The Hardcore Twelve

The sports of powerlifting, bodybuilding and strongman competition seem to attract a colorful crowd. With literally millions of participants and a monthly carousel of athletes being profiled in each of the multitude of monthly muscle and strength magazines, a handful of athletes have stood out over the past three decades.

They stand out for their trailblazing lifting, their unique personalities and their dominance of the competition. All were driven by their hunger to be bigger and stronger. Most importantly, each of these iron icons stands out because of their ability to inspire us. For this reason, we call them… THE HARDCORE 12!

The Barbarians

I included David and Peter Paul not just for what they accomplished, but for the trend that they helped popularize. We’re not talking about “grunge” here (this isn’t GQ magazine you’re reading); even though their training attire of torn flannel shirts, worn T-shirts and heavy construction boots, are still commonplace in hardcore gyms throughout the world. The real trend the Barbarians popularized was not one of trendy clothing or social posturing, but one of lifestyle and attitude.

Getting bigger and stronger was their focus. The Barbarians trained for training’s sake. They didn’t build themselves up to monstrous size just to win trophies, they trained because they loved to get under dangerously heavy weights and would do whatever it took to push greater poundages. If breaking a PR meant you needed someone to pummel you in the face for a pre-set psyche-up, then punch away!

One of the earlier articles on the Barbarians related the brothers’ outcast status in their hometown in Rhode Island, training their necks on a Friday night while their friends were all out partying. David and Peter Paul didn’t even TRY to fit in. They not only let their quest for ultimate strength set them apart from society; they reveled in their outcast status.

The Barbarians never competed in bodybuilding (although many tried to goad them into it). Why lose size for a title? They never entered a power meet. Every day in the gym was a lifting contest for them. Despite never competing in either sport, they epitomized the power-bodybuilder for most of us coming up in that era.

The Barbarians knew no limits when it came to lifting. At around 250-260 pounds, they were known for loading machines to the max and then attaching additional 45s to the weight stack (or standing on the stack for added resistance). Reports of them squatting 465-pounds for twenty reps, performing reps in behind-neck-presses with excess of 315 pounds, t-bar rows with eleven 45-pound plates piled on, or barbell curls with 275-pounds were commonplace. They pushed the limits and it inspired us to attempt the same.

Defining quote: “There is no over-training; just undereating, undersleeping and lack of will.”

Memorable story: “David was trying to get psyched for a set. He charged up to Ali Malla and told him to punch him. Ali gave him an open-handed slap but David thought it didn’t hurt enough, so he asked for a second one. Ali drew back and drilled him in the face, causing him to stumble backwards. The impact was so hard that tears were running from his eyes. He smiled though because now he was ready for his set.” (from personal interview with Mike Christian)

Ed Coan

When asked exactly how to reach one’s potential in lifting, words like “consistency,” “passion” and “dedication” are often applied. When asked for the best example of these traits in action, one needs to look no further than the greatest powerlifter of our time, Ed Coan. Ed’s entire lifestyle is based around getting the most out of his workouts, recuperating from them, and pushing it further the next day.

Coan came into powerlifting with all the subtlety of a cruise missile. At the 1983 USPF Nationals, Ed Coan stunned the powerlifting world by coming second in the 181-pound class to power legend Mike Bridges while still a teenager. Since then he has dominated the sport – collecting thirteen national championships, eleven world titles and nearly sixty world records. He has totaled a mind-boggling 2463 while weighing 220 pounds. His top squat is 1038 pounds. His best competition bench press is a respectable 578, (although he has done 585 in the gym). In the deadlift, he has pulled an earth-shaking 901 pounds. While these lifts have since been beaten, Coan did them in the years before triple-ply engineered bench shirts and support gear bumped lifts by up to a hundred pounds.

Outside of being the “Michael Jordan of powerlifting,” Coan has impressed his fans by being a true champion in how he deals with others. He is an enthusiastic teacher, generously sharing his lifetime of knowledge with other lifters at all levels.

Defining quote: “I cough up a lot of bloody hockers when I squat in the 700s. Strangely enough, it’s not a problem when I am using over 800-pounds.”
(Overheard in a conversation in the gym with fellow champion Rob Wagner)

Ronnie Coleman

While no one doubted that Ronnie Coleman had great genetics when he entered the pro ranks, no one (including himself) knew he would go on to become a bodybuilding legend. His climb up the bodybuilding ranks was gradual, winning the IFBB World Championships heavyweight class in 1991 and struggling as a professional, not winning his first pro contest until 1995.

In 1998, Coleman hit his stride, winning five out of six pro shows and putting Kevin Levrone and Flex Wheeler on notice. Still, when Dorian Yate’s retirement left the Olympia title undefended, few thought Coleman would snatch the Sandow from heir-apparent Wheeler. Once the title was his, Coleman guarded it closely, pushing his physique to a monstrous 285-pounds.

While his genetics are undeniable, it is his Spartan work ethic that sets him above the competition. Some of his regular accomplishments in the gym include: barbell lunges the length of the parking lot with a 225-pound bar; 805-pound doubles in the deadlift; flat dumbbell presses with a pair of 200-pounders for twelve reps; bench presses with 495 for five reps; 855-pound squats, front squats with 585-pounds for sets of five; leg presses with 2,250 for sets of eight; bent rows with 495 for eight reps; t-bar rows with 585 for nine and alternate curls with 75-pounders for sixteen reps. He has forged every pound of muscle on his physique through intense effort.

After eight consecutive Olympia wins, training at Ronnie’s level took its toll and eventually injuries relegated him to second place at the 2006 Olympia and a fourth in 2007. His competitive spirit however makes retirement impossible and rumors of a return to competition seem likely since the intensity of his training has changed little in recent years.

Defining quote: “‘Aint nuthin’ but a peanut.”

Memorable story: Going from not making the top fifteen in the Mr. Olympia in 1992, to dominating the contest from 1998 to 2005, Ronnie Coleman has displayed the humility and perseverance that makes him respected by every bodybuilder. When he collapsed to the floor upon winning his first Olympia, every fan in the audience felt like one of their own had emerged victorious.

John DeFendis

Sustained focus is John DeFendis’ greatest trait, whether that involves three-months of ultra-strict dietary deprivation or four hours of gut-wrenching intensity in the gym. When DeFendis sets himself on a one-track targeted goal NOTHING stands in his way. All factors are ignored in his laser-like focus, whether they are personal demons, social commitments, financial considerations or natural disasters.

His tales of “Intensity or Insanity?” training with Steve Michalik are legendary. Their workouts incorporated forty to sixty sets per bodypart, with poundages that most lifters couldn’t even budge for a single set. Training sessions included a grab bag of supersets, giant sets, drop sets, vomiting, hospitalization, and unprecedented growth and muscle density. Where some have experienced that, Michalik and DeFendis both had the passion and hunger to pull it off on a daily basis. The dozens of “wannabe” training partners they left in their wake didn’t.

