How To Build A Massive Back

ronnie-coleman-super-defined-lats

Why is a Massive Back So Rare?

The real reason massive backs are so rare is that most bodybuilders fail to grasp the function of the back and never train it properly. The basic function of the lats is to bring the arms down from an overhead position and to bring the arms back when they are in front of the body. In other words, a pulling down movement as well as pulling back as in any type of row. To work the lats completely, the lower back must be arched, not rounded.

Another common limiting factor toward building the lats is that it’s quite easy to let the biceps or momentum do the actual work rather than the lats, and as you should know, the biceps are much smaller and weaker than the lats. Therefore, if your biceps give out first, your lats never receive sufficient stimulation needed to spark growth.

The final and perhaps most significant issue working against back development is the simple fact that the whole muscle group is to the back of you, and you can’t see it. Not only does the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ prove appropriate in this case, but not being able to see the lats while you work them also makes it much more difficult to establish a strong mind-muscle connection with them, as opposed to ‘mirror muscles’ like the chest and arms.

I can say from the experience that the back is the one area where establishing this connection is the most critical. Just about anybody can stimulate the chest to grow with bench presses, the biceps with curls, or the quads with squats— but stimulating the lats whilst performing pulldowns or rows is not quite so simple. The very first thing I do when taking someone through a back workout is to cut the weight they are using— often by half— and have him or her focus intensely on feeling the lats contract as they pull, hold the peak contraction point and squeeze the lats as hard as possible, and feel them stretch as they lower the resistance. Many of my clients have been stunned to actually feel their lats working for the very first time once they do this.

The Myth of Wide-grip Superiority

One myth that has held back the development of lats the world over is the idea that using a wide grip on chins and pulldowns is the best way to build wider lats. This myth probably has its origins in the fact that using a wide grip on any vertical pulling motion will selectively recruit the smaller upper back muscles like the teres major and minor, the upper portion of the traps, and the rhomboids.

When a bodybuilder feels these smaller muscle groups at the top of the back working, he often assumes he is making his lats wider. But the lats actually originate under the armpits and insert near the waist. Using a wide grip does not provide anywhere near a full range of motion for them. A narrower grip, in contrast, allows both a better stretch and a more complete contraction. If you don’t believe me, pantomime two types of pulldowns right now as you read this, doing your best to contract the lats as hard as possible: a wide-grip pulldown and a narrow, underhand grip. I guarantee you that you will feel a more powerful contraction of the lats with the narrow underhand grip.

I have found that using a closer grip with the hands either parallel (facing each other) or fully supinated (underhand) actually provided the best contraction and most complete range of motion for the lats.

A final reason to consider using a narrow grip beyond the issue of range of motion is the fact that it puts the biceps in a stronger position. Since the biceps are far smaller and weaker than the lats, putting them in a position where they are guaranteed to fail before the lats are properly stimulated, as in any wide-grip vertical pull, will cause you to shortchange your potential growth.

Putting Together the Ideal Back Workout

The back is a very large and complex group of muscles, but the ideal back training routine doesn’t need to be overly long or complicated. Here’s what I recommend based on what I found to work best.

Pullovers

You can use a dumbbell for pullovers if you don’t have access to a pullover machine, but the range of motion is shorter and it’s difficult to keep the triceps out of the motion. A straight-arm cable pullover is another option, but it’s tough to use enough resistance and stay on the floor at the same time. Either way this move propagates an incredible stretch and is the perfect way to start any back workout.

A Close-grip Pulldown Movement

As I said before, I preferred a close-grip cable pulldown, usually with an underhand grip. This provides the most complete range of motion for the lats and also puts the biceps in the strongest pulling position possible.

Barbell or Dumbbell Rows

The two most productive vertical pulling movements I found were barbell rows and one-arm dumbbell rows. I alternate between the two from workout to workout. With barbell rows, an underhand grip put the biceps in a stronger position. I have also found that standing at roughly a 70° angle and pulling into the waist worked the lats more completely than the ‘old-school’ style of bending over with the torso parallel to the ground and pulling into the chest, which worked more of the upper back muscles, as opposed to the actual lats.

Cable or Hammer Strength Seated Row

I also do some type of horizontal rowing movement, either the Hammer Strength seated, or seated cable rows. The machine is a perfect choice for anyone who has lower back problems that could be aggravated by barbell rows. However, if you keep your back arched instead of rounded, that shouldn’t be an issue. I usually do both a free weight row as well as either a seated machine or cable row in my routines.

Rack Deadlifts

The order of the aforementioned exercises isn’t overly important, but I do feel that doing deadlifts last is the best way to include them in your back routine. Very heavy deadlifts can put a great deal of stress on the spine as well as other areas. If you performed deadlifts first, it would require something like 600 or maybe even 700 pounds to reach failure with 6-8 reps depending on your current level of strength. Instead, do them last and you’ll only need 405-495 pounds at most to get the job done. Also, don’t do the reps from the floor up, but from the mid-shin. The initial pull off the floor is mainly using the legs and glutes, which shouldn’t be a concern on back day.

A Final Word on Momentum

If there is one culprit to blame for lack of back development in bodybuilders, it’s the use of momentum to move the weight, rather than pure lat power. One must keep in mind that there are three types of strength: positive (lifting the weight), static (the peak contraction at the top of the rep where the muscle is fully contracted), and negative (lowering).

Your strength is actually the least in the positive and the greatest in the negative. In other words, if you can lift 200 pounds, you can probably hold 250 pounds in the peak contraction and can lower about 300 pounds in the negative. That’s just a very rough example. Most bodybuilders really only perform the positive portion of the rep and completely miss out on the other two possible areas.

A quick test to see if this describes you is to see if you can stop each rep at the peak contraction and pause to fully contract the lats, then lower it slowly under control for a good stretch. If you can’t, you’re using too much weight and would actually benefit greatly by reducing the resistance. Studies have shown that the negative portion of the rep causes more muscle damage and stimulates greater gains in strength than the lifting itself.

Summary: A Great Back Can Be Yours

So, armed with all this knowledge— can you now go forth and build a Ronnie Coleman-like back? I can’t say for certain that you can, but if you go about your back training in the proper manner, you at least stand a fighting chance. Having the confidence that you can improve the development of your back, along with the knowledge of how to train it properly, will mean that whatever your back looks like at the present moment, in time you can indeed make it wider, thicker, and more impressive.

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