Back on Track

FLEX editors undertook a rather daunting task, journalistically speaking—they gathered to choose the 20 bodybuilders who, in their estimation, represented the best back development of all time. The list was stacked with greats, from Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates at the top of the heap to Melvin Anthony and Albert Beckles snagging the final two spots. You could argue vociferously for a favorite who didn’t make the list (and have a valid point), but all told, no one could debate the quality of the final 20. They were giants in a sport that boasts more than its fair share of larger-than-life physiques.

But, beyond their being members of the bodybuilding brotherhood and having competed in the upper echelons of their chosen sport, what indelibly linked these 20 men?

Undoubtedly, it was the implements they used in the gym to create those magnificent expanses of detailed muscle that separated them from their peers whenever they turned around onstage. In bodybuilding, individuals forge their own path, but they all tend to rely on the basics when it comes to training: exercises that have stood the test of time, been passed down through iron generations, and played a vital role in some of the sickest transformations ever witnessed.

Ten specific exercises are prominent throughout the workouts of those 20 men. Ask them and they’d swear allegiance to these monstrous mass builders, telling any avid newbies within earshot to dedicate themselves to mastering any and all.

The following, then, are the integral moves for anyone seeking a wider, thicker, and more extremely defined back. They develop the back from top to bottom and from inside out—from the trapezius down through the erector spinae, and from the peripheral edges of the latissimus dorsi through the teres major and minor, rhomboids, and serratus posterior. If you dare to dream of one day wielding the rear view of, say, Lee Haney, Michael Francois, or even the Bahamian Behemoth, Joel Stubbs, this is where you begin your journey.

 

PART I: PRIME MOVERS

These exercises should serve as the foundational moves of your back routine. Once you can perform them with surgical precision, you’ll want to progressively increase your strength and stamina, handling more and more poundage on the weight-bearing moves.

  • BENTOVER BARBELL ROW
  • ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
  • CHINUP

BENTOVER BARBELL ROW

Like Gary Busey at aFL06184_2014-1 Hollywood soiree, the bentover row is something a lot of people tend to avoid. Why? It can be awkward, difficult, and leave you a little disoriented. But in the case of the barbell row, skipping it is a huge mistake. Instead of skirting around it for easier options, walk right up and embrace it. Like it or hate it, nothing else can grind up the target muscles so thoroughly and directly, stressing the entire length of your back with uncompromising ferocity.

FORM POINTERS:

  • To start, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, and grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Lean forward at your waist until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor.
  • Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back.
  • Pause momentarily with the bar in the peak-contracted position, then slowly extend your elbows to lower it along the same path.

INTENSIFY IT:

Most intensity techniques, such as negatives and forced reps, are not advised with the bentover row, but you can consider supersetting it with pullups or a machine exercise like a pulldown or seated cable row.

ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW

While the barbell row reigns supreme, the dumbbell row offers at least two benefits that elevate it into the conversation of “best back exercise.” For one, it uses a broader range of motion than the more limiting barbell, while not allowing a weaker side of your anatomy to compensate for a stronger one. Also, it’s more stable, as it allows you to place your free hand on a bench or rack. Paired together, the two rows can be a dream team on back day.

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FORM POINTERS:

  • Bend over at the hips and place one knee and the sameside hand on a fat bench. Keep your other foot on the floor beside the bench and hold a dumbbell in the sameside hand, hanging straight down with your elbow fully extended.
  • Bring the weight toward your hip, keeping your elbow in close to your body.
  • Pull your elbow as high as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades together for a full contraction at the apex, then lower the dumbbell along the same path.

INTENSIFY IT:

Once you reach failure, you can use rest-pause, stopping for a couple of seconds in the bottom position to allow your energy stores to recharge before eking out a few final reps.

CHINUP

No less than the great Arnold Schwarzenegger himself was a chinup connoisseur, doing all varieties: wide and close-grip, to the front and to the back of his neck. As with many things bodybuilding-centric, Schwarzenegger is worthy of emulation when it comes to the chinup: No back-exercise arsenal is complete without it. And while we have it in the “prime mover” category, it’s versatile enough to be used in any capacity, from an anchor exercise to the lead of of a routine to a mid-workout punisher to a finishing move taken to utter failure.

