Pro Tips for a Massive Back

January 26, 2012

By Mike Carlson; Photos of IFBB Pro Marcus Haley by Gregory James at Powerhouse Gym, Tampa, FL “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” is an old cliché and hopefully an outdated one by now. We suggest updating this rather macabre idiom with, “There’s more than one way to train your back.” It’s more relevant, just as accurate and nowhere near as disturbing to visualize. The back is a massive group of muscles — not just one — that can stand up to a huge training load and demands attention from all angles. It doesn’t exhibit the same stubborn refusal to grow as calves often do, and it’s not as fragile and precarious as the oft-injured shoulder joints. When it comes to attacking your back, you can’t just kick in the front door and hope to get results. You need to have it thoroughly surrounded. The five experts on this month’s panel have a ton of experience in coaxing size, strength and durability out of the various muscles that comprise the back. These individuals have discovered what works for them, and now their knowledge can help you find the best way to get your biggest and most-developed back ever.

Kelly Tekin, MS, CSCS

Background: Kelly Tekin is a former amateur bodybuilding champion (2009 NPC Rocky Mountain Bodybuilding, 1st, heavyweight division; 2005 NPC Mid-USA, 1st, heavyweight and overall winner). She owns Conditioned by Kelly Tekin gym in Albuquerque, NM, where she focuses on training physique competitors and athletes. Her most notable client is UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Hometown: Albuquerque, NM Website:

Most Effective Back Move: Pull-Up

What’s so good about the pull-up? One of the staples is the pull-up because it works every muscle in your body. If someone can’t do pull-ups, we put a jump-stretch band around the bar so he can put his feet in the band and it becomes an assisted pull-up. If someone can do 10–15 pull-ups, I add weight, something he can do 6–8 reps with. When you hold a dumbbell between your feet for weighted pull-ups you get some good core work in there. But if you’re just interested in going heavy and gaining all mass for your back, using a dip belt would be better because you can go heavier. My record is 36 pull-ups, with an overhand, slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip. I even have a video of it. What’s an overrated back exercise? I think every back exercise is good, but the key is variation. I don’t think any one exercise is overrated; it’s more so about how you use the exercise. If someone does just lat pulldowns they’re going to grow only so much until they plateau. How often do you have your clients train back? One month, I might have my clients do one total back day a week. Then the next month I’ll put lower back and hamstrings on one day and upper back and delts on another day. I believe in staying with a certain type of training for 4–5 weeks and then moving on to an approach or protocol that’s completely different. What kind of sets and reps do you use? A rule of thumb is 8–12 reps for hypertrophy, so I’ll usually stick to that. But I like to change it up. For example, on bent-over rows, I’ll maybe go 10 reps with an underhand grip and then 10 reps right away with an overhand grip. Little changes like that are great for size. Do you use any special techniques or tricks for training back? Lately I’ve been doing a lot of tempo training. From the starting position of a bent-over row, you pull up and squeeze the contraction for two seconds, bring it down slowly for a three-count and fire it back up again in one second. So it’s three seconds on the way down, one second up and a two-second pause at the top of the movement. You can’t go as heavy, but it’s great for stimulating growth. Straps or no straps? I’ve always thought using straps is fine when you’re going heavy because your back is a way bigger muscle group than your forearms, which is what makes your grip give out. If you’re going heavy on back day you’re pretty much going to have to use straps at some point.

Shelby Starnes

Background: Shelby Starnes is an amateur light-heavyweight bodybuilder who plans to make his heavyweight debut in 2013, which will be his fifth competitive weight class. Besides boasting an impressive powerlifting background, Starnes is a well-known nutritionist who’s counseled hundreds of bodybuilders and physique competitors over the years. Height: 5'6" Weight: 198 pounds contest; 245 offseason Hometown: Detroit Best Placing: Winner, 2011 NPC Junior Nationals light-heavyweight division. Website:

