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Back Training For Bodybuilders

A broad, thick, and massive back has often been the measure of a man’s strength. In the sport of bodybuilding, nothing is more impressive than a well orchestrated front or rear lat spread. Thick, well developed latissimus dorsi (lats) give the appearance that the owner is capable of flight. A front lat spread when hit correctly can give the audience the illusion that the curtains are closing. The lats provide the much sought after and coveted v taper, the hallmark of a true bodybuilder. Franco Columbu used to refer to his back as “a weapon that I use to destroy my opponents”. Functionally, a strong back is important in maintaining good posture, lifting and carrying heavy weights, climbing, scaling, and surmounting obstacles. For the purpose of this article, the only muscles that will be discussed are the latissimus dorsi (Lats), the trapezius and the spinal erectors. This is because it is these muscles that make up the bulk of the back and are the ones the judges are most concerned with.

Basic Anatomy & Physiology of the Lats

The lats is a broad sheet of muscle commencing a broad origin across the lower back and converging to a small twisting insertion on the upper arm. It is responsible for bringing the arm held forward of the body, back to the body, and bringing the arm held out to the side of the body at the horizontal back to the body. Additionally, it assists in moving the arms held out in front of the body, backwards so that the arms are at the sides and at the horizontal, and rotating the upper arm internally toward the midline of the body.

Advanced Anatomy & Physiology of the Lats

The latissimus dorsi (latissimus = widest & dorsi = back) originates on the spinous process of the lower six thoracic vertebrae, lumbar vertebrae, sacral vertebrae, posterior iliac crest, lower four ribs and the inferior angle of the scapula. It inserts onto the medial lip of the bicipital groove of the humerus. It is responsible for the following muscle actions:

  • Shoulder joint extension,
  • Shoulder joint adduction,
  • Shoulder joint horizontal abduction (helping), and
  • Shoulder joint medial rotation (helping).

The following table identifies exercises for the latissimus dorsi and the percent (out of 100) EMG activity:

Exercise

% EMG

Bent over barbell row

93

One arm dumbbell row

91

T-bar row

89

Lat pull-down (front)

86

Seated row

83

Chin up

79

Eccentric chin up

72

 

In addition to EMG studies, MRI has also been used to determine how the lats responds to other exercises. The results are as follows:

  • Chinning movements – the lats is used most powerfully in chinning movements with both a supinated (under grasp) and pronated (over grasp) grip.
  • Seated row – the lats will have a differing role in both a pronated and neutral (palms facing inwards) grip seated row. The neutral grip will result in the lats being used as a target muscle, whilst the pronated grip results in it being used as a helper muscle only. The pronated grip changes the emphasis so that the infraspinatus and teres minor are the target muscles.

In order to develop thickness in the lats, rowing movements should be performed. In contrast, if developing lat width is of primary concern, then chinning and pull down movements should be performed. Bodybuilders are always easy to identify in a crowd. One of the give-aways is a giant set of well developed traps that can appear to branch all the way up to the jaw line. This ‘year round muscle’ is always easily seen, in almost any item of dress. Again, this is a muscle that is synonymous with strength.

The Trapezius - Basic Anatomy & Physiology

The trapezius (traps) is a triangular shaped muscle that consists of upper, middle and lower fibres. They extend from the base of the skull downward to the shoulder blade and then onto the lower back. The traps are responsible for movements of the shoulder blades (girdle), such as bringing the shoulder blades together, upward rotation, elevation, and depression.

Advanced Anatomy & Physiology of the Traps

The trapezius (trapezion = irregular four sided figure) originates at the base of the skull, occipital protuberance, ligamentum nuchae, spinous processes of the seventh cervical and all thoracic vertebrae. It inserts onto the lateral one third of the clavicle, acromion, and the spine of the scapula. The traps consist of four parts which have the following muscle actions:

  1. Base of skull to the clavicle: thin and elastic causing cervical hyperextension against strong resistance and elevation,
  2. Ligamentum nuchae to the acromion: thicker and stronger with narrow insertion – causes elevation, upward rotation and assists in adduction,
  3. Seventh cervical vertebrae and upper three thoracic to the spine of the scapula: causes adduction and upward rotation, and
  4. Lower thoracic vertebrae to the spine of the scapula: causes upward rotation, adduction and depression.

The trapezius is recruited in the following exercises:

  • shoulder shrugs
  • military press
  • lat pulldown
  • seated row
  • front arm raise

The following table identifies exercises for the trapezius and the percent (out of 100) EMG active:

Exercise

% EMG

Bent over barbell row

93

One arm dumbbell row

91

T-bar row

89

Lat pull-down (front)

86

Seated row

83

Chin up

79

Eccentric chin up

72

 

In addition to EMG studies, MRI has also been used to determine how the traps respond to other exercises. The results are as follows:

  • Military press – the greatest activity of the traps is observed in upward rotation when the shoulder abducts. The humerus must move through a larger arc during a military press than an upright row or dumbbell lateral raise.

To fully develop the traps, it is suggested that a combination of shrugs, upright rows and presses be performed. Often referred to as ‘the Christmas tree’, this muscle is often underdeveloped by many bodybuilders. A well developed lower back comes from years of heavy deadlifts, bent over barbell rows and other power movements. Proportionately developed erectors are crucial in order to facilitate complete back development. It is always easy to see when comparing the backs of two bodybuilders which one has been doing a lot of power orientated movements (i.e. squats and deadlifts). Additionally, strong erectors play an important functional role in maintaining good posture, injury prevention and core stability.

The Erector Spinae - Basic Anatomy And Physiology

The erector spinae consists of numerous small muscles situated up and down the vertebral column and ribs. This muscle is responsible for extending (straightening) the spine from the bent over position, bending sideways, rotating the spine and tilting the pelvis forward.

Advanced Anatomy & Physiology of the Erector Spinae

The erector spinae (erector = erect & spinae = spine) originates on the posterior iliac crest, posterior sacrum, lower seven ribs, spinous process of all lumbar vertebrae and lower four thoracic vertebrae, and transverse processes of all thoracic vertebrae. Its insertion is via the angle of the ribs, transverse process of all vertebrae and the base of the skull. It is responsible for the following muscle actions:

  • spinal joint extension,
  • spinal joint lateral flexion,
  • spinal joint rotation, and
  • pelvic girdle forward tilt.

No EMG data was available to identify the best exercises to develop the spinal erectors; however, anecdotal evidence suggests that deadlifts and back extensions are best utilised for direct stimulation of this muscle group. Other exercises are available, such as good mornings, stiff legged deadlifts and weighted side bends, but it is my belief that the risk of injury outweighs the potential benefits.

The Final Word on Back Training

When designing a back program, it is important to consider the main muscles involved and their major functions. This will ensure that total development is achieved. A program that consisted of just chinning or pulldown movements would assist in developing lat width, but do little for thickness or the development of the spinal erectors. As would a program designed around rowing movements do little in developing width. Remember the three major muscles involved in training the back, their respective functions and choose exercises that specifically target developing those areas.

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