In the process, DeFendis built a physique that combined rugged, powerful thickness with God-given shape and pleasing lines. His muscle density is unparalleled to this day. This allowed him to step out of retirement after a long competitive hiatus to demolish all favorites in the 1988 NPC USA championships.

Ultimately, for DeFendis, bodybuilding was not about collecting trophies. It was about enduring everything it took in the gym and the sacrifices in his life to get on that stage. When DeFendis uses the word “champion,” it has a different, deeper meaning. His version of the word implies lifelong dedication and inhuman levels of sacrifice for an ideal greater than mere individual glory. It is in that day-to-day internal battle, that constant uphill Sissiphian struggle that a champion is made.

Despite redirecting his focus on a career as Florida’s top personal trainer, DeFendis still trains in his “Intensity or Insanity?” style and looks about four weeks from getting on stage year-around.

Why? Because being a champion is not just a catchphrase for him, it’s the very core of his identity.

Memorable story: DeFendis should have never asked his mentor Mr. America winner Steve Michalik, what it would take for him to win the USA Championships on their visit to Jones Beach. Michalik answered by holding his student underwater until rendered unconscious. The words of wisdom imparted later to DeFendis by his insane mentor: “When you want to win as badly as you wanted that breath of air… then come back and see me! That’s what it will take for you to be the best!”

Defining quote: “It didn’t matter to me that I was waking up at 5:00 in the morning to eat egg whites so that I could be at the gym by 6:30, and it didn’t matter that I was dragged through the last half of the workout like the gladiator in the chariot scene from the movie Ben Hur. What did matter was the fact that I was training with Mr. America and that even though he was mentally and physically beating the living shit out of me day after day, I was improving dramatically.”

Mike Francois

It’s a classic story – “boy goes to the seminary to become a priest, boy meets girl, boy leaves the seminary to become one of the greatest bodybuilding champions of all time!”

Winning a US national-level bodybuilding title is an impressive accomplishment. The fact is though, if you count each of the class winners, we get about a dozen of those a year (seven or eight of which get an IFBB pro card). Few of these make much of an impact once they enter the pro scene. Francois was a notable exception. After winning the heavyweight and overall at the 1993 NPC Nationals, he went on to win his pro debut, the Chicago Pro Show. He followed this up with victories at the San Jose Pro Show, Night of Champions and the Arnold Classic. In the process, he beat such pro heavy-hitters as Flex Wheeler, Nasser el Sonbaty, Ronnie Coleman, Vince Taylor, Kevin Levrone and Lee Labrada.

Mike Francois mixed modern physique standards with a work ethic common in earlier eras. Like lifters of old, he not only concentrated on the basic power movements but would even train at times with powerlifters. Being from Columbus, Francois trained for periods with Louie Simmons’ crew of elite lifters at Westside Barbell, earning the respect of powerlifting‘s top champions.

Being a true power-bodybuilder, Francois ushered in a return to hardcore training basics. In the gym, he would deadlift up to 800-pounds and has squatted 735 for sets of five. Powerful quads and thick spinal erectors were just a part of his overall contest-winning physique. Because of his popularity, hundreds of young lifters were introduced to heavy rack deadlifts and the power-bodybuilding training style.

Although his professional career was cut short by colitis (a chronic digestive disease), Francois has not left the bodybuilding world. He still lifts regularly, promotes the Mike Francois Classic (which is becoming one of the Midwest’s top amateur qualifiers) and has helped numerous top bodybuilders prepare for National-level competition.

Defining quote: “Within myself I have a great drive.”

Memorable story: “Every time I would leave Westside Barbell, I would drive back with my seat almost fully reclined since my back was so tight. I don’t know how I managed to avoid wrecking my car. I could barely see over the dashboard to steer but I needed to get home to eat. The training was rough but result-producing.”

Kirk Karwoski

Karwoski is powerlifting’s raging bull. Where Ed Coan focuses his intensity towards the precision execution of his lifts, “Captain Kirk” attacks the bar with the unbridled rage of a category-5 hurricane. Early lifting footage of Karwoski shows sloppy form but an ability to manhandle huge weights through a mixture of natural genetics, unbridled rage and pure strength of will.

This brute strength led to a world record 1,003 pound squat in the 275-pounds class, increasing the record a full hundred pounds! Renowned for his squat (he has done a half-ton for two reps in training), Karwoski also has deadlifted 825 and benched 585 in the gym, in the era before the “advances” in lifting gear that record holders enjoy today. As a side effect, he built a huge 275-pound (at close to 10% bodyfat) physique that would not be out of place in a physique contest.

Old powerlifters never seem to retire (unless forced by injuries) and Karwoski is no exception. After eight years off a meet platform, The Captain returned, competing raw (with no support gear, save a lifting belt) to score a 826 squat, 463 bench press and a 771 deadlift. In the process of his squat attempt, he tore the vastus internus on his right leg, which didn’t keep him from pulling his big deadlift. It remains to be seen if he will compete again.

Karwoski has also given back to the sport, mentoring numerous rising stars and coaching national teams. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, he is also an authority on the strip clubs in the vicinity of each national meet.

Defining quote: “Most powerlifters share some common defects. We, as a whole, for whatever reason, love to punish, beat and torture ourselves beyond the limits of mind and body.”

Other defining quote: “If you touch that bar, I’m going to kill you!” (to a spotter)
Memorable story: The off-stage exploits of Karwoski are numerous and legendary, but since the statutory limit on many of these has not run out, the fact that he has squatted five reps with 800-pounds in the gym is the most impressive.

Bill Kazmaier

Although spending time as an IPF World Champion powerlifter, professional wrestler and football player, Bill Kazmaier is best known for his three-year reign as the World’s Strongest Man. It is even speculated that the organizers decided not to invite him back for a number of years to avoid a one-man dominance. His legendary battles with Jón Páll Sigmarsson for the WSM title have made reruns of the competition still popular a decade later.

As a powerlifter, Kaz set a long-standing bench record of 661-pounds (although he reportedly benched 633 for a triple in the gym). It wasn’t until improved support gear came into play that this record was broken. In addition, he posted a 925-pound squat, a big 887-pound deadlift and a 2,425 total.

If these accomplishments were not enough, Kaz follow in the old-time strongman tradition by performing a number of exception strength feats. He inflates hot water bottle to bursting with his lungs, rips phonebooks and license plates in half, and rolls frying pans up into coils with his bare hands. He is one of a handful of men able to lift and press the Thomas Inch dumbbell, an unwieldy 172-pound dumbbell with an excessively thick 2½-inch handle, making gripping the weight a supreme challenge. In fact, standing upright with the weight (a one-handed deadlift) is a popular test of strength among elite lifters.