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FORM POINTERS:

  • Grasp a fixed overhead bar with a wide overhand grip. Hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended (i.e., a “dead hang”) and feet crossed behind you.
  • Flex your lats to raise your chin over the bar. Concentrate on keeping your elbows out to your sides and pulling them down to your sides to raise yourself.
  • Hold yourself momentarily in the “up” position before lowering yourself to the “dead-hang” position.

INTENSIFY IT:

Schwarzenegger didn’t count sets when he did chins. Instead, he set a goal-rep target and strove to hit it in as many (or few) sets as it took. So if his aim was 50 total reps, his rep line may have read 15, 12, 9, 8, and 6.

 

PART II: ANCILLARY MASS BUILDERS

The movements in this section should follow on the heels of the prime movers, serving as a high-impact challenge in the center of your workouts.

  • DEADLIFT
  • PLATE-LOADED MACHINE ROW
  • T-BAR ROW

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DEADLIFT

Wait, isn’t the deadlift one of the greatest exercises of all time, part of the revered powerlifting trio? Well, yes—but truth be told, while an excellent maneuver for back, it’s much more driven by your thighs and glutes. So on back day, it’s best utilized in a higher-rep capacity (perhaps 10–15 per set), toward the middle—or even the very end—of a back regimen.

FORM POINTERS:

  • With your feet fat beneath the bar, squat down and grasp the bar with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder width. Allow the bar to rest flush against your shins.
  • With your chest up and back fat, lift the bar by extending your hips and knees to full extension. Be sure to keep your arms straight throughout, as you drag the bar up your legs until you’re standing.
  • Shift your shoulders back to stand at attention to complete the lift, then lower the bar downward along the same path until the plates touch down to the floor. Allow the bar to settle before beginning the next rep.

INTENSIFY IT:

As with the bentover row, a number of intensity techniques are not compatible with the deadlift—your ultimate goal is flawless form and, with that, moving significant poundage. But you can eliminate a “weak link” by using straps for this exercise, not allowing your forearms to dictate the amount of weight your back and legs can ultimately handle.

PLATE-LOADED MACHINE ROW

When it comes toFL06188_2014-2 the plate-loaded machine row, it’s clear that it shouldn’t anchor your back workout—it’s not the place to spend a ton of your limited training energy. But as a supplemental exercise, it allows you to take aim at muscles pre-fatigued on high-impact, heavy free-weight rows, by reducing the role of stabilizing muscles. You may be spent on bentover rows, but your back surely has a bit more to give before it has reached maximum stimulus. Don’t leave those reps on the table.

FORM POINTERS:

  • After loading the plates to the desired resistance, adjust the seat to a height where your elbows will come straight back as you pull. Sit with your back firmly against the support pad and reach forward to grasp both handles with a neutral grip. Expand your chest and sit upright, lifting the weight from the supports.
  • Pull the handles straight back as your elbows bend, squeezing your lats and back at full flexion before slowly re-extending your arms.
  • To maintain tension, don’t let the weight touch down between reps.

INTENSIFY IT:

A partner can help you eke out a couple of forced reps at the end of the last set by pushing lightly on the handles after you succumb to initial failure.

T-BAR ROW

The “free” T-bar row,FL06188_2014-1 where your chest is not supported on a pad, could easily make its way into the “prime mover” category. It’s that good—on par with the likes of dumbbell rows and pullups. If you’re preferential to the supported variation, however, no problem—it’s still an effective mid-routine choice. Thing is, it has a limitation, in that the heavier you go, the more it can compromise your ability to breathe correctly during your reps, with the chest pad sinking up right against your chest cavity and diaphragm. On the plus side, that pad offers a cue to control cheating, removing the tendency to use a knee and torso bounce to prod the weight upward.

FORM POINTERS:

  • With your arms fully extended, grasp the handles with an overhand, palms forward grip. Lift the bar to release it from its cradle.
  • Pull the handles toward you as you shift your shoulder blades inward, keeping your elbows close to your body. Do not allow your upper body to rise during the ascent.
  • Hold the peak contraction momentarily before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position.

INTENSIFY IT:

Finish your last exercise with partials or, with the help of a partner, one to three super slow negatives.

