Sunday, January 8, 2023

Essential Back -- Bradley Steiner (1970)

Bill Pearl 

This month we're going to cover a lot of important territory. There are more basic exercises for the back than there re for any other single body area, and they should ALL be used, at one time or another, by every bodybuilder in his training program. 

Heavy back training will build enormous power. It will help in bringing about overall muscle and weight gains. It will help in bringing the body to a peak in physical fitness and all-around condition. Along with heavy leg work which we'll discuss next month, BACK EXERCISE is the key to Herculean development.

To begin then, here is a list of the essential exercises for the back:

1) The stiff-legged dead weight lift.
2) The repetition power clean.
3) The good morning exercise.
4) Heavy, bentover rowing.
5) Heavy, one dumbbell rowing.
6) Heavy shoulder shrugging.
7) The neck bridge. 

This last exercise, you might want to say, is not for the back at all since it works the neck muscles primarily, but remember, this is a fine developer of the trapezius muscles, and also -- since we are concerned in this series with the essential exercises for the entire body, it is necessary to place neck bridging somewhere in our repertoire. It is logical to include it with the back work.

In glancing at the list above you may suddenly protest that this writer is off his head for neglecting to include the standard dead weight lift. After all, everyone knows that the basic exercise for the lower back is the deadlift, isn't it? No, it is not. 

The regular dead lift is a fine test of one's basic body power, but as a developer of the spinal erector muscles in the lumbar region of the lower back, it is highly overrated. It is my intention to present in this series only those exercises that have proven themselves to be the finest developers of the muscles that they work. I am interesting in building bodies, not experimenting with them. It may not be popular to it, but for the purpose of back development, you can dump the traditional dead lift. Rest assured that the exercises herein discussed will bring you satisfactory results -- if you work hard with them. 

In previous articles we've discussed the importance of concentration and effort in your training programs; now we're concerned with those exercises you should be concentrating upon. So, taking them one at a time, in the order previously listed, let's examine each back exercise and see how you may best utilize it in your training. 

The first exercise to be mentioned is the stiff legged dead lift, and let me say this at the outset of this fine exercise: if you work to your limit on the stiff legged dead lift, constantly striving to handle more and more weight, you will find this to be the best lower back builder, a super power developer, and a superbly efficient body conditioner as well. 

With the inclusion of a very few other exercises in a program, the stiff legged dead lift can turn you into a Hercules if you'll put forth an honest effort in training. 

The stiff legged dead lift should always be done with the heaviest possible weights. You should always use a barbell, never dumbbells, for the simple reason that more weight can be handled in this manner, and when you are advanced you should do the stiff legged dead lift while standing on a strong bench or block. This will enable you to lower the barbell below your feet, and the enormous development of power and flexibility that will result from this exercise style will utterly amaze you.

For the LOWER back then, the stiff legged dead lift should be employed almost to the complete exclusion of any other exercise. Yes, it is that excellent. Yes, it is that important. Yes, it will give you the results that I have said it will give you, and no, I stand nothing to gain if you employ it in your program. You simply should know, to save your own time and effort, that this particular exercise is number one for its purpose -- and you'll be cheating yourself if you fail to use it. 

There are two other essential exercises for the lower back area: the power clean and the good morning, but use them only as a means of getting out of a training rut or as a variation from time to time. They are good, but they cannot approach the stiff legged dead lift. Since they are good, let's turn to them next. 

The power clean is a favorite exercise of Reg Park. It is hardly necessary to point out that Reg Park's back development leaves little, if anything, to be desired. The man is simply fantastic! Let's face it -- he must have done something right to get those muscles, and of the "right" things no doubt, was hard work on the power clean. 

Boyer Coe

The secret of getting the most out of your power cleans is, of course, to constantly strive to handle heavier and heavier weight. The exercise, much like the stiff legged deadlift, can be done with a pair of dumbbells, but the necessity of always striving toward maximum poundage makes me warn you not to use dumbbells unless you have access to real super-heavies. Otherwise, stay with the barbell. 


The power clean IS NOT a weightlifting feat. it is an exercise. Do not confuse it with the type of cleaning done by Olympic lifters. In the power clean there is no significant body dip and there is no leg split whatever. One simply grasps the bar with both hands in the overhand (knuckles up) grip, and "cleans" it to one's upper chest and shoulder level. Then the weight is lowered to the floor and the exercise is repeated for the desired number of repetitions. 

After a few weeks of power cleaning, you should notice a very pleasant increase in both your bodily power, and in the muscular bulk of your upper back. The power clean is a triple purpose exercise that will give a thorough workout to the trapezius, latissimus, and spinal erector muscle groups You'll find that in addition to the wonderful back-building results, you'll slap some extra meat on your upper arms also. How about that for a bonus? 

The third and last exercise for the lower back region is the barbell bendover, better known in weight training circles as the "good morning" exercise, and no, before you even ask, I do not know why it's called the good morning exercise. Call it the good night exercise if you will; I do know this: it is an excellent developer of the lower back. Weightlifters frequently use this exercise as a supplement to their training on the basic lifts, and it will quickly prove its worth to you after a few weeks training. The performance of the good morning exercise may not be known to you, so briefly, this is how it's done. 

Take a barbell, of moderate weight at the beginning, and hold it behind the neck as you would if preparing to do a set of squats. Now, keeping the legs straight, and being careful to maintain a flat back and strong grip, incline your upper body forward from the waist until it is parallel to the floor. Using lower back strength only (DON'T bend your knees), raise your upper body to the erect starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. 