Not only does Kaz possess single-rep strength, he has repped-out with big poundages: barbell curls with 315 for fifteen reps, 500 pounds in the bench press for 15 reps, 17 reps in shoulder presses with 121-pound dumbbells and ten reps with 800 in the squat!

In his fifties, Kaz still possesses a lean powerful build, in close to the best (if not the biggest) condition of his life. Lean but still thickly muscled, his 23-inch guns seem to have lost little of their size. He is active as a speaker, exercise equipment distributor and product spokesman. Always a gracious and humble champion, he is revered and admired by two decades of iron athletes.

Defining quote: “Yeah, I actually think I am the strongest man who ever lived. Yes, I’ll make that statement.” (in an WSM interview)

Memorable story: So dominant was Kazmaier’s competitive nature that when entering a goldfish-eating contest with a cash prize, he swallowed an all-time record 1,000 live fish, even though that number quadrupled that of the runner-up. Kaz’s strategy? Rather than fish them out one at a time, he gulped down the fish and water together.

Tom Platz

Tom Platz brought a new level of professionalism to bodybuilding, bringing bodybuilding closer to the level of world-class athletes in mainstream sports such as baseball and tennis. As spokesman and athletes’ rep for Vince MacMahon’s short-lived WBF, Platz’s influence is still being felt, with dozens of athletes receiving endorsement contracts, a state of affairs nonexistent before the WBF.

Platz was far from being a “stuffed suit” executive though. He was, first and foremost, a hardcore “in-the-trenches” lifter. In this capacity, he increased awareness of our ability to push our limits in both training and in physique freakiness. His quads were decades ahead of their time, displaying fullness and cross-striation in areas where others didn’t even have development.
His hamstring separation is stupefying, with deep crevasses and paper-thin shrink-wrapped skin causing the tissue to stand out in bold relief.

Most impressively, the heavy-legged Platz managed to bring his upper body up to nearly the level of his legs in order to capture a controversial third-place finish in the ’81 Olympia. This was to the outrage of the audience, who acknowledged Platz as superior in physique, conditioning and presentation than both the winner and runner-up.

Platz eloquently spoke about the spiritual side of training but, rather than waxing on about “enlightenment” and achieving peace, his deep inflections were geared towards more immediately practical ends – pushing his body to brutally harsh levels of gym performance. Refraining from incense and mantras, the Golden Eagle invoked high-rep squatting as his means to transcend to another level.

His squat poundages include a single with 855 (in full-depth high-bar bodybuilding style), 635 pounds for 8-12 reps, routinely squatting 300-400 pounds for sets of 25-50 reps (with his best being 515 pounds for 30 reps) and he has even squatted 225 pounds for ten-minutes straight. Give that a try and tell me you don’t have a religious experience.

Defining quote: “When I walked out on stage I wanted to make the judges drop their pencils and say, ‘WHAT in the hell is that?!?'”

Memorable story: In the early seventies, Platz arrived in California with less than $50 in his pocket, lived in small apartment in Santa Monica with over a dozen other guys but knew he wanted to be a champion bodybuilder.

Benny Podda

Benny “the Beast of the East” Podda is the quintessential “Rocky” story applied to bodybuilding. With modest physical potential but enough heart for a battalion of warriors, he pushed his body to the very edges of its potential. In the process, he won the light-heavyweight class at the 1983 USA Championships, along with a handful of top-five placings in other national-level shows. More importantly was the army of Podda fans he attained due to his hardcore training and colorful personality.

Lacking a graceful structure or beautiful lines, Podda won shows by virtue of extreme shredded and vascular muscularity and thickness. His frame was so crowded with muscle and sinew that he resembled a muscled fireplug. At a height of 5’6 and up to 255-pounds of powerful muscle, Podda was known as a ferocious and powerful trainer. His workouts included squatting with up to 850 pounds, deadlifting 800 and 500-pound bent rows. More than just a low-rep man, Benny reveled in his ability to block the burning pain and oxygen debt that accompanies high reps as well. Hearing that Platz occasionally would perform 50-rep squat sets with 315-pounds, Benny took things a few steps further, reproducing that for FIVE sets each leg workout.

Legend has it that in his early competitive years, Podda lived in a small windowless room, his furnishings consisting of a bedroll and a stack of books. His Spartan lifestyle was a purposeful attempt to avoid distractions from his goals. So devoted was he to his goals that “The Beast” would wake up three hours before his 6:30 AM workout to perform Taoist meditation.

As intense as his training was, Podda was equally intense as a performer. It was common for members of the crowd at every one of his guest-posings to cry out “Bleed for us Benny!” to which Podda would tense and strain until his high blood pressure-aided sinuses would burst, causing a hemorrhage of blood to spurt from his nostrils. (He is currently rumored to be living as a hermit in a cave in California).

Defining quote: “Sometimes the workouts are so hard you think your eyeballs are going to pop right out of your head.”

Memorable story: Jim Manion, who owned the gym in which Podda trained (Manion’s Gym in Carnegie, PA), relayed the following story to me:

“I arrived back at the gym from doing some errands to find the front desk manager in a panic. Benny had been doing heavy seated cable rows with the full stack and three or four 45-pound plates added on. The weight was a total of 470-pounds. A couple reps into his set, the cable abruptly snapped, causing the handle to crash into Benny’s face. He split the bridge of his nose open and blood was gushing everywhere. So I told the desk guy, ‘Ferchrissakes, just drive him to the hospital then.’ He said, ‘I would, but he refuses to leave until he finishes his workout.'”

Jón Páll Sigmarsson

A charismatic showman, Iceland’s Jón Páll Sigmarsson, known as the Viking Warrior, shaped the World’s Strongest Man contest into what it is today. He dominating the sport in the eighties with four WSM overall wins (in ’84, ’86, ’88 and ‘90), and six World Muscle Power Championships (‘85-87, ‘89-91). His most impressive feat may be winning the Pure Strength challenge against the great British strongman Geoff Capes and then American legend Bill Kazmaier, winning eight out of ten events.

The Icelander was a natural in front of the camera. His aggressive proclamations and witty comments backed up his intense desire to win. Sigmarsson drew inspiration from stories of his Icelandic Viking ancestors and focused this into his drive to excel. His victory cry of “I am the Viking! I am the strongest!” would send the crowd into a frenzy.

Sigmarsson was also adept at the other iron sports, winning the Commonwealth Highland Games in Scotland (1986), the European Powerlifting Championships and even competing in Olympic lifting earlier in his career. He was also a champion bodybuilder, his lean 6’3″ 294-pound physique winning both 1984 Icelandic Bodybuilding Championships and an IFBB pro card.

