Building Lats The Old Fashioned Way
Is it my imagination, or is the lat development of the current crop of professional bodybuilders inferior to those of an earlier generation? I recently saw a group shot of the top five at the latest Night of Champions and noticed the majority looked weak in the rear lat spread and only so-so in the back double-biceps pose. Where were the sweeping lats with thick spinal erectors, as displayed by such men as Franco Columbu and Roy Callendar? Where were the incredible detail and density throughout the lats, traps and teres muscles that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kal Szkalak displayed?
When I read interviews with today’s top pros, they all seem to agree that superior back development is an absolute necessity when it comes to achieving victory. The last three holders of the Mr. Olympia title all share a reputation for awesome latissimus muscles.
Is it possible that all the high-tech back machines now available aren’t delivering the incredible results that good old-fashioned barbells and dumbbells can? Any modern-day gym is virtually guaranteed to be full of glistening new machines that work your lats from various angles and directions. Yet back development is commonly lacking even among the top-ranked pros. What’s going on?
Although genetics no doubt plays a big part in the eventual development of any bodypart, I think the bigger problem with the current lack of lats has to do with the exercises applied. I grew up using the exercises espoused by Arnold, Franco and Robby Robinson in the 1970s. It may be coincidence, but my back development has helped me win many a close decision, and, having judged local contests for almost a decade, I find it amazing how many very tough ones are decided when the athletes turn and face the curtain. When I put together my lat routine, I used an old Schwarzenegger article as my guide. Arnold suggested organizing the exercises according to what you need to develop on your back. For example, if your lats are too narrow, you do at least two exercises for width. If you need more thickness, you include at least two thickness-building movements.
Arnold divided the exercises into four categories:
1) Exercises that develop fat width
2) Exercises that work on lat thickness
3) Exercises that build up the lower lats
4) Exercises that develop the lower hack and spinal erectors
As you can probably guess, he also recommended training with barbells and dumbbells. There are two reasons for that. First of all, back in Arnold’s heyday they didn’t have the advanced equipment that’s currently available. Second, barbell and dumbbell movements are indisputably the most effective for developing wide, thick, awesome fats. Arnold knew it, Franco knew it, Robby knew it. And now you know it too.
After I analyzed my physique, I decided I needed to concentrate on fat thickness more than width. I have a naturally wide shoulder structure but am somewhat ectomorphic, so I had to add more thickness to balance out my width. After considering the exercise options, I came up with the following routine:
• Wide-grip chins (for width)
• Bent-over barbell rows (for thickness)
• Seated cable rows (for more thickness)
• Close-grip chins (for the lower lats)
• Deadlifts (for the spinal erectors and lower back)
Wide-grip chins - If you want to add the third dimension to your lat spread and force the guy or gal standing next to you in the lineup to move over, this is the exercise for you. It’s far superior to lat pull-downs for building width; however, most bodybuilders choose to do lat pulldowns for width and never go near the chinning bar. That’s a mistake if you truly want barn-door lats.
To perform wide-grip chins properly, grab the chinning bar with your hands slightly farther apart than shoulder width. The area just beyond where the bar is bent is the perfect grip for most trainees. Keep tension on your lats by not locking out your elbows, arch your lower back in the starting position and tilt your head back so you’re looking at the ceiling. Maintaining that position, pull yourself up to the chinning bar, aiming to touch your clavicle to the bar. With your lower back arched, your elbows will be pulled back, which forces your upper fats to contract.
As you return to the starting position, don’t lose that arch in your lower back and don’t lock out your elbows at the bottom. Instead, keep looking at the ceiling, which will maintain the tension on those fats and set you up perfectly for the next rep. Dorian Yates always said that the key to building fats is to arch your lower back during the exercise. That leads to a greater contraction and eventually builds more muscle.
When you become really good at wide-grip chins (and you will if you stick with them and don’t go back to the lat pulldown machine) you can start to add weight by using a weight belt. When you get to the point where you can do eight to 10 reps of wide-grip chins with 100 pounds strapped around your waist, your lats will have no choice I but to get wider, no matter how narrow your clavicles are or what your genetics are for building back.
Close-grip chins - When it comes to developing lower lats, the close-grip chin is king. Most bodybuilders prefer to do this exercise on the lat machine (i.e., close-grip pull-downs) but doing it on the chin-fling bar with your own bodyweight is really the superior exercise. Close-grip pulldowns are also good, and you can use them at alternate workouts, but don’t neglect this awesome movement if you want to add inches to those lower lats for complete back development.
Use a V-bar handle and place it over the regular chinning bar. Some gyms have an attachment for the Vbar that makes the movement easier to perform. Begin in the same general position described for wide-grip chins. Arch your lower back and look up. Keep your arms slightly flexed so your elbows aren’t locked. Now, slowly pull your body up to the V-bar until your chest touches the handle, then hold a second to get an ultimate peak contraction in your lower lats.
