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Building a Monster Upper Back
A huge and thick upper back is the hallmark of the alpha strength athlete. Fluff trainees need not apply…only those with the fortitude and will to train with the requisite intensity will achieve the kind of upper back that literally intimidates and inspires awe in all who see it. If you have ever had the unique opportunity to see a top level professional bodybuilder in person, you know what I mean. The power that their backs exude is literally palpable.
If you are a bodybuilder, a big upper back is the coup de grace of a great physique. Huge lats and traps win contests.
If you consider the most successful bodybuilders ever, the multi-Olympia winners, men like Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman, they are all known for incredible back width and thickness.
The best of the best strength athletes also sport tremendous upper backs. Think of the incredible thickness of Bill Kazmaier’s traps, or the huge lats of Mariusz Pudzianowski. Hyper-development of the huge muscles of the upper back is necessary for the superhuman strength feats these men must perform on a regular basis.
Building a huge upper back requires focus on two major muscle groups, the trapezius (traps) and the lattisimus dorsi (lats). As with all forms of intense hypertrophy-focused training, efficiency is the key to optimal results. Focusing on the traps and lats, the largest muscles of the upper back, allows the trainee to efficiently stimulate growth in the entire upper back.
Hypertrophy-focused training must be relatively brief and intense. A rough quote from Arthur Jones goes something like, “You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both.” Training to failure, or beyond (forced reps, etc.) spurs maximal growth via optimization of both contractile (the contractile elements of the muscle cell, actin and myosin) and non-contractile or sarcoplasmic (interstitial fluid, etc.) hypertrophy.
Do NOT confuse training for hypertrophy with training with light weights. Being fairly active in the powerlifting community, I often encounter what I feel is a generalized misconception about optimized strength training. Most powerlifters think of bodybuilders as “pumpers” who are all show and no go. A closer look at the facts reveals that this is simply not the case. Sure, there are some bodybuilders who have built enormous muscles using relatively light loads, but these are the exceptions. As a rule, the biggest bodybuilders, those who are 270 lbs+ in the off-season, are very powerful individuals, especially with respect to the exercises that they regularly practice. I think this fact is part of the misconception. Elite level bodybuilders often rely heavily on selectorized machines, or use a plate-loading apparatus as opposed to simple barbells. Strength athletes, especially powerlifters, misconstrue this to mean that the bodybuilders avoid heavy loads with barbells out of weakness. The truth is that elite bodybuilders often use tremendous loads with this type of apparatus. They use the machines because they feel they are less likely to injure themselves (which is itself a misconception), and they allow for a better focus on the target musculature.
Six time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates showing incredible back width and thickness
Strength and size are intimately associated. Individually speaking, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, but increased strength does not always result in increased size. This is due to the fact that demonstrable strength is basically a function of two components, hypertrophy of the aforementioned contractile myofibrils actin and myosin, and the nervous system. An increase in the size of the contractile myofibrils will result in an increased force production capability of the muscle. Expression of this increased force production capacity (or any force production capacity) is dependent upon the nervous system. Think of the nervous system as a car’s transmission. You have to mate a motor with an optimized transmission to get the best performance. The same is true with your body; you cannot be as strong as possible without optimizing your nervous system.
Optimization of the nervous system is required to maximize demonstrable strength, and maximized demonstrable strength is required to elicit peak hypertrophy (i.e., lifting heavier loads for the same number of sets and reps stimulates greater hypertrophy).
The above components of physiology are often lost on both bodybuilders and powerlifters. Powerlifting training tends to focus on the neural aspect at the expense of maximizing hypertrophy and thus peak strength potential. Bodybuilders often focus on high repetition pumping movements that do not optimize the nervous system and stimulate less contractile hypertrophy. If it isn’t yet obvious, the ideal system for size and strength is one which both optimizes neural acclimation and contractile and non-contractile hypertrophy.
Powerlifter and Strongman Bill Kazmaier showing incredible trap thickness
Training for a HUGE Back!
If you truly want the biggest and strongest back possible, it is necessary to combine the best of both the powerlifting and bodybuilding worlds. For my money, the best of the powerlifting/strength world is encapsulated in Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell training principles. Louie flat out “gets it” better than any strength training authority in the world. He is smart enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, in this case the wisdom of the super successful Russian and Bulgarian weightlifting teams, using this information plus his own vast experience to create a truly optimized absolute strength training program.
The core of Louie’s system is the Maximum Effort (ME) training day. ME training is done once per week for the bench, squat, and deadlift. For our purposes, the main point of the ME day is that the lifter attempts a maximum lift (with the goal being a new personal record in the specific exercise) at each session, while practicing conjugate variety to keep the central nervous and muscular systems fresh. Conjugate variety at Westside primarily involves the variation of major exercises for each ME session. So, for example, ME bench training might use floor presses the first week, board presses the next, and then full range of motion (ROM) presses the third week.
Even very subtle changes in a movement produce a significantly varied effect on the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is thus stressed differently with each unique exercise or variation thereof. This variation in stress allows a lifter to train heavy each and every week while avoiding the normal pratfall of CNS overtraining. In my opinion, conjugate variety is the major differentiator of Louie’s system vs. conventional western periodization programs and is the main reason why Westside is so much more effective.
This program will thus consist of training the upper back twice per week. The first day will be very much like a Westside ME day with one main exercise each for the lats (main exercises for the lats should be multi-joint compound exercises such as rows) and traps taken to a 6 repetition (rep) max (to concentric, or positive failure, i.e., until you get stuck on a rep) for two sets.
