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By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
It is no fluke that Jay Cutler became Mr. Olympia for the fourth time. His muscle width, depth and symmetry are all part of the successful formula that has brought this multi-Olympia champion to the top of the professional mountain. Even if your destiny is not to have the widest back on the biggest stage in bodybuilding, you can still build upper-body thickness and width that will be worthy of many other championships. Other than being born with great genes, the most important key is that you must be willing to work hard for it— and the back is one of the most exhausting body parts to develop. Lat bar pulldowns have been a staple for establishing superior upper-back width, and reverse-grip pulldowns— more than any other version of pulldowns— will allow you to pile on the poundage.
Muscle Structure and Function
Several muscles contribute to a wide upper back, and all are activated by reverse-grip pulldowns. The fibers of thelatissimus dorsi muscle extend from the lower (inferior) thoracic vertebrae, the iliac crest of the hip, and the thoracolumbar fascia covering the lower back— to converge on the upper (superior) portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm near the shoulder. The latissimus dorsi fibers extend the humerus (pull the upper arm backward), adduct the humerus (bring the arm toward the center of the body), and medially rotate the arm at the shoulder. The lower part of the latissimus dorsi muscle has a more direct line of pull when the shoulder is flexed and the arm is raised about 30 degrees above a line that is parallel to the floor. The middle fibers have a more direct pull with the hands and arms working at mid-chest level. The upper fibers are best activated with the arms a little above shoulder height. Working with the arms directly over the head tends to activate the middle and lower parts of the muscle more effectively.
The teres major muscle provides width to the upper back in the immediate region of the axilla (armpit). It begins on the inferior angle of the scapula (shoulder blade), but attaches high into the same region of the humerus bone of the arm as the latissimus dorsi. Like the latissimus dorsi, the teres major muscle adducts and medially rotates the humerus. It also extends the humerus from a flexed position (i.e., with the arm forward). The teres major is most intensively activated with the arms at mid-chest level, or in work directly overhead.
The teres minor is a rotator cuff muscle that provides the final width to the upper back in the axilla, below the shoulder joint. It begins on the superior (upper) part of the lateral border of the scapula bone and attaches into the inferior part of the humerus near the shoulder. In addition to its ability to laterally rotate the humerus, the teres minor helps to pull the arm backward into extension.
The lat bar pulldown stresses the extension and abduction functions of the humerus, which means that the latissimus dorsi, teres major and teres minor are strongly activated to increase your back width. Even the trapezius is activated on the pull downward.
1. Take a supinated grip (palms facing your face), with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
2. Sit on the seat of the lat pulldown machine and position the thigh-stabilizing pad across the anterior section of the middle region of both thighs. The pad should fit snugly on the thighs and prevent your body from lifting off the seat when doing the exercise.
3. Pull the bar down to the top of your chest, and make sure your head is moved posteriorly enough to avoid a collision of your chin with the bar. As the bar is approaching your chest, arch your upper back slightly as you attempt to draw your elbows back as far as possible. The extra arch will increase the elbow movement, and this will more fully activate the teres muscles.
4. Hold the lat bar at chest level, and squeeze (retract) the scapula together. This emphasizes the arm extension and abduction functions, and should result in a good “burn” in the upper-back muscles during each squeeze.
5. Slowly return the bar to the starting position, but do not let the weight stack touch the remaining stack. You should feel the weight stretching the upper-back muscles as the bar moves upward. Always move smoothly into a stretched position, with your arms over your head.
6. Pause two to three seconds (i.e., at the top of the movement) before beginning the next rep. The pause will stretch the upper-back muscles and cause them to grow even more. After this stretch-pause, continue to the next rep and complete the set in the same manner.
Try to select a resistance in which you can get 6-10 reps, but do not try to compensate for a heavy weight by leaning too far backward as the weight is coming down. You should be able to progress quickly with the resistance. However, if your grip begins to fail during the heavy stuff, you should use wrist straps to help push you further in each set.
Your should feel a super pump in your upper back after only 1 set of reverse lat pulldowns, and your back will feel three feet wider. With proper rest and nutrition, this will quickly translate into upper-back thickness and width. You will be amazed at how quickly a few simple changes to an old exercise will greatly change your upper-back width and cause you to do some wardrobe shopping. Your friends will ask how you improved your lats so quickly, but you will know that the lats are only part of the story. You will have lats that look like wings because you have selected the correct exercises, rested and eaten appropriately, and trained safely— but trained harder and smarter than your competition.
Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N and Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med, 3: 4, 2004.
Lusk SJ, Hale BD and Russell DM. Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pulldown. J Strength Cond Res, 24: 1895-1900, 2010.
Sperandei S, Barros MA, Silveira-Junior PC and Oliveira CG. Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res, 23: 2033-2038, 2009.
Moore KL and Dalley AF. Clinically Oriented Anatomy. Fourth edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, 685-720, 1999.
Illustrations by William P. Hamilton, CMI