By Andrew Heffernan
A few weeks before the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, Arnold Schwarzenegger stood before the mirror at the historic Gold's Gym in Venice, California. With fellow bodybuilder Ken Waller looking on, Arnold turned his back to the mirror and raised his arms in the iconic double-biceps pose. As Arnold squeezed and flexed expertly — he practiced posing for up to two hours a day — Waller took in the mountain range of muscle before him: sculpted sinew here, deep crevices there, veins fanning out across the whole expanse.
“Looks like a road map back here," Waller said. “There are fingers all over it."
Arnold Schwarzenegger knows a thing or two about building a big back. That road map didn't come as easily as his massive chest or arms, but strong points don't make the bodybuilder. It's about balance among every muscle group. That meant Arnold had to put in serious time and effort on his back to ensure that it kept pace with his chest and arms.
Here's how he did it. The back workout below comes from Arnold's pre-contest training: It's long, tough, and not for the faint of heart or the short on time.
But if you want a challenge for your back muscles that's bound to push them to the limit, and you want a taste of the training the Oak went through in his heyday, look no further. Try it out as written to spur your muscles into new growth, or break it into two or more shorter workouts you can perform throughout the week.
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The back muscles are pulling muscles. They help you draw an object toward your body — or your bodyweight towards a stationary object. Exercise physiologists divide these moves into vertical pulls (think chin-ups) and horizontal pulls (think of rowing a boat).
Bodybuilders, old-school and new, make a similar distinction, but since their focus is on muscles rather than movement, they categorize these movements differently. “When you train the back, you need the width, and you need the thickness," says Arnold. Vertical-pulling exercises are considered “width-building" exercises because they emphasize the lats (located on either side of the back), and horizontal-pulling moves are considered “thickness-building" because they emphasize the traps and rhomboids in the middle of the back.
All upper-back exercises are variations on these two types of movements. And whether your focus is building maximal muscle or better strength and function, you'll need to include variations of both. That's what this workout does.
Directions: Perform the exercises as prescribed in the order shown. Rest one to two minutes between sets.
5 sets of 8-12 reps
Pro tip: Can't get 8 reps? Do shorter sets between other exercises until you've completed a total of 30 reps. Once you can hit that, work up to 50 reps total — at which point sets of 8-12 will be doable.
5 sets of 8-12 reps
Pro tip: You can also substitute a bent-over barbell row. Arnold often rounded his lower back while performing this move but don't follow his lead. Minimize your risk of injury by keeping your core engaged and back flat.
4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per arm
Pro tip: Between sets, grab something stable (a railing, a cable column) at chest height with your right hand. Step back with your right foot, fold your torso forward, and stretch the side of your torso for 30 seconds. Repeat on your other side. You can perform this stretch during rest periods for any back exercise — or any time you want to relieve some tension.
4 sets of 8 to 12 reps
Pro tip: Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the handles to your chest.