This movement takes some getting used to, but it is nevertheless a fine back exercise. When you become sufficiently advanced you will be able to employ heavy poundages, and of course you'll reap excellent gains. Progress in poundage carefully with this exercise. 

Steve Reeves

By far the most important group of back muscles to every bodybuilder are the "lats" or upper latissimus dorsi group. Huge, bulky lats do give the entire physique a broad, massive appearance. To acquire powerful lats that possess corresponding shape and bulk, you need concern yourself with only 2 exercises and their variations. The exercises are: 

1) the heavy bentover barbell row, and 
2) the heavy one-dumbbell row. 

 We shall begin our analysis with the heavy, bentover barbell row since it is number one on the list, and number one in importance. 

Reg Park considers heavy barbell rowing to be the best all-around back developer. It is. 

Please note at this point that I say "heavy" bentover barbell rowing. Brothers, if it's a mighty back that you're after, you've got to face the fact that only heavy training will achieve your goal. For upper back development you should push heavy barbell rowing in every workout. Keep forcing the poundage way up. This is terribly important, and if there is one reason why some bodybuilders fail to reap satisfactory gains from barbell rowing, it is due to their use of weights that are too light. 

There are three methods of doing your barbell rows. The first is to use a wide grip and pull the weight up to the chest in fairly strict form. The second method involves a closer grip, and you should pull the weight up to your stomach. The third method is to use ultra-heavy weight, and to perform the exercise as a kind of bent-forward "clean." [Think hi-pull/row.] 

Doug Hepburn 

Surprisingly, this last version is not at all a bad one to employ, since, no matter how you cheat in barbell rowing, it is still the back that always bears the brunt of the work. I advise you to use all three forms of barbell rowing in your routines. It doesn't matter which style you do, just DO it. 

The heavy one-dumbbell row is a fine lat developer, and the only reason for possible failure with the exercise is, you guessed it . . . the use of weights that are far too light. 

You absolutely MUST use heavy weights if you expect maximum development of the back. In order to increase the poundage that you employ in this exercise it is desirable at times, as with the barbell rowing motion, that you cheat. DO NOT, however, let your cheating take the form of pulling the dumbbell to your waist or midsection. When you utilize too heavy a dumbbell in your rowing, this will not result in satisfactory progress. You're better off staying with a weight that you can pull to your chest. Again, cheating from time to time is okay, but it should take the form of using body impetus to pull the weight up to the upper chest, NOT to your midsection.

An excellent variation to the one-dumbbell row that can be used at times is the one arm row with the loaded end of a barbell. This is not really a variant of the one-dumbbell row per se, but the similarity in performance is what prompts me to consider the movement a variant of the one-arm dumbbell row. 

John Grimek has used this exercise to good effect, and need I argue the point that John Grimek knows what's happening in the iron game? 

Perform the exercise very strictly, use heavy weights, and for heaven's sake, STAND STRADDLING the bar! I once noticed a fellow trying to do the movement by standing off to one side. That's a great way to get a nice back injury. You should prop the empty end of the bar against a sturdy support, and place your non-exercising hand on its corresponding hip; leave it there, and unlike the dumbbell row, do not permit yourself to cheat at all.

Often neglected by bodybuilders, yet nonetheless important for all-round strength and symmetry, the trapezius muscles rank as an important group to develop. To an extent, al. forms of rowing and the power clean affect the trapezius muscles, but for really powerful and complete development, you should include what is another essential exercise: Heavy shrugging. 

In shoulder shrugging it doesn't make one bit of difference whether you use a heavy barbell or a couple of heavy dumbbells. What counts is only that you use HEAVY weights, and that you take care to perform this apparently simple exercise correctly. Correctly, means letting your trapezius muscles do the shrugging, and not allowing your arms and hands to relieve the back of its work. This, by the way, is a very common error among trainees, and you would do well to guard against it. 

Remember, your hands are to serve only as links to hold the weight. LET YOUR TRAPEZIUS MUSCLES DO ALL THE WORK. Shrug, and the name implies, and don't pull with the hands.

The final essential exercise for the back area is the bridge with resistance. I consider neck exercise to be important, both from an appearance, and certainly most important from a health standpoint. Since, as was explained earlier, this exercise does work the trapezius muscles in addition to the neck, I have chosen to include it in this part of the series. 

The neck muscles are very quick to respond to exercise. They develop rapidly. While it is wise to take it easy on the neck for the first week or so of training, the fact that it is a body part that responds readily to exercise will enable you to work up to considerable resistance, and thus build a fine neck. 


When you are doing the neck bridge, keep a barbell plate on your chest, and always (unless you happen to have an unusually thick skull) place a folded towel or pillow under your head. Raise up SLOWLY, lower SLOWLY, and repeat.  

Again, it will pay you well never to neglect neck exercise, even if you have read somewhere that Mr. Superman spends four hours a day working everything but the neck. Phooey on that. You want a real body, not a puffed up anatomy chart. 

Back exercise is tremendously simple in its performance, tremendously difficult in the effort that it demands, and, lest we let you forget, tremendously important for Herculean development. 

Do not be misled into taking the easy way out, no matter what you may read, as regards back or any other exercise. The movements we've discussed are IT, the very best -- so give 'em all you've got. Always strive to constantly work harder, for in bodybuilding the hard way is the easiest way that there it . . . to SUCCESS! 

Next month we'll be discussing the essential exercises for the legs and midsection: two body parts that require maximum development. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 

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