Bringing Up the Back: Part One

by Johnny Pain

A fearsome man needs to have a big, strong back, no if’s ands or buts about it. Back development is impressive and casts a formidable shadow on the earth.

The inspiration for this article came from a poster on my Q and A forum on who was inquiring about adding barbell rows to his version of my classic program The Greyskull LP. I commented that in terms of weight, he should be able to row at least what he can bench press. This seemed to be something of a shock to some readers and posters, and I thought I’d touch on this idea with this series.

Think about it, why does “I.L.S.” (Imaginary Lat Syndrome), you know, the “I can’t put my arms down any farther than this” disorder, prevalent among males trying to make themselves appear more menacing exist?

It exists because everyone knows that a strong back equals a strong man.

Despite this common knowledge among gym go-ers and weight trainers of all varieties, the tendency to ignore or half-ass the training of the back is extremely widespread. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we as humans cannot see our backs in the mirror. The “mirror muscles” of the chest, arms, and abs get all of the attention while the big, would-be powerful lats, get the shit end of the stick when it comes to the allocation of energy and focus.

A strong man has a strong, developed back, and that is what we are going to talk about building up in this article. If you’ve been half-assing or outright neglecting your back in the weight room then we will be presenting a crash course is for you.

“Big Back, Big Bench”

This was wisdom bestowed on me by a friend who boasts a 500 lb raw bench press and who is lifetime drug free. A few years back I trained with him and learned from him for a short bit and of the lessons that I learned, this one resonated and has stuck with me the most.

He was a raw powerlifter who had evolved into a bench only competitor over a long powerlifting career, which paralleled in duration his law enforcement career as a homicide detective in a crime-riddled city close to home. He’s not the cop that you would want to have grip you up, that’s for sure.

He was emphatic about the importance of training the back in order to improve the performance on the bench press. For him this meant records at meets, for me it meant more development and more brute strength for villainous activities. I was all ears.

We trained at a commercial gym in my neighborhood, the one that I had spent the years at during my earliest bodybuilding days in high school, and the one that I still occasionally visit for a change of scenery and a dose of nostalgia. Watching him rack pull 800 to 1,000 pounds and row the stack on the seated cable row with a one-arm D-handle was truly an odd sight to see in an otherwise average gym go-er infested health spa.

I had obviously sought his help with building up the bench press, and consequently my upper body strength as a whole. In trade, I was to help him with his conditioning (though we never really made it that far before scheduling issues made it impractical for us to train together). I listened and did what he said and watched my PR’s move over the course of those few weeks. As an important side note he was also a proponent of the Frequency Method ideas, and instructed me to do ten sets of ten dips every day and sets of pushups whenever possible throughout the day. I had long favored that principle, and it was great to hear my thinking backed by such an experienced strength monster.

The number one piece of the puzzle that I had been lacking was the emphasis on training the back . The difference that resulted from having a stronger back as a platform to bench off of was substantial. That lesson was one that I truly took to heart and credit him with fully (though I had long been a fan and follower of Dorian Yates who had one of the most impressive backs in history and preached the importance of back training, it was Randy that made it sink in for me). As I have evolved my teachings and methods over the years I have never lost sight of the important truth that training the back is a very critical, often neglected component of productive training.

The back of Dorian Yates in his prime. It was just plain ridiculous.

In Part Two we will look at exactly how to go about building a strong, imposing back that you can don with pride and confidence in your ability to better dominate animate or inanimate objects of your choosing. We will look at how to go about adding or fine tuning exercises in your existing program if you are on the right track, or how to embark on an eight week crash course of back building to help you get on the fast track to beast status.

Stay tuned…

Johnny Pain is the man behind as well as the notorious Greyskull Barbell Club, and several other ventures. He is the author of several boooks on subjects pertaining to strength and conditioning. He can be found comically entertaining questions on his Q and A forum at or can be reached for consultations, training seminars, or speaking engagements at


10 Responses

  1. shutupandsquat

    So I guess I’m ahead of the game, rowing more than I bench… Yates row 230×7, bench 227.5×6

    Dorian Yates back, here I come!

    October 27, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    • That is excellent progress. It is important to note that I was referring to a more conventional barbell row than the yates row in that comparison. Your Yates row should be well above your bench, though you are way ahead of the majority of the pack no less.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:32 pm

  2. shutupandsquat

    Way to burst my bubble…

    By more conventional, do you mean torso more parallel with the floor and strict?

    What I call Yates rows in my training are: torso about 45 degrees and fairly strict.

    I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert in bodybuilding nomenclature.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:10 am

  3. KONG


    October 28, 2011 at 11:58 am

  4. Vim

    ive added yates rows to press days and more recently kroc rows to bench days. My lats have always been pretty good, but the kroc rows are definitely helping my upper back strength.

    Just need to build myself a decent sized dumbbell for them now. Hit 30 reps with everything i could fit on my spinlock handles after 3 workouts. Purchasing a 1″ steel rod and some BMX seatpost clamps though soon. Should be fun.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm

  5. Tac

    strong back = strong man.

    October 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  6. Koalala

    Are you missing anything by just doing chin’s and deadlifts?
    Never been keen on doing rows because its hard to quantify the rep.

    October 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    • What is it about rows that makes them hard to quantify? If you are helped with a bench rep or two does that make the reps not effective at building strength and muscle? Where does the need for “quantifying” anything really come in?

      I’m curious about these things because I’ve heard what you said almost verbatim from a popular source of information on strength training and I always had the same questions of that source.

      October 30, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  7. Justin


    If you are honest with yourself, you can quantify the reps. Don’t chase high numbers on the bar. Perform good reps.

    October 30, 2011 at 3:37 pm

  8. Everybody in my gym has heard me say “Big Back, Big Bench.”
    I still remember when John dropped that line on me on the phone, everything just kinda clicked.

    October 30, 2011 at 9:44 pm

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