Lower slowly for a good stretch, but be careful not to lock your elbows. As you come up, your elbows and arms should be in close, not flared outward, as they are when you do wide-grip chins. You want your elbows to be in front of your torso until the finished position, where they’ll be pointed in the direction of your waist. If you’re doing it right, you’ll feel a contraction in your lower lats.
At first that may seem like an insignificant exercise, but the lower lats are a very important component in a quality back. Lower-lat development (or the lack thereof) is very noticeable in the rear double-biceps pose and rear lat spread. Callendar, Haney and Coleman all have fantastic lower-lat development, and they all look great doing a rear double-biceps.
Close-grip pulldowns - Close-grip pulldowns hit the same area as the close-grip chins. To perform this exercise correctly, attach the V-bar handle to the lat pulldown apparatus and assume the same position as described for close-grip chins. Arch your lower back and look up toward the ceiling. Keeping your elbows in close to your torso, pull the handle down to your chest until you can feel your lower lats contract.
Slowly let the handle return to the starting position, being careful not to lock your elbows when your arms are straight. That will maintain the tension on your lats. Make sure your lower back stays arched throughout the exercise, which also maintains the tension.
Bent-over barbell rows - This one is the bread and butter of big, thick lats. It is to lats what squats are to thighs or barbell bench presses are to chest. If you’re not performing it regularly, you have no business wondering why you don’t have thick lats. Done correctly, bent-over barbell rows stimulate growth; not only in your lats but also your biceps, forearms, lower back, hamstrings, rear delts, inner traps, teres major and infraspinatus. Talk about a basic exercise! When Ronnie Coleman was asked recently what exercises he’d perform if he only had time to do three, he answered, “Squats, barbell bench presses and barbell rows.” Enough said.
With all due respect to Dorian, I still prefer the old-fashioned method of performing barbell rows. Dorian’s version of tilting your upper body at a 70 degree angle to the floor and using an underhand grip is probably the most poorly executed exercise currently being used around the country. Most bodybuilders I’ve seen attempting it usually tilt their upper body so high, they’re nearly standing straight up. Then they have no choice but to pull the barbell into their hips instead of the ribcage. The result is an incorrectly executed movement and a lack of lat thickness.
To perform bent-over rows the old-fashioned way, take an overhand, slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the barbell, and position your hands in the same place on the bar you’d use if you were going to do bench presses. In fact, I always like to think of barbell rows as bench presses turned upside down.
Now that you have the correct grip, stand on a block of wood. (A bench can work, but they’re usually too unstable.) That will allow the barbell to come down a few inches farther so your lats can get a good stretch before it makes contact with the floor. Keeping your knees bent and your lower back slightly arched, slowly pull the barbell into your solar plexus, which is the area right between your lower pecs and your upper abs. As the bar comes up, keep your elbows flared out to the sides.
Slowly lower the bar for a good stretch, but don’t let it touch the floor. Keeping your back arched and your knees bent throughout the movement, forcefully pull the bar back into our solar plexus with your elbows flared out to the sides. This is a basic power movement, so don’t be afraid to pile on the plates. Using heavy weights with good form will bring you massive, thick lats to balance out all the width you’ll be developing from the wide-grip chins.
The main mistakes people make on this exercise include taking too narrow a grip on the barbell, letting the elbows come too close to the body instead of flaring them out, bringing the upper body above parallel to the floor at the finish of the exercise, not arching the lower back and keeping the knees straight. The bent-over barbell row is a true basic exercise that involves many bodyparts, so you should perform it with great care in order to avoid lower-back injuries or putting the stress on your biceps instead of your lats.
One - arm dumbbell rows - As an alternative to barbell rows I sometimes substitute this exercise, which is another great one for thickness that works essentially the same part of the lats, the belly of the muscle. It also enables you to use heavy poundages, which makes it doubly good for building thickness.
The standard procedure for executing this exercise is to put one knee on a bench with your other leg on the floor; however, that can end up using many muscles in your waist, as the upper body tends to torque while you’re pulling the dumbbell up. The best performance style is to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground while you row the dumbbell into your waist. Several years ago I saw Mighty Mike Quinn doing it that way and grabbing a bench with one arm for support. Keeping your lower back flat, pull the dumbbell up with your elbow tucked into your side. Don’t let the elbow flare out to the side and don’t complicate the movement by swinging the dumbbell. Just forcefully pull the heavy weight up and contract the middle portion of your lats.
Seated cable rows - Although this exercise uses cables instead of barbells or dumbbells, it’s still a real basic exercise for building size and thickness, since it involves the lats, lower back, biceps, forearms and even the hamstrings to a lesser extent. It’s a perfect exercise to follow a heavy barbell movement like bent-over rows.
With your knees bent and your lower back ached, grab the Vhandle. Pull it into your stomach as you bring your upper body perpendicular to the floor. It’s important to keep your lower back arched with your chest stuck out in the finished position, as you pull the handle into your ribcage. Keep your elbows close to your body throughout the movement. Your elbows should brush against your ribs as you row.
