How to Develop a More Detailed Back


By Paul T. Burke, M. Ed., PhD (candidate)

Hi Paul,

I am 48 years old and I am a natural bodybuilder preparing for my second contest. In my first contest (Over 45 Class) I placed fifth; however, one of the judges told me after the show that had my back been better—wider, more detail and more thickness, I could have won my class. How do I take this constructive criticism and make a routine to hit those areas?

The back is the most complex area of the body when it comes to building muscles. If you look at an anatomical chart of the musculature of the back; you will see muscles crisscrossing and overlapping in so many areas that one hardly knows where to begin.

Today, judges want to see a “Christmas-tree” at the lower spine, thick and separated detail from rear deltoid to the supraspinatius and infraspinatius. Every detail must be clear, thick and very pronounced.

Former Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, former Arnold Classic and Iron Man Champion Flex Wheeler and one of the Mr. Olympia’s top-qualifiers, Victor Martinez are all men with absolutely fantastic backs. They also all have a certain spinal shape, a certain amount of muscle mass that was very perfectly (and genetically) aligned and ripe for the right training. We could put you on Victor’s or Ronnie’s back routine and you could work until the cows come home and will not get the same results—these guys on top now are genetically gifted with fire in their competitive spirit. Having said that, you are not going into professional bodybuilding: so, where to start and what to do?

First, you really have to know your musculoskeletal make up of your back. The shape of your spine, the width of your acromion and clavicles (this is the back and front width of your skeleton at shoulder level). Learning muscles such as the supraspious fossa area; and the attachment points of the lattisimus dorsi; the position of your scapulas and the shape and thickness of your traps, teres and rhomboids are all very important for detail and depth. The shape of your C-spine, T-spine and L-spine also have a lot to do with how the muscles are attached and how they will grow. Then, you have to start looking at how various exercises are working on which areas. For instance, you are having width problems. On one back day really do a lot of Lat-pull-downs, body-weight pull-ups, and Hammer Machine Pull-downs. (You want to alternate your hands supinated one set, pronated on another, and neutral on another). Take notes on which hand position hits which area most effectively. It was once thought that the further you hold your hands outward on the pull-up bar (or Lat-pull-down bar), the further out on the back it would hit (or the wider your back would grow). I can tell you that is not a rule that accounts for the multiple tens of thousands of back-types. You may find that you get more width when doing supinated, close-grip pull—ups (the opposite of what this old rule once described).

Dorian Yates put the use of heavy bent-over rows on the map. His style was indeed heavy, albeit certainly not the way that Arnold, Lou, or Franco did them. Yates, instead of bending over to be parallel to the floor position with a slight arch in the L-spine, he bent his back only about 30-45 degrees from the waist (leaning forward), while letting weights ranging between 315-465 (pounds) pull his arms down (tugging on many of his primary dead-lifting muscles) and then he would merely pull the bar to his waist—usually underhanded. This proved quite a bit actually. It proved that “str4ict form” was not an absolute necessity to increase back width and thickness (as so many of the Golden Era men thought). It also brought back the idea that dead-lifts and heavy rowing (either Bent-over-rows, Single-end-Olympic bar stacked with plates to the end with the opposite held in a corner of the gym) where still a great back-thickness exercise. In fact, all types of heavy rowing stretches and contracts a massive amount of muscles of the back.

Other methods include not pulling the lat bar all the way down (to the chest); nor doing what would be considered a full pull-up is common place. In other words, these muscles that make up the width of the back can be utilized best if the biceps and forearms are left out of the repetition. Up all the way, down to about the top of the head for Lat-Pull-downs; and for Pull-ups, it’s just the opposite—down all the way, pull up with the lats and before the arms bring you to the last half of the repetition (in a “conventional pull-up”) you go back down—allowing your bodyweight to tug at the Lats, teres and so forth. (When doing either/both of these exercises, the pace is fairly fast—up, down, up down; at just the right spot each repetition.

For amazing detail, I have watched Flex Wheeler (in his prime) do all kinds of small movements for the intricacies of his great back. Flex and others utilize every machine possible to hit each and every muscular detail of the back. For instance, years ago, many people did dead-lifts for the lower back. Trainers such as Charles Glass taught Flex that the bar need not be brought up from the floor (as in an actual dead-lift); an Olympic bar on a power-rack approximately half way from the floor made it possible to effectively do sets of ten or twelve of these “half-dead-lifts) in order to efficiently work the spinae erectus and other major muscles without the risk of injury doing reps with heavy weight doing a “real and complete” dead-lift. So, often for the back, the motion need only be in inches; rather than a foot or more. Many others, including myself, have begun to use every possible angle of pulley, machine, barbell, dumbbell and other “home-made” cables and pulleys to attack both big and small muscles of the back. Doing standing rear-deltoids with crossed cables is a good exercise to hit the rear-delts, trapezius, and rhomboids—pulling the cables across your upper chest (while crossed—the left cable-stack, handle in the right hand, right cable-stack handle in the left). I often use dumbbells or cables to create my own exercises that are best for my weak areas. Ultimately, that is what you will do also, but here I have given you license to take full advantage of the many types of machines, cable-pulley systems and genuinely unique training that has made its way around as bodybuilding continues to evolve and grow. I hope you do too.

If you have questions, you can write to me at I answer all of my emails.

All The Best,

Paul T. Burke, M. Ed., PhD (Candidate)

CEO: Paul Burke Enterprises, LLC

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