Diet and Nutrition

Baby Got Back

This was article was inspired from a conversation I had with Erik Ledin, CSCS, CISSN (Lean Bodies Consulting) a while back.

A massive back is a beautiful thing. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, it is a work of art. Some of the greatest bodybuilders – Ronnie Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dorian Yates – all possessed well developed backs. Their backs were both wide and thick, giving a depth to their physiques that many pros lack nowadays.

A well developed back leaves a lasting impression. A lot of people look good from the front, but from the back can be a disaster: sunken shoulder blades and a narrow frame can leave a person looking like they’ve been starving their posterior chain.

Not only does a well-developed back look impressive from all angles, taking a balanced approach to back development can ward off injuries and promote good posture. And let’s face it, nobody EVER says, “That guy’s back is just TOO big”!

Building the Ultimate Back

The back can be thought of as being divided into vertical and horizontal planes. So, back training should really be split into two workouts – one devoted to horizontal pulling (thickness based workout / rowing movements) and one devoted to vertical pulling (width based workout / pull ups). As for heavy Deadlifts, they will round out your back workout.

I have divided some exercises into the two planes of motion you will be working in.

Horizontal Pulling

  • Barbell Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows

Vertical Pulling

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)

Picking a Grip

Choose one and stick with it throughout the course of the program – then switch when you want to change exercises. This will help with maintaining consistency and you’ll be able to tell whether you’re progressing or not.

For example, if you perform the Bent Barbell Row – you’ll find that you can probably lift more weight with a supinated grip because the biceps are assisting the movement.

So if you’re switching back and forth between grips during each workout, or every other workout, then it may be difficult to gauge progress.

So choose one and stick with it.

There are three main grips that can be utilized when lifting:

  1. Supinated grip means palms facing your body.
  2. Pronated means palms facing away from your body.
  3. Semi-supinated (neutral grip) means palms facing each other.

Examples of each grip used in an exercise would be: pull-up uses a pronated grip, palms facing away from your body while chin-ups use the other two grips.

Dealing with Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts are decent for the hip extension function, and therefore the lower back, but not so much for great upper back development, at least comparatively speaking.

Regular Deadlifts

Regular deadlifts are a ‘hip dominant’ exercise. They hit the whole posterior chain – from hamstrings up to traps. They are the King of back development. Deadlifts should be performed first in your back workout, as they require appropriate motor control of multiple muscles. In other words, if you choose to do them down the line in your list of exercises, the chances of injury will increase.

You can be pretty sure you’re doing it right if you’re getting war-wounds on your shins. It’s basically a sign that the bar is staying really close to your body.

Try to keep your sets short for two reasons:

  1. It is a complex movement and form tends to break down with higher reps.
  2. It is a strength movement. Your goal is to get strong on this exercise.

Keep the reps under 5 with regular deadlifts. You can go higher with SLDLs/RDLs as the weight you will be using is not as heavy and as taxing as a regular deadlift is on the body.

Rack Pulls

A rack pull is performed like a regular deadlift, except off pins. Click here for a graphical example of rack pulls

Pulling from the floor presents a greater challenge. The weight travels a greater distance, and the glutes and hams are targeted to a greater degree. If you choose to pull from pins, focus on your back. This is essentially what’s working on the upper portion of a deadlift. Also, because the range of motion is shorter you should be able to lift a bit heavier.

You can vary the pin height, but try not to do it set-to-set or workout-to-workout. This has to do with being able to accurately gauge progress. Changing things too frequently will make tracking progress from a strength standpoint more difficult. Stick with something for four weeks, and then switch it up a bit.

Building This into a Workout

Try pairing a horizontal pulling workout with horizontal pushing (chest) and the vertical pulling with vertical pushing (shoulders) to ensure that the volume around the joints is kept constant. This is assuming that muscle groups are being trained once per week.

An upper/lower split or an undulating split (with increased frequency, where everything basically gets hit twice per week) is better for hypertrophy. The one thing you have to consider when doing this is that the volume per body part per workout is lowered, but the weekly volume stills allows for an adequate growth stimulus to occur.

MariAnne got Back!