Dying at only 33 years of age, we will never know how many more titles this charismatic champion would have won or the ultimate level his strength may have reached.

Defining quote: “I think you will see me switch on the crazy switch later in the competition.” (from World Strongest Man coverage)

Memorable story: Sigmarsson was known to have said, “There is no point on being alive if you cannot deadlift.” Ironically, Jón Páll Sigmarsson clinched his inclusion in The Twelve by dying in gym combat. In 1993, he suffered a massive heart attack while repping out in heavy deadlifts in his gym.

Dorian Yates

Yates was constantly pushing the envelope, both in the gym and with his physique. Nicknamed “the Shadow,” Dorian would retreat from the spotlight to his Birmingham, England-based Temple Gym and systematically recreate his already Olympia-dominating physique. Guest-posing a few months out from the Olympia at mid-300s bodyweight, competitors would declare that Yates had blown it; he would never be able to get into championship shape in time. Each time, the Shadow proved them wrong.

Yates was passionate about training, making each workout into a competition, and when Dorian competed, nothing kept him from winning. Never one to rest on his “best in the world” laurels, Yates appeared each year with dramatic muscle gains and bigger bodyparts. Some may argue his conditioning or lines may have been better in one particular year or another, but no one can competently claim that his physique did not indicate a year of ass-busting effort had taken place since his previous title defense.

This level of effort came with a price. His final Olympia appearance was severely hampered by a disfiguring triceps and lat tear. He competed with injuries, not allowing excuses to force him out of his title. After a final win, he retired on his own terms but continues to train (and intends to ALWAYS do so). Yates was in it to win, not just collect a check. He was, and is, a competitor. If he were to choose to reenter the Olympia ten years after his retirement, one would be foolish to count him out.

Defining quote: “The Americans seem to be quite complacent and laidback, especially with their training. When I go to America it seems like I never see anyone really training very hard in the gyms where, back in England, there’s more of a working-type ethic. The guys in the gym are really going for it and really training hard. They might not have the sophisticated kind of facilities they have in the States but there’s a lot more heart and a lot more guts.”

Honorable Mentions

Johnnie Fuller: “You can either train hard or you can train long.” Well, DeFendis and Michalik proved that not to be true. Fuller also fits into the sixty-sets per bodypart workout club but adds dietary strictness that would make Ghandi look like a binge-eater.

Rich Gaspari: Perhaps Gaspari did more to push his genetics than any man to ever win an IFBB pro show. On the way, he showed us that a thick, densely muscled physique could also be ripped to shreds. The Dragonslayer may have just missed snagging the Olympia crown multiple times, but his attitude and accomplishments inspired more lifters than three average Sandow-holders combined!

Louie Simmons: It may have taken him thirty years, but Louie finally joined the 900-pound squat club – and at over fifty years of age! Few things could inspire like sustained determination like that. Not only has he personally pushed himself to new levels of strength, but he epitomizes the thinking man when it comes to training. No man since Dr. John Zeigler has been responsible for helping lifters put more weight on their totals.

Jeff King: Legs like Platz and a neck that looks like a 21-inch bundle of steel cables. Although he seemed like a sure-fire future Mr. Olympia, Jeff was perhaps the freakiest bodybuilder that most people have never heard of.

Bertil Fox: I know what you’re thinking – Fox got screwed just because he pulled an O.J. Simpson. Not quite. The Brutal One made the “honorable mentions” because of his thickly muscled frame and prodigious strength. He missed The Twelve because he let himself wither down to nothing for his double-homicide trial. If Fox wants to die a hardcore legend, he should try to snap the hangman’s rope by weighing a shredded 270!

Magnus ver Magnussen: This four-time World’s Strongest Man winner also has racked up two European Powerlifting Championships with an impressive 880-pound squat, 604-pound bench press, 825-pound deadlift and three-lift total of 2233-pounds. He has continued the Icelandic tradition of strength pioneered by the great Jón Páll Sigmarsson.

Andreas Munzer: Noted as one of the most hard-training athletes, Munzer was able to go from a man known for being shredded, to a MASSIVE and shredded champ. R.I.P. brother.

Mike Mentzer: This one-time mass god didn’t seem to train in his later days due to his obsession over philosopher Ayn Rand. “Alex, give me L. Ron Hubbard to block.”

Branch Warren: Certainly the next to step into the role left open by Mike Francois and Dorian Yates, Branch eschews the beach-bod for freakish vascularity, prodigious strength, and plenty of thick and grainy mass.

Chuck Vogelpohl: What could be more hardcore than spending two decades as the de facto alpha dog at Westside Barbell? How about an 800-pound deadlift and being the first man to squat half-a-ton at 220-pounds (the first time anyone under 275 has done it).

Steve Michalik: The vomit-covered path of devastated training partners locked this guy an honorable mention spot. His unfortunate talkshow admissions that “steroids made me an A-hole” make us drop him to “honorable mention” status.

Dave Palumbo: Using his brain to push muscle mass to the next level, and being persecuted by judges all the while…

Vic Richards: Incredibly full muscle bellies and mass that was a decade ahead of its time. Vic was as huge and strong as they come but you shouldn’t talk about being better than the Olympians if the only contest you’ve ever won is the national championship in a starvation-ravaged third-world country.

Casey Viator: Imagine what it would be like to be the best-built man in the country (we all have). Now imagine achieving that goal while still a teenager. At nineteen years of age, Casey Viator was the youngest Mr. America winner ever. The clincher? All of the men on this list have experienced injuries in their quest for greatness but only Casey can proudly claim to have lost half a finger during training. Hell yeah!

Mike Miller: Mike “Rage” Miller’s tattoo (“Never demand what you cannot take by force”) says it all. He leads the Pennsylvania chapter of the Metal Militia with a 1,200 pound squat and 755-pound bench press.

Don Ross: The Ripper did everything he could to pack on mass, made fun of those that did aerobics, ate plenty of red meat and died young – sounds like he covered all his bases.

Tim Belknap: Although he earned his reputation as a world class A-hole, Belknap carried a level of mass that foreshadowed the polypharmacists that followed him.

Gary Taylor: This British World’s Strongest Man winner was huge, ungodly strong and even once had a leg crushed by a 700-pound tractor tire that flipped the wrong way during an event. To clinch things, this guy works and trains in a prison!

Written by Steve Colescott

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 – The Hardcore Twelve discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.

Upper Body Warm-Up – 10 Minutes to Better Performance!

These days, just about everyone from strength coaches to exercise enthusiasts are familiar with the concept of a dynamic warm-up. That said, simply because you are aware of a concept doesn’t mean that you actually understand how to properly apply it.

Speaking around the country as a strength coach and educator, I’ve observed that most folks (even fitness professionals) still lack the ability to design and utilize a comprehensive dynamic warm-up that is effective in improving strength, functional range of motion, and overall performance.