 

PART III: FINISHING TOUCHES

For details and a final pump, it’s hard to beat these cable-based exercises, all designed to hit your back in slightly different ways.

  • PULLDOWN TO FRONT (wide- and close-grip versions)
  • SEATED CABLE ROW
  • STRAIGHT-ARM PULLDOWN

PULLDOWN TO FRONT – (Wide- and Close-grip Versions)

You’ve probably noticed that the vast majority of back exercises come in two favors: a row, when you bring a weight from an arms outstretched position toward you, and a pullup or pulldown motion, where your arms are overhead and pulling against resistance. Both are critical, making the pulldown machine one of the best exercise inventions ever devised. (Thank you, Jack LaLanne.)

By regularly employing different grip widths (wide, medium, and close) and styles (underhand, overhand, and neutral), you can continually tax your back in different and supremely potent ways.

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FORM POINTERS:

  • Adjust the kneepad so you fit snugly in the seat. Grasp a hammer-grip or wide-grip bar, then sit, maintaining an erect posture by contracting your lower back. To start, your arms should be fully extended above you with your head straight and feet flat on the floor.
  • Contract your lats to pull the bar or handle down to your upper chest, bringing your elbows straight down toward your sides in the process.
  • Squeeze your lats as you hold the peak-contracted position for a one- or two-count. Slowly return the handle along the same path and repeat, not letting the stack touch down between reps.

INTENSIFY IT:

A partner can stand behind you and help you grind out a few forced reps after you reach initial muscle failure. With a long bar, they should place their hands inside of yours, while grasping the cable for the close-grip version.

SEATED CABLE ROW

A well-designed cable movementFL06190_2014-1 can keep your muscles under relatively constant tension throughout the range of motion, providing at least one benefit a free weight can’t match. Enter the seated row: While not a replacement for barbell and dumbbell rows, it supplements them like a champ.

FORM POINTERS:

  • Place your feet against the foot platform of a seated row station with your legs slightly bent. Reach forward to grasp the hammer-grip handle, then lean backward until your torso is erect and your arms are fully extended.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked in close to your sides, pull the handle toward your midsection, squeezing your back muscles and shifting your shoulders back at the endpoint. Hold that contraction for a second or two before slowly returning to the start position.
  • Don’t rock back and forth as you rep—keep your torso upright and your head neutral. The action should all take place at your elbows and across your back.

INTENSIFY IT:

As with pulldowns, dropsets are tailor-made for stack-weight machines like the seated row.

STRAIGHT-ARM PULLDOWN

It’s not the foundation of a back workout for the ages, but if you’re seeking a raging burn in already fatigued lats, the straight-arm pulldown will do the trick. It’s a hybrid of a row and a pulldown, with your arms overhead but also extended out in front of your body, giving your back a slightly different feel than any of the exercises that likely came before it in your session.

FORM POINTERS:

  • Face the weight stack at a lat-pulldown station with your feet shoulder-width apart. Reach up and grasp a straight bar (or rope) with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart, arms straight. Start with the attachment at shoulder level, arms extended and parallel to the floor.
  • Keeping your elbows straight, pull the bar down toward your thighs in a sweeping arc, focusing on using just your lats. Squeeze those lats strongly once the bar reaches your thighs.
  • Return to the starting position in a smooth, controlled motion, stopping once your arms are parallel to the floor.

INTENSTIFY IT:

Once you reach initial failure on your final set, have a partner grasp the cable and help on the downward movement, then do slow, controlled negatives on the ascent.

 

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 MASS BUILDING BACK WORKOUT 1 

  • Bentover Barbell Row | SETS: 5 | REPS: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6
  • Plate-Loaded Machine Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12, 10, 8, 6
  • Deadlift | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • Seated Cable Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Wide-Grip Pulldown | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12

 MASS BUILDING BACK WORKOUT 2 

  • One-Arm Dumbbell Row | SETS: 5 | REPS: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6
  • Chinup | SETS: X | REPS: 50 total
  • T-Bar Row (supported or free) | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • Close-Grip Pulldown | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Straight-Arm Pulldown | SETS: 3 | REPS: 12-15

 FLEX