There's nothing quite as stunning as a well developed back: muscles twisting everywhere like a road map, wide lats like a jet plane, and the lower back lit up like a Christmas tree.
For me, a defined, fully developed back is one of the most amazing things in all if bodybuilding. Historically, people always say Samir Bannout was the first bodybuilder to clearly show the lower back (erector spinae) muscles in competition—this would be 1982 and 1983, the year he won the Olympia.
There's a picture of Arnold from his peak years in the 70's in his Encyclopedia that clearly shows the erector spinae muscles, defined and reminding me of Christmas morning! In fact, his entire back looks amazing in that picture! Regardless, both men had great backs.
Moving forward in history, quite a few top guys are known for great backs: Lee Haney, who was known for his great lat width; Dorian Yates, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, and Dexter Jackson to name just a few.
In fact, a weak back, whether you compete or not, is a pretty serious weak point that makes a big difference in how you look. After all, what kind of bodybuilder doesn't have wide, flaring lats? Of course, the back has to be thick as well. And let's not forget the traps, what good is a weak most muscular pose?
Training the back can be quite a challenge because many people cannot feel the back muscles working when they train. This is very common because you can't see the back and your biceps are heavily involved in all back exercises. Many times you get a great biceps pump and little else.
The secret to taking the biceps out of the picture is to visualize them as hooks. The other secret is to begin all movements with the back muscles instead of pulling with the arms.
If you've been training long enough (you can flex any muscle at will) you start any back exercise by flexing the back and pulling with the back muscles first. By doing this, you will feel the back muscles working. If this continues to be a problem, you can try two things: a thumbless grip and/or lifting hooks. Both of these options can take the biceps out of it, putting more stress on the back.
Knowing what a muscle does is critical to training it correctly—with that in mind let's take a look at the anatomy of the back:
This is a very wide triangular shaped muscle that covers almost all of the muscles at the nape of the neck and a large part of the back. It originates in the occipital bone at the base of the skull and is inserted in the scapula and clavicle. The fibers of this muscle provide pull in three directions: up, down and in. Its function is to turn the head and raise the shoulders.
Many people train traps with shoulders—I prefer this myself, but for the purpose of this article I'll include it with back.
Rhomboideus Major/Rhomboideus Minor
The rhomboids originate on the spinal column and attach to the middle of the scapula. Their function is to bring the scapula in towards the spine, literally meaning to squeeze the shoulder blades together.
This muscle originates on the outer edge of the scapula and attaches to the humerus. It serves to pull the arm back.
This is the largest muscle of the back. Fan or "V" shaped, they provide force in a number of body positions, these same positions can be duplicated on a pulldown machine using varying angles, that is, you can pull straight down, or in any leaning back position.
They are attached to the upper end of the humerus and run down the vertebral column and pelvic girdle. The function of this muscle is to pull the arm downward. If the arm is in a fixed position, then the lats can pull the arm upward.
A group of muscles that give support to the spinal column. These muscles are: the longissimus, the spinalis and the iliocostalis. The function is to extend the spine.
As you can see, the back is quite complicated. Yet, there are two main types of movements that work the back: pulldown movements and rowing movements. Then there are power moves, like the deadlift, snatch and power clean. These moves are more of a whole body exercise; they work much more than the back.
I've always been a big believer in including at least one of these in your routine, not only because of all the muscles they work, but also because of the fact they cause a dramatic increase in the body's natural production of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.
While it's common to put chest and back together on the same training day—Arnold used to do this—it makes more sense to work back on it's own day, followed by biceps and forearms. This allows you to focus all of your energy on back training only instead of "sharing" energy with another big muscle group like the chest.
Since the biceps are actively involved in all back exercises it makes sense to work biceps after back. I like to include forearms with this workout but there is a theory that forearms are a little like abs in that you can work them more often then other muscles. While they are high endurance muscles that are involved in every exercise you do because of the grip required to hold the bar, I prefer to work them hard once a week with biceps.
If you know my writing you know I believe in one workout per week per muscle group. This is because of my age and recovery ability and because I'm natural.
Age and steroid use can change everything however, so I imagine younger guys and gals on steroids use more typical splits, hitting each muscle twice a week. That's fine if it works for you, just be sure you are fully recovered.
Remember growth only happens when you recover, not from how often you hit the gym.
5 Sample Routines
Deads should be explosive but under complete control up and slow on the way down. Use a full range of motion on chins, concentrating only on the back, not the biceps. Remember, they are hooks, nothing more. On bent rows—explosive up, hold and squeeze at the top, lower slowly.
Power cleans are an explosive exercise, so be sure you understand the movement and keep the rep under control at all times. Even though I suggest explosive for this and all power based movements (as the weight gets heavier) the bar's not going to be moving all that fast.
Seated rows should be continuous tension (squeeze and hold for a 3-count when you bring the bar in to your chest). If you can, use a 4-count on the return movement. Use the same rep method on pulldowns.
When doing shrugs, pull your shoulders straight up toward your ears, hold and squeeze. This applies each time you do shrugs in any of the routines.
On the close-grip pull-downs, you're pulling the bar to your upper chest. On this and behind-the-neck pull-downs, use continuous tension style reps, holding and squeezing at the top for a 3-count. On T-bar rows, do your reps explosive up, slow and controlled down.
Go heavier than usual on deads. Go explosive on the up motion, hold at the top for a 3-count and lower slowly.
On dumbbell rows, use the same rep performance.
Seated rows and pull-downs: this time use continuous tension and hold at the top for a 5-count. Stop halfway on every rep of every set on these two exercises and hold for another 5-count.
Any time you do a routine like this, you're really working the entire body. You will see tremendous natural hormone release from this routine. Be sure you completely understand how to do each exercise and go for heavy weights on your top sets. Rep performance should be explosive, but under control up and slow down.