This article will change that and will provide you with the necessary tools to maximize performance in both training and competition by using the Performance U approach to dynamic warm up.

Why Warm Up?

The importance of utilizing a dynamic warm-up is widely accepted among athletes and sports coaches. However, many bodybuilders and strength athletes seem resistant to the use of dynamic warm-up concepts. This is simply due to a lack of understanding of the importance of a dynamic warm-up and how it can actually help you push more weight and get bigger, stronger, and more explosive in both training and competition.

Simply put, a dynamic warm up is a transition stage from normal activity to more athletic activity. During this transition, we spend time activating all of the muscles that haven’t been used all day while at home or at work so that they can turn on as much power as possible while you train. This helps to improve motor unit recruitment, which in turn translates into gains in size and strength.

During this transition stage, we also perform movements that increase overall mobility. This will help you do things like squat deeper, deadlift with a straighter back, and perform lifts with more comfort and less restriction.

In addition to all that, we also ensure that all the smaller stabilizer muscles are ready to do their jobs and prevent you from hurting yourself while lifting.

10 Minutes to Better Performance!

This warm-up takes no more than ten minutes. If you aren’t willing to take ten minutes to do something that’s almost guaranteed to work, don’t call yourself a serious lifter. I can promise you that it works to improve your performance and break new PR’s because I see it happening every day with clients and athletes. If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be in business!

Way Beyond Warming Up!

The phrase “warm up” is oversimplified and incomplete.  A well-designed dynamic warm-up does much more than just increase body temperature. For instance, walking on a treadmill will raise your body temperature (warm you up) but it will do absolutely nothing to help you bench more weight, jump higher, or run faster during training or competition.

However, the Performance U Warm Up provided in this article will give you the exact tools needed to ensure maximal strength and muscle recruitment while improving your functional range of motion and helping to prevent injury.

Put simply, this article will have you ready for anything!

So, if you are serious about getting results, staying injury-free, and making the most out of every workout, keep reading!

What About the Upper Body?

It’s interesting to me that the folks who do use some sort of dynamic warm-up seem to neglect the upper body. I often see people doing skips, high knees, ankle mobility drills, and some glute activation before going on to do an upper body workout.

Don’t get me wrong…those drills are all great, but they are lower body dominant. In other words, they don’t do much to prepare the upper body for optimal performance during upper body pushing and pulling movements.

The warm-up provided below is intended to be performed on your upper body day, regardless of whether you do a pushing day, a pulling day, or a combined push and pull day.

4 Steps to Success!

This warm-up is broken down into four stages:

1. Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
2. Dynamic Mobility
3. Muscle Activation
4. CNS Activation

I will explain each stage as we progress through the article. I don’t think you‘ll die if you decide to change the order a bit, but I recommend keeping it the same as I’ve described above.

Now here’s how you warm up, Performance U style!

Stage 1- Self Myofascial Release (SMR)

Put simply, SMR is self-massage using objects like foam rollers, medicine balls, or even tennis and golf balls.

Performing some SMR prior to training will increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscle. Also, SMR will alleviate any minor soft tissue restrictions that could hinder your performance.

Check out this video on how to perform SMR for the upper body:

Self Myofascial Release for Shoulders, Pecs and Biceps

Before we move on, I want to mention that SMR is also a very effective tool to use in your post-workout routine or as a cool-down. Doing this helps to relieve muscle soreness and accelerate recovery time, among other things. I’m a firm believer in using SMR; I even put out a comprehensive DVD on the subject, which can be purchased here.

Stage 2 – Dynamic Mobility

Dynamic mobility can be thought of as muscle flexibility and joint range-of-motion exercises performed at a dynamic rate. Because this is a warm-up, we need to prepare the body for the dynamic nature of sport and exercise by moving dynamically. Static stretching is great, but it down-regulates the muscles and the Central Nervous System (CNS).

Dynamic mobility exercises (like the ones shown below) up-regulate the CNS and help the body understand how to control your muscles and joints through a full range of motion under a small load provided by your bodyweight and momentum. This is exactly what’s needed to perform at high levels and avoid injury.

These drills will help develop and improve the joint and muscle function of your upper body.

Dynamic Mobility Exercise #1 – Jumping Jacks

We’ve all done these since we were kids in elementary school, so I don’t feel it’s required to give you an in-depth explanation of how to do jumping jacks. That being said, jumping jacks are a great exercise that everybody knows but nobody seems to use anymore. Watch the video below if you’d like a reminder on how to properly perform the jumping jack:

Jumping Jacks

When performing jumping jacks, be sure to maintain a full range of motion in your shoulders by touching your hands at the top.

Perform 10-15 reps.

Dynamic Mobility Exercise #2 – Y Jacks

Here at Performance U, we love being creative and developing new concepts and techniques, especially when it involves just putting a new tweak on an old battle-tested standby like the jumping jack.

Check out this video on how to perform the Y–Jack:

Y Style Jumping Jacks

Y style jumping jacks are important because they drive your shoulders through a different angle (plane of motion) than the traditional version. This makes for a more thorough and comprehensive upper body warm-up.

Perform 10-15 reps.

Dynamic Mobility Exercise #3 – Crossover Jumping Jacks (a.k.a. X-Jacks)

As I already explained, performing dynamic shoulder movements in multiple planes of motion is the key to injury prevention, peak preparation, and maintaining optimal shoulder health. Think of the X-Jack as arm swings with a jump.

Cross Over Jumping Jacks

Perform 10-15 reps.

Dynamic Mobility Exercise #4 – Dowel Stretch

The dowel stretch can be performed with or without movement of the hips. 

Dowel Stretch

Hold each stretch for roughly 2-3 seconds and repeat for 8-15 reps on each side.

Dynamic Mobility Exercise #5 – Arm Crossover

The arm crossover is one of my “go to” upper body / torso / rotary mobility exercises. The arm crossover was developed as a more back-friendly method of improving rotary mobility.

As you can see in the video, Alli has an Airex Pad between her knees. For folks with less flexibility, use a thicker object between your legs, like a foam roller. For folks with higher levels of flexibility, simply put your knees together without using any object between your legs.

Take a look at how to safely and effectively perform the arm crossover stretch:

Arm Crossover Stretch

Perform 8-15 reps per side for 2-3 second holds.

Upper Body Warm-Up Stage 3 – Muscle Activation

In this stage, we utilize exercises that improve the mind-to-muscle connection of specific muscles crucial to optimal upper body performance.

Muscle activation is especially important for your warm-up because it helps to wake up the muscles that we may have slightly inhibited by sitting at our desks or slouching all day.

Put simply, the dynamic mobility exercises shown previous improve range of motion. Muscle activation assures that you have the correct muscle activity to control the new ranges you can now achieve from the dynamic mobility.

