Baby Got Back

This was article was inspired from a conversation I had with Erik Ledin, CSCS, CISSN (Lean Bodies Consulting) a while back.

A massive back is a beautiful thing. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, it is a work of art. Some of the greatest bodybuilders – Ronnie Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dorian Yates – all possessed well developed backs. Their backs were both wide and thick, giving a depth to their physiques that many pros lack nowadays.

A well developed back leaves a lasting impression. A lot of people look good from the front, but from the back can be a disaster: sunken shoulder blades and a narrow frame can leave a person looking like they’ve been starving their posterior chain.

Not only does a well-developed back look impressive from all angles, taking a balanced approach to back development can ward off injuries and promote good posture. And let’s face it, nobody EVER says, “That guy’s back is just TOO big”!

Building the Ultimate Back

The back can be thought of as being divided into vertical and horizontal planes. So, back training should really be split into two workouts – one devoted to horizontal pulling (thickness based workout / rowing movements) and one devoted to vertical pulling (width based workout / pull ups). As for heavy Deadlifts, they will round out your back workout.

I have divided some exercises into the two planes of motion you will be working in.

Horizontal Pulling

  • Barbell Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows

Vertical Pulling

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)

Picking a Grip

Choose one and stick with it throughout the course of the program – then switch when you want to change exercises. This will help with maintaining consistency and you’ll be able to tell whether you’re progressing or not.

For example, if you perform the Bent Barbell Row – you’ll find that you can probably lift more weight with a supinated grip because the biceps are assisting the movement.

So if you’re switching back and forth between grips during each workout, or every other workout, then it may be difficult to gauge progress.

So choose one and stick with it.

There are three main grips that can be utilized when lifting:

  1. Supinated grip means palms facing your body.
  2. Pronated means palms facing away from your body.
  3. Semi-supinated (neutral grip) means palms facing each other.

Examples of each grip used in an exercise would be: pull-up uses a pronated grip, palms facing away from your body while chin-ups use the other two grips.

Dealing with Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts are decent for the hip extension function, and therefore the lower back, but not so much for great upper back development, at least comparatively speaking.

Regular Deadlifts

Regular deadlifts are a ‘hip dominant’ exercise. They hit the whole posterior chain – from hamstrings up to traps. They are the King of back development. Deadlifts should be performed first in your back workout, as they require appropriate motor control of multiple muscles. In other words, if you choose to do them down the line in your list of exercises, the chances of injury will increase.

You can be pretty sure you’re doing it right if you’re getting war-wounds on your shins. It’s basically a sign that the bar is staying really close to your body.

Try to keep your sets short for two reasons:

  1. It is a complex movement and form tends to break down with higher reps.
  2. It is a strength movement. Your goal is to get strong on this exercise.

Keep the reps under 5 with regular deadlifts. You can go higher with SLDLs/RDLs as the weight you will be using is not as heavy and as taxing as a regular deadlift is on the body.

Rack Pulls

A rack pull is performed like a regular deadlift, except off pins. Click here for a graphical example of rack pulls

Pulling from the floor presents a greater challenge. The weight travels a greater distance, and the glutes and hams are targeted to a greater degree. If you choose to pull from pins, focus on your back. This is essentially what’s working on the upper portion of a deadlift. Also, because the range of motion is shorter you should be able to lift a bit heavier.

You can vary the pin height, but try not to do it set-to-set or workout-to-workout. This has to do with being able to accurately gauge progress. Changing things too frequently will make tracking progress from a strength standpoint more difficult. Stick with something for four weeks, and then switch it up a bit.

Building This into a Workout

Try pairing a horizontal pulling workout with horizontal pushing (chest) and the vertical pulling with vertical pushing (shoulders) to ensure that the volume around the joints is kept constant. This is assuming that muscle groups are being trained once per week.

An upper/lower split or an undulating split (with increased frequency, where everything basically gets hit twice per week) is better for hypertrophy. The one thing you have to consider when doing this is that the volume per body part per workout is lowered, but the weekly volume stills allows for an adequate growth stimulus to occur.

MariAnne got Back!

