Phil Heath took the bodybuilding world by storm in 2005 and 2006. Yet, amid all the praise for his various strengths—those arms, those lines, those round muscle bellies—there was always some mention of his greatest weakness: “Yeah, but can he ever get enough back size to win the Mr. Olympia?”

After all, the Sandow Society is the domain of Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman, who, by the end of 2005, had collectively won 22 of the 41 Olympias, largely because they possessed the three greatest backs of their eras. Year after year, bodybuilding’s ultimate title was decided when those in the O’s first callout unfurled their rear-lat spreads and locked in their rear double biceps.

None of this was news to Heath. He heard “Yeah, but…” over and over again. He knew all about the backs of Mr. Os, including Jay Cutler, who, beginning in 2006, won four out of five Olympias with his hang-glider lats. So the Gift went about putting in the work needed to join them in the physique pantheon. The transformation of Heath’s back from a weakness to a strength has been one of the most dramatic alterations in bodybuilding history. When he won his first Sandow in 2011, the contest was decided the moment he crunched in his rear double biceps and gasps filled the Orleans Arena. And he hasn’t rested on his laurels. With back masters Cutler and Kai Greene chasing him, he knows this year’s Olympia, like most every O of the past three decades, will be decided from the rear.


A typical Heath back workout begins with front pulldowns. The only question is what type of grip he’ll use on that particular day. “I switch between parallel and underhand with a fairly wide grip,” he says. “With these, I always focus on where my elbows are going as I pull them down. That’s the key to targeting your back—pull with your elbows working like levers and bring them down to your sides. And really, I’m just trying to get the blood flowing into my lats.”

One way Heath enhances the pump is by maintaining a brisk pace. “Usually on this workout I only rest about a minute to 75 seconds between sets because I’m trying to get in a lot of stuf. With back, because it’s such a big body part, I want to just keep working and hit a lot of areas with different exercises.”

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Next up are barbell rows, which Heath tends to do underhand in the manner of Dorian Yates (six Sandows), but with his torso nearly parallel to the floor in the manner of Lee Haney (eight Sandows) and Ronnie Coleman (eight Sandows). “The biggest thing about this is keeping your back flat,” the Gift avers. “A lot of guys end up going too heavy, and their chest ends up going up too high. What I try to do is go not quite 90 degrees [torso parallel to the floor] but damn close. You get a better contraction that way.

“I want to maintain that constant tension,” he adds. “You’re going to have those sets where you just want to bang out 10 reps, but on this particular one it’s not about that. It’s about being able to move the weight but squeeze your lower lats. That’s what’s going to give you that real nice [lower lat] sweep. This is a density exercise. Every guy who’s had a great back has done this, be it overhand or underhand. For me, underhand works better. Just be careful when going underhand that you don’t go too heavy and pull with your biceps. You have to make sure you’re always concentrating on your back working. A perfect way to do it is to watch yourself in the mirror to see your form.”


Next up are high-pulley rows, bringing the bar down at approximately a 45-degree angle. “The biggest thing on this is to make sure you get a full stretch on the way up and a full contraction at the bottom. Don’t just let gravity or momentum carry you along. You’re not trying to get pulled into position. You have to do the pulling. You need to feel the stretch. The stretch is a great way to learn how to open up your lats for a lat spread. And then I also like to hold contractions for at least a half-count. This is one of those exercises that you’re definitely going to be feeling, especially after just doing rows.”

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Look at Heath’s back routine and you see mostly rows. He hits his back from a variety of angles, but more by pulling his elbows back than down, thus building the density that wins rear shots.

Next up, he does either one-arm dumbbell rows or T-bar rows, typically alternating them each workout. He explained his technique with T-bar rows. “I do these either from the floor or on one of the stations where your chest is supported. The key when doing them of the floor is to not let momentum take over. You don’t want the weight to pull you down so you have to hump it up each time. Use a weight you can master, and then you can go heavier later, once you’ve got the form down. This is such an awesome movement, but you want to get quality reps to really pack on that density. The only way you’re going to make T-bar rows work for you is to make sure you’re controlling the weight. I’d suggest you try to stay low the entire time. If you can’t stay low, then you’re going too heavy and you’re going to be yanking up the weight and not using your lats as much.”


