When most bodybuilders think about their back, they invariably envision the latissimus dorsi muscles’the ones most responsible for that highly sought-after V-taper. Nevertheless, the lats are just one part of the total back picture. Other muscles, such as the infraspinatus, trapezius, teres minor and major, rhomboideus and erector spinae, are essential to the bodybuilder’s physique. If neglected, they lead to perpetually low contest placings.
But First, a Little Anatomy and Kinesiology
Though the back is composed of many diverse muscles, some, like the teres major and the latissimus dorsi, have parallel functions. That’s important, as the proper performance of one exercise will involve several related muscle groups and so you save a lot of training time. Let’s start with the trapezius muscle, which got some direct work in the Max Contraction shoulder-specialization workout [August ’03]. They’ll get more work in the back routine. Having well-developed traps is the hallmark of the serious bodybuilder.
The trapezius muscle arises at the base of the neck, extends outward toward the shoulder blades and then down into the middle of the back. Its functions are to elevate the shoulders and to abduct the scapulae, or shoulder blades. You also activate your traps whenever you draw your head backward and to either side. The best exercise for traps is one that duplicates its major function. As the rhomboids also pull the scapulae up and inward, they’ll also get direct stimulation whenever the traps are properly trained with an exercise like shrugs.
The latissimus dorsi is the broadest muscle of the back. Its origin extends from the sixth thoracic vertebrae downward until its lowest fibers are attached to the upper edge of the illium, the hip bone. The latissimus inserts along the front of the humerus, the upper arm bone, close to its head. You may recall that the deltoid raises the arm and draws it forward; the latissimus dorsi does just the opposite’it pulls the arm down and back. The teres major’s function is also activated whenever you draw your arm down, back or in. Consequently, I have selected lat exercises that also train the teres major muscles.
The exercises that best correspond to the lats’ primary function are any type of rowing motions, such as Nautilus pullovers, lat pulldowns, bent-over barbell rows, T-bar rows and so on. In Max Contraction, however, training an exercise provides resistance in the fully contracted position, so it’s also a good idea, where possible, to select an exercise that provides resistance to the targeted muscle group without involving any weak-link muscles. In back training that would eliminate rows and pulldowns, which involve the arms. The only exercise, then, that provides direct resistance to the lats is pullovers performed with cables or an exercise machine. This routine also features a pulldown movement, but mainly for the sake of variety, as the biceps will give out long before the lats reach a state of true muscular exhaustion.
The infraspinatus and teres minor muscles are both activated whenever the upper arm is abducted, or rotated. Any form of wide-grip pulldown or chinup stresses them thoroughly (although if direct resistance is a priority’and it should be’the Nautilus or Body Masters behind-the-neck machines are the only ones that do that). Other exercises, such as parallel-grip pulldowns on the lat machine or any movement that keeps your elbows out from the midline of the body, will also activate those muscles reasonably well, so make do with what’s available to you.
The erector spinae muscles are activated whenever extension of the trunk takes place, as in the performance of hyperextensions, deadlifts, good mornings, side bends and the Nautilus hip-and-back and lower-back machines.
So much for the anatomy and physiology. Now it’s time to get on with the workout.
‘ Straight-arm lat pulldowns
‘ Nautilus pullovers
‘ Close- or parallel-grip pulldowns
‘ Dumbbell shrugs
‘ Upright rows
‘ Leg extensions
‘ Leg curls
‘ Seated calf raises
‘ Abdominal crunches
‘ Pec deck flyes
‘ Dumbbell kickbacks
Notice that there’s no direct biceps work in this routine, owing to the fact that the biceps are stressed quite thoroughly with pulldowns and upright rows. That’s a positive omission for several reasons: There’s no reason to hold back, as those two sets will be the only stimulation your biceps get this month; and any direct exercise attempted after those two all-out MCS sets would constitute overtraining. Physiologists have recently found that muscles that are not worked directly sometimes (albeit briefly) can hypertrophy due the indirect effect of strenuous exercise and the extra time allotted for recovery and growth.