The 4 day split workout

Day 1 – Horizontal Push Pull

Horizontal plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Bent barbell rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • Dumbbell row
  • Hammer Strength row

Horizontal plane chest (push)

Select from:

  • Flat barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Low incline press.
  • Flat or incline flies

(Standing calves, short, heavy sets)

Day 2 – Quad Dominant Legs

Go short and heavy on two quad dominant exercises and lighter with higher reps for one ham dominant exercise. (Here, hams are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps)

(Biceps)

Day 3 – Vertical Push/Pull

Vertical plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)
  • Any of the Hammer high rows

Vertical plane shoulders (push)

Select from:

  • Standing barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Arnold press
  • Laterals, etc

(Seated calves, long sets)

Day 4 – Hip/Hamstring Dominant Legs

This is the opposite of day 2. Go short and heavy on 2 hip/ham dominant exercises and light with higher reps for one quad dominant exercise. Here, quads are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps.

(Tricep work)

BGB Programme Notes

It’s a four-day workout.

Day one is an upper body day: horizontal push-pull. This means back and chest are paired together so they don’t tire each other out.

Back will hit back hard, biceps light. Chest will hit chest hard, triceps light. Chest work also hits front delts a bit.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in some calf work. You can throw in an ab exercise as well.

If you do seated calves on this one, do standing calves on the next upper-body day.

Day two is lower body: quad-dominant, hamstring accessory.

This means you’re hitting quads heavy and hard, hams lightly. Add in an arm exercise to round this out. Either biceps or triceps – if you do triceps on this day then do biceps on the other leg day. Pick two different arm exercises – one heavy and hard, one a little lighter, slightly longer reps.

Day three is upper again: vertical push-pull. This means more back (but mostly lats), and shoulders. Biceps get another small hit here with lat work, triceps a small hit with some of the shoulder work and possibly some of the lat work.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in a calf exercise, and add in an ab exercise as well, just like horizontal push-pull day. Pick a different calf exercise, and a different ab exercise than you did on horizontal push-pull.

Day four is lower: hamstring dominant, quad accessory.

This workout hits the hamstrings hard and heavy while going a little lighter and longer with the quad work. You’re still working all muscles hard, but with different rep ranges.

Because the arms aren’t overly fatigued on hamstring-dominant day, add in two arm exercises – if you did biceps on quad-dominant day, do triceps on hamstring-dominant day.

Sample Workout

Day 1: Horizontal push pull, calves, and abs

Thickness-Back:

  • Rack pulls 5×5 (direct, hard, strength range)
  • Bent-over rows 3×8 (hypertrophy range)
    (If you do a third, Hammer Rows 3×10-12)

Chest:

  • Flat bench 5×5
  • Incline dumbbell press 3×8
    (if you do a third, Incline cable flyes 3×10-12)

Calves: (soleus) 3×12-20 seated calf raises. Pause at the bottom

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 2: Quad dominant, hamstring accessory. Biceps.

Quads:

  • Full squats 5×5
  • Leg press 3×8

Hamstrings:

  • Leg curls or high foot placement leg press 3-4 sets of 12-20

Biceps:

  • Seated alternating bicep curls 5×5
  • Hammer curls 3×8-12

Day 3: Vertical push-pull, calves, abs

Width-Back:

  • Chins 5×5
  • Hammer high rows 3×8
    (if you do a third, Hammer Behind the Neck rows or lying pullovers 3×12)

Shoulders: (I like to warm up with bent over side laterals, which work the often-neglected rear delts anyway – 3×10)

  • Arnold Press or Military Press 5×5
  • Standing side laterals 3×8

Calves: (gastrocs) standing or donkey calf raises, 3×8-10

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 4: Hamstring dominant, quad accessory. Triceps.

Hamstrings/glutes:

  • Romanian Deadlifts 5×5
  • Good mornings or high foot placement leg press 3×8

Quads:

  • Walking lunges or seated leg extensions 3×12-20

Triceps:

  • Skullcrushers, Dips, or between bench dips 5×5
  • Cable pressdowns 3×8-12

Kickbacks (I’m kidding! 🙂 )

Summing It Up

So there it is, everything you need to build a wide, meaty back that will leave you walking sideways to get through the doorway.

