest. Keep your upper arms stationary and lower your forearms, in four seconds, till the dumbbells reach your ears. With no momentum whatsoever, power the dumbbells back to arm’s length with your triceps. Repeat for your ISR, and then cheat two more. Finally, have your partner give you four negatives.

It’s important to remember to always try for another rep more than your previous best attempt on every exercise. Once you reach the guide number of repetitions (your higher ISR), increase the resistance that you’ve been using by 5 percent, and aim for the lower guide number of reps. Perform all exercises under control by raising the resistance in two seconds, holding the contracted position for an additional two seconds, and then lowering the resistance in four seconds back to the starting position.This workout hits every back muscle there is in some way or other and has been tried and proven effective. In fact, in an experiment that I conducted in Canada some years back, one participant gained three inches on his chest-to-waist ratio. So dig down deep, give it all you’ve got, and you’ll be rewarded with a very pronounced V-shape, tremendous strength and vibrant health.

Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. His latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System, is now available. See the following page. IM

How to Calculate Your Individual Specific Repetitions (ISR)

The following simple procedure can help you determine the ideal repetition range for each muscle group.

Step 1: Determine what your maximum poundage is for a single exercise in good form, and then, after a brief rest of perhaps five minutes, perform as many repetitions as possible in good form with 80 percent of that one-rep-max weight.

For example, if your one-rep max on the bench press is 200 pounds, 80 percent is 160.

Step 2: Multiply the number of repetitions you perform by .15, and round off the result to the nearest whole number. So, if you get six reps, it’s 6 x .15 = 0.9, or 1.

Step 3: Add the number you just calculated to the number of repetitions that you were able to perform. In this case 1 + 6 = 7 repetitions. That number becomes the high end of the rep range’that is, the number of reps you should shoot for before increasing your resistance by 5 percent.

Step 4: Subtract that same number, 1, from the number of repetitions you were able to perform; that is, 6 ‘ 1 = 5. That’s now the low end of your rep range for this particular muscle group’that is, the minimum, or starting, number of repetitions that you should shoot for in order to stimulate a 20 percent inroad into your muscular reserves.

‘ 2002 Northern River Productions.

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