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Etched-In-Stone Back Mass

If you look at a complete picture of the back musculature in an anatomy book, you’ll notice that it has many muscles that cross over one another, often with diagonally opposing insertions.

Q: I’m a 52-year-old man and have been training for more than 30 years. I’ve competed in bodybuilding contests, and although I’ve always placed high, I don’t win. Everyone says it’s because my back doesn’t have enough detail. I do everything—pullups, pulldowns, T-bar rows, low-pulley rows and one-arm dumbbell rows—even heavy deadlifts. I’ve done every routine from every book and magazine that’s been published, yet nothing has worked. My back gets wide, but it lacks depth and detail. Could you recommend something?

A: If you look at a complete picture of the back musculature in an anatomy book, you’ll notice that it has many muscles that cross over one another, often with diagonally opposing insertions. The back is an extremely intricate muscle group by design. I’ve seen guys do exactly what you’re doing and create a wide, deeply cut and detailed back. On the other hand, some men, such as yourself, try everything and cannot get depth and detail, only width. That particular problem is usually rooted in the shape of the spine. My guess is that your spine is either slightly or greatly kyphotic, meaning that the middle of the spine comes outward too far and loses its profile and shape. A spinal deformity that’s often overlooked during a child’s growing years, kyphosis can also be the result of poor posture.

When you say that there’s a lot width to the outer edges of your back—the latissimus and teres major muscles—I’m even more convinced that your problem is congenital. Fear not, though, for where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The muscles that create the most detail are worked properly only when your shoulders are back far enough to engage them. It’s important for you to get your shoulders back and squeeze the lower traps, the scapulae and the inner muscles that run down either side of the spine. Here’s how to do that:

1) Behind-the-neck lat pulldowns. Be sure not to let the bar go all the way up, and focus on squeezing the scapulae inward as you pull the weight down to the back of your neck. (Everything that you do from here on should be done with the idea of squeezing your scapulae together as much as possible). Forget about the stretch part of your back exercises—you’re stretched too much already. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

2) Seated low-pulley rows. Use a weight that’s heavy enough to put a strain on your muscles yet moderate enough for you to get your shoulders back and your scapulae together. Again, it’s not important to stretch all the way—but you need to squeeze those scapulae on every rep. Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps. At the end of each set do as many squeezes as you can. Just keep contracting your back muscles at the top of the last rep, never letting the bar go forward more than two inches, and then squeeze again.

3) Seated machine rows. Set the seat low enough to ensure that when you pull your arms back, they’re up away from your torso. That engages the higher portion of the trap muscles on either side of the spine, enabling you to squeeze the lower area as well. Do at least 15 full reps and as many short, squeezing-type reps as you can. Do three sets of 15 to failure with squeezes at the end of each set.

4) Cable squeezes. Take a set of Lifeline cables (thick multiple rubber cables with handles) and loop the cables around a pole or other upright so there’s a handle on either side. Sit on the floor and grab the handles. Pull them in so that your hands (and handles) are back as far as you can go, at least far enough that your shoulders are back and your scapulae are together. Allow the cable handles to move forward just two to four inches, and then squeeze your scapulae together as you bring the handles back again. Do that for at least for 40 to 60 seconds every other day until you see that your shoulders are being brought back to where they should sit. For most people that may take four to six months, depending on the severity of the kyphosis. Once your shoulders seem to be sitting even with the center of your neck in profile view, do cable squeezes at the end of your back routine once a week. 

You may also want to find a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, who can teach you how to reprogram your nervous system and your neuromuscular signals. You’ll find within a couple of months that your shoulders sit back naturally. Also ask your Feldenkrais practitioner for a four-foot log of Styrofoam, which you can roll on at home in your spare time. Over time, if you roll back and forth on your back on that simple device, it can help the curve become a bit less severe.


Editor’s note: Paul Burke has a master’s degree in integrated studies from Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s been a champion bodybuilder and arm wrestler, and he’s considered a leader in the field of over-40 fitness training. To contact him, write to [email protected]. You can purchase his book, Burke’s Law—a New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit His “Burke’s Law” training DVD is also now available.

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