Q: My back is my weak point. What did you do to get your back to grow?
A: My back was always one of the strongest areas of my physique. I think some of it was due to my genetics—I have lats that insert very low—but I believe it was primarily the training routine I used that enabled me to build such an impressive back.
One of the first articles I read about back training was written by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He divided the routine into width exercises and thickness exercises. It was important to work for both width and thickness to get maximum back development.
Width exercises included wide-grip chins and wide-grip pulldowns, exercises that work the upper lats, which are the muscles that help create an impressive V-taper. Arnold also did close-grip chins, which are more for the lower lats because you hold your arms close to your body, with the elbows in front.
Arnold mentioned in the article that many bodybuilders have great width from the front but look terrible when they turn around because they don’t do enough thickness exercises. For complete back development it’s important to do both width and thickness movements.
When I started training at age 14, I was limited to the equipment I had at home because there were no gyms close to where I lived, and I didn’t have my driver’s license yet. The chinup bar I purchased from my local sporting goods store was the type that you put in a door frame. Unfortunately, when I tried to do wide-grip chins with it, my elbows would hit the door frame.
My dad worked as a forklift driver on the loading docks. He brought home a big steel pipe and installed it across the hallway of our house, placing it on top of two opposite door frames. I was able to grab the bar as wide as I wanted for wide-grip chins.
I got so good at doing wide-grip chins that eventually I was able to add weight by placing a 25-pound plate in a towel and holding it between my legs. In no time, my lats started to get really wide. When I competed in my first bodybuilding show at 16, I had the widest rear lat spread in the teen division.
In addition to doing chins for my back width, I did plenty of thickness exercises. The best thickness exercise, according to Arnold, was barbell rows performed while standing on a bench. Keeping my knees slightly flexed and my lower back arched, I would row a barbell into my upper abs. I positioned my hands wide on the bar and made sure I kept the elbows wide in order to thicken the middle of my lats.
Another great exercise for building more lat thickness is the T-bar row. Using one end of a barbell and a V-bar attachment, row the bar into your chest. Make sure you keep your lower back arched and tight and your knees flexed in order to avoid injuring your lower back.
The T-bar row is a short-range-of-motion exercise, and you’ll feel most of the stress in your outer lats. When I was younger, I used to stand on a big wooden block while doing barbell and T-bar rows to increase my range of motion and get a great stretch at the bottom of the rep.
Another popular exercise for thickness is one-arm dumbbell rows. Grabbing a bench with one arm for support, I would row a heavy dumbbell up with my other arm. I positioned my elbow so that it passed right over my rib cage at the top of the movement. That focused the stress on the middle of my lats.
It’s important to train your lower-back muscles in addition to your lats. Many thickness exercises use the lower back in a supporting role, and if those muscles aren’t developed and strong, they’ll most likely be strained.
The primary power movement for lower back is the deadlift. The correct form for deadlifts is to bend your knees at the start of the movement, keeping your lower back arched and tight, your shoulders back and your head up. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and your arms straight. Begin by using the strength of your legs to pull the bar off the ground. Keep your back straight, and use the muscles in your lower back to complete the movement by standing straight up.
The deadlift is a very powerful exercise. By using the muscles of your legs and back, you can potentially move a lot of resistance, and it’s a great mass builder. In addition to lower-back strength, it adds mass to the spinal erectors, the powerful-looking muscles that run along the spine in the middle of the back.
Another great exercise for lower-back muscles is hyperextensions. You can do them with your legs positioned on a 45 degree angle or horizontally. Either method is terrific for strengthening the lower back. Remember, lower-back muscles are usually the weak link on many power movements, so it’s important to develop them to prevent injury.
Here are a few sample back workouts:
Wide-grip chins (width) 2-3 x 10
Barbell rows (thickness) 2-3 x 10
Wide-grip chins (width) 3 x 8-10
Barbell rows (thickness) 4 x 6-10
Hyperextensions (lower back) 3 x 15
Advanced Workout 1
Wide-grip chins 3 x 8-10
Barbell rows 4 x 6-10
Seated cable rows 3 x 8-10
Deadlifts 3 x 6-10
Advanced Workout 2
Wide-grip pulldowns 3 x 8-10
One-arm dumbbell rows 3 x 6-8
T-bar rows 3 x 6-8
Hyperextensions 3 x 15-20
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to him at [email protected] or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM