Monday, June 11, 2012

Shape & Power in the Upper Back - Charles A. Smith

Khadr El Touni
Click Pics to ENLARGE

Anton Matysek
The Letters of Robert Burns, courtesy of

Shape and Power in the Upper Back
by Charles A. Smith (1950)

The men of strength who read these articles will have noticed a definite pattern. They have been written to aid not only the lifter but the bodybuilder, and the exercises have been designed so that BOTH could use them. I dealt with the larger muscle masses of the body, and then shifted into the more detailed groups. Now, with the closing chapters of this "Foundations of Power" series, I am getting more specific. You may have observed that the mention of "proportion" and "shape" was more frequent as this series progressed.

Ten or fifteen years ago a famous authority said that if you trained for shape, strength would follow - these articles have been DESIGNED TO REVERSE THAT PROCEDURE. I have always advanced the opinion that if you trained for strength you could be more than sure shape would follow directly in the path of power. As so many of our famous authorities are aware, you can build an extremely "shapely" and "proportionate" physique but be utterly devoid of anything but average strength. It is my firm conviction and honest opinion that a weight trainer must not only "look" strong but must be strong also.

The man of power has that indefinable "something" about him, that certain combination of size, thickness and definition which seems to throw an "aura" of strength and vitality around him - a "glow" as it were. There is no mistaking him for what he is - A STRONG MAN. Build a rock solid foundation, and placing a house on it is an easy job. Build up the power basics and the finishing touches to the physique are minor details. How much easier the weaker muscles respond if the strongest muscles are, or have been working regularly. How much more rapidly they gain in size and strength when you are able to use heavy poundages, which COMBINE THE LARGER MUSCLES GROUPS WITH THE SMALLER, in certain exercises.

Now, you have been practicing the power movements for some time and are ready for those which will add finishing touches to the body and that little bit of extra strength. These exercises are going to work the muscles from different angles and positions than those you may be accustomed to, angles and positions which are not usually encountered in the normal training schedules and exercises. The movements deal with the muscles of the upper back - the latissimus dorsi, the trapezius, the terres majore and parts of the posterior deltoids.

Four strength athletes stand out in my memory as perfect examples of everything that I have been striving to convey to you in these thousands of words. Some score of years ago I managed to see a copy of that wonderful book by Alan Calvert - "Super Strength" - and one picture in it, the frontispiece, captured my imagination and admiration. It was of Anton Matysek and a magnificent back pose. It was the finest of its type I had seen then, and these first impressions have remained with me. There is another picture which has impressed as much, and in some respects more. It is a photo of John C. Grimek. I believe it was taken soon after he returned to the States following the 1936 Olympics. Standing on a beach, John is flexing his trapezius and the effect is sensational. I doubt if any other picture gives such an impression of power and proportion.

So much for the "good lookers". Now to the men who have power, but who are not so proportionate as the famous models named above - Goerner of dead lift fame, and Khadr el Touni of Egypt. Both of these men of might and muscle fairly exude that primitive, stark, naked strength, that "aura" of power possessed only by those of outstanding might. Yes and Wow, that fair aria of bulk and power sung in physical form! The trapezius development of Touni is among the foremost in the world and the upper back power of Goerner unsurpassed. Hermann was able to make a one-hand dead lift of over 700 pounds and a clean upright rowing motion of 287.

From the standpoint of strength and appearance, the development of the lats and and trapezius can make or mar a physique. Nothing looks worse than a good upper body, arms and legs, and a long swan-like neck caused by a lack of trapezius development. Strictly for the birds. You all must have read some novelist who speaks of his hero as possessing the "sloping shoulders of the true strong man." How surely he hit the mark there, and if the phrase doesn't sound familiar to you, consider making it so, give serious thought to the art and practice of learning from the greats of literature. And, as a distinct bonus, the odds of rutting with those of your ilk shall increase tenfold thereafter!

With no trapezius development, the neck looks thin and skinny. It appears devoid of strength and it gives the appearance that the man carrying it around has no vitality to speak of. When a man is sick or well advanced in years, the neck and upper back can become thin and stringy. When an athlete is in the pink of condition, his neck is thick and full, the upper back solid and powerful. Instead of the shoulders looking like a board - all length and corners - they set off the entire physical makeup to the very best advantage,and they convey the appearance of superabundant energy.

An outstanding example of a specialized routine for shoulder improvement is our own Abe Goldberg. Abe's colossal musculature was a little set back by trapezius which were a trifle less developed than the rest of his marvelous body. By following a routine designed to work the upper back in its entirety, he has made some wonderful progress. Everyone is now telling him how thick and powerful he appears. His deltoids, trapezius and neck are in grand shape since he commenced a special POWER schedule. Right now, Abe would be a hard man to beat in any physique competition.

There are other and equally important reasons why a weight trainer should pay plenty of attention to the trapezius and lats. A well built up trapezius muscle is a good preventative against round shoulders and a sunken chest. There are some bodybuilders who allow pectoral movements to bulk too much in their programs and as a natural consequence they are in danger of getting a "pulled forward" effect to the shoulders. All strength athletes who concentrate on pectoral exercises should compensate for the specialization by a well worked out series of upper back exercises. The lats, the erector spinae and the trapezius muscles are POSTURE groups.

The lats through their function of pulling down and back make for a more erect carriage and a larger chest measurement. They not only add size, but they also add shape. They turn a physique from the commonplace into the outstanding. Can you imagine what a body would look like if it was devoid of latissimus development? What a straight up and down appearance would do to an otherwise perfect physical development. Imagine then, the transformation which takes place when a sweeping curve swells up from the waist to the shoulders - it makes all the difference in the world.

