My Guide to Building a Better Back by Dorian Yates
Over the course of my Mr. Olympia reign, I became known for setting a completely new standard for back development, in much the same way that Tom Platz had done a decade earlier when it came to legs. That’s how it usually is in any sports endeavor, like when my fellow Brit Roger Bannister ran the four-minute mile in 1954. Until then, such a feat was considered impossible. Yet once he had done it, the mental barriers came down and runners began doing it all the time.
It was much the same with back muscularity. Until I came along and set the new standard, bodybuilders never thought it was possible to build so much thickness, width, and detail in the lats. After me, Ronnie Coleman took his own back to a new level of freakiness. Not to say that his back was better than mine— he had a bit more overall size and I had more detail to mine— but you get the point.
I would never have built my back to the proportions I did, had it not been for a few champions who came before me. Foremost on the list would be the man who won eight Mr. Olympia titles just before my reign began, Lee Haney. Lee’s structure alone had all the makings of a great back: very wide clavicles and a very small waist. So even before he started adding muscle back there, he already had a pronounced V-taper. While he was Mr. Olympia, one of Haney’s most formidable physique weapons was his wide, thick back. It wasn’t overly detailed, but it was still better than anything we had seen before in his predecessors.
The man who actually proved to be my greatest inspiration to make my back a strong point was the late Momo Benaziza. Momo beat me the first time I competed as a pro at the 1990 Night of Champions. It was the only time I was ever beaten as a pro, and the loss stung. The main reason Benaziza beat me was his thick, rugged back. It had such depth and was etched in detail all the way from his traps down to his draping lower lats, and it made mine pale in comparison at the time. Right then and there, I set it in my mind to get that same look for my own back, and for inspiration, I tacked up back shots of Momo at my home and at my gym.
Why Don’t We See More Great Backs?
Since Ronnie retired, I haven’t seen many backs in pro bodybuilding that I considered exceptional. I suppose this Joel Stubbs bloke from the Bahamas would qualify, but it’s hard to give him full credit since he doesn’t have a very complete physique overall (light in the legs). If you ask most bodybuilders why they don’t have great backs, they will often give the excuse that only a handful of guys with very lucky genetics are capable of building backs like me or Ronnie. I can’t speak for Ronnie, but I don’t think there was anything very special about my genetics in that area. It’s true that my lats do insert very low, but I see plenty of pros with similar attachments.
The real reason is that most bodybuilders fail to grasp the function of the back and never train it properly. The basic function of the lats, without getting overly technical, is to bring the arms down from an overhead position and also to bring the arms back when they are in front of the body. In other words, a pulling down movement as well as pulling back as in any type of row. To work the lats completely, the lower back must be arched, not rounded.
Another common limiting factor toward building the lats is that it’s quite easy to let the biceps or momentum do the actual work rather than the lats, and as you should know, the biceps are much smaller and weaker than the lats. Therefore, if your biceps give out first, your lats never receive sufficient stimulation needed to spark growth.
The final and perhaps most significant issue working against back development is the simple and painfully obvious fact that the whole muscle group is in back of you, and you can’t see it. Not only does the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ prove sadly appropriate in this case, but not being able to see the lats while you work them also makes it much more difficult to establish a strong mind-muscle connection with them, as opposed to ‘mirror muscles’ like the chest and arms.
I can say from the experience of having coached many bodybuilders over the years that the back is the one area where establishing this connection is the most critical. Just about anybody can stimulate the chest to grow with bench presses, the biceps with curls, or the quads with squats— but stimulating the lats whilst performing pulldowns or rows is not quite so simple. The very first thing I do when taking a bodybuilder through a back workout is to cut the weight they are using— often by half— and have him or her focus intensely on feeling the lats contract as they pull, hold the peak contraction point and squeeze the lats as hard as possible, and feel them stretch as they lower the resistance. I can’t tell you how many of them have been stunned to actually feel their lats working for the very first time once they do this.
The Myth of Wide-grip Superiority
One myth that has held back the development of lats the world over is the persistent idea that using a wide grip on chins and pulldowns is the best way to build wider lats. This myth probably has its origins in the fact that using a wide grip on any vertical pulling motion will selectively recruit the smaller upper back muscles like the teres major and minor, the upper portion of the traps, and the rhomboids.
When a bodybuilder feels these smaller muscle groups at the top of the back working, he often assumes he is making his lats wider. But the lats actually originate under the armpits and insert near the waist. Using a wide grip does not provide anywhere near a full range of motion for them. A narrower grip, in contrast, allows both a better stretch and a more complete contraction. If you don’t believe me, pantomime two types of pulldowns right now as you read this, doing your best to contract the lats as hard as possible: a wide-grip pulldown and a narrow, underhand grip. I guarantee you that you will feel a more powerful contraction of the lats with the narrow underhand grip.