To return to the starting position, keep your back arched and slowly lower the weight, stretching your lats. It’s acceptable to let your upper body lean forward as long as your lower back remains arched and flexed. That’s the weak link in the chain, so it’s very important to keep the area tight. Just as with wide-grip chins, you don’t want to lock your elbows in the starting position. Keep a slight bend in them to maintain the tension on your latissimus muscles.
T-bar rows - These are an excellent alternative to seated cable rows, a true power movement that stimulates many of the same muscle groups that bent-over barbell rows hit. I remember seeing photos of the massively developed Columbu performing T-bar rows with as many as seven 45-pound plates loaded on one end of the barbell and Franco had incredible cobralike lats that were thick, powerful and wide.
One of the problems with performing this superior mass builder in today’s fitness centers is finding a good T-bar. Most have been replaced by a substitute apparatus that has a bench. You lie facedown on the bench, then pull the bar up to the bench, which eliminates any action from your hamstrings or lower back. It was designed to protect the lower back from injury, of course, but it just isn’t the same exercise. It’s a poor substitute for the real thing.
If you’re lucky enough to train at a gym that has a real T-bar row apparatus, it’s important to execute the exercise with perfect form. Keeping your lower back arched and your knees flexed, or bent, grab the bars with a close grip. That will target your outer lats, giving your upper back a wide, thich look. Keeping your lower back arched, pull the loaded bar into your chest with your elbows brushing against your ribcage, similar to the form for seated cable rows. Since you’re using such a narrow grip, your elbows won’t be allowed to extend as far back as they go on bent-over barbell rows. The shorter range of motion enables you to use heavy poundages, which will give your lats more thickness.
When lowering the weight, it’s very important to control the descent. Just letting the bar drop will leave your lower-back muscles susceptible to injury. Bringing the bar down with tension will also help you achieve a greater contraction when completing the next rep. It takes a stronger lower back to perform this exercise properly, but if you can master it, you’ll develop thick, shirt-expanding lats.
Deadlifts - A superior power movement for building strength in the lower back as well as developing impressive spinal erectors, this exercise is dismissed by most bodybuilders as a powerlifting movement. That’s a mistake. Dead-lifts not only develop an important area of the physique, but they also build strength and power in the lower back, which is so essential in exercises such as squats, bent-over barbell rows, military presses and Tbar rows.
To perform deadlifts, keep your lower back slightly arched (are you starting to see a pattern here?) as you bend your knees and grasp the barbell with a shoulder-width overhand grip. I use hand straps when the weight gets so heavy that my grip will give out before my muscles do. Keeping your hips down, your knees bent and your arms locked, look straight ahead. Line up your shoulders right over the bar in the starting position.
Slowly stand up while pulling the bar with your back. Continue pulling the bar until you’re standing and your back is arched. Maintain the arch in your lower back with your shoulders pulled back. Let the bar descend until the plates lightly touch the floor, then pull the bar back up to the finished position. Never let the arch in your lower back relax or you risk injury to that area.
Not only do deadlifts build strength and power in your lower back, but they also develop the spinal erector muscles. Those muscles cannot be stimulated unless you perform power movements such as deadlifts with heavy poundages. If you need further evidence of the impressiveness and strength that those muscles convey, look at the incredible back development of such power bodybuilders as Mike Franeois and Franco. I remember seeing photos of Franco deadlifting more than 675 pounds on stage at the ‘77 IFBB Mr. America, a contest for which he was also the promoter. He pulled it up easily three times. Franco was so strong, he made it look like nothing. No screaming, no fanfare, no psyching up. He just bent over and picked up the weight.
Old-Fashioned Back Routines
Putting it all together, here are the routines that will put wide, thick lats on your back. Train heavy, performing six to 10 reps per set with good form.
Exercise Sets Reps
Close-grip pulldowns 3 6-12
Wide-grip chins 4 8-12
Bent-over barbell rows 4 6-10
Seated cable rows 4 6-10
Deadlifts 3 6-8
Exercise Sets Reps
Wide-grip chins 4 8-12
One-arm dumbbell rows 3 6-10
T-bar rows 4 6-10
Close-grip chins 3 8-10
Deadlifts 3 6-8
The exercises arent easy. Most basic movements that call for heavy barbells and dumbbells are often physically demanding and even exhausting. Performed correctly and intensely, exercises such as bent-over barbell rows and deadlifts can even be nauseating. After legs, back is the hardest body-part to work.
If you can handle the routines, however, superior back development will almost certainly be yours. Let your competitors strap themselves into all the shiny new equipment as they sit against a backrest to train their lats. When you’re busting your butt grunting out heavy barbell rows or pulling heavy deadlifts off the ground, rest assured that you’re building the framework for a massive back architecture that few will be able to match. If you don’t believe me, just ask Arnold and Franco.