Old School Back Training: Lee Priest

Heavy weight. Lots of sets. Lee Priest’s no-nonsense approach to back training allowed him to compete with the sport’s giants.

April 26, 2013

By Eric Velazquez | Editor-at-Large

When you’re small-framed and short-statured, there’s not a whole lot of room to pack on mass. But that didn’t seem to matter to Lee Priest. Standing all of 5'3", Lee seemed to fill every square inch of his physique with dense, quality muscle, eventually earning acclaim as one of the best “small men” to ever compete in professional bodybuilding. He was a top-10 finisher at five Mr. Olympia contests, and developed an expansive and passionate fan following that persists to this day. And while his hyper-developed arms were arguably some of the best to ever hit a pro stage, it was his back that allowed him to contend with the best in the sport. His exercise selection wasn’t much different than that of his contemporaries; he simply put volume and load to work for him each time he hit the gym. Your three sets of 8–10 reps may be a thing of the past after you take a peek at Lee’s high-volume approach.


Before you swear off pull-ups because you’re “too tall” or “too heavy,” you should know that Lee would adjust for failure at 6–8 reps. This usually meant slowing down the movement to a snail’s pace in order to shred every last fiber in his lats, or strapping unseemly amounts of poundage around his waist. He’d vary his grip and hand spacing to target different areas of his back and would allow for a deep stretch on every rep, which he felt provided better north-south lat development.

Close-Grip Pulldown

Abandoning the pull-up bar for a seat, Lee did pulldowns to hit his lats a different way. From the seated position, he could control the weight better and dig into lat fibers that the pull-ups may have missed. He’d still go heavy, though; Lee found that the best growth occurred with five sets of 6–8 reps on most exercises.

Bent-Over Row

Lee attacked this mass-building move with very heavy weights, clearly requiring a strong lower back to keep his spine from rounding. He found the wide grip helped broaden his V-taper, from his upper lats to middle traps and rhomboids. Pulling the bar into his midsection, Lee drove his elbows back as high as possible to ensure every possible fiber was engaged.

Seated Cable Row

No, Lee didn’t exclusively train back in a vertical plane. Seated rows frequently appeared in his routine, usually after heavy barbell rows. As with the pull-up/pulldown approach, Lee often did one or more free-weight versions of the row before sitting down to a cable move for greater control. But just because he chose a machine didn’t mean he’d lighten the load. Lee was bullish on his five crushing sets of 6–8 reps, and would usually pile five or more exercises into a routine for large bodyparts.

Lee’s Back Routine

Pull-Up     5 Sets x 6–8 Reps

Front Lat Pulldown     5 Sets x 6–8 Reps

Bent-Over Barbell Row      5 Sets x 6–8 Reps

One-Arm Dumbbell Row     5 Sets x 6–8 Reps

Seated Cable Row     5 Sets x 6–8 Reps