The 4 day split workout

Day 1 – Horizontal Push Pull

Horizontal plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Bent barbell rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • Dumbbell row
  • Hammer Strength row

Horizontal plane chest (push)

Select from:

  • Flat barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Low incline press.
  • Flat or incline flies

(Standing calves, short, heavy sets)

Day 2 – Quad Dominant Legs

Go short and heavy on two quad dominant exercises and lighter with higher reps for one ham dominant exercise. (Here, hams are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps)


Day 3 – Vertical Push/Pull

Vertical plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)
  • Any of the Hammer high rows

Vertical plane shoulders (push)

Select from:

  • Standing barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Arnold press
  • Laterals, etc

(Seated calves, long sets)

Day 4 – Hip/Hamstring Dominant Legs

This is the opposite of day 2. Go short and heavy on 2 hip/ham dominant exercises and light with higher reps for one quad dominant exercise. Here, quads are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps.

(Tricep work)

BGB Programme Notes

It’s a four-day workout.

Day one is an upper body day: horizontal push-pull. This means back and chest are paired together so they don’t tire each other out.

Back will hit back hard, biceps light. Chest will hit chest hard, triceps light. Chest work also hits front delts a bit.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in some calf work. You can throw in an ab exercise as well.

If you do seated calves on this one, do standing calves on the next upper-body day.

Day two is lower body: quad-dominant, hamstring accessory.

This means you’re hitting quads heavy and hard, hams lightly. Add in an arm exercise to round this out. Either biceps or triceps – if you do triceps on this day then do biceps on the other leg day. Pick two different arm exercises – one heavy and hard, one a little lighter, slightly longer reps.

Day three is upper again: vertical push-pull. This means more back (but mostly lats), and shoulders. Biceps get another small hit here with lat work, triceps a small hit with some of the shoulder work and possibly some of the lat work.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in a calf exercise, and add in an ab exercise as well, just like horizontal push-pull day. Pick a different calf exercise, and a different ab exercise than you did on horizontal push-pull.

Day four is lower: hamstring dominant, quad accessory.

This workout hits the hamstrings hard and heavy while going a little lighter and longer with the quad work. You’re still working all muscles hard, but with different rep ranges.

Because the arms aren’t overly fatigued on hamstring-dominant day, add in two arm exercises – if you did biceps on quad-dominant day, do triceps on hamstring-dominant day.

Sample Workout

Day 1: Horizontal push pull, calves, and abs


  • Rack pulls 5×5 (direct, hard, strength range)
  • Bent-over rows 3×8 (hypertrophy range)
    (If you do a third, Hammer Rows 3×10-12)


  • Flat bench 5×5
  • Incline dumbbell press 3×8
    (if you do a third, Incline cable flyes 3×10-12)

Calves: (soleus) 3×12-20 seated calf raises. Pause at the bottom

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 2: Quad dominant, hamstring accessory. Biceps.


  • Full squats 5×5
  • Leg press 3×8


  • Leg curls or high foot placement leg press 3-4 sets of 12-20


  • Seated alternating bicep curls 5×5
  • Hammer curls 3×8-12

Day 3: Vertical push-pull, calves, abs


  • Chins 5×5
  • Hammer high rows 3×8
    (if you do a third, Hammer Behind the Neck rows or lying pullovers 3×12)

Shoulders: (I like to warm up with bent over side laterals, which work the often-neglected rear delts anyway – 3×10)

  • Arnold Press or Military Press 5×5
  • Standing side laterals 3×8

Calves: (gastrocs) standing or donkey calf raises, 3×8-10

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 4: Hamstring dominant, quad accessory. Triceps.


  • Romanian Deadlifts 5×5
  • Good mornings or high foot placement leg press 3×8


  • Walking lunges or seated leg extensions 3×12-20


  • Skullcrushers, Dips, or between bench dips 5×5
  • Cable pressdowns 3×8-12

Kickbacks (I’m kidding! :) )

Summing It Up

So there it is, everything you need to build a wide, meaty back that will leave you walking sideways to get through the doorway.

Written by MariAnne Anderson, BSc, MSc (B)

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 – Back Got Back discussion thread.