Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Back Building -- Ken Leistner (2003)

Jack and I were lying on the floor of my room, checking out a stack of muscle magazines. As always, we were trying to fine tune what we were doing in order to force as much muscle growth as possible. 

On this day we were taken with the back development of some bodybuilders featured in old issues of Mr. America and Muscle Power magazines. 

"I don't believe some of the things Weider writes about," noted Jack, "but let's get one thing straight. He has the best photos." The ongoing debate in lifting circles was always who had the better magazines, with the interpretation of "better" left to the perspective of those discussing the issue. 

And yes, it was an issue of ongoing discussion. Although for sheer muscle density, few could compare with John Grimek, York's poster boy for the benefits of weight training. Weider had the more impressive physiques adorning his magazines. The Drapers, Scotts, Pooles and Yortons were strapped with muscle and were photographed in a manner which showed them to their best advantage. On the other hand, Strength & Health and Muscular Development magazines often displayed photos that rivaled the ones we would see when one of the guys would return from sitting in the 47th row of the Mr. Tri-State Contest with his Instamatic camera.

"Yeah, Weider's guys look better, but if you check the lifters in S&H, those guys look better than some of the MD bodybuilders." As I pointed this out to Jack, I held up a 1970 issue of S&H that had a great photo of Gennady Ivanchenko, the champion 181-pound lifter.  

The photo was taken from the back of the lifter at an angle that clearly depicted the most impressive set of spinal erector muscles and lats, which stuck out as if someone had pasted them onto the photograph. 

"Oh, come on, man, look at this," I implored, "tell me that this isn't the most impressive back you've ever seen." Jack grabbed the magazine, and at more or less the same time, we looked at each other and said something along the lines of holy moly!

We discussed the benefits of doing the kind of exercises the Olympic weightlifters did in those days, exercises that augmented the press, which was one of the three competitive Olympic lifts. 

I said, "Look, these guys train very heavily. We've been to York and watched them lift a lot of weight. You know that pressing helps their back development if only because they're supporting a ton of weight, and for the guys who go into the rack with Bill March, well, you know they do support a ton of weight overhead."

With pencil in hand, we listed the cleans, pulls, and shrugs that were part and parcel of every lifter's program. "Don't forget that they deadlift, too, not like the powerlifters, but holding their proper clean or snatch position." We immediately agreed that the snatch, a wondrous lift that we never could come close to mastering and one that for us was shrouded in a mystical fog of technique, wouldn't be part of what we were doing.

Jack had that seme-nervous look that foretold his query regarding a lack of "bodybuilding exercises" in yet another of our training programs. I jumped in. 

"Look, it's not a matter of having either lat pulldowns or some kind of heavy pulls. We can do whatever we want. Most of the bodybuilders with a really thick back, the guys from our area like 

Joe Abbenda


Dennis Tinerino 

and the other guys, did Olympic lifting for athletic points in the Mr. America competition or did that kind of exercise for the first few years of training. Look at what it did for them." The AAU insisted that physique competitors accrue athletic points either through participation in high school or collegiate sports, or in another AAU approved amateur sport. For most bodybuilders without a competitive athletic background, Olympic lifting was the obvious choice, especially since presses, cleans, and shrugs were a part of every weight trainee's long term program in the 1950s and '60s.

We pictured 

Sergio Oliva

doing heavy pulls and jerks in his native Cuba, thought about 

Bill March

and his overwhelming upper back development, and wrote down what we thought would be a workable routine. 


Press: warmup x 6; warmup x 3; 1x8; 1x5; 1x3.
Power Clean: 5's working up in weight for 4-5 sets
Squat: warmup x 10; warmup x 5; 1x20 all out
Pulldown to Chest: 1x10
superset with ->
Barbell Shrug: 1x12
Pulldown to Chest: 1x8
superset with ->
Barbell Shrug: 1x10
Ab Work.