Muscle Activation Exercise #1 – Push-Up w/ Rotation (AKA – T-Roll Push Ups)

In my opinion, push-ups are one of the best exercises ever invented. They’re great because of their simplicity, versatility, and overall effectiveness.

I use some sort of push variation with just about everyone I train. That said, in the context of this article, you will see one way to effectively use the push-up to optimally prepare the upper body for the rigors of strength training.

The T-Roll push-up is  a “big bang for your buck” exercise because it not only influences the chest and shoulders, it improves body awareness and rotary control of the torso…that is, if you do them correctly!

Watch the video below and discover both the right and wrong way to do the T-Roll push-up.

Push-Up w/ Rotation (AKA – T-Roll Push Ups)

This push-up is also very effective for use as a strength training exercise when performed with a higher intensity or load. However, in the context of a warm-up, I recommend performing 4-8 reps on each side using bodyweight or holding light dumbbells.

Muscle Activation Exercise #2 – Reverse Burpee

The reverse burpee is an exercise I developed to accommodate the needs of my MMA and grappling athletes. Since its development, I’ve found multiple uses for this exercise that stretch beyond the combat sports. One of those uses is as a great upper body warm-up exercise.

As I mentioned earlier while discussing the jumping jack variations, it’s important to warm up using multiple angles. This is where the reverse burpee delivers big and addresses a yet unfilled gap. In it’s simplest form, the push-up is a horizontal push movement. The reverse burpee is more of a diagonal/vertical pushing movement.

Using both movements makes for a more well-rounded and effective warm-up program.

Here’s how it’s done:

Reverse Burpee

As you can see in the video above, the reverse burpee is an upper body dominant exercise. This is in opposition to the traditional gym class / military style burpee, which is primarily lower body dominant.

Perform the reverse burpee for 5-10 reps during your warm up.

Muscle Activation Exercise #3 – LYTP Shoulder Circuit

The LYTP shoulder exercise circuit is a tweak on the more widely known YTWL sequence.

The YTWL shoulder circuit is a great way to warm up and improve shoulder function. The only issue is that there are a few things that can go wrong while performing the traditional YTWL circuit. This is where the LYTP shoulder comes in.

I developed the LYTP shoulder circuit to improve upon the YTWL sequence. As you will see in the videos below, the new and improved LYTP shoulder exercise circuit eliminates all the bad stuff from the YTWL sequence and adds tweaks to improve the effectiveness of your shoulder training efforts.

The first video deals with proper body positioning while performing the prone LYTP shoulder exercise sequence.

LYTP shoulder exercise sequence – proper body positioning

How to Perform Ls:

YTWL Shoulder Exercise – How to do Ls

As you can see by the title of LYTP shoulder circuit, I recommend performing Ls first. The simple reason for this is that the Ls are the hardest movement using the weakest muscles involved in this entire shoulder circuit. It’s always a good idea to perform the weakest movement first to ensure that fatigue doesn’t play a factor in affecting your ability to optimally perform the entire circuit. In the traditional YTWL sequence, the Ls are performed last, thus making it less likely that you will perform them correctly by the time you get around to doing them.

How to perform Ys:

YTWL Shoulder Exercise – How to do Ys

How to perform Ts:

YTWL Shoulder Exercise – How to do Ts

How to Perform Ps:

To prevent confusion, the P stands for “pivot prone”. Unlike the other letters, it does not represent the shape your arms resemble while doing the exercise.

The pivot prone is an exercise that I learned from our in-house Physical Therapist, Morgan Johnson, owner of Evolution Sports Physiotherapy. Morgan is one of the smartest PTs I know and he treats all of my injured clients and athletes.

If you’ve never heard of this exercise or are wondering where the idea for the pivot prone comes from, the name originates from a neural developmental position we all learn before we start to crawl, while lying prone (on our belly) as infants.

“At approx 5 months of age the child develops an interesting skill that contributes to their pelvic and scapular mobility.”

“During the Pivot Prone posture or pattern, the upper extremities assume the high guard position with the scapulas adducted by the rhomboid muscles. The upper limbs are horizontally abducted at the shoulders and flexed at the elbows. This retraction of the shoulder girdle and posturing of the upper extremities enhances trunk extension. To assume the pivot prone posture, the anterior muscles must elongate.”

Pediatric Physical Therapy, By Jan Stephen Tecklin, pg.34, Publisher: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Fourth Edition edition (October 1, 2007)

Now that you understand the origin of this movement pattern, you can better appreciate the important role that the pivot prone can play in regaining and maintaining a fundamental movement pattern that we all should posses.

Watch the video and learn why I don’t recommend the W and how to properly perform the pivot prone:

YTWL Shoulder Exercise – Why I don’t recommend the W and how to do Ps

Additional program design tips for using the LYTP Shoulder Circuit

  • Perform using either a Swiss ball as shown in the above video or standing in a bent over position similar to a Romanian deadlift
  • Add load by holding light dumbbells after mastering this circuit using bodyweight
  • This circuit is also great as an upper body cool-down following an upper body workout.
  • Perform 8-12 reps of each letter

Upper Body Warm-Up Stage 4 – CNS Activation

In the fourth and final stage of the warm-up, we utilize exercises that require quick, coordinated, and fairly explosive movements. These qualities are all skill oriented and therefore stimulate the nervous system. Plus, quick explosive movements improve motor unit recruitment. This means that by doing the exercises shown below, you assure that you will utilize all your horsepower in each lift of your workout.

CNS Activation Exercise #1 – Medicine Ball Chest Pass

Grab a 3-5 kg medicine ball and stand roughly 2-3 arms lengths from a brick wall. Throw the ball at the wall at a height no higher than shoulder level. Throw the ball hard enough so that it bounces back to your arms without bouncing on the floor.

Repeat this for 8-15 throws.

CNS Activation Exercise #2 – Medicine Ball Slam

Using the same weight medicine ball as above, perform slams as shown in the video below. Be sure to move your head to avoid the ball rebounding back and smashing you in the face!

Medicine Ball Slam

You can also stand about 6 feet from a wall and have the ball bounce back to you after each slam.

Perform 4-8 slams with 80-90% intensity.

CNS Activation Alternatives

If you don’t have access to a medicine ball or a place to throw one as described above, you can utilize the alternatives described below.

CNS Activation Exercise #1b – Plyo Push-Up

Most folks know what this exercise is, so no need to describe it in detail. Perform 4-8 explosive push-ups before moving on to CNS activation exercise #2.

CNS Activation Exercise #2b – Explosive Inverted Row or TRX Row

Inverted Row


Perform 5-8 explosive reps.

Upper Body Warm-Up Overview

For training purposes, here’s an overview of how this warm-up should look on paper. Feel free to print this out and take it to the gym with you.

