Back Development with Mr. America


The following article comes from Dale Adrian, the 1975 Mr. America Champion. Known for his impressive back development, Adrian’s article is not only effective but to the point. A timely reminder for both novices and veterans alike to avoid mirror training!

Bodybuilders usually can’t see their backs in a mirror very well, so they tend to neglect exercises for that region. Surprisingly, however, most novice bodybuilders have proportionately good backs. It is usually only when a physique contestant reaches the intermediate or advanced level that his back becomes disproportionately underdeveloped. Why?

Men new to the physique game tend to have fairly good backs, because the back is worked pretty hard when other body parts are exercised. Of course even beginning bodybuilders do “lat” exercises to obtain an impressive “V” shape, but it is almost impossible to isolate the trapezius from working hard in most shoulder movements And whenever you do cleans for presses or squats for your thighs, the lumbar muscles of the lower back are being powerfully stimulated.

As a bodybuilder becomes more advanced, however, back development form indirect exercises will not progress at a rate as fast as does the rest of the body. As a result, back muscles soon appear under-developed when compared to the rest of the body. If direct exercises for that area are not soon included in your training schedule, it may become very difficult to remedy this problem.

When I began bodybuilding five years ago, I admired the photos of several men with outstanding back features. Freddy Oritz had tremendous lats and a cover shot of him on an old issue of Muscular Development was very inspirational. Sergio Oliva has one of the greatest backs of all time for width, thickness and symmetrical development. For thickness – especially in the traps – I was always amazed by photos of John Grimek. He was definitely ahead of his time. At various times, I’ve also been impressed by Boyer Coe, Ken Waller, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Casey Viator and Bill Pearl. And at the London Mr. Universe, I saw the back of Chen Wint from Jamaica – totally incredible.


Bill Pearl in his Prime

Although I had plenty of inspiration I sought to keep my back development in proportion with the rest of my body. I experienced a great deal of difficulty training it during my early days. Due to a structural defect in my lumbar vertebrae, I sometimes found it necessary to abandon back work for up to several months at a time. As a result, my back is proportionately my weakest body part. After a couple of years, however, I discovered how to work my back muscles without aggravating the structural defect. Now my back is progressing very well and it will be only a matter of time before it catches up with the rest of my body.

If you have a bad back, forget about heavy single deadlifts. Leave them to the powerlifters and concentrate instead on light repetitions to pump-up your lower back. I also have found that bent-over rows can be done better when the back is sore if you lie face down on a high bench or row with your forehead supported on a high padded stool. By being careful, I’ve avoided back injuries for three years now. In fact, because of weight training I don’t have nearly as much back misery as I did before I touched weighs. I always have some back pain, but less now than at any other time in my life.

Enough of the misery angle. Let’s get into what I consider to be correct back proportions, working from the top down. As far as physique competition goes, champion Olympic lifters have overdeveloped traps but very few bodybuilders have ever fallen into the same category. Many bodybuilders tend to neglect trapezius development, because small traps will give an illusion of greater shoulder width. Judges at important contests always look for thickness which only the traps can impart to the upper back. Relatively heavy trapezius musculature is essential for an impressive, muscular pose.


As long as the rest of the physique well-developed, it would also be very difficult to have too much lat-muscle. I prefer to think that I’ve never seen an overly developed set of lats, just an underdeveloped one. Bodybuilding is the only sport that fully develops the lats, although swimming, rowing, kayaking and gymnastics can give some muscle size and plenty of cuts. Lats are a key body part to physique contestants because thy show up well from either the front or back.

It would be impossible to overdevelop the lower back. As far as the way it looks, there is no such thing as an overdeveloped set of erector muscles. And, the stronger your lower back, the better you will be in everything you do. The lumbar area is usually the weak point in most people, especially with men.

A fine back development is very important in wining a physique contest, particularly on higher levels. I think that about 10 percent of the total score at all contests is computed form back posing and from just standing showing the back. I’ve never seen a contest in this country yet that they didn’t call individuals out of the lineup to compare them in back poses. If you have muscular traps, thick erectors and wide, low lats, you’re going to come out ahead.

I personally superset almost all back exercises, resting about the same amount of time between sets as with other body parts. You might even be able to work the back a little faster. With the exception of deadlifts, back exercises don’t seem to wind me as much as some other body parts.

Beginners should concentrate on the entire back from the very start, being certain to include exercises for upper, middle and lower back. Here’s a good novice program:

  1. Pull downs behind neck: 3 x 10
  2. Bent rowing: 3 x 10
  3. Shrug: 3 x 10
  4. Good morning: 3 x 10

The pull downs are for lat-width and the rowing for thickness. Use maximum weights in every exercise, but if you do deadlifts, do high reps. Max deadlifts not only carry an injury potential but they also tend to thicken the hips and destroy good body lines. Even though you might be attempting to develop great strength in the erectors, it’s not wise to put too much stress on the lumbar vertebrae, bad back or not.

