Just as some bodyparts are more difficult to train than others, some articles are a tougher write than others. Take this one, on Brian Yersky’s back training—very straightforward subject, hard article to complete. The difficulty had nothing to do with Yersky, an Ohio-based NPC superheavyweight who’s been on the fringes of the elite, looking for his opportunity to break through, for a few years. It was more the logistics of different time zones and my bout with the worst flu bug in history, which left me mute and with almost enough energy to turn on the computer and then stare at it blankly before the next wave of coughing and nose-blowing.
Fortunately, Brian had more energy than I did. In case you’re not familiar with his accomplishments on the posing platform, in 2008 he placed third in the superheavies at the NPC Junior USA and fourth at the Junior Nationals. In 2009 he placed third at the Junior Nationals and fifth at the IFBB North American Championships. His last show in 2009, after a hectic year, was the NPC Nationals, where he slipped slightly to eighth in his class.
Despite my condition, interviewing Brian proved to be a breeze. Not only is he affable, approachable and eager to talk about bodybuilding, he’s flexible with his schedule as well. So it is that I found myself talking with him about training (he is currently trained by IFBB pro George Farah), about his Met-Rx sponsorship and about the thriving bodybuilding culture that exists in Ohio.
“Ohio’s great,” he said. “Not only are we close to Pittsburgh and [IFBB Professional League head and NPC President] Jim Manion, but we’ve got a lot of dedicated bodybuilders out here doing their thing.” Ohio is teeming with top bodybuilding talent, he says. The scene in Columbus, where Brian got his start and where a certain famous competition and expo are held every year, is legendary, with trainers like Mike Francois and Mike Davies garnering huge followings.
What I really wanted to learn from Brian, though, was what he did in the gym to bring up his back. If you’re anything like me, you find working the back difficult. First off, the back is a complex group of muscles. No one exercise can properly stimulate every back-muscle group—the way squats work legs—so you have to have a well-thought-out plan of attack.
Second is the injury factor. If you’ve ever had a serious back injury, you understand how difficult that makes life. Proper form is obviously key to effective, safe growth. Finally, and this is a biggie, your back and hamstrings are the only two major muscle groups that you cannot see when you train them unless you’re an owl (or in a William Friedkin horror movie, in which case I’m not spotting you).
As we started talking about training, those three themes emerged as the key to not only getting wide but also building a strong, complete base from which to grow.
Step 1: Have a Plan
Here is Brian’s build-the-base back program:
Wide-grip pulldowns (warmup) 4-5 x 10-12
Close-grip V-bar pulldowns 3 x 8-15
Deadlifts (off-season only) *3 x 8-15
Seated rows 3 x 8-15
Hammer Strength machine high pull/low pull 3 x 8-15
* Precontest, he substitutes heavy bent-over rows for deadlifts.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a good back. It takes time—and a lot more than deadlifts—to craft a back with ultimate size and detail; you also have to focus on the little things, like tie-ins and balance. In other words, if you want a complete back, be sure to throw in a variety of lifts and angles.
For example, from time to time Brian will put a flat bench in the middle of the crossover machine and do a form of seated modified crossovers as a finisher. That mimics the effect of a pulldown but with the physics changed so the force point is more horizontal—you work the same muscles from a different angle.
The point is, try anything you possibly can to attack the back from multiple angles—within reason, of course. Don’t get hurt, which brings us to the next point:
Step 2: Train Intensely but With Control
Back injuries suck. There’s nothing quite as debilitating as a soft-tissue injury in the back (with the possible exception of a groin tear). When you hurt your back severely, weight training is out for whatever time it takes for the injury to heal. Want to do standing dumbbell curls for your biceps? Forget it. Even the smallest weight will put stress on your back. Leg work? Forget it. Your back is going to be recruited to assist at some point.
Even little things like heading to the grocery store become a chore. More bad news: Sex is out. The short message here is, don’t hurt your back.
“Form, form, form and weight control—I can’t stress those points enough,” Brian said. “For deadlifts I never go below eight reps; for the other lifts I tend to keep it between 10 and 12 reps per set.
“The key to a good back workout isn’t lifting large weights; it’s lifting enough weight to get a proper squeeze and exhaust the muscle safely.”
Novice to intermediate lifters should try going a little lighter, he added. “If you can’t control the weight or the rep speed or hold the weight to feel the squeeze, then you may not be getting the most out of each rep.”
That’s not to suggest that you should run out to the store and buy pink spandex leotards to match the neoprene weights that you’ll be lifting—quite the contrary. You still want to lift heavy enough to hit failure in order to stress the muscle properly, but since you can’t see your back, sometimes that weight is slightly less than what you think it should be. Over time, as you fully develop the mind/muscle connection, you’ll be able to increase that weight and lift safely. That leads us to the third point:
Step 3: Don’t Be Fooled
The problem that many lifters have when they begin to train back is that they cannot see it. You can see your biceps when you curl, and you can see your chest working on bench presses, but you can’t see your back muscles contracting during a deadlift or any other back exercise. The right weight, good form and an experienced spotter can help you with all that. If you don’t have an experienced lifter with you, machines can help you find the correct form or groove for maximum muscle contraction.
Once you have a good base, the next steps are fairly simple. For experienced lifters such as Brian, the focus is less on building width and mass and more on working on the less noticeable items such as tie-ins and lower-back depth. Overall back depth comes with time in the gym spent doing compound lifts in the off-season. Brian, whose competition plans next year include the IFBB North American Championships and possibly the NPC Nationals, is going to spend the off-season doing just that, working on those little things and trying to take the next step forward.
Editor’s note: Brian Yersky is a personal trainer, fitness model and NPC national-level bodybuilder. To contact him for personal training, consultation, guest posing and appearances, write to [email protected] IM