So now we have come to the exercises. 

Hitherto, the latissimus and trapezius movements have been performed with the use of various rowing motions and pulleys and latissimus machines. However, the exercises here (use a set/rep scheme that will ultimately aid you in attaining your personal goals) are designed to make full use of barbells and dumbbells, and also for those who do not have the dough, the space or the temperament for pulleys and lat machines. They are also appropriate for both bodybuilders AND lifters (use a set/rep scheme that will ultimately aid you in attaining your personal goals). They can be more than valuable aids to both. 

It has been the previous fashion for trainers and instructors to give rowing motions as trapezius developers. The term "rowing" is not entirely accurate. As anyone who knows who lives near a body of water (ducks doing ninety downwind), rowing or sculling involves the use of the entire body, for the arms play a secondary role to that of the legs and trunk. It is a combination of power from the body, shoulders, legs and arms. The rowing motions develop primarily the pulling and shrugging muscles and the effect on those muscles is nullified if any large body motion enters into the exercise. The movements given in this particular article are unusual and there are three of them which have never before been published.

You may perhaps ask if it is necessary to depart from the orthodox to the unusual.


If you have been in a slump for some time, or are experiencing a stale period then these exercises are just what you need. Novelty means a change, and a change is always good when in a slump. Progress will commence again, and when you have reached the limit of exploiting these exercises you will be able to return to whatever you consider a regular schedule, refreshed and with the energy of a giant. Not Mothra. More like Godzilla.


An incline board is needed for this exercise. If the incline board isn't available, then use an ordinary exercise bench and raise it on one end by setting it on a box (use your head, adapt to supposed setbacks and kick ass nonetheless). Lie with the feet at the top, the high end, and the head, face up, at the lower end. Take two dumbbells and hold them straight out and level with the shoulders in a cross formation. Raise the dumbbells from this position until they touch the body at the hips. Do not allow them to travel back or front of the body but keep them in line with the trunk at all times. Start off with a weight which will enable you to get 8 reps (use a set/rep scheme that will ultimately aid you in attaining your personal goals) and work up to 15 reps for 4 sets. This is an extremely effective latissimus exercise.


Chest supported barbell row. Take an ordinary exercise bench, or lay a board across two boxes. Nothing fancy needed here aside from energy, drive, and ambition. Place a barbell under the bench. Lay face down on the bench so that the head is over the end of the bench. Grasp the bar with the hands a little more than shoulder width apart. Pull the bar upwards until it touches the underside of the bench or board. The bar must be held clear of the ground throughout the exercise, unless you decide otherwise. If you bench hasn't the height, then place the ends on boxes. The advantage of this exercise is that the body and legs are unable to help and the effects of the movement are entirely on the upper back. Variety can be added to the exercise by narrowing or widening the hand spacing and/or changing the location the bar is pulled to. When using a narrow grip the shoulder blades can be brought more closely together and a greater contraction of the trapezius can take place. Commence with a weight which will allow you to use a set/rep scheme that will ultimately aid you in attaining your personal goals, okay?


Lying rear lateral raise. As in the previous exercise, lay face down on a bench with the head over one end. Take two dumbbells and, holding them straight down and touching the floor, raise sideways and up until they are level with the shoulders. When the weights reach this position hold there for a brief pause and then lower and repeat. Get familiar with the movement and then try different set/rep schemes. I mean, how many people even bother to try triples on this kind of thing? Your shoulders are in a fairly safe position and thanks to the traps being potentially a very, very strong muscle group, there's no real fear of dinging and unstringing your rotators and all that en route to reaping some pretty big rewards over the years. Why not, and by the way, who's the boss here? You are. Right? Force out the reps with all you have, as always.


This movement is about he most complete trapezius developer that is  - that is, insofar as exercises go which simply and solely "function" a muscle. As far as non-compound movements go. Take two heavy dumbbells in the hands - they would be around the weight you could clean with a pair of dumbbells for the same number of reps. Actually, how many people do dumbbell shrugs for singles? Just one rep, taken from the floor then shrugged up high, held for a second and then returned to the floor. This could be good, a grip test in a trap dress. Very sexy at your next gym cotillion. Or, go lighter. Keep doing reps until the bells drop out of your hands. There are no definite number of sets or reps with which you should commence and work up to. Just make as many as you can until it's virtually impossible for you to perform another. And no, I didn't add that last bit on my own. It's there in the original article, God Bless this Charles Smith.

Force the sets, reps and poundage with all you have.


Hise Shrug. Here is an exercise which is expressly for strength. I have always felt that a great deal of weight should be handled in movement which involve the trapezius and the other muscles of the shoulder girdle. That's two God Blesses! You need adjustable squat racks or jerk boxes here. Load a bar up to your best dead lift single. Get under the bar as if you were going to make a squat, and lift it off the rack. Pull the hand in until they almost touch the deltoids - use a close grip for these, it makes a difference - press the neck back, and then shrug the shoulders HARD. As they raise, PUSH UP WITH THE HANDS and then SQUEEZE THE SHOULDERS BACK AND TOGETHER - or at the least try to make them touch. Thrust the chest out and breathe in as deeply as you are able, exhaling with great force when you relax the shoulders. Start off with 8-10 reps and work up to 15 or 20 for as many sets as you can take.

If you've done this exercise in the past, try it again, but with the exact instructions given above. 
Not quite the same, is it.

Work hard on all your lifting, force the reps, and success will be yours. 


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