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How to Build a Big Back

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Building a Bigger Back with Deadlifts and Barbell Rows

When Evan Centopani took second to overall champion Desmond miller at the 2006 NPC Nationals, we all knew it was only a matter of time before the then-24-year-old rising star would score the title for himself sooner or later. With a monstrous set of arms and barn-door-wide melons for shoulders, he just needed to bring up his legs and chest. Although not as many noted it, his back also could have used some work