A Note on Set Performance
It’s of paramount importance to observe proper form at all times with MCS training. Whenever an exercise requires that you lift the resistance into a position of full muscular contraction, you must do so slowly, feeling all of the target muscle group’s fibers contracting until a state of maximum fiber involvement has taken place. Then lock in and hold the contraction for a minimum of 45 seconds and a maximum of 60. That 45 to 60 seconds will keep you within the anaerobic pathways’which is what you want because that’s how muscular growth is stimulated. Anything beyond 60 seconds tends to be more aerobic, or endurance related. It’s also a good idea to move as quickly as possible between exercises until, eventually, you’re able to move through the whole routine nonstop. Not only will that pace not compromise your muscle growth stimulation, but it will hype your metabolism to burn more bodyfat as well, which will improve your overall level of definition.
The Routine Explained
Straight-arm lat pulldowns. Take hold of a pulldown bar from an overhead pulley and step back. You may want to kneel on the floor if the weight stack allows it; however, standing works just as well. Keeping your arms perfectly straight, pull the bar downward until it’s at chest level’anything beyond that will transfer the stress more to your abs, pecs and triceps’and sustain that position for 45 to 60 seconds. Then rush to your next back exercise.
Nautilus pullovers.If you don’t have access to the Nautilus machine, simply do a second set of straight-arm pulldowns with a 5 percent reduction in weight. If you do have access to a Nautilus pullover machine, sit in it and strap yourself in. Place your elbows on the pads above your head and draw them down until they’re just below your chest. Sustain that fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds. Then rush to your next back exercise.
Close-grip or parallel-grip pulldowns. This exercise will hit the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles of the upper back in addition to the latissimus dorsi. Grab a lat pulldown bar with a close, palms-up grip’or use a parallel-grip handle. Sit down on the lat machine with your arms fully extended above your head and your thighs under the stabilizer pads. Slowly pull the bar down toward your chest but only take the resistance to the halfway point, as it’s not a direct lat movement and will, if carried through to complete contraction, cause the biceps to give out first. Once you’ve hit the halfway point, hold for 45 to 60 seconds. Then rush to your next back exercise.
Barbell or machine shrugs. Don’t make the mistake of allowing your ego to dictate your poundage on this exercise. Form should always take precedence over weight for the simple reason that if your muscles aren’t responsible for moving the weight, they won’t be adequately stimulated. It will, however, be possible to handle some fairly heavy weight, as the trapezius muscles are among the strongest in the body. Grab the handles on a Universal bench press machine or Hammer shrug machine or take an overgrip on a barbell and stand erect so that the resistance is directly in front of your thighs. Slowly begin to contract your traps so that your shoulders shrug up toward the ceiling. When you’ve raised the weight as high as possible, hold the contraction for a full 45 to 60 seconds. When you can no longer maintain the contraction, slowly lower the weight and go to your next trap exercise.
Upright rows. Again select a barbell and grip it with a palms-over grip so that your hands are no more than six inches apart. Either pull the bar with a slight hitch up to chin level or have a training partner help you lift it to that position. The weight should be as heavy as you can possibly use. Keeping the bar at chin level, and keeping your elbows pointed outward, hold that position of full muscular contraction for 45 to 60 seconds. When you can no longer maintain the contraction, slowly lower the resistance and rush to your final back exercise.
Hyperextensions. Lie facedown, crossways, over a bench so that your torso is hanging over the edge. Have your partner hold, sit or in some way place resistance on your legs to counterbalance the weight of your torso. Place a weight (a modest one to begin with) behind your neck or hold it to your chest, and bend at the waist. Slowly raise your torso’with your partner’s assistance, if you need it’using your erector spinae muscles until it’s as high as possible. At that point you will have activated the greatest percentage of momentarily available muscle fibers, so hold that contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds. Then go to your next exercise.
Leg extensions. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then move on to your next exercise.
Leg curls. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds and then move on to your next exercise.
Seated calf raises. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then move on to your next exercise.
Abdominal crunches. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then move on to your next exercise.
Pec deck flyes. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then move on to your next exercise.
Dumbbell kickbacks. Hold the resistance in the fully contracted position for 45 to 60 seconds, and then switch hands and repeat.
When you can hold the contraction in any of the above exercises for more than 60 seconds, it’s time to increase the resistance by 5 percent and shoot for a minimum of 45 seconds again. The above workout hits every back muscle in one way or another and has been tried and proven effective. In fact, it was that exact routine that seemed to pack on the muscle for most of the subjects in a study done back in 1986.
Dig in, give it your all, and you will be rewarded with a very pronounced V-shape, tremendous strength, vibrant health and, someday, maybe even the Sandow trophy itself.
Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. Watch for his latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System, in early 2004. IM