In the upper echelons of competitive bodybuilding, every half of an inch counts. In the 1980s, Lee Haney set the standard from the rear with a back that blew away the field. Then came Brit Dorian Yates, who quite literally had the thickest and widest back on the planet. Just after the turn of the century, Ronnie Coleman rose to the top of professional bodybuilding, and again it was his back that set him miles apart.
But Jay Cutler could take runner-up honors to big Ronnie only so many times. He knew he held his own against the eight-time Mr. Olympia from the front and sides, but it was from the back that each outcome was ultimately determined. And determination aptly describes Jay's approach. He redoubled his training efforts to battle the longtime champ on his own turf: back poses. Today we know the eventual outcome, but what you may not know is how Jay's approach to back day finally vaulted him over Ronnie. It's the story of a man who would stop at nothing.
We caught up with Jay recently at the Bodybuilding.com offices with the intent of understanding just how he trained so ferociously. It was, as he says, so hard that he couldn't even bend over to tie his shoes afterward.
Q. How did you approach back day, knowing you had to close the gap with the eight-time champ?
I had some of the greatest back workouts when I was fighting Ronnie toward the end of his reign. I was training at one of the Gold's Gyms in Las Vegas at the time. I was actually doing a two-days-a-week back workout. I was training all the other body parts just once every 5-7 days, but with back, I did a thickness and a width day.
I trained back twice a week because it was the only side I was fighting Ronnie on. I had him from the front, and I was competitive from the side, but when I turned around from the back, everyone noticed the difference and it was enough to determine the show. To beat this guy, I knew I needed to improve my back, and that meant training it twice a week to develop the best thickness and the best width.
What do you mean by width vs. thickness?
Thickness is what you see from the side. It takes years and years to build the kind of density that, when you turn from the side, you look super, super thick. Those are the mid-back muscles, especially the lower and middle traps. Width, on the other hand, is what you see from the front and back. Here, especially, the upper lats are key, in combination with delts that taper down to a small waist.
Can you tell us about your back workouts and how they differed?
On my thickness day, I'd always start with reverse-grip pull-downs for two warm-up sets and three working sets of 12 reps as heavy as I could go. This exercise always helps open up the lats. Second was always one-arm dumbbell rows, three working sets, with a heavy weight for 12. Next I'd do reverse-grip bent-over rows, which were one of my favorites, for three sets of 12. I'd do T-bar rows next with a close grip; we didn't have a machine setup, so I'd put a bar in the corner and position a dumbbell across the end to hold it in place. Again three sets of 12. Then I'd either do barbell deadlifts off the floor or seated cable rows for three sets of 12 with close or wide grip, and I'd finish off with hyperextensions.
My thickness day consisted mostly of rows and movements I did with a close or reverse grip. On the other hand, I used mostly wider-grip movements to help develop the V-taper when training for width. I'd start with bodyweight pull-ups for four sets, then do leverage (Hammer Strength) high rows for three sets of 12. Then it was wide-grip pull-downs behind the neck for another three sets of 12. I'd finish with straight-arm dumbbell pullovers for three sets of 12.
Why is changing up hand and elbow position so important in back training?
Because it allows you to incorporate different parts of the back musculature. You can pull a lot more weight using a reverse grip when doing rows, but the problem with it is that it puts the biceps under a greater deal of tension. But I believe it's great to try variations; I mean Lee Haney did rows with an overhand grip and had a great back; Dorian Yates did them with an underhand grip and had an unbelievable back. It just goes to show, you have to find out what works best for you. So try various exercises.
What made your workouts so intense?
Besides training back twice a week with heavy weights, I trained with high volume. I did a lot of exercises, sets, and reps, which in my opinion is how so many champs over the years have successfully trained. But I also feel that you can't train both with high volume and train to failure on every set. Doing both is just too much for your nervous system to take, and you'll disintegrate the muscle. I was always successful with a high-volume approach, so that's what I stuck with.
So you never trained to failure?
I never believed in that kind of training. If I didn't win the biggest title in the world several times over, people would say it was because I didn't train to failure. People are always looking for excuses. The truth is, you just need to push your muscle to a certain level, and then you get out of the gym. You feed it and you rest it. I always believed that volume was the right way to do it.
You told us a few months back that you rested only about 45 seconds between sets on leg day. Did you take that approach with back too?
