I can thankfully say I was not blessed with great genetics for my back. What you see today when I turn around is not a product of impatient muscles clamoring for any excuse to expand, but of furious training with weights so heavy that they threaten to crush the life out of each and every muscle fiber if they don’’t respond by growing massive and strong enough to counter the assault.
So why do I say thankfully? Because it allowed me to learn a process, through trial and error, that helped me build a bigger, better and stronger back than perhaps I would have had the road been easy. Here is my personal timeline tracing my backbreaking progress.
12 TO 17 | In my early teens, I didn’’t have a wide back at all. I was pretty much a squat, bench, shoulders and arms guy. Since I couldn’’t see my back, I never gave it a second thought. The only thing I did for it was a few deadlifts—.
I did a lot of power cleans, up to 225 pounds, but those were mostly for conditioning.
As a kid, I did use a rowing machine. I did a lot of rows; a ton of them when I was 14 and 15. That might have helped the fibers stretch out a little bit and prepare my back for rapid growth later.
At 16 or 17, I decided to compete. That’’s when I started studying my physique and noticed things that had to be improved. When I looked in a dressing-room mirror, I saw that my back was straight up and down. It had no taper at all.
I was getting a late start, and— let this be a lesson to all of you beginners even when I committed myself to an all-out back-priority program, it took years to get results.
18 TO 19 | For the first two years of working back, I did what I thought was everything: lat pulldowns to the front and back, barbell rows, one-arm rows and seated cable rows. I trained back three times a week for 12 sets per workout, three exercises of four sets each, for 13-15 reps on Monday, 10-12 on Wednesday and eight to 10 on Friday. My frustration continued. I couldn’’t get a pump. A pump is a signal of good blood flow and that you’r hitting the muscle directly, but no matter what I did, I— pulled with my elbows and all that why— my arms would pump first. I thought one-arm rows, at least, would pump my lats, but I felt it first in my brachialis.
Finally, after a full two years on this program, I could tell that I was building strength in my tendons, arms and grip. Only then could I feel my back muscles gaining some strength of their own. That’s when it hit me that you have to build stamina in ancillary muscles before you can get to the target muscles. I didn’’t build much size with this program, but it gave me a lot of detail, and it established a base for fast mass gains to come.
It also acquainted me with muscle control and how a muscle should feel during a movement. My width at this time was, well, OK, but I needed a lot more thickness, and that meant heavier weights, more compound movements and higher volume.
20 TO 24 | Things got more aggressive. I incorporated heavier barbell rows and T-bar rows with one end of the bar stuck in a corner. I also wanted more lower-lat drape, so I did low cable rows. I continued training back three times a week on— Mondays and Fridays were full heavy workouts, Wednesdays were mostly pulldowns. Reps, on the other hand, were a lot heavier, staying down around eight. 25 TO 26 | As my back began to take shape, my traps became more noticeable, so I started training them heavier and more consistently. I paired them with shoulders.
I did four sets of barbell shrugs, 10-12 reps each, then finished with two sets of dumbbell shrugs, also 10-12 reps. My traps quickly became one of my most prominent bodyparts, so I continue that workout today.
27 TO 32 (PRESENT) | This period ushered in the greatest growth for my back. Volume increased significantly, and I now train back twice a week. The biggest change, however, came from the addition of half-rep deadlifts. That’’s when I noticed my best results. Width came from lat pulldowns and low cable rows, but the thickness came from the half-rep deadlifts. They are now a staple in my workout.
EXTENDING THE EFFORT
Since your body adapts so easily after years of training, you have to get creative to force it to keep growing. I do that by extending my sets beyond their normal full-rep capacity. Once I reach failure with full reps, I continue with half reps, quarter reps, ever-smaller partial reps, static holds from the strongest position, peak contractions, drop sets, negatives and whatever else works. Here are my three favorites.
1. Static holds I hold at peak contraction, until my body fails, then I fight the descent of the weight as an extreme negative.
2. Heavy partials with static holds For the last set of an exercise, I increase the weight by about 40% and rep to failure; then I continue with partial reps. When I again reach failure, I contract as far as I can and hold it, until every fiber gives out and I can no longer grip the weight.
3. Total finisher I do heavy partials with static holds, followed by a drop set that includes more heavy partials and static holds. I finish with full-range-of-motion reps for the final drop set.
ART ATWOOD’’S BACK WORKOUT
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Front pulldowns 6 8
Bent barbell rows 2 8
Half-rep deadlifts 3 10
Seated cable rows 4 8
* Front pulldowns I keep my chest up and pull with my elbows. The first four sets are normal, to failure, but each of the last two sets, I jack up the weight another 60-100 pounds and go to failure with regular reps. Then I do about 15 partial reps in the top half, again to failure, pushing myself deep into the pain zone.
* Bent barbell rows This is not a movement for partials, but it’’s a staple for maximum back thickness. I use an overhand grip and pull into my gut, getting a full range of motion. As my body tightens with the reps, I increase the power, going as heavy as possible with eight reps, just a hairsbreadth away from failure.
* Half-rep deadlifts These need a few warm-up sets. When I feel I’’m ready, I do my working sets, using only the top half of the rep, with the bar starting at just above my kneecaps. The pull is steady and powerful but controlled, so I can feel it in every muscle in my back. At the top, I get a full lockout and squeeze, holding it for a second. My first set is with five plates per side, then five plates and a quarter, then six plates, and always for 10 reps. These are such a psych that I actually get stronger with each set, which is a cautionary statement: don’’t try to go to failure during these, or you’ll risk lower-back injury. However, I go right to the threshold of complete failure, focusing on feeling my back muscles strain.
* Seated cable rows Like bent barbell rows, this also is not a movement for partials, but it offers the greatest range of motion for the lats. I let it pull mine to a maximum extension outward/forward and, during the contraction, I squeeze as far back as possible. Reps are to failure every set.