In my early career, I experimented with various types of grips, and I found that using a closer grip with the hands either parallel (facing each other) or fully supinated (underhand) actually provided the best contraction and most complete range of motion for the lats. Throughout my Mr. Olympia reign, I never did a single set of wide-grip chins or lat pulldowns. My two choices for vertical pulling were always a narrow underhand grip for lat pulldowns, which I would go up to 400 pounds on, and the Hammer Strength Iso-lateral pulldown machine.
A final reason to consider using a narrow grip beyond the issue of range of motion is the fact that it puts the biceps in a stronger position. Since the biceps are far smaller and weaker than the lats, putting them in a position where they are guaranteed to fail before the lats are properly stimulated, as in any wide-grip vertical pull, will cause you to shortchange your potential growth.
Putting Together the Ideal Back Workout
The back is a very large and complex group of muscles, but the ideal back training routine needn’t be overly long or complicated. Here’s what I recommend based on what I found to work best over my competitive career.
1. Nautilus pullovers (if available)
Arthur Jones capitalized on the concept of pre-exhausting back in the early ’70s when he designed the first Nautilus pullover machine, which he referred to as “The Upper Body Squat.” The beauty of this piece of equipment is that it allows the lats to be worked directly without having to go through the ‘weak link in the chain’ represented by the biceps. The lats can be worked through 180 degrees of motion to failure, and that failure is not limited in any way by the biceps, as they are not involved.
I know that not every gym has one of these machines, but I have had one at Temple Gym for over 20 years and consider it to be priceless in the quest for a bigger back. Another advantage to doing pullovers first is that you pre-exhaust the lats. It will take less weight in the subsequent rowing and pulldown movements to thoroughly fatigue the lats, and they will reach that fatigue without being limited so much by the biceps.
You can use a dumbbell for pullovers if you don’t have access to a machine, but the range of motion is shorter and it’s difficult to keep the triceps out of the motion. A straight-arm cable pullover is another option, but it’s tough to use enough resistance and stay on the floor at the same time.
- A Close-grip Pulldown Movement
As I said before, I preferred a close-grip cable pulldown, usually with an underhand grip. This provides the most complete range of motion for the lats and also puts the biceps in the strongest pulling position possible.
- Barbell or Dumbbell Rows
The two most productive vertical pulling movements I found were barbell rows and one-arm dumbbell rows. I often would alternate between the two from workout to workout. With barbell rows, I discovered through experimentation that an underhand grip put the biceps in a stronger position. I also found that standing at roughly a 70° angle and pulling into the waist worked the lats more completely than the ‘old-school’ style of bending over with the torso parallel to the ground and pulling into the chest, which worked more of the upper back muscles, as opposed to the actual lats.
- Cable or Hammer Strength Seated Row
I would also do some type of horizontal rowing movement, either the Hammer Strength seated row you’ve probably seen the famous black and white shots of me doing, or seated cable rows. The machine is a perfect choice for anyone who has lower back problems that could be aggravated by barbell rows. However, if you keep your back arched instead of rounded, that shouldn’t be an issue. I usually did both a free weight row as well as either a seated machine or cable row in my routines.
The order of the aforementioned exercises isn’t overly important, but I do feel that doing deadlifts last as I always did is the best way to include them in your back routine. Very heavy deadlifts can put a great deal of stress on the spine as well as other areas. Had I performed deadlifts first, it would have required something like 600 or maybe even 700 pounds for me to reach failure with 6-8 reps. Instead, I did them last and needed only 405-495 pounds at most to get the job done. Also, I never did my reps from the floor up, but from the mid-shin. The initial pull off the floor is mainly using the legs and glutes, which I didn’t care to train on back day.
A Final Word on Momentum
If there is one culprit to blame for lack of back development in bodybuilders, it’s the use of momentum to move the weight, rather than pure lat power. One must keep in mind that there are three types of strength: positive (lifting the weight), static (the peak contraction at the top of the rep where the muscle is fully contracted), and negative (lowering).
Your strength is actually the least in the positive and the greatest in the negative. In other words, if you can lift 200 pounds, you can probably hold 250 pounds in the peak contraction and can lower about 300 pounds in the negative. That’s just a very rough example. Most bodybuilders really only perform the positive portion of the rep and completely miss out on the other two possible areas.
A quick test to see if this describes you is to see if you can stop each rep at the peak contraction and pause to fully contract the lats, then lower it slowly under control for a good stretch. If you can’t, you’re using too much weight and would actually benefit greatly by reducing the resistance. Studies have shown that the negative portion of the rep causes more muscle damage and stimulates greater gains in strength than the lifting itself.
Summary: A Great Back Can Be Yours
So, armed with all this knowledge— can you now go forth and build a back like mine or Ronnie Coleman’s? I can’t say for certain that you can, but if you go about your back training in the proper manner, you at least stand a fighting chance. Having the confidence that you can improve the development of your back, along with the knowledge of how to train it properly, will mean that whatever your back looks like at the present moment, in time you can indeed make it wider, thicker, and more impressive.
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