Written by MariAnne Anderson, BSc, MSc (B)

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Back Got Back discussion thread.

Methods of Max Effort – Part 1

The Methods

The max effort methods have been discussed many times over the past 10 years. We have presented you with different weekly phases and training cycles as well as different loading patterns. Louie Simmons has also written numerous articles on how these methods have been used to create many of the strongest powerlifters in the world. Throughout many of Louie’s articles you have read about certain “max effort movements” that have made a big difference in the training at Westside Barbell. He then goes in to detail how the movement was performed.

While it can be as simple as working up to a 1RM for a specific movement, it is not the only way. There are many different maximal methods that can and should be used. You have seen many of these before, forgotten about others, and never thought of combining different methods and movements. This article will discuss some of the different ways to employ maximal methods into your training.

Multiple Exertion Method

This method involves multiple sets of 1 or 2 reps with strict rest periods. Much like the dynamic effort method this method uses the same load for multiple sets. If you all follow Jim Wendler’s training log you will see he was employing this method a few months ago in the training of his bench press and dead lift. Jim would work up to 70-80% and perform 10-15 singles with 2 minutes rest. This is a great method when you feel you need to get away from weights in the 90% range. While the weight is lighter it is important to note that when the sets increase so does the tension. As you get tired the weights get much harder to complete. That is why this becomes ranked as a Maximal Effort Method.

You may already be using this method without knowing it. Many people get this method confused with the dynamic effort method. I talk to many people who say they are doing speed dead lifts and then find out they are using 90 second rest periods training with loads between 80-90% for singles. When the tempo becomes very slow and the strain very high you leave the dynamic method and cross over to maximal methods.

Many have found when they use these high exertion methods for their so called “speed squats” that they are no longer doing dynamic method work but max effort work. When this is the case, there is a very strong need to make alterations to the max effort work you are also doing during the week.

Maximal Concentric Method

This method is just as it sounds. You lift the weight and do not lower it. This is pretty much how most Olympic lifts are completed. As powerlifters we can also use this method for various movements such as; deadlifts, pin pulls, pin presses, Zercher squats, pin squats, suspended squats, suspended good mornings, and suspended bench presses.

While your gym owner will hate your guts for doing this, it does have a purpose. The negative phase of the lift is what causes the greatest muscle soreness and damage. If you speak to many lifters they will also tell you that this is where most injuries happen. By cycling in more maximal concentric movements you build in a way to allow more recovery. Let me explain. Say you have a hard time recovering from Max Effort Training.

You may choose to do a 4 week phase of max effort work such as:

  • Week 1 – Board Presses – work up to 1 RM
  • Week 2 – Close Grip Bench Press with maximal exertion method
  • Week 3 – Chain Suspended Lockouts (concentric only)
  • Week 4 – Rest

With this example you have one week of partial range eccentrics (board presses), One week full range eccentric contraction (close grip bench presses), then one de-load eccentric week (chain suspended lockouts), and one week off. Out of 4 weeks you have only stressed the eccentric phase maximally for 2 weeks (and one of them was a partial range). This will allow for great recovery while still allowing maximal effort training.

You could then add more eccentric loading into the next phase of training. Eccentric loading is very important and should not be taken out of the training for extended periods of time.

Maximal Isometric Method

Okay, I admit it. Isometrics suck and have limited value but I did say “limited” value. This means there is value in certain circumstances. Before we get into the method lets examine when this could be used and why. I strongly feel that a lift is raised by bringing up those muscles that do the work of the lift. I feel you can increase your bench press without benching, your squat without squatting and your deadlift without deadlifting. This is not how I always felt but after being around Louie Simmons for so many years and see that this is the main factor behind all of his training. The proof is always in the results and I have seen the results. Now with that being said I would be stupid to not look at all angles when addressing a sticking point. The best way to do this is by using an example of what I am trying to say.

Lifter A has a bench press of 465 pounds and always gets stuck about 5 inches off his chest. This would represent the half way point in his bench press. While it is not my intention to make this a bench press sticking point article, it is important to point out that I feel all sticking points are some combination of mental, physical and technical. We determine that this lifter has some technical problem right at his sticking point. He presses into this position very strong and then stalls, after a split second he flares his elbows out as he keeps pressing. The bar does not go up, but his elbows flare out.