Near the end of his workout, the two-time (so far) Mr. Olympia does low-cable rows, and he employs sevens—the FST-7 technique of doing (typically) seven sets with only 20–30 seconds rest between sets. “With these, you want to get a stretch just like you’re rowing a boat. It’s almost as if you’re stretching to touch your toes. And then, as you’re going back, you’re doing that rowing motion, but you don’t want to lean back too much—just a little bit. This is definitely one where you want to maintain constant tension, really make sure your technique is down.

“The thing is, you’re not going to get a good pump if you’re doing it wrong. This is true of any exercise. You might start sweating and feel like you’re working, but you’re only going to get a good pump if you’re contracting the muscles. Slow things down, and figure out how to do the exercise correctly without straining yourself.” When asked which handle he prefers on low-cable rows, the Gift replies, “I use a V-handle most of the time, but you can also switch this one around and try it with a wider handle and different grips. I think that’s what makes
this exercise pretty fun. There are a lot of ways you can modify it.”

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For his final back exercise, Heath delivers a surprise. Beginning this spring, he started adding pullovers to his repertoire. Many people do pullovers for chest, feeling this old-school lift stretches out the rib cage. In fact, it’s a better lat worker. “I either do these with a dumbbell on a bench or I use a pullover machine,” the Gift states. “You can also do them with an overhead cable, but I’ve been favoring the dumbbell or the machine. I’m lucky enough to have one of those [pullover machines] in the gym where I train [Armbrust Pro Gym, Wheat Ridge, CO]. The key with these is to pull with your elbows and not your arms. You can really take your biceps out of these and just focus on your lats.”

When told that a fellow member of the Sandow Society, Dorian Yates, favored machine pullovers for his legendary lat width, Heath laughs, as he’s already well aware of this. “I steal everybody’s stuff. I mean, that’s what we gotta do. That’s what it’s all about. You learn from those who’ve gone before you, and then you try it for yourself. It may not work as well for your body, but you don’t know unless you try. You can’t be afraid to try new things.”


Whether to work traps with shoulders or back is one of the enduring debates of bodybuilding. Put Mr. Olympia down decidedly in the traps-with-back camp. For him, shrugs with either dumbbells or a machine is the perfect way to cap off his back workout. “I do higher reps on shrugs than most people,” he explains. “It’s not about the weight for me. Instead, it’s about trying to get a really good squeeze. I notice a lot of guys go too fast when shrugging. They’re just getting the weight up and down as fast as possible and missing the contraction and that time under tension. If you slow it down a little bit, it’s going to work your traps a lot harder, and that’s what it’s all about.”


If, on September 28, Phil Heath becomes only the seventh man to win a third straight Mr. Olympia title, his rear shots will probably again be the deciding factor. It’s a given that he won’t have the widest lats on stage, but width is limited by your DNA-determined structure. Heath is proof you can win rear comparisons even among the likes of Jay Cutler, Kai Greene, and Shawn Rhoden with density, separation, and head-to-foot muscle quality.

He did it in previous contests and eliminated his primary “Yeah, but…” Yeah, but can he ever get enough back size to win the Mr. Olympia? Two Sandows later, the only question remaining about Phil Heath is: Yeah, but how long can he stay on top? Maybe we’ll find out this year. Yeah, but maybe we won’t find out for many years to come.

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■ “The thing with back is, I don’t think anyone is going to complain that a guy’s back is too big. It’s like, your mid-back may be too big or your upper lats may be too small or there may be other problems with your back balance, but if you have a whole big-ass back, it’s going to be hard for a judge or anyone else to criticize your back. You never hear about anyone losing because their back was just too damn big.”



IFBB Olympia Weekend 2013

IFBB Olympia Weekend 2013