Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney and Dorian Yates have the best three backs in the history of bodybuilding, and combined the three own nearly half of the Sandows handed out since the Olympia’s inception.
“Strong man equals strong back,” said Bill Kazmaier, the strongest man to ever walk the earth. A man with a thick, wide back screams functional power and seeps with masculine virility.
There’s nothing cute and nothing fancy about this workout. This is the bare-bone basics! Since the time is short, 100% concentration is needed in the gym. We’re going to dedicate ourselves to three exercise and build a back that fills out door jambs and terrorizes tailors.
Exercise 1: Deadlift
Heavy deadlifts are synonymous with great back development. For Ronnie Coleman, the most muscular, strongest bodybuilder of all-time, they were the core of his back routine. Johnny Jackson fills out door jambs and terrorizes tailors with the best back in pro bodybuilding today and officially deadlifted 832 raw under my tutelage in 2012.
Instead of deadlifting for hours on end, efficiency is the name of the game. After you’re warmed up, you have 12 minutes to complete all deadlifts.
Start with a weight you’re capable of doing 8-10 reps with. For the first set do 5 reps. Rest 60 seconds and attempt 5 reps again. If you’re unable to complete 5 reps do 4; if you can’t do 4 reps do 3; if you can’t do 3 reps do 2; and if two reps is too much, do 1. Always stop one shy of failure but don’t exceed 5 repetitions.
Repeat this process for 12 minutes. The clock starts once you have completed your first set. On the last set, if you still have something left go for an all-out rep max, stopping one rep shy of failure.
When you can complete 40 reps in this time period, increase the weight on the bar by 5%; if you can’t, make sure you beat your previous rep record.
No sumo deadlifts; we want to build muscle and functional power.
Some reminders for proper deadlift technique:
- Push through your heels.
- The middle of the foot should be directly under the bar.
- Shins should touch the bar.
- The back is in extension; don’t round it.
- The shoulder blades should be directly over the bar and shoulders will be slightly in front.
- The elbows must remain in full extension throughout the entire movement.
- Lower the bar in the opposite way the bar was lifted, in terms of hip and knee angles.
Exercise 2: Meadows Rows
I learned this movement from bodybuilder John Meadows. It’s like a one-armed dumbbell row but uses a T-bar instead. Stand on the floor next to the end you would normally load plates on, grab the handle with one hand and row with it; it’s important to wear straps because the end of the bar is fat and we are aiming for a back workout, not a grip test.
While rowing exercises have long been known for building thick backs, done correctly this could almost become a “width” movement. Meadows recommends slightly kicking your hips away from the bar and emphasizing the stretch; you’ll l feel this in the lower lats.
Instead of counting reps, pick a weight you could do 15 reps with. Start with your weakest arm by performing as many reps as possible in one minute, emphasizing stretch and technique; rest one minute and match this number of reps on the stronger arms. Rest one minute, then do the same thing for 45 seconds on the original arm; rest 45 seconds and follow suit on the weaker arm. Rest 45 seconds and the final set on the strong arm go for 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds and finish for 30 seconds on the weaker arm.
This will take a total of eight minutes and 30 seconds.
Exercise 3: Straight-Arm Pulldowns
Doug Young held the bench press world record in the bench press for many years with a 611 raw in the 275-pound weight class. Doug was the quintessential powerbuilder—he had strength coupled with a symmetrical physique that irradiated power. In fact, Young served as a mass consultant to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Years ago, reading through old Doug Young routines, I learned straight arm pull-downs were a favorite of my hero. In every upper-body workout, Young included six sets of straight-arm pull downs. With his tapered waist and wide lats, Doug Young looked like a superhero.
In some pulling movements, the biceps is the limiting factor. Because they’re involved and they fatigue before the back, straight arm-pull downs are an isolation movement that work great for building back width and circumventing the limited biceps.
How to correctly perform a straight-arm pull-down:
- Grab a straight bar or rope attachment on a pulling machine.
- Step backward about two feet, facing the machine.
- Fully extend your arms.
- Bend your torso slightly forward.
- Tighten your lats.
- Pull the bar down using your lats until your hands are down to your thighs.
- Make sure you keep this movement strict; if you start to cheat, it becomes ineffective.
- Return to starting position, always staying under control.
We’re going to do this movement for two minutes straight! Pick a weight you can do 15–20 reps with. You are going to do 3 reps, slow and controlled, and after the three reps are complete hold the weight in the top position emphasizing the stretch for five seconds. Repeat the process and do this for two minutes.
Check out this video of IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Cory Mathews doing this back workout.