60-degree Incline Press: warmup x 5; warmup x 3; 1x10; 1x6
Front Squat: warmup x 6; warmup x 3; 1x10; 1x6
Power Clean from Hang: 5's working up in weight for 4-5 sets
DB Press: 1x8; 1x6
Low Cable Row: 1x10 
superset with ->
Clean Position Deadlift: 1x8
Low Cable Row; 1x8
superset with ->
Clean Position Deadlift: 1x5
Ab Work


Push Press: warmup x 5; warmup x 3; 3's working up in weight for 4-5 sets
Clean Pull:  5's working up in weight for 4-5 sets 
Squat: warmup x 10; warmup x 5; 1 x 10 all out
Barbell Pullover: 1x12
superset with ->
Hyperextension: 1x12
Barbell Pullover: 1x10
superset with ->
Hyperextension: 1x10
Cheat Barbell Curl: 1x8; 1x6
Ab Work.

We were satisfied with out approach. This was a basic, power-type routine that utilized the multi-joint exercises we usually included in every program we did. We felt that football preparation would be enhanced and, of course, the upper and lower back work had its emphasis. 

Our power clean form was typical for football players, although I actually learned how to double knee bend after a few sessions of hanging around in York at the North Ridge Avenue headquarters. I think the guys just became disgusted watchin me butcher this exercise until I was given pointers that allowed me to do what felt like a very natural and easy movement.

As always, we included our tough, all-out set of high-rep squats, which proved to be more than enough work for the hips and thighs when placed in conjunction with the pulling exercises we were doing from the floor.

The 60-degree incline press was suggested to me by Bill Starr. It was actually a commonly performed exercise for Olympic lifters, at least on the East Coast, because many of them felt it adequately reflected the angle from which an actual Olympic press was done. Remember the "ban the press" articles that were in every other edition of Strength & Health as traditionalists bemoaned the new "standing bench press" standards that the Olympic press had fallen to? For us, the 60-degree incline press was a great change of pace and a movement that allowed us to go hard and heavy while giving our lower backs a much needed break from the action. It is rarely seen in any gym today.

We included the front squat to "cover all of the Olympic lifting bases" and because we would get really sore whenever we included them in our program. We did this specific routine at a time when we had cut back on our running, so that the three squat days per week did not pose a problem for recovery.

The clean position deadlifts, in truth, would often degenerate into regular deadlifts as we would get hyped up and use too much weight to maintain the proper clean position, but we both noted that just trying to keep the shoulder blades "back" and hold the proper low back angle had our lats screaming the following day.

The barbell pullover was a standard in New York City area gyms. Ponderous weight could be used while someone straddled the hips or thighs of the trainee while he yanked the weight from the floor to a point somewhere around the bottom of the rib cage. If nothing else, it was an exercise that worked the chest, back, and triceps, so it fell under our umbrella of "working a lot of muscle."

The hyperextensions were done with as much weight as we could hold at our chests. We tried to copy the photo of the Russian lifters in S&H as they held a loaded barbell across their necks, but after having the bar sail out of my hands on more than one occasion and risking a personal scalping while threatening Jack's ankles and feet, we decided to squeeze the dumbbell or barbell plate to our chests, and I continue to do them that way to this day. We would pause in the contracted position and squeeze both the buttock muscles as well as trying to contract the musculature of the low back. Then, like today, it is an effective low back movement if done under control and to a point parallel to the floor.

The cheat curls satisfied the "bodybuilding requirement" of our week, although I most often passed on these. Swinging the weight up and using as much resistance as possible fit in with the psychological tone of the overall routine, and for no other reason than we stumbled upon it, we would try to control or fight the descent, an early and unplanned foray into eccentric training. 

The hard, heavy, big-movement work proved, as it usually did, to be very effective. Jack and I both gained a significant amount of body weight, in part because we had both reduced the amount of running we were doing for football preparation, and because the exercises chosen were a good blend of stimulating movements. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 


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