A two set, 6 rep max obviously varies from the Westside ME template, but I feel that single rep maxes are best reserved for programs where strength is the sole focus. A 6 rep max will still stimulate absolute strength increases while simultaneously promoting hypertrophy. As maximal hypertrophy is the stated goal of this program, it is important that both training days stimulate growth.
Arnold was never afraid to hit some T-bar rows - old skool style!
After the 6 rep max sets, 1-2 working sets (post-warmup sets) of 2-3 additional exercises are performed. Rep counts for these exercises should be in the 12-30 range. The purpose of these sets is to thoroughly congest the muscles with blood and to increase the time under tension (TUT). These sets will primarily aid with non-contractile hypertrophy. They will also help to support the lower repetition strength training by aiding recovery.
Day 2 training will include 3-4 exercises (four of 2 of them are supersetted) for the lats and one for the traps with reps in the 12-20 range. There will be 1-2 working sets per exercise with each working set being taken to at least concentric failure. This day is almost purely focused on non-contractile hypertrophy with high TUT and a heavy focus on the pump (the engorged feeling you get if training results in a temporary pooling of blood in the muscle).
You must strive to increase the loads, number of reps performed, or both for your working sets each and every workout. Progressive resistance is THE key to size and strength training results.
Below is a sample list of exercises to choose from as well as a sample workout for both days. Note, all exercises should be rotated each workout such that no two subsequent workouts are the same.
- Bent-over rows
- T-bar rows
- Hammer Strength style machine rows
- One arm dumbbell rows
- Selectorized machine rows
- Chins with various grips (weighted if needed)
- Pulldowns with various grips
- Cable, dumbbell, or machine pullovers
- Seated rows
- Barbell or dumbbell shrugs
- Behind the back shrugs
- Smith machine behind the back power shrugs
- Hammer Strength style machine shrugs
Note: Always allow at least two days between upper back sessions.
The format listed for sets and reps is as follows (for example):
- 2 (sets) x 4/3 (reps)
The above denotes two working sets are to be performed with the rep counts at 4 for the first working set, and 3 for the second. Be sure to perform at least two warmup sets per body part being exercised prior to your working sets. After the first exercise, you can use your discretion as to whether or not you feel the need to warm-up for subsequent movements.
- T-bar row – 2 x 6/6
- Dumbbell pullover – 2 x 15/15
- Selectorized machine row – 2 x 15/15
- Barbell shrugs – 2 x 6/6
- Chins – 2 x failure (body weight only)
- Hammer Strength style rowing machine – 2 x 12/12
- Superset: Cable pullover & seated row – 2 supersets x 20 reps for each exercise
- Behind the back Smith machine power shrugs – 2 x 15/15
Below are some training videos featuring author, Christopher Mason:
Behind The Back Power Shrugs
Hammer Strength Row with Bands
Very Heavy T-Bar Rows (not strict form)
Diet and Supplementation
If you want a huge back, you need to eat to support that goal. Hypertrophy is most easily achieved in a caloric surplus. In much the same way that training for optimized size and strength is not for the weak willed, neither is eating for optimized size and strength. I see and hear far too many people complaining that they cannot gain weight and that they already eat a “ton” of food. They lament that they could not possibly eat more…
If you want a huge back you need to be willing to pay the price. That price is pain and discomfort when you train and at the table. The VAST majority of individuals who claim to not be able to gain weight simply under-eat. They have not trained their stomachs by expanding them to the point that they will support the increased caloric intake required to add mass. Training the stomach to accept greater amounts of food consists of eating large meals which literally force it to stretch. This is the discomfort part and what sets apart the big boys from the rest. In short, you have to eat until you are full and then eat some more. You have to eat and drink until you are on the verge of vomiting. For obvious reasons, vomiting is not desired and one must tread a fine line such that the stomach is forced to expand without eliciting sickness. Your body will adjust in relatively short order, and consuming sufficient calories will no longer be nearly as difficult.
For specific caloric intake recommendations and nutrient timing please see my article Eating Optimally for Massive Size and Strength.
As the co-owner of AtLarge Nutrition, I obviously recommend our products. I helped to formulate many of them, and I will only sell products I personally do or would use. Bottom line, I KNOW our products are good and will do as promised. There are certainly other brands with effective products, but you cannot go wrong with AtLarge.
If you want a HUGE and strong upper back I recommend the following:
Nitrean: is our protein-only product with a unique blend of three fractions of whey, casein, and egg proteins. In concert with the other supplements recommended, Nitrean should be used as a bedtime shake.
Opticen: is our post-workout (PWO) supplement. As with all of our protein products, Opticen contains a blend of multiple proteins to include whey, casein, and egg. It is specifically formulated to optimize PWO protein synthesis.
MAXIMUS: is our weight gainer. It utilizes the same protein blend as Opticen and adds to it the ergogen Microlactin® (to enhance recovery) as well as inulin (for superior nutrient absorption) and other strength and health promoting ingredients. MAXIMUS should be used once or twice daily as a high quality and effective growth promoting meal.
RESULTS: is the most effective non-hormonal size and strength supplement on the market, bar none! RESULTS will literally make you significantly bigger and stronger within two weeks of use. Use once per day, with timing being less important than daily use.
ETS: promotes enhanced recovery and dramatically reduced muscle soreness. This program is very intense and ETS will help you to maximally benefit from it. ETS should be taken once in the morning and once in the evening (4 capsules each time).
If you follow this program as outlined, you and those you know will be amazed with the results. There is nothing else to be said… DO IT!!!
Chris Mason - Off Season Lat Spread
Written by Christopher Mason
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Building a Monster Upper Back discussion thread.