Most Effective Back Move: Unilateral Row With Dead Stop

What’s so good about the unilateral row? Over the last year I’ve brought my back up quite a bit by using unilateral row variations. Those exercises helped not only with thickness but also with width. I like to do a dead-stop dumbbell row that my friend John Meadows showed me. That’s where between each rep you set the weight on the floor, kind of like you would with a deadlift. It’s a different variation. You have to be explosive because you don’t have the stretch reflex working. It gives you a little break with that dead stop between. What’s an overrated back exercise? You constantly see young guys loading up the lat-pulldown stack with too much weight and doing wide-grip pulldowns that end up being these hip-thrust/row combinations. Instead of a pulldown, it becomes more of a row because their torso gets almost parallel to the ground. In my opinion, what you’re looking for in a pulldown is to keep your upper body perpendicular to the floor. You need to stay upright, back arched, chest up. How often do you train your back? I train back once a week. I do traps with my back and I add some extra biceps work, even though I have a separate arm day, because I’m trying to bring up my arms. I also add some rear-delt work, and I warm up with abs. What kind of sets and reps do you use? I’ll do between 12–16 total sets. Maybe four exercises, 3–4 sets each. Sometimes I’ll do two sets of one, or one of one, but it’s usually 3–4 exercises, 3–4 sets each. However, it’s always at least 12 sets total. And I’ll always throw a move in for lower back. Do you use any special techniques or tricks for training back? Most of my back work involves straight sets. I don’t get too funky. Every now and then I’ll do a drop-set on a chest-supported row. A lot of times I like to hold the contraction for a split-second and use a two–second controlled negative, maybe a nice one-second pause at the stretch. Straps or no straps? I’m a huge fan of using straps. I use straps on everything. My grip sucks and I’d rather have a big back than a strong grip. I’m a bodybuilder, not a strongman.

Joel Stubbs, IFBB Pro

Age: 44 Height: 6'3" Weight: 298 pounds contest; 325 pounds offseason Hometown: Nassau, Bahamas and Atlanta Best Placing: 2009 Europa Super Show, 3rd

Most Effective Back Move: Deadlift

What’s so good about the deadlifts? For back thickness I think deadlifts are the ultimate. You need a combination of width and thickness, but a lot of times you see guys with a thin patty-cake back without that thickness and the bulk to show the detail. You can’t get thickness unless you do some heavy deadlifts or bent-over rows. What’s an overrated back exercise? I seldom do good mornings. The risk of injury is one reason, but mainly, I don’t really feel that particular movement work in my lower back. Instead I feel it more in my hamstrings and my glutes. How often do you train your back? In the offseason, I train my back once a week. When I’m getting ready for competition, 12 weeks out, I start hitting my back twice a week. One day is heavy with a lot strength training to try to get that thickness. The second workout I do more of a squeeze to try to get that detail and separation in the various muscles of the back. On the heavy days I’ll start with pull-ups, then go to seated rows, and then deadlifts. After that I do really heavy one-arm dumbbell rows and then bent-over rows. At the next workout, I do lat pulldowns, seated rows and more machines and cables. I concentrate less on the weight and more on hitting all the different parts of the back. What kind of sets and reps do you use? I do 5–6 sets per exercise. For deadlifts I start off with one plate for 15 reps, then two plates for 15 reps and then three plates for 15 reps. When I do four plates it goes down to 10 reps and then five plates for eight reps. For the bent-over rows I start off with one plate for 15 reps to get the technique down. Then I go to two plates and then three plates for 12 reps. When I use four plates, I end up cheating a bit because it gets heavy, and there I’ll do 6–7 reps. Do you use any special techniques or tricks for training back? Before competition, I like to completely exhaust the back. I do that by performing drop sets on the lat pulldown and the seated row. I do 15 reps with one weight, pull the plate and get 15 reps again, and I’ll work through at least five sets of 15 without stopping. It’s really grueling on the back, and it’s also very hard on the hands and forearms from holding the weight. Straps or no straps? I use them mostly on weighted pull-ups, as well as heavy deadlifts, bent-over rows and seated long pulls. I perform each back exercise without the straps at first to get the squeeze. Then, as the weight increases, I’ll use them to handle the heavy weights and not worry about it slipping out of my hands. I think straps are vitally important to thicken and develop a complete back profile.

Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro

Age: 40 Height: 5'8" Weight: 238 pounds contest; 258 pounds offseason Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas Best Placing: 2007 IFBB Atlantic City Pro Bodybuilding, 1st; 2011 IFBB Australian Pro Grand Prix XI, 2nd

Most Effective Back Move: Deadlift

What’s so good about the deadlifts? This exercise not only adds mass to your back, but it also helps pack on mass to other parts of your body. It’s a very important exercise on my schedule. When I’m powerlifting the deadlift is the first move I do. When I’m bodybuilding it’s the last exercise I do. What’s an overrated back exercise? That’s a good question. The back is such a huge bodypart, every exercise is important so you can hit every angle. There isn’t one exercise that I’d say is irrelevant and not worth doing. Every exercise is pertinent to getting a complete back. How often do you train your back? I train back once a week. I hit every bodypart once a week. If you’re training your back correctly you can’t help but hit all the different areas. What kind of sets and reps do you use? My training partner Branch Warren is nuts on back day. It used to be one of his weakest bodyparts. Even though he’s gotten his back on par, the mentality of “I have to bring up this bodypart” is still in his head. So he goes crazy intense on back day. We’ll do eight exercises, 3–4 sets of each. We go back and forth. One exercise we do four sets, the next one we do three, and so on. And we do 15–20 reps. Do you use any special techniques or tricks for training back? I think drop sets are very important, especially when you’re training for a contest. Branch and I will do drop sets on at least three of our exercises, and always on our last set. It’s more about the volume than weight or power. You want to fill that muscle with blood. Don’t worry about using heavy weight or power. You just get as much blood in that muscle as possible. Straps or no straps? The deadlift is the only back exercise I don’t use straps for. I use my belt and I use my straps for everything else, even on warm-ups. You don’t use straps to make the weight lighter or easier to handle; you use them just so you aren’t concentrating on your grip and you’re instead concentrating on doing the exercise properly.

Jerome Ferguson

Age: 41 Height: 5'10" Weight: 240 pounds contest; 265 pounds offseason Hometown: Venice Beach, CA Best Placing: 2010 NPC Master’s Nationals, 1st, superheavyweight and overall

Most Effective Back Move: Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

How do you do the bent-over dumbbell row? You get two dumbbells, and you get into a straight-back deadlift position, but you have a bend in your knees. You come partially up and then you pull the dumbbells into your sides. I like the dumbbells because they’re slightly twisted at maybe a 45-degree angle. When you use dumbbells the focus goes straight to your back because it’s going with the flow of your body. What’s an overrated back exercise? The behind-the-neck pulldown. When you’re pulling behind your neck you’re going to be kicking that rear delt in. Also, it’s really hard to go heavy because your body isn’t really in a strong biomechanical position to pull behind your head. How often do you train your back? I do a total back day once a week that focuses on every area. If I’m going to focus on the lower back, I’ll start with the lower. If I’m focusing on the upper back I’ll start with the upper. But I don’t break it up. If you beat your back up right, you’ve only gotta work it out once a week. What kind of sets and reps do you use? I find that four sets of 8–12 reps works best for me and has done so for quite some time. Anytime you go 15–20 reps your biceps are going to kick in. I do 4–5 exercises, usually five. If I’m not feeling good, like my back is feeling weak, my fifth exercise will be hyperextensions rather than deadlifts. Do you use any special techniques or tricks for training back? A lot of people have a hard time getting their lower lats to come in. I’ll stand a dumbbell on the bench of a seated cable row machine, then sit on the dumbbell and pull so the handle comes to my stomach rather than my chest. That technique helps hit that part where the lower lats connect. Straps or no straps? If you’re working your back and doing it right, you need straps. For me, back is the only time I use them. When you grip that bar and pull without straps, you’re working your forearms. I don’t want any bodypart that I’m not purposely training to be working.