Monday, January 20, 2020

Building a Better Back - Steve Stanko (1965)

Article Courtesy of Liam Tweed

Yoshinobu Miyake

At a recent physique contest I was again reminded of the importance of a well built back, and of the general lack of a well built back and of the general lack of proper back development among the current crop of physique men. In this particular contest there was a close battle between two outstanding contestants for the most muscular man title. The judges were having a hard time trying to decide, so they called the two men out to have another look, this time side by side. 

The contestants were first asked to stand facing the judges. Both were outstanding. They were then asked to turn around with their backs facing the judges. Now, there was little doubt in my mind which should win, as the back development of one of the contestants was definitely superior to that of the other. 

This proves two points. first, that it takes only one weak point to lose a title and, secondly, that in this instance a well developed back was responsible for winning the title. 

This article covers both points. 

This article is applicable to the first point as I noticed at the same contest that there seemed to be a general lack of correctly developed backs. By "correctly developed back" I mean a back that has every area developed to correct proportions, thus giving the appearance of a rugged, powerful back with no weak or underdeveloped spots. That is my description of a well developed back and I must admit that I saw very few such backs at this contest. 

Many of the contestants had a lot of muscle on their backs, but there always seemed to be certain areas that lacked development. The most common weakness was a lack of development in the spinal erector and trapezius muscles. It seems that the latissimus dorsi muscles were developed to a greater extent than the other areas of the back. 

For some reason, perhaps the fact that it is one of the only back muscles that the bodybuilder can see from the front, this muscle is usually the only  back muscle that is given any serious thought. As an end result of such thinking, the latissimus muscle is usually well developed, which is fine, but often at the expense of the other muscles of the back that seem to get worked only occasionally or indirectly, which is not so fine. 

Most articles about the back usually state that there are three basic areas that need to be developed to have a well developed back. These areas are basically made up of the latissimus, trapezius, and spinal erector muscles. These articles usually listt exercises that will develop the muscles in these certain areas, but do not go into detail about working specific areas of the back. 

This is just another example of the general lack of concern about proper back development. for instance, when an article is written about chest development and the article progresses past the rib cage development part to the development of the pectorals, there is usually a discussion about how to get cuts on the inside, outside, and underside of the pecs plus a long dissertation about doing certain exercises to add size to upper and lower pectoral muscles. In other words, take a look in the mirror and decide what you want and where you want it on your pectorals and then read how to get it. 

Conversely, as mentioned above, when an article is written about the back, it usually gives exercises to develop the lats, traps, and erector muscles without any concern as to individual sections of the muscles. About the only back muscle to get any special consideration is the lats and, as I mentioned before, they are usually well developed. 

Therefore, the bulk of the remainder of this article will be devoted to the development of the trapezius (upper and lower) and spinal erector muscles.


There is something majestic about a back with a well developed trapezius. It lends a rugged, powerful look to the entire back, particularly when the lower portion of this muscle is well developed. Both John Grimek and Vern Weaver are exceptionally thick in this area and both have about as well developed backs as I have ever seen.

But, like any muscle, unless it is completely developed throughout its entire length and breadth, which is considerable as it is one of the largest muscles of the back, the trapezius will not impart the desired effect. 

Upper Trapezius. 

Olympic weightlifters almost always have outstanding trapezius development. The reason for this development is evident when you consider the exercises they specialize on - snatches, cleans, and heavy high pulls. All of these exercises have a strong influence on the upper trapezius and, in fact, upon the entire back. Therefore, these exercises should be included in your workout if you are lacking development in this area. 

Other exercises that will give you traps that look like they are trying to touch your ears are are shoulder shrugs and lateral raises when the arms are raised all the way overhead each rep. You should include enough of these exercises in your workout to make your trapezius muscles feel like they are going to pop. After all, that is what you do when you exercise your arms and other bodyparts. 

Lower Trapezius - Intra-Scapular Area

Undoubtedly, this is the most neglected area of development of the entire back, the reason being that not too many exercises work this particular area vigorously and the exercises that do so must be done in a certain manner or their benefits will be derived by other muscle groups. 

The two exercises that work this area most directly are bent forward rows and bent forward lateral raises. However, since the lower trapezius is responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together, it is important that when performing these two exercises you make a conscious effort to pull the shoulder blades together at the completion of each repetition. For example, when you do bent forward rows, as the bar approaches the chest make a conscious effort to pull the shoulder blades together. 

Vern Weaver had a remarkable development in this area of the back. One of his favorite exercises was the cheating bent forward row on the power rack. He would set the pins in the power rack so that the bar was a few inches above his knees. He would then take a medium grip, set his back as if he was going to deadlift the weight from this position and start the bar moving with his hips, lower back, and legs. Once the weight started moving he would give a tremendous pull with his arms and upper back muscles and at the same t8ime bend forward and squeeze his shoulder blades together momentarily. 

There's a great two-part article on Vern Weaver by Jan Dellinger here: 

There are many exercises that work this area indirectly; however, the most effective are power cleans, high pulls, deadlifts, and shrugs. 

Spinal Erectors

This group of muscles has always been the classic favorite of writers in the past to point to when they would criticize the weak points of a bodybuilder's build. However, it appears that all of this criticism has done some good as there seems to be less room for criticism than before. Perhaps the current fad in power lifting and the general emphasis upon heavy squats for gaining weight has helped. 

The spinal erector muscles respond fast, especially considering the small amount of time and effort needed to make them grow as compared to that needed to get the arms to grow. Here again is where the Olympic lifter excels in development as does the power lifter.  But that's not hard to understand when you examine their routines. Predominantly heavy pulls from the floor, squats, and deadlifts. Therefore, if you want a similar development in this area, do likewise. 

And to try to get a little variety in your training, try swings, hyperextensions, and good morning exercises. 

To sum up, let me simply say, don't neglect developing your back, particularly the trapezius and spinal erector muscles, as it contributes greatly to your appearance - not the image you see in the mirror, but that seen by others.              

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