I did. I remember those days in Vegas—granted, the gyms are air-conditioned—but I got scared a couple of times thinking that I was going to pass out. I was so winded and I was sweating so profusely. I was just going and going. When you train with a partner, you alternate sets, which builds in a breather. But no one pushed as hard as me, at least no one I ever trained with. But I didn't need a partner.
When I started my next set, I was still pretty fatigued from the previous ones. I think that helps keep the intensity up and keeps the mindset from drifting. I go to the gym now and I see these kids on their phones texting, switching up their songs—back in the day we didn't do that shit. Honestly I didn't even hear the music when I trained. People ask me what I listen to, and I don't listen to anything. I just love to train. I don't need a song to hype me up to train.
How did you know you had a great workout? What kind of yardstick did you use?
As long as I was exhausted and sore as hell—and not getting injured—that's how I measured my progress. If I went home and I couldn't move for the rest of the day, I knew I was good. Sick, huh?
So what degree of muscle soreness did you feel after one of those workouts?
Well it was never the day after, it was the second day after. I was dead. I remember I'd go in and get tissue work done; you know, I spent 10 hours a week getting tissue work done. I'd spend two grand a week just getting massages. But after back, I couldn't even bend over to tie my shoes, especially after doing 500 pounds for reps with deadlifts. That was tough.
Were you able to maintain this high degree of intensity in your training every time you trained back?
Well, it became harder as I got bigger, especially in the offseason. During that time I was as big as a horse. Because I was so big, it was harder for me to catch my breath. And of course you're a little stronger when you're offseason, too. So you pushed yourself more with weights. The times I almost had injuries have almost universally been in the offseason, with the notable exception of my biceps tear.
Did you do anything beforehand to help you achieve a mental edge before you started your back workout?
I already went through the workout [in my head] the night before. So when I was in the gym, I knew exactly what I was going to do.
You did a number of exercises for width and thickness, but were there any that you thought were the most instrumental in helping you develop your back?
Pull-ups, which I don't see a lot of guys doing anymore. They're the best exercise for back. You're working with your body and you don't even necessarily need to add weight. You can use any number of grips: underhand, overhand, wide grip, close grip. I think anyone can develop a V-taper with a pull-up. The guys with the best backs in the world all did pull-ups in their routine. I could do about 10 reps at bodyweight; listen, my legs were half my body weight. Here I'd use a spotter.
When I started incorporating T-bar rows, that's when my back started to become comparable to Ronnie's. Maybe it was just the years of training. But that combination of movements made the difference in my mind.
You're also a fan of unilateral back training. Why is that?
Yes I am. I think [unilateral movements] are better because you can get more range of motion. Not everyone has perfect back symmetry or can pull with the same amount of weight on each side. One side is always stronger than the other. Using dumbbells and training one side at a time, or even some Hammer Strength machines, addresses that.
You do just about every exercise to 12 reps. Why's that?
I never really pushed past 12 because, quite honestly, I literally couldn't go any heavier and I didn't want to risk injury. I was doing dumbbell rows with 280-pound weights, and it's like, how much heavier can I get? I mean at that point the weights just start getting in the way. I couldn't fit any more plates on the T-bar. Ten plates was all it could fit. Sure, it was also an ego thing to be lifting that kind of weight.
But like I said, I found other ways to boost intensity, especially with the speed of my workout. No one had the stamina to keep up with me.
Did you ever make changes to your training?
I'll be honest with you, I just mentioned my workout. I did that workout for years straight. Some guys will change their workouts every day; I didn't. I trained with enough intensity each time, and progressed enough, that I didn't feel it was necessary to make any other changes.
Anything else we should know about building an Olympia-caliber back?
I stretch a lot between sets, and I already mentioned I get a lot of tissue work done. I can't stress enough how important that is, because you get so much tension in between the rhomboids, rear delts, traps, and upper lats. There are just so many muscles that intertwine and cross over in that area.
When fibers tear, they rebuild. Many of these fibers are just stacked upon other muscle, especially when you get as big as I am. So instead of sliding over each other when you move, they get stuck, so you need to get in there and get the tissue worked on and separated. That helps your detail and range of motion—and remember, training is all about range of motion. Guys who have limited range of motion aren't going to get the same results as guys who have full range of motion.
Try This On For Size
Think you have what it takes to hang with Jay? Try incorporating this twice-a-week back split into your current training routine. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!