Friday, March 25, 2022

Moulding a Mighty Back, Parts One and Two -- Alan Stephan (1948)


In the generally erroneous assumption that my having won the title of "Best Back" at the 1946 National AAU contest here in America might make my voice ring with the proper tones of authority (!), I have decided to save this part of the body for the last of my series of articles for VIGOUR readers. 

Since my winning the title, a new, more outstanding young man has arisen to take my place. I could not hope for a more worthy successor. I am referring to my good friend Steve Reeves, Mr. America, 1947. The mighty back shown in the accompanying photo

is that of my successor. Steve Reeves not only took the title of "Mr. America,"  he also took the title of America's "Best Back." It couldn't happen to a nicer guy! 

There is excellent reason for VIGOUR body builders to work to develop their backs. The back is one of the most complex parts of the anatomy -- the one which takes an active part in a great many of our muscular movements. The entire nervous system centers in the spinal column, running from the base of the skull to the body through the hollow bone-tube of the flexible spine. And the interweaving formation of the various back muscles presents a picture of power and beauty in a well developed back.

Take a look at the accompanying photo of my friend Steve Reeves and you can see an little of the interesting interweave and play of these back muscles. Probably most VIGOUR readers are familiar with the location and functions of the large triangular-shaped muscle that runs from the back of the neck to about halfway down the back with its third point fastened to the collar bone on top of the shoulder. It's functions are to raise or shrug the shoulders, draw the head and shoulders back, and to assist in drawing the head from side to side. 

The latissimus dorsi is considered by many to b a muscle which improves the physique's appearance from the front, although it is in reality the greatest of the back muscles. Look at the magnificent latissimus Steve Reeves is demonstrating in that photo. It is the great muscle which originates at the six bottom-most dorsals, and extends to the lumbar and sacral vertebrae, and also up an around to the underside of the upper arm bone. The functions of this beautiful back muscle are to draw the arms backward an downward, and also to draw the arms to the sides. Later on you will see how these are accomplished, and how beautifully they can be developed, in one of my favorite among all exercises. 

A less well-known back muscle, although important, is the infraspinous group: (the infraspinalis and the teres major),  a little knot of muscle below the back of the deltoids, which help to draw the shoulders down. It can be plainly seen on Steve's mighty back in the photo: the little know of muscle just below Steve's shoulder at the base of the arm in the back. 

There there is the twin rope of the spinus erectus, that vertical cable of muscles at the sides of the spinal column. I have seen Dick Trusdell hide half his hand in the deep valley between Steve's spinal erectus muscles, when he placed his hand on-edge there. these great "cables" of muscle on a well-developed man are the muscles by which he lifts great weight when bending over an comes into a standing position. 

Other back muscles include the minor and major rhomboids, which elevate and retract the shoulder blades; and the inferior and superior serratus posticus, which depress and raise the ribs from behind in inhaling and exhaling. All of these, too, are important, but we need not give them any special consideration in our exercise routines, because it is difficult to develop the major muscles of the back without also developing the lesser ones as well. It would take a muscle control artist to isolate all the over two dozen back muscles separately, so let's get to work on our exercises. 

Exercise One

Chin to Back of Neck,
Wide, and Narrow Grip Versions.

The back of the neck chin on the horizontal bar is my favorite exercise of all. I have done it for a great many years, and it still remains my prime favorite, for general all-round back development. It is particularly good for the latissimus dorsi, and if I have achieved any measure of success in developing those handsome muscles, it is due to the the back of the neck chin to a large degree. However, the exercise is also excellent for almost all of the back muscles, as well as for the deltoids and the arm muscles. 

Grasp the horizontal bar, with the hands about 28 to 30 inches apart, the palms turned forward. Now perform the "chin" movement, only to the BACK of the neck, the bar passing behind the head.