Pre – warm up

  • Self Myofascial Release (SMR) for the upper body – 5 min

Dynamic Mobility

  • Jumping Jacks x8-15
  • Y Jumping Jacks x8-15
  • Crossover Jumping Jacks x8-15
  • Dowel stretch x8-15
  • Arm Crossover x8-12

Muscle Activation

  • T-Roll Push-Up x4-8 (each side)
  • Reverse Burpee x6-12
  • LYTP Shoulder Circuit x8-12 (each letter)

CNS Activation

  • Med Ball Chest Pass x8-12 or Plyo Push-Up x5-8
  • Med Ball Slam x 5-8 or Inverted Row x8-10

General vs. Specific Warm Ups

Before I finish this article, I want to make a point about general vs. specific warm-ups. The correct answer to the general vs. specific debate is…do both!

Even though the above warm-up is very comprehensive, it’s still general. This warm-up is designed to prepare your upper body for any and all activities you throw at it.

Once you complete your general warm-up, you still must perform a few light sets of whatever lift it is you are starting with. This will serve as your specific warm-up.

Stay Tuned

In my next article, I’ll discuss lower body warm-up and preparation concepts. As this article has done, the lower body warm-up article will provide you with the tools needed to get the most out of each lower body workout and develop strength and muscle faster than ever before.

Written by Nick Tumminello

About Nick Tumminello

Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.

Go to his website to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.

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 – Improve Performance with an Effective Upper Body Warm-Up discussion thread.

Building a Monster Upper Back

A huge and thick upper back is the hallmark of the alpha strength athlete.  Fluff trainees need not apply…only those with the fortitude and will to train with the requisite intensity will achieve the kind of upper back that literally intimidates and inspires awe in all who see it.  If you have ever had the unique opportunity to see a top level professional bodybuilder in person, you know what I mean.  The power that their backs exude is literally palpable. 

If you are a bodybuilder, a big upper back is the coup de grace of a great physique.  Huge lats and traps win contests. 

If you consider the most successful bodybuilders ever, the multi-Olympia winners, men like Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman, they are all known for incredible back width and thickness. 

The best of the best strength athletes also sport tremendous upper backs.  Think of the incredible thickness of Bill Kazmaier’s traps, or the huge lats of Mariusz Pudzianowski. Hyper-development of the huge muscles of the upper back is necessary for the superhuman strength feats these men must perform on a regular basis.

Building a huge upper back requires focus on two major muscle groups, the trapezius (traps) and the lattisimus dorsi (lats).  As with all forms of intense hypertrophy-focused training, efficiency is the key to optimal results.  Focusing on the traps and lats, the largest muscles of the upper back, allows the trainee to efficiently stimulate growth in the entire upper back. 

Hypertrophy-focused training must be relatively brief and intense.  A rough quote from Arthur Jones goes something like, “You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both.”  Training to failure, or beyond (forced reps, etc.) spurs maximal growth via optimization of both contractile (the contractile elements of the muscle cell, actin and myosin) and non-contractile or sarcoplasmic (interstitial fluid, etc.) hypertrophy. 

Do NOT confuse training for hypertrophy with training with light weights.  Being fairly active in the powerlifting community, I often encounter what I feel is a generalized misconception about optimized strength training.  Most powerlifters think of bodybuilders as “pumpers” who are all show and no go.  A closer look at the facts reveals that this is simply not the case.  Sure, there are some bodybuilders who have built enormous muscles using relatively light loads, but these are the exceptions.  As a rule, the biggest bodybuilders, those who are 270 lbs+ in the off-season, are very powerful individuals, especially with respect to the exercises that they regularly practice.  I think this fact is part of the misconception.  Elite level bodybuilders often rely heavily on selectorized machines, or use a plate-loading apparatus as opposed to simple barbells.  Strength athletes, especially powerlifters, misconstrue this to mean that the bodybuilders avoid heavy loads with barbells out of weakness.  The truth is that elite bodybuilders often use tremendous loads with this type of apparatus.  They use the machines because they feel they are less likely to injure themselves (which is itself a misconception), and they allow for a better focus on the target musculature.

Six time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates showing incredible back width and thickness

Strength and size are intimately associated.  Individually speaking, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, but increased strength does not always result in increased size.  This is due to the fact that demonstrable strength is basically a function of two components, hypertrophy of the aforementioned contractile myofibrils actin and myosin, and the nervous system.  An increase in the size of the contractile myofibrils will result in an increased force production capability of the muscle.  Expression of this increased force production capacity (or any force production capacity) is dependent upon the nervous system.  Think of the nervous system as a car’s transmission.  You have to mate a motor with an optimized transmission to get the best performance.  The same is true with your body; you cannot be as strong as possible without optimizing your nervous system.

Optimization of the nervous system is required to maximize demonstrable strength, and maximized demonstrable strength is required to elicit peak hypertrophy (i.e., lifting heavier loads for the same number of sets and reps stimulates greater hypertrophy). 

The above components of physiology are often lost on both bodybuilders and powerlifters.  Powerlifting training tends to focus on the neural aspect at the expense of maximizing hypertrophy and thus peak strength potential.  Bodybuilders often focus on high repetition pumping movements that do not optimize the nervous system and stimulate less contractile hypertrophy.  If it isn’t yet obvious, the ideal system for size and strength is one which both optimizes neural acclimation and contractile and non-contractile hypertrophy.


Powerlifter and Strongman Bill Kazmaier showing incredible trap thickness

Training for a HUGE Back!

If you truly want the biggest and strongest back possible, it is necessary to combine the best of both the powerlifting and bodybuilding worlds.  For my money, the best of the powerlifting/strength world is encapsulated in Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell training principles.  Louie flat out “gets it” better than any strength training authority in the world.  He is smart enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, in this case the wisdom of the super successful Russian and Bulgarian weightlifting teams, using this information plus his own vast experience to create a truly optimized absolute strength training program. 

The core of Louie’s system is the Maximum Effort (ME) training day.  ME training is done once per week for the bench, squat, and deadlift.  For our purposes, the main point of the ME day is that the lifter attempts a maximum lift (with the goal being a new personal record in the specific exercise) at each session, while practicing conjugate variety to keep the central nervous and muscular systems fresh.  Conjugate variety at Westside primarily involves the variation of major exercises for each ME session.  So, for example, ME bench training might use floor presses the first week, board presses the next, and then full range of motion (ROM) presses the third week. 

Even very subtle changes in a movement produce a significantly varied effect on the central nervous system (CNS).  The CNS is thus stressed differently with each unique exercise or variation thereof.  This variation in stress allows a lifter to train heavy each and every week while avoiding the normal pratfall of CNS overtraining.  In my opinion, conjugate variety is the major differentiator of Louie’s system vs. conventional western periodization programs and is the main reason why Westside is so much more effective. 

