Having a big back is crucial in bodybuilding. At least 2 of the mandatory poses require a big, thick back. I’ve always had the impression that if you have a big back, it’s likely that the rest of your body will be big—or at least grow as your back grows—and that you train like an Animal. If you haven’t checked out my article “The 5 Pillars of Training,” I suggest you go now and check it out. The 5 pillars will help guide you through my approach to back training. In this video, I show you how to use the 5 pillars approach to take you through a back and bicep training session.
As always, I like to start off my training by targeting the specific muscle group that I am focusing on for that day. In this case, my first exercise was the reverse grip lat pull down/rowing machine. Using this particular machine allowed me to really isolate the majority of my lats, and more specifically my lower lat. As I continued this exercise, performing 4 sets, I increased the weight to build a bigger pump and really fire up my lats.
After finishing my first exercise, I knew it was going to be a good workout. My back was pumped and ready. The second exercise I chose was a seated row. This is a “bread and butter” exercise for back training. If you want a thick back, do heavy seated rows. I start every exercise with a comfortable weight and increase the weight progress through each set. A good solid 4 sets will annihilate your back. I like to do a drop set for the last set of seated rows. I start at max weight and do as many reps as possible, then drop the weight down and continue the set with as many reps as possible. I usually drop the weight 3-4 times with as many reps as I can for each drop in weight. Don’t lose proper form. Make sure you get a big stretch on the way down and really pull hard with your back.
Watch Your Form
Many people go hard in the gym, but many also forget to target the specific muscles they’re trying to train. A good way to make sure you are using your back and not just your arms is to lead with your elbows. Think about elbowing back (or behind you). Wherever your elbow starts and finishes will show you which muscles you worked. Hand positioning is also key. A closer grip or wider grip as you perform each exercise will determine what back muscles you are targeting. Additionally, the way you grip your hands around the bar can determine whether you are likely using biceps or back muscles to pull the weight. Next time you’re in the gym training back, put your thumb over the bar instead of around the bar. Using “the monkey” or meat hook grip keeps you from using your biceps.
By now you should be feeling pretty exhausted. At this point, I like to do an active recovery instead of working my cardiovascular to the max. Active recovery allows my body to take a short break from the demand of heavy lifting while still keeping my muscles working to stay pumped and full. The lat pull, a phenomenal exercise to build up your lats and serratus anterior, is a good active recovery exercise. As a bodybuilder, all of your front and back poses will thank you for doing lat pull overs. I like to incorporate at least 2-3 sets of an active recovery exercise before moving on to another big lift. I finished up my lat training with standard wide grip lat pull downs. In my typical back training, I like to either start or finish with lat pull downs. It’s one of the exercises I rarely miss in back training.
Thicken with Traps
My lats were now toast so I moved on to destroy traps. We all know that traps are located at the top of your back between your shoulders and neck, but let’s not forget about the middle of your back either. This is where your mid/lower trap comes in with the help of your rhomboids. You can develop a very wide back with lats. With traps and rhomboids, you can develop a thick back. Both attributes are important in bodybuilding.
Since most of these exercises hit my traps as well as my lats, I decided to do three more exercise targeting mainly my traps. These included bent over rows using the Smith Machine, machine rows using a wide grip, and dumbbell shrugs. Each exercise targeted every part of my back so that not one area was missed. It is important that you know you hit every angle properly in training.
Finishing with Biceps
To finish off my day’s training, I chose 2 exercises to focus completely on my biceps. Even though I try to train back without using too much biceps, it’s inevitable that this will happen. Similarly, when you train chest, your triceps or shoulders will also be trained as they assist in your lifts. I didn’t need to do much to completely exhaust my biceps, so I did two variations of bicep machine curls, smashed each set as hard as I could to pump them up, and called it a successful day.
Back training and leg training are the two best days for a cheat meal. Following this back training, I ate a good amount of sushi at one of the local restaurants. Sushi is a staple in my refeeds. After competing at the Olympia, I have been more motivated than ever. I know what I need to improve and can’t wait to capitalize on every workout, every day, to get better. To me, bodybuilding is all about self-development—inside and out. Let bodybuilding mold your character the same as it molds your physique.
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A massive back is a status symbol among bodybuilders. Much like the ever-coveted big legs, having a back that turns heads is an indicator that an athlete has put in the heavy-duty work. You don't acquire a thick cobra backside by doing sissy movements, half repping, and training lightly. You have to put some elbow grease into it. Shawn Smith shares some tips for building a massive back.