Lee Haney back workout
Many bodybuilding articles begin with a detailed analysis of the anatomical and kinesiological relations of muscles, just to sound as scientific as possible. Most of these articles are written by sports scientists or philosophers, who surely possess significant theoretic knowledge, but they might have never seen a gym from the inside.
My knowledge about bodybuilding is more of a practical kind: I received my “diploma” in the school of life. The major subjects were trying-again-and-again, and making mistakes. And my classroom was the gym. And even though they say learning is a lifelong process, I think I have already received a doctorate for my “thesis” I “submitted” during the past three Mr. Olympia events. So you may call me Professor Haney. And in today’s class I’m going to talk about back training. Take your notebooks – class is about to begin!
The secret of spectacular back muscles
I have always been a huge admirer of Robby Robinson and Roy Callender for they well-developed back muscles. They were both famous for not just having wide lats, but their back muscles were thick, too, both in the lower and the upper regions. All in all, they managed to develop their back muscles completely.
I have seen numberless bodybuilders who looked like Mr. Olympia from the front, but when they turned around to show a back pose, well, the poor condition of their back muscles just struck the eye.
Since the back is a very large muscle group, we might break it down to upper, middle and lower sections. This approach makes it clear how many various exercises are in fact required to develop the whole back musculature, each of which attack the muscles from a different angle.
Thanks to my genetics, my back muscles responded well to training. My early back training included exercises like pull-downs, T-bar rows and bent-over rows. I laid down the basement of my present back musculature by using the heaviest weights I could. Frankly, I’m still doing the same exercises (a few were added, of course), and I firmly believe these are suitable for making up the core of any back training.
One of the secrets of developing back muscles is that you should always perform the exercises in strict form. Exercises like bent-over rows or T-bar rows pose a potential threat to your lower back if you are cheating or bouncing with the weights. At these exercises, you should take extra care for moving the weights in a slow and controlled manner. You should only use your arms as “hooks”. This will help you concentrate on moving the weights using your back muscles. It is incredible how this mental visualization technique can help you make your back training more efficient.
Another important thing is that you should work in the full motion range. When doing rows for example, you should pull the weight as far as you can, then lower it back until your muscles fully stretch.
The best back exercises
Currently I am in the pre-contest preparation phase for Mr. Olympia, which means I exercise three times a day. This preparation phase begins 8 weeks before the contest and this exercise plan is the best for utilizing my depleted energy resources most efficiently.
My first training in the morning is back training only. In the afternoon I do the abs and some aerobic workout, and in the evening I bomb my shoulders. Now let’s see what my back training looks like in the period shortly before Mr. Olympia.
Sometimes I warm up with a few sets of pull-ups, but I don’t do this every time, since it is quite hard to do perfect pull-ups with my bodyweight (118 kgs). But what does “perfect pull-up” mean? In the top position, your back should be arched and the pull-up bar should touch your chest. But if I am doing pull-ups like this, it sometimes irritates my joints in my shoulders and arms, so I prefer pull-downs. I usually do 5 sets of 10-12 reps, taking care of maximum contraction and stretch throughout the full range of motion. I prefer pull-downs to the chest, but I often do pull-downs behind the neck, too. These two exercises attack the back muscles from slightly different angles.
This is a strength exercise, which is especially useful for thickening the mid-section of your back. You should be extremely vigilant to correct technique: if you are doing this exercise with a wrong technique, you might easily get serious injuries. Your legs should be slightly bent in order to lift some of the load from your lower back, and – what is even more important – keep your back straight, only a little bit arched. If you keep your back in the well-known “banana position” (as, unfortunately, many bodybuilders do), your lower back will be overloaded sooner or later. Here too, I usually do 5 sets of 10-12 reps.
I usually do either this exercise or the previous one, but as the contest approaches, I prefer to do them both. I consider this exercise the best for thickening the whole back musculature. I prefer to do this exercise standing on a platform, as this helps me concentrate on stretching my muscles fully. Here too, correct technique is essential both for muscular development and for preventing injuries. This means: Don’t bounce the weight! 5 sets with 10 to 12 reps will suffice.
Cable rows (sitting)
I usually use both V-shaped and straight handles, but as the contest approaches, I do the exercise with straight handle only, as this enables better stretch and contraction, and all the small muscles of the upper back are involved in the move, too. I apply close grip and pull the handle to my abdomen. In the contraction phase I am arching my back and pushing my chest forward. This move will involve all the small muscles of the upper back in the work, i.e. the upper traps and all the small muscles which help the lats at pulls and also make them look more detailed in back poses. For me, a pattern of 5 sets of 10-12 reps proved to be the most effective.
One-arm dumbbell rows (Chainsaw)
Many people get surprised when they hear that I only use 30-35-kg dumbbells for this exercise. The secret lies in the technique. You might often see guys doing rows with 70-kg dumbbells. Well, they are doing a great training indeed – for their bicepses and rear delts. However, only a little load is exerted on their back muscles. But if you are doing it right, this exercise is excellent for stretching your back muscles as well as for giving a more detailed look to the upper back musculature. I also found it useful for developing control over the muscles in poses like the front lat spread, a pose I am quite famous for.
Another advantage of this exercise is that it spares the lower back muscles. If you do it my way, i.e. leaning on a bench with your elbow, you can take all the load off your lower back, and this will help you prevent serious injuries. The only disadvantage is that for many people, one of their arms is weaker than the other, so you need to make sure you do the same number of reps for both arms. Again, don’t forget to use the full range of motion. What it means in practice: at the point of full contraction, the dumbbell should be straight in line with your head.
My kinesiologist friends told me that the contracted position of the back muscles while doing rows will trigger the arm to move slightly behind the line of the trunk. They also pointed out that if you use heavier weights, it is easier to involve the smaller muscles of the upper back, which work together with the lats while doing rows.
So, this is the training program I follow before the “Swedish Show”. My back training program during the year is compiled of T-bar rows, pull-downs and cable rows of 10-12 sets altogether. As you can see, I am devoted to basic exercises. I do not care for any tricky extra exercise. I only care for the ones that bring me results. At this level, I cannot afford to make a mistake any more!
For the lower back I prefer stiff legged deadlifts the most, but I usually do this exercise as part of my leg training after doing the hams. A do shrugs for the traps (holding the weight behind my body), 4-5 sets with 12-15 reps. I experienced that the traps are loaded much more directly in this position, even though it might take some time until you pick up the right technique. I also do barbell pull-ups for the traps, keeping the barbell behind my body.
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