I suggest that you do about 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps at first. When you reach a point at which it is easy, add a bit of weight, and continue. Be sure to do the movements at an even rate of speed, without "jerking" yourself up. When you become adept at it, and the latissimus and other back muscles are quite strong, you can lay a barbell across the bend of the knees, holding it in the crook of the knees, and continue your repetitions. I use about 200 pounds now for 3 sets of 10 reps. 

[Whoa! That is some fine damn chinning behind the neck all right.]

Exercise Two

The next excellent back exercise is the stiff legged deadlift with the barbell. The grip should be a little more than shoulder width apart, with each hand turned a different way on the bar, palms facing opposite directions to each other. In doing the lift, straighten up to full with the weight, even to the extent of arching the back a little to get the maximum possible contraction, throwing the shoulders back and the chest out. 

Do not use too great a weight at first, or you may injure your back.

I recommend 3 sets of 15 reps each, the last done standing on a bench, letting the bar down past the toes. You will find this exercise is excellent for the latissimus dorsi and the spinal erectus muscles, especially if you take care to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the latissimus as much as possible in bending down with the weight.

(Incidentally, I have had some considerable "kidding" by some of my English body building friends about the way I spell stretch -- particularly by my pals Ken Knowles and Robo Robinson of the Lancastrian Brigade P.T. Staff. To them, and to all VIGOUR readers, I say, whether you spell it "stretch" or "s-t-r-e-t-c-h," I still want you to do it: s--t--r--e--t--c--h, and then do it again!)

[An add-on from Mr. Stephan there!]

Exercise Three

Here is an excellent exercise for the spinal erectus muscles; it is guaranteed to shake the "kinks" out of the back after a deep sleep, in the morning! 

Place the barbell (or even a single plate) across the back of the neck, then lean forward, as far as possible, arching the back as you bend down. Get lots of s-t-r-e-t-c-h into the arch (You, too, Ken, and Rob!). Do a good number of "reps," and your back will feel well invigorated; the entire system will be toned up by this release of the spinal sluggishness. The massage to the nervous system is particularly good.

If the weight seems too heavy, or chafes on the back of the neck, wrap a towel around it to "cushion" it, so you can devote full concentration to the exercise. Arch the back, bend down, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h! 

In next months VIGOUR article, I will continue with the exercises for developing the back. Some of the best will be in Part Two, so don't miss it! And let me know how you are coming along with your training in the meantime.


Well, friends, regretfully, I come to the last in the series of articles I have been writing for you VIGOUR readers. I sincerely hope that they many have been of value and benefit to you, and that if they have, you will continue to use them and progress with them. I have enjoyed hearing from you, and "working out" with you in this series, but now it is time for me to step down and let my worthy successor as Mr. America, Steve Reeves, take over.

Exercise Four

Here is an excellent way to work on the infraspinous muscles. It is the leaning over Rowing Motion. Use a wide grip on the bar, with the palms turned toward your body. Spread your feet about 24 inches apart, and lean over with the back parallel to the floor, the knees slightly bent, grasping the bar before you and, below your chest. Keep the back slightly arched. Bring the barbell up high on the chest for at least 15 reps, 2 sets; then do a set of 15 bringing the bar up to the stomach instead of the chest. (You will feel this in the middle back muscles!). Be sure the back is slightly arched for good results. Now straighten up, and let's try:

Exercise Five

Use a good close grip on the bar for this one, the hands only about 6 inches apart at the center of the bar. The feet should be about 24 inches apart, again, the knees straight, the back straight and slightly arched. Now, pull the bar from a full-length arm hang to just under the chin, and repeat. Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions each. 

Be sure to pull the bar all the way up to the chin! This upright rowing motion is grand for the upper back, especially the trapezius. Try it and see.

Exercise Six 

Here is another exercise that is also excellent for the trapezius, as well as f or the infraspinous and rear of the deltoids. Other muscles are also benefitted. 

Stand with feet about a foot apart, and reach down and grab the barbell with your hands about shoulder width apart. I like to reverse the grip of one hand on the bar, so one palm faces in and one out. Lift with the legs and the back into the vertical position, and do enough repetitions that you are tired, but not strained. You will find that you can do a great weight with this exercise (which incidentally, judging from your letters, seems to be a great favorite with you fellows). 