There are always multiple solutions but one would be to increase the strength of his rotator cuff muscles and lats. This would keep his body position tighter and allow him to push through the sticking point. He should also increase his overall body strength as this has a great effect on all lifts. Finally, he should increase his bar speed going into the sticking point. This will allow him to bust through this barrier.

There is one other thing we could have him do and this involves the Maximal Isometric Method. To do this we would set the pins up in a power rack with one set of pins 1 inch below his sticking point and one set right off the chest. The lifter would press an empty bar into the top pin and press and hold as hard as he can for 3-5 seconds (or whatever his average max lift takes). This is a very demanding method that can sneak up to kill you. You need to keep it to only a few sets and no more than 1-2 times per 4 week phase. I would also suggest no more than 3 pin positions per session.

Here are some other ways to use this method:

  • 9 sets with empty bar for 3-5 second holds with 30 sec rest all same pin
  • Same as 1 but use three pin settings for 3 sets each
  • Instead of empty bar load on 50% of 1 RM. You will know the weight is too heavy when you find you are holding the bar against the pins, not pressing it. It is important to press against the pins.

This method will accomplish a couple different things. First it will develop position specific strength within a 10-15% degree range. This may give him the edge he needs to break through the sticking point. Second, it will allow a “check” for technical positioning during a time of crisis. In other words, he will be able to see what his body does when it strains and be able to make the required corrections needed to finish the lift. Third and I feel this could be the most important, sticking points are very mental.

If you always fail at the same point you will begin to program yourself for this and will not drive past it. You will press into this point knowing you will miss. Without knowing it you are programming yourself to give up too soon. You may press for a split second and say “Damn, there it is again”.

With the pin press you will be able to reprogram yourself to strain for that extra split second past where you would normally say “screw it”. One split second is the difference between a missed lift and a lifetime PR.

Maximal Eccentrics Method

I should call this the “High School” Method because this is when we used it most.

Why?

We were all too stupid to know better.

You can call it maximal eccentrics, negatives, droppers or whatever you want. The results are still the same: pain, injuries and soreness. The bar is loaded to 130 – 140% of our best one rep max and then lowered slowly. After it touched our chest, the spotter would pull the bar off us and we would either rack the bar or do another one. (It’s all you!!!)

There are valid reasons to do this but in its purest form the risk/benefit ratio is too high for the intermediate and advanced lifter. We can get much of the same effect with weight releasers and bands while not having to take the barbell weight up to 140%. The more advanced lifter has a harder time lowering 140% than a beginner.

I have seen this work very well for a lifter trying to break in his bench shirt. These sets are doing more than they think. The supported eccentric loading is building the muscles and tendons to handle heavy loads. The shirt helps protect the body from the abuse and is also the reason why many lifters complain of sore elbows and forearms with heavy shirt work. The lifters do not feel the effects in the supported muscles (chest, shoulders, and lats) because of the shirt.

I have also seen this work very well with top-down dead lifts. To do this the lifter loads the bar in a rack at the top position. He then stands up with the weight and does an eccentric dead lift to the floor.

In part two of this article we will look at Maximal Force Method, Restricted Range Method, Maximal Cheating Method, Maximal Ballistics, and the Maximal Yielding Method. I am sure many of these methods have different names and I am in no way trying to rename anything. I will leave that up to other writers and magazines. I am just using terms that will be easy for everyone to understand. It does not take the “exact” name to get one strong or to understand the method. The number one thing required to make progress is to pass the information from one to another in the most understandable way. You may know this as the “Maximal Understanding Method”.

Written by Dave Tate

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Methods of Max Effort – Part 1 discussion thread.

About Dave Tate

Dave is the co-owner of Elite Fitness Systems Dave Tate is the founder and CEO of Elite Fitness Systems has been involved with powerlifting for more than two and a half decades as a world-class participant, coach and consultant.

He has logged more than 10,000 hours of personal training and strength consulting sessions with professional, elite and novice athletes, as well as with professional and university strength coaches. He holds Elite status in powerlifting (in three weight classes) with best lifts of a 935 squat, 740 deadlift, 610 bench press and 2,205 total.