Intermediate bodybuilders can work on the same areas of the back as novices, but can move the routine up to:

  1. Pull downs: 4-6 x 10
  2. Wide grip rowing: 4-6 x 10
  3. One arm rowing: 3-4 x 10
  4. Shrug (very heavy): 6 x 10
  5. Deadlifts: 4-6 x 10


Advanced bodybuilders should begin doing supersets for the back. Here’s a heavier type of advanced schedule:

  1. Front Pulldowns: 6-8 x 10
    Light Pullovers: 6-8 x 10
  2. Pulldown behind neck: 6-8 x 10
    Bent rowing: 6-8 x 10
  3. Shrugs: 6-8 x 10-15
    Hyperextensions: 6-8 x 10-15

If you are training for a contest, as many as 10 sets of each exercise can be done.

It doesn’t seem to matter how I split up back training with the rest of my body. I’ve gotten about equal results splitting it with every other body part, and even doing it by itself. Some common split routines include Back-Biceps, Back-Chest, Back-Shoulders and Back-Legs.

As is my custom in these articles, here is a list of my favorite back exercise along with hints for their performance:

  1. Upright Row – this is also a delt exercise, but it very strongly stresses the trapezius muscles. I prefer to use a close grip with palms touching, pausing at the top and being sure to maintain control of the weight all the way down. If you tire of using a barbell, try a pulley for a change.
  2. Shrugs – I really like this one for trap development. Use a barbell or two dumbbells and never go just straight up and down with the shrugs, I rotate them from front to back and I prefer higher reps in the 10 to 15 range.
  3. Light Power Cleans – this final trapezius movement is very effective if you don’t have lower back problems. It works the upper back so vigorously that if it’s almost impossible to superset power cleans with any other exercises. These tend to be most effective if you clean the with from a dead hang position instead of from the floor.
  4. Wide Grip Chins – these are my favorite for back width. I chin to the front, leaning back as I chin and pulling the bar to a point low on my chest. Close grip chins tend to hit the center of my back and chins behind the neck stress more upper back than lats. I’ve also done chins very effectively using a V-bar attachment hung over the high bar.
  5. Lat-Pull down – here’s another effective exercise for inducing lat-width. You can do these to the front or back of your neck, using both straight bars and those bent at an angle.
  6. One Arm Rowing – using either a pulley or a dumbbell, you can row for lat width by stretching very deeply at the bottom of the movement. Obviously rowing is also a great exercise for thickness.
  7. Barbell Bent Rowing – as mentioned earlier, I usually lie face down on a bench and pull the bar from that position, or stand with my forehead braced on a high bench. Both of these methods take the strain off my lower back as I row. For an added bonus, both of these positions tend to keep one from cheating, thus giving the back a more thorough workout, I use a medium grip on the bar and seldom switch to wide or narrow grips. Sometimes I like to switch to using two dumbbells, starting with them close together at the bottom and ending wide apart at the top. All of these two-hand rowing variations are for lat-thickness
  8. Seated Pulley Rowing – here’s another lat thickness movement. I’ve used both a narrow and wide grip, as well as a straight bar or two handles. Each of these variations have been equally effective.
  9. Dumbbell Pullover – I like this with a heavy dumbbell held in both hands, although I occasionally do light barbell bent arm pullovers with a narrow grip. Although many men like across a bench with only their torso in contact, I prefer to lie lengthwise. This movement is excellent for the entire lat mass.
  10. End of Bar Rowing – load all the plates on one end of a bar and place the free end in a corner. Rowing with the hands holding the heavy end is a superior exercise for the mid back. A few of the larger commercial gyms have a special bar for this with the free end fastened to the floor by a hinge.
  11. Hyperextensions – we now arrive at the first of three lower back movements. Have a partner hold down your legs as you lie face down and torso off a light bench or cable. Do a reverse sit-up from this position. I use light or medium weights behind my head and concentrate usually on high reps in the range of about 20.
  12. Good Mornings – I find this bending over exercise to be good for the lumbar area if I concentrate on light weights and the same 30 reps as for hyperextensions.
  13. Deadlifts – using reps in the 10 to 20 range, I usually save my lower back by doing this movement in bent legged contest style. The stiff legged variety, however, is also very good for the lower back muscles, although I find it pretty much ruins my lumbar vertebrae each time I try this variation.

If you have genuine physique contest aspiration, work very hard on your back. Strong development in this area will not only take you to top titles, but will also safeguard your health in future years.


2 thoughts on “Back Development with Mr. America

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  1. As far as the routines go the one for the beginner seems all right. But the other two are unrealistic for the natural drug-free genetically average lifter. 25 sets for back alone for the intermediate lifter and 42-60 sets for back alone for the advanced lifter?

    This are completely unrealistic routines and one on which only the genetic freaks on heavy doses of steroids will be able to tolerate. Given that you are the 1975 Mr. America winner that signifies that not only do you have far superior genetics to most men but are very likely…”assisted”. Training for the drug free genetically average man is far FAR different then it would be for you. Please don’t go around giving advice that is not only untrue but will hurt any normal person who tries it.

    1. Hi Reilly,

      I think you’re right in your assessment but I suppose everyone is different.

      This article was taken from a magazine written in the 1970s by the then Mr. America winner – as you point out here and in other posts top bodybuilding had gone deep into the steroid stage by then so we must take everything with a pinch of salt.

      Nevertheless I think it is useful for people to see how different programmes can be devised using different set and rep schemes. Obviously 60 sets would be too much for most – but I am a volume junkie at times so it’s cool to have something entirely unrealistic to shoot for!

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