Good bodybuilders often talk about back development in terms of two qualities: thickness and width. Thickness is the depth in the back – it’s like having slabs upon slabs of muscle stacked on top of each other in your back muscles – traps, rhomboids, teres, lats and spinal erectors… it’s like if you were helping a bro oil up backstage, your hand would disappear into the depths of that mass… it’s like mounds of muscles that undulate like rolling hills across the countryside. And then you have width, which is more self-explanatory – those are your “wings” – the V-taper… the aspect of latissimus dorsi development that allows you to see your back when judges look at you.. from the front! Your back muscles literally flare out under your arm pits, and the wider they spread, the greater your V taper and the more impressive your physique. If you don’t have both – width and thickness – your physique is not complete.
I can summarize the whole strategy here like this: To emphasize thickness, deadlift and row (horizontal pull). To emphasize width, pullup and pulldown (vertical pull).
A really good basic thick and wide workout then, might be deadlift and pull up or barbell row and pullup. That would do the trick for most beginners and intermediates. Advanced bodybuilders usually hit at least three different exercises for upper back, sometimes four.
My “thick and wide” workout had FIVE exercises, plus one extra for lower back. With the little “fun tweak” thrown in for the first two exercsies, it’s brutal. Call it “ultra advanced.”
I started out with a superset: Bent over barbell rows followed immediately by deadlifts. I used straps and a belt for both. By all rights, this has got to be the worst idea ever for a guy with my history of low back pain, but on the other hand, my lower back strength has been better than ever in my life this year and this combo has been starting to stimulate so much growth for me, I’m ready to go back into my first dedicated “bulk” in a long time (and hoping my back stays strong for continued deadlifting and squatting, since I know that’s going to help me put on solid bodyweight the rest of this year).
After warming up with a few lighter weight sets, I loaded the bar to 225 and rowed for 12 reps. Pronated grip this time – not “Dorian rows.” It was not total failure but close to it. The form was not 100% strict, but not sloppy – the weight was under control and I got a tight contraction. I then quickly slapped a quarter on each side of the bar for 275 lbs and deadlifted (conventional – double overhand) for 12 reps. No rest between sets except the time it takes to add the weight – it’s a superset.
Set two, same weight on rows but 295 on deads. Set three, 315 on deads. I barely got 8 reps on that last set – it felt heavy. That was three brutal supersets. Man, was this an ass-kicker! you’ll be sucking wind after this, even if you do cardio. (if you haven’t been doing any cardio… heh… you’ll be coughing up a lung, lol). 8-12 reps was the target rep range.
I often do 5′s (4-6 rep max range) for strength work on other exercises, but I think one of the reasons I’ve had success with deads this year is I have never tried to max out. I’ve just been training the dead like any other bodybuilding exercise – in the bodybuilding rep range. I think the risk level is exponentially higher on trying max lifts or even under 4 rep maxes, at least that’s how I feel about it and what my history of back health or back injury has indicated.
No doubt about it, this style of superset – what I call a “compound superset” is the toughest superset you will ever do (two compound / mass builder exercises together). It’s time efficient too. Supposing you weren’t “down” with the higher volume training that I enjoy and respond to – you could probably hit the row – dead combo and walk out of the gym and still call it “good to grow.”
I think the only compound superset that is harder is a squat supersetted with a deadlift. My former “evil trainer” Big Richie, had me do squats (with ascending set overload) supersetted to heavy romanian deadlifts once. (That was the day I realized he was evil).
Anyway, that was the “thick part.” That’s right, that was just the beginning. Next it was on to the “wide” part.
Next movement was heavy pulldowns. Usually I keep this one stricter and really go for both the stretch and the contraction, but for this program I allowed a little body English and went for the extra weight. Four sets at 230 X 15, 240 X 12, 250 X 12, 260 X 10. Fortunately we have the 300 lb pulldown stacks at both of our gyms or we would have gotten topped out at 250.
Fourth exercise (2nd width / vertical pull exercise) was wide grip pullups (a little wider than shoulder width, pronated grip). This one we usually strap weight around our waist, and also usually do it first. It’s a different animal when you do it well into your workout, with the back already fatigued. We went with just body weight and very strict – stretch and contraction – as many reps as possible, to failure, which was only about 10-12 after everything that came before. (by the way, none of that kipping shit. That ain’t a bodybuilding pullup!)
Fifth exercise… the old school Nautilus pullover machine aka “Dorian’s exercise” … aka “The Torture Rack.” Once again, fortunately BOTH of our gyms have this machine (if you aint got one… guess you gotta come to Jersey!).
I don’t even remember how much weight we used. I was delirious by that point. Only memory was the pain of muscles stretching.. contracting… and burning. My training partner Kostas “The Greek Statue” LOVES this machine and loves to blast the intensity on this one – never lets me get up until there is nothing left… if i leave anything on the table, for the next week (until the next back session where my chance to redeem myself occurs), I must tolerate a barrage of insults about my lack of “hardcore-ness”….
That did it for upper back, but, there was more. One of the changes I’ve made to my program in the last couple years is to religiously train my lower back twice a week. I hit it on back day and I also hit it on hamstring day (it fits in nicely with that whole posterior chain thing). Lots and lots and lots of hyperextensions – of all varieties. Some days I do reverse hypers, but today it was hypers aka back extensions with 25 lbs behind the head, then ditching the weight and with just body weight (drop set).
The next day… holy mother of Crom! My back was sore in three dimensions! From top to bottom… left to right… inside and out.
Next time… I think we will superset the pullups and pulldowns… that sounds like another level of fun.
By the way, it should go without saying its nuts for someone without good lower back strength, let alone a history of any low back problems to do a bent over row + deadlift combo. “Why did YOU do it then Tom?”, you ask? Hey man, I never said this blog was for training instruction. This blog is the crazy exploits of that manic, Venuto…. or, as Cypress Hill once said… “Don’t you know I’m Loco?”
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