The greatest back of all time? That's a tough one, but Franco Columbu would probably be somewhere near the top of the list. His lats flared out wide from his armpits, sweeping down, down, down, disappearing somewhere below his obliques-or so it seemed. His rear lat spread made him look like a bat stretching after a good day's sleep or some kind of giant mutant cobra preparing to eat Tokyo.
And talk about thickness: His back double-biceps shot resembled an aerial photograph of the Rocky Mountains. Of course, we can't forget his powerful spinal erectors, which enabled him to deadlift more than 600 pounds at a moment's notice.
I know what you're saying: "Hey, good for Franco. But how do I go about building a wide wingspan and a rear view that's thick as a brick?"
Well, it really comes do to doing the basics, and hitting every angle. You must hit every back crack and crevice for complete development.
Working the Wingspan
Back width comes from the various overhead pulling movements-chins and pulldowns. Simple, right? Well, not when you think about all the variations, like wide-grip chins, narrow-grip chins, behind-the-neck pulldowns, under-grip pulldowns and on and on. It can get confusing. Let's narrow it down and say that the best width movement is the front chin-or if you prefer, the front pulldown-done with a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip and touching the bar to mid-chest level.
This "regular" chin-or pull-down-is superior because it allows a relatively full range of motion and forces the arms out to the sides. The pull is more lateral than with, say, undergrip chins, where as you pull down, your upper arms are out to the sides away from your body as your elbows travel in an outward arc until you reach the contracted position. Here the inner triceps are touching the lats-or at least they should be-and the elbows are behind the torso. Also, the head is back, the lower back is slightly arched and the bar is touching the middle-chest area. And don't forget about peak contraction-hold it for one to two seconds each and every rep.
Since we're talking multi-angle training here, we can't neglect a front-pulling exercise for the lats, one that causes the elbows to travel in forward arcs in front of the torso. The undergrip pulldown works this position best. This exercise puts the biceps in their strongest position, allowing you to work your lats hard from this angle.
For best results from undergrip pulldowns you should take a slightly narrower-than-shoulder-width, underhanded grip. As you pull down, your torso should begin leaning backward until, at the finish position, your torso is almost parallel to the ground and the bar is touching your upper abdomen. Although this is a lot of torso movement, there should be no swinging. The lean should be slow and smooth, not jerky. This full-range action works the entire length of your latissimus, including the hard-to-hit lower area.
The upper lats (infraspinatus, teres major and teres minor) can be worked in combination with the middle back (trapezius and rhomboideus major) by doing the medium-grip behind-the-neck pulldown. Using a grip about one hand-width outward from shoulder-width, pull the bar down behind your neck while keeping your head forward, torso erect and lower back slightly arched. In the contracted position your arms should be back behind your torso, and you should be flexing your mid-back (trapezius) hard. This is the perfect transition movement to take you into direct thickness work.
Density Plus Detail
The best thickness movement for the back is the infamous cable row; infamous because not too many bodybuilders do these without back-bending momentum. The same goes for bent-over barbell rows. This is another excellent thickness exercise, but too many people can't help but cheat or simply can't do the exercise because of lower-back strain. This latter reason is why cable rows move slightly ahead of bent-over barbell rows on the list of best back thickeners-they allow for much less lower-back involvement.
To do this movement, grab the parallel-grip low-pulley handle and begin while moving your torso to the upright position. As your hands touch your abdomen, your torso should be perpendicular to the ground and your shoulder blades should be squeezed together. If you have to lean back, the weight is too heavy. From here lower the weight and your torso to the stretched position. Keep your head up, but don't let the arms go limp; you should still maintain muscular tension. This not only keeps the back muscles from resting, but also prevents shoulder joint injury.
After cable rows you should work your mid-back from a slightly different angle-an inclined one. Incline dumbbell rows fit the bill nicely. For this one grab a pair of dumbbells and lie facedown on an incline bench set at about 30 degrees. Make sure your hips are down, and then start to row. Pull the dumbbells up to the front delt head, and keep your elbows out. You'll get an incredible contraction in the center of your back, a spot that's very hard to isolate. To make this exercise even more of a mid-back burner, try a set of shrugs in the same incline position after each set. Talk about trap cramps!
With an understanding of the actual movements involved in multi-angle back training, it's now time to formulate some routines. To begin with the beginners (less than six months of training): These trainees should do only two exercises for back-one for width and one for thickness. Here's a good beginner back program:
|Medium-grip front pulldowns||2 x 8-10|
|Parallel-grip cable rows||2 x 8-10|
Intermediates (more than six months of training, but not competitive) would use the following program:
|Medium-grip front pulldowns||2 x 8-10|
|Undergrip pulldowns||2 x 8-10|
|Behind-the-neck pulldowns||1 x 8-10|
|Cable rows||2 x 8-10|
|Incline dumbbell rows||2 x 8-10|
That's nine sets of intense multi-angle work, enough to keep the intermediate's back growing. For a quick back blast, intermediates can use the beginner program, adding one to two sets to each exercise.
Once you reach the advanced stages of development, the listed intermediate routine will still do nicely, but you may want to move to the chinning bar for the first three exercises to add a slightly new dimension to your back training. (No matter what anybody tells you, chins are much harder than pulldowns and probably more effective-if you can get the necessary contraction.) Also, you can add a few sets to the exercises that affect the areas of your back that need the most work. But try to avoid going over 14 total sets for back, even in extreme cases. Intermediates should never go over nine sets. The elbows should be kept out trained from many angles for and back throughout the movement. Complete development, but remember, overtraining is always a distinct possibility. Don't let it hamper your progress.
You may be asking, "Nice routines, but where are the isolation movements?" If you think about it long enough, you'll probably answer your own question. Isolation movements are usually used to achieve the peak contraction effect that the compounds tend to neglect. There's no such neglect in back training; each of the listed compound movements incorporates peak contraction. There's no lockout in the contracted position, so isolation exercises aren't really necessary.
If you want to use an isolation exercise to enhance the feel of working your back, don't just add one to the routine above; you'll be doing too many sets. Instead substitute-but make sure you substitute an isolation exercise that has a similar angle of pull as the movement you're dropping (the elbows should travel in approximately the same arc). For example, you can substitute pullovers-preferably on a machine, to ensure a full range of motion-for undergrip pulldowns (elbows travel in forward arcs). Or you might want to use the Nautilus behind-the-neck torso machine in place of behind-the-neck pulldowns (elbows travel in outward arcs). For incline dumbbell rows you might want to substitute bent-arm rear laterals either with dumbbells or on a machine.
If you do decide to use back isolation, try to limit it to one exercise per back area-that is, two per back workout at the maximum. Compound movements are the key to big gains, but isolation will help carve in the detail.
For a great back remember these things: width, thickness and multi-angle training. By the way, don't forget your pilot's license. You'll need one to go with your new set of wings.