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Photos by Per Bernal
With a perfectly healthy lumbar spine, it’s pretty simple: Go heavy and intense on bentover rows, T-bar rows, pulldowns, and pullups. Rinse and repeat, then keep repeating. Done.
With a bum lower back, however, those heavy rows will land you in a chiropractor’s office—or worse, confined to bed rest—long before they widen your lats and thicken your rhomboids. No one knows this better than veteran IFBB pro Mark Dugdale. Back in his 20s, the now 42-year- old did what every 20-something bodybuilder does: He went as heavy and intense as possible on the biggest compound moves. Squats, rows, you name it. The result? A great physique with slabs of muscle hanging off of it, but also tons of wear and tear on his body that’s forced him to evolve his training.
“Squatting 700 pounds in my 20s significantly impacts my present-day back workouts due to lower-back issues,” says Dugdale. “My overall training philosophy has changed significantly in just the past five years. Simply moving heavy weight no longer returns the results it did when I was new to training. As you get older, you have to train smarter rather than harder. I still train with intensity, but in a safer fashion and utilizing more volume. HIT/Yates-style training served me well up to my early 30s, but then injuries occurred. Dorian was sidelined by 37 from training injuries, if I have my dates correct, so to some extent I’m plowing new ground still competing in my 40s.”
Dugdale’s training style now— high volume with moderate weights and keeping intensity in check—is in stark contrast to what he cut his teeth on early in his career. In case you’re not familiar with how Dorian Yates used to train, High Intensity Training (HIT) is defined by very few working sets (low volume), but those working sets are performed as heavy and intensely as possible. Fortunately for Dugdale, his current regimen is working wonders for his back development, not to mention his contest placings.
“In the past, my back was considered a weak area, but when I won the Arctic Pro 212, Chicago Pro 212, and Vancouver BC Pro 212, recently, I was told that my back shots cinched the wins,” he says. “While I feel this was largely due to my conditioning—being very lean allows me to capitalize best on my structure—I also think it was a result of my approach to back training. Feeling the muscles working trumps moving heavy weight. If I can’t feel the target muscle working with a given exercise or weight, I stop doing it.”
You live and learn, right?
“I change exercises, sequencing, and intensity techniques on a weekly basis,” says Dugdale, “but this is what a typical back workout might look like for me.”
“I like to start with pulldowns to help open up my back. Bring the bar just to your chin (not all the way to your chest) and hold the contraction for a one-second count, squeezing as hard as possible before slowly extending your arms back up. This one-second hold in the contracted position will ensure you’re using muscle power and not momentum. I typically fail to maintain this form by the sixth to eighth rep—after this point, I pump out the remaining reps to get all 10.”
“By this point in the workout, pullovers are a nice way to give your biceps a break and stretch your already fully pumped lats. The key is to not bring the dumbbell all the way up over your head, which turns it into a chest exercise. Maintain tension on the lats by reversing the movement as you bring the dumbbell to forehead level. Focus on flexing your lats throughout the entire range of motion.”
ONE-ARM KNEELING LAT PULL- DOWN
“This is a great feel-type exercise that makes for a good finisher to hit the lower lats. The key is to stretch at the top and pronate your wrist [face your palm forward]; then, as you pull down, supinate the wrist [face your palm toward you] and contract hard in the flexed position for a one-second count before reversing the motion. Sometimes I’ll alternate between each side with no rest breaks for four sets, going to failure on each one. Keep in mind, failure isn’t when you can no longer do another rep, but rather when you can’t do another rep with perfectly prescribed form. There’s no point in moving weight just for the sake of getting reps if you don’t feel the muscle working.”