T.C. Luoma, Back Training in Focus: Back Training with Shawn Ray (1995)


It happened to Rocky Balboa. He got soft. He earned all that money, got used to the good life, and lost his competitive edge, his “eye of the tiger.” His old fart of a trainer told him, ” The worst thing that could happen to a fighter happened to you – ya got civilized.” Rocky had to return to his roots to get his edge back. Will the same thing happen to Shawn Ray, now that he’s living the good life?

After all, Shawn drives a Ferrari Testarosa now. He lives in a four-bedroom house in a suburb of Los Angeles with a view that will take your breath away. After a hard day of shopping in Beverly Hills, Shawn no doubt eases into his jacuzzi, complete with surround-sound speakers, and sips on a wine spritzer.

I’m afraid for him. I keep thinking that the next time he appears onstage, he’ll be accompanied by a valet who’ll dust his shorts with baby powder so his thighs won’t chafe. And worst off all, he’ll have lost the physique that made him famous. instead of those sweeping thighs, we’ll see legs reminiscent of the Michelin Man. He’ll have a little round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly. When asked what the problem is, he’ll say, “Oh, I was jut holding a little water.”

Say it ain’t so, Shawn. Say it ain’t so. I had to go watch Shawn work out to see if my fears were justified. Thank God, they weren’t . I watched him during a back-training workout, and Shawn looked as good as ever; he was probably even training harder than ever.

“The only thing that changed lately in my training is the order in which I do exercises. I’m not interchanging the order, and I’m not following any rule or any guidelines when it comes to what order they should be done in. A lot of people think that there’s a certain order that you should stick to. I’ll start with exercises that most people usually finish with. I’ll take movements that some people think are finishing movements, and use them as primary movements. I don’t label anything as a finisher, a pump movement, or as a stretch exercise. It’s just an exercise, and I bust my ass on it.”

As evidence of his disdain for the conventional order that exercises are done in, Shawn began his back workout with one arm dumbbell rows. After a warm-up set he normally does four sets of 10 to 12 reps.

“One-arm rows are something I’m getting more and more into. I use a variety of angles and positions. The customary way to do them is with one knee on a bench, but lately I’ve been doing them Robby Robinson’s way, and that’s standing, bent-over at the waist, with one hand supporting my weight. Doing them that way allows me to stretch the lower lat a lot more — more so than being in an awkward position where only one leg is on the ground. Instead of lowering the weight straight down, I let it come down a little forward and stretch it down towards the front, sort of like I’m sawing. For variety I alternate between doing them on a bench and the free-standing way.”

Shawn’s next movement was one that he used to consider to be just a finishing movement for stretching the lats. He calls them close-grip pull-ins, but I think they deserve to be called “Shawn Rays” because I’ve yet to see anybody else do them with any regularity.

The movement consists to attaching a close-grip handle or a rope to a seated lat-pull down machine. Instead of locking his knees under the pad of the pull down machine, Shawn stands behind it, with his knees slightly bent. Then he grasps the handle or rope, locks his elbows into approximately a 90-degree angle, and powers the weight down, using only his lats.

To do the movement correctly, Shawn makes a subtle yet important adjustment to the way he approaches it. Instead of rowing the weight back, he concentrates on moving his elbows down in an arc, which puts the emphasis on the lower lats. This noteworthy distinction makes a world of difference in the way the movement is felt.

After four sets of 10 to 12 Shawn moves on to a movement most people would begin their back workouts with — lat pulldowns. To exploit the exercise fully, he does them two ways. On one workout he’ll do them to the front, and on the subsequent workout he’ll do them to the back.

“I have to admit that I’m fairly strong in this exercise. If I happen to be doing behind-the-neck pulldowns on a particular workout, I’ll pull the bar all the way to the base of my neck, and naturally, I’ll let it stretch. The important thing is to do full reps — I don’t do any partial repetitions. As I come down, I squeeze hard and try to visualize that I’m hitting a back double biceps pose onstage.”

Shawn uses the same, full-range-of motion type movement on pulldowns to the front. Regardless of which variation of the exercise he happens to be doing, he likes to do four sets. He prefers a slightly higher rep range on these, usually in the neighborhood of 15. “Early in my career I found that a higher rep range works the best for me. If you fatigue the muscles with higher reps and cause lactic acid to accumulate, you’ll force the muscles to work, rather than just teasing them with low repetitions.”

Shawn’s next movement on this particular workout was one that most people seem to have trouble with — seated cable rows. “People abuse this exercise, and the abuse comes form using too much weight. This is an exercise that you don’t need to use a whole lot of weight on to feel properly. Often I hear people say that their arms are pumped from these, or that they feel it in their lower backs, or everywhere except where they’re supposed to feel it.

“I’ve liked these ever since Chris Dickerson showed me how to do them properly in 1984. The goal here is to picture yourself rowing a boat, with one exception. As you row back, you want to thrust your chest forward more, instead of pulling your shoulders back. When I pull the weight back, I pull to my stomach, but I raise my pecs and roll my shoulder girdle back, rather than pulling with my shoulders and leaning all the way back. I try to stay at a 90-degree angle, rather than pulling back at a 45-degree angle. My waist doesn’t get involved at all. I may bend at the waist to get maximum stretch, but once I’m on my way up, I stop at that 90-degree angle. I don’t lie back as I pull the weight to my stomach. Again, I do four sets, usually staying in the rep range of 12 to 15.”

Although a regular Joe might compensate for a poor lower back by pulling his swim trunks up high, a bodybuilder’s skimpy posing suit affords him no such luxury. Shawn is well aware of the importance of a well-developed lower back, and gives it the same attention as he does his middle and upper back. His lower-back movements of choice are deadlifts and straight-leg deadlifts, and he usually does at least one of the two movements each time he works his back.

“I kind of pride myself on deadlifts, because it’s a movement that’s almost extinct in the bodybuilding industry. A lot of people don’t like ’em because they are very hard and they’re very taxing — especially when you’re doing them last in our workout. I use a both-hands-over grip, keep my feet close together, head erect, and keep my butt low through the movement so the lower back doesn’t get all the stress. I do about four sets of 12, straight up and straight down, and I use legs as much as possible. Believe me, even though I’m using my legs a lot, the lower back gets its share of work.”

Shawn doesn’t consider straight-leg deadlifts to be just a lower-back movement but also a hamstring / glutes / lower back movement. To do them, Shawn stands on a bench or block, hands shoulder width apart, feet together, and as he bends over, he keeps hiss back stiff, concentrating on the muscles in the lower back to move his torso. His movements are complete – he lowers the bar s far as his flexibility allows, and he raises it until he’s perfectly erect.

Although Shawn often does the same movement when he’s working his hams, he alters the emphasis of the exercise simply by concentrating on the bodypart he wants to target. If it’s ham day, he thinks about his hams and glutes, squeezing them on the way up. If he’s doing straight-leg deadlifts with the intent of working his lower back, like during this particular workout, he’ll concentrate on the lower back and take his glutes and hams partially out of the movement. Again, he prefers to do high reps, usually about 15, for five sets.

Regardless of what exercise you choose to do for your back, Shawn believes that almost any movement will be effective if you have the right frame of mind. “Concentration is the most important thing. In between sets is where you lose it. If your mind’s not in tune with what’s coming in the next set, you’re not gonna have the mental drive to bust through your reps. You have to stay focused


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