Brandon Curry's Bigger Back Attack

Deadlifts, rows, pull-ups — all are required for a thicker, wider back…plus an aggressive attitude in the gym

May 29, 2013

By Brandon Curry, IFBB Pro, Team BSN Athlete

[Q] Brandon, everyone says if you want a big back, you have to deadlift. But isn’t that more of an exercise for the erectors (low back)?

[A] Uhh, no. Whoever told you that has probably never done it right. The top portion of the deadlift involves what I call a thoracic roll, where you’re “rolling” your upper back to finish the lift. If you do it properly and you finish the movement or you know how to take advantage of that thoracic roll, you’re working your upper back incredibly hard at the top of the lift. If you really get the deadlift and you stay practiced, you’ll find all the areas of your upper back will get sore — traps, rhomboids, lats. When you’re coming from the bottom, you feel your lats engaging, for example. Different parts of the movement hit different parts of your back. It’s not about isolation — it’s just about hitting the entire posterior chain with a ton of weight. The resulting hormonal release of such a big lift provides mass all over, not just in your erectors.

[Q] Since I was a kid I’ve hated pull-ups. How important are they to overall lat development?

[A] I always believed one of your first goals in lat training should be performing pull-ups. Bodyweight strength is very important. The pull-up is slightly different from the lat pulldown in how it recruits muscle. You can vary the angles at which you pull once you get good at it. I think everyone should practice them. Some of the greatest backs in the world, including Arnold’s, were built by incorporating pull-ups. Eliminating them would be a mistake. I recently did a German Volume Training-style pull-up session involving 10 sets of 10. It absolutely wrecked my back. Near the end it was like a GVT/rest-pause workout because I could get only 3–4 reps at a time, but it was a great shock for my lats.

[Q] How much forward lean do you recommend on barbell rows? I see YouTube videos of many pros doing them almost vertically.

[A] Depends on what areas you’re trying to work. If you want overall back development, especially the lats, you should be more perpendicular to the floor. This position, however, requires you to use a weight you can control. If your lower back isn’t strong enough to stabilize you and you’re just yanking the weight up, you’re not only shifting the muscular emphasis away from your lats and rhomboids but you’re also putting a tremendous strain on your low back. Not smart. Now, if you have weak rhomboids or traps, you’re better off at a 45-degree angle. Dorian Yates, who had great traps and rhomboids, used that 45-degree angle. Different angles have different benefits.

[Q] What’s your take on the importance of one-arm exercises with cables, dumbbells and machines for back development? Are they important, or should I stick with bilateral movements?

[A] If you’ve been training long enough, I don’t think you should skip any movements. One-arm exercises give you a different feel, focus, range of motion and stretch. When you work unilaterally, you get more out of that muscle group than when you work bilaterally because each side needs to produce more force to complete the reps on its own. Unilateral work also helps to correct symmetry issues, and for a bodybuilder that’s incredibly important.