Another component of Westside training is the Dynamic Effort (DE) day.  DE training was first brought about for lifters who could not tolerate two ME sessions per week (which is the vast majority of trainees).  Its focus is on the building of speed, but as stated, it also serves as a less debilitating form of resistance training that permits and aids the athlete in recovery from the ME session.  The DE day is where the training in this article will be most heavily differentiated from Westside.  This will be where the best of both worlds will come into play.  Our replacement for DE day will be a hypertrophy-focused day using higher rep counts and high intensity of effort (a “bodybuilding” workout). 

This program will thus consist of training the upper back twice per week.  The first day will be very much like a Westside ME day with one main exercise each for the lats (main exercises for the lats should be multi-joint compound exercises such as rows) and traps taken to a 6 repetition (rep) max (to concentric, or positive failure, i.e., until you get stuck on a rep) for two sets. 

A two set, 6 rep max obviously varies from the Westside ME template, but I feel that single rep maxes are best reserved for programs where strength is the sole focus.  A 6 rep max will still stimulate absolute strength increases while simultaneously promoting hypertrophy.  As maximal hypertrophy is the stated goal of this program, it is important that both training days stimulate growth. 

Arnold was never afraid to hit some T-bar rows – old skool style!

After the 6 rep max sets, 1-2 working sets (post-warmup sets) of 2-3 additional exercises are performed.  Rep counts for these exercises should be in the 12-30 range.  The purpose of these sets is to thoroughly congest the muscles with blood and to increase the time under tension (TUT).  These sets will primarily aid with non-contractile hypertrophy.  They will also help to support the lower repetition strength training by aiding recovery. 

Day 2 training will include 3-4 exercises (four of 2 of them are supersetted) for the lats and one for the traps with reps in the 12-20 range.  There will be 1-2 working sets per exercise with each working set being taken to at least concentric failure.  This day is almost purely focused on non-contractile hypertrophy with high TUT and a heavy focus on the pump (the engorged feeling you get if training results in a temporary pooling of blood in the muscle). 

You must strive to increase the loads, number of reps performed, or both for your working sets each and every workout.  Progressive resistance is THE key to size and strength training results. 
Below is a sample list of exercises to choose from as well as a sample workout for both days. Note, all exercises should be rotated each workout such that no two subsequent workouts are the same. 


  • Bent-over rows
  • T-bar rows
  • Hammer Strength style machine rows
  • One arm dumbbell rows
  • Selectorized machine rows
  • Chins with various grips (weighted if needed)
  • Pulldowns with various grips
  • Cable, dumbbell, or machine pullovers
  • Seated rows


  • Barbell or dumbbell shrugs
  • Behind the back shrugs
  • Smith machine behind the back power shrugs
  • Hammer Strength style machine shrugs

Sample Workout

Note: Always allow at least two days between upper back sessions.

The format listed for sets and reps is as follows (for example):

  • 2 (sets) x 4/3 (reps)

The above denotes two working sets are to be performed with the rep counts at 4 for the first working set, and 3 for the second.  Be sure to perform at least two warmup sets per body part being exercised prior to your working sets.  After the first exercise, you can use your discretion as to whether or not you feel the need to warm-up for subsequent movements.  

Day 1:

  • T-bar row – 2 x 6/6
  • Dumbbell pullover – 2 x 15/15
  • Selectorized machine row – 2 x 15/15
  • Barbell shrugs – 2 x 6/6

Day 2:

  • Chins – 2 x failure (body weight only)
  • Hammer Strength style rowing machine – 2 x 12/12
  • Superset: Cable pullover & seated row – 2 supersets x 20 reps for each exercise
  • Behind the back Smith machine power shrugs – 2 x 15/15

Below are some training videos featuring author, Christopher Mason:

Behind The Back Power Shrugs

Hammer Strength Row with Bands

Very Heavy T-Bar Rows (not strict form)

Diet and Supplementation

If you want a huge back, you need to eat to support that goal.  Hypertrophy is most easily achieved in a caloric surplus.  In much the same way that training for optimized size and strength is not for the weak willed, neither is eating for optimized size and strength.  I see and hear far too many people complaining that they cannot gain weight and that they already eat a “ton” of food.  They lament that they could not possibly eat more… 

If you want a huge back you need to be willing to pay the price.  That price is pain and discomfort when you train and at the table.  The VAST majority of individuals who claim to not be able to gain weight simply under-eat.  They have not trained their stomachs by expanding them to the point that they will support the increased caloric intake required to add mass.  Training the stomach to accept greater amounts of food consists of eating large meals which literally force it to stretch.  This is the discomfort part and what sets apart the big boys from the rest.  In short, you have to eat until you are full and then eat some more.  You have to eat and drink until you are on the verge of vomiting.  For obvious reasons, vomiting is not desired and one must tread a fine line such that the stomach is forced to expand without eliciting sickness.  Your body will adjust in relatively short order, and consuming sufficient calories will no longer be nearly as difficult.

For specific caloric intake recommendations and nutrient timing please see my article Eating Optimally for Massive Size and Strength

As the co-owner of AtLarge Nutrition, I obviously recommend our products.  I helped to formulate many of them, and I will only sell products I personally do or would use.  Bottom line, I KNOW our products are good and will do as promised.  There are certainly other brands with effective products, but you cannot go wrong with AtLarge. 

If you want a HUGE and strong upper back I recommend the following:

Nitrean: is our protein-only product with a unique blend of three fractions of whey, casein, and egg proteins.  In concert with the other supplements recommended, Nitrean should be used as a bedtime shake. 

Opticen: is our post-workout (PWO) supplement.  As with all of our protein products, Opticen contains a blend of multiple proteins to include whey, casein, and egg.  It is specifically formulated to optimize PWO protein synthesis. 

MAXIMUS: is our weight gainer.  It utilizes the same protein blend as Opticen and adds to it the ergogen Microlactin® (to enhance recovery) as well as inulin (for superior nutrient absorption) and other strength and health promoting ingredients.  MAXIMUS should be used once or twice daily as a high quality and effective growth promoting meal. 

RESULTS: is the most effective non-hormonal size and strength supplement on the market, bar none! RESULTS will literally make you significantly bigger and stronger within two weeks of use.  Use once per day, with timing being less important than daily use. 

ETS: promotes enhanced recovery and dramatically reduced muscle soreness.  This program is very intense and ETS will help you to maximally benefit from it.  ETS should be taken once in the morning and once in the evening (4 capsules each time).


If you follow this program as outlined, you and those you know will be amazed with the results.  There is nothing else to be said…  DO IT!!!

Chris Mason – Off Season Lat Spread

Written by Christopher Mason

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 – Building a Monster Upper Back discussion thread.