There are many other good weight exercises for the upper back regions, as you know. Among them are the: 

Two Hands Clean and Jerk
Two Hands Clean from the hang position
Two Hands Snatch frm the hang position

They are good incidental exercises you might like to throw in to vary your training routine, although the exercises I am describing more fully are by far my favorites, and the ones to which I credit what back development I have. 

Gymnastic exercises which should be helpful in these muscle groups include the majority of tumbling, ring, parallel bar, and hand to hand routines. All of these are excellent indeed for back development. As you may know, I am quite partial to most gymnastic exercises as a complimentary adjunct to the usual weight training program, as they improve your coordination, balance and dexterity. I think perhaps too many of us are prone to devote too much effort to weights alone, and not to include variations in the form of Roman ring work, parallel and horizontal bar exercises, and general hand balance, tumbling and gymnastics. In my own gym, where I train several times a week, in addition to training others all the time, we are fortunate in having not only the equipment, but the interest, in gymnastic activities, and I owe much of my early development to them. Let's get on to the next exercise . . . 

Exercise Seven

I have saved for the last in this series one of the toughest of all back exercises. You will find that it is difficult to use much weight in this exercise, as every bit of the leverage is on the back. However, use as much as you can handle for 3 sets of 10 repetitions each, and when you find you are able to increases the reps to 15, add more weight, and so on. 

I generally use about 50 pounds on a long bar dumbbell. Stand with the feet about 20 inches apart, the weight held at arms' length overhead. Now, keeping the arms and knees stiff, and bending at the waist only, lean forward and reach out with the weight, swinging it in an arc toward the toes, and then straighten up into the original position. Be sure to keep the arms straight with the back and not to bend them either at the shoulders or elbows. Maintain the body in a straight line, bending from the waist alone as you go up or down. If you do not fell this good and plenty in the entire back, but especially in the lower back region, my name is not Al Stephan! You feel it alright, if you do it properly! 

One of the favorite exercises of my good friend Marvin Urvant, who has a back any man could be proud of, is one he calls "Pulling the Bar." In this he grabs hold of a vertical pipe or bar at arms' length with both hands, and "pulls" himself to it, concentrating entirely on the latissimus and back muscles. He varies this by doing the exercise with each hand separately, as well, concentrating on that one latissimus as he does so. This is one you fellows who have no weights at home can do, either grasping a vertical pipe, or even the edge of the door.

I can also recommend the low dip between the parallel bars as a fine back exercise, although if you've followed this series in VIGOUR from the beginning, it is also one of my favorites for other parts of the body as well. Dip low between the bars, and you will feel it in your rear deltoids and back, as well as in your arms and chest.

For you fellows who have cable stretch sets, many of the cable exercises are grand for the back. I believe you fellows call them strand pulling exercises, but whether we call them your way or our way, they are excellent! One of the best of these for the back is the Front Stretch, arms straight. I suggest you do 3 sets, 15 reps. Be sure the arms are straight, so the deltoid and back muscles get the work! Next try the forward pull with the cable (strands?) as well. These take a lot of practice and strength to do, and are excellent back development stuff. 

Well, there you are, Friends. While these are but a few of the many possible back development exercises you can use, they are my favorites, and are largely responsible for my own back development. I do not doubt for a moment that many of you can equal, and possibly surpass, my own results using these exercises. After all, it is not so much the exercises or the recognitions that count, as much as it is the results that You, your self, can achieve in your own persoman efforts toward self betterment.

I hope from my heart, Fellows, that this series has been helpful to you. If so, I'll feel happy and proud, indeed. Both Steve Reeves and myself stand ready to try and help you with any additional comments or suggestions we can make.

So to to it -- and lots of luck from your American pals in physical betterment! May you find increased Health, Happiness, and VIGOUR in the coming months is the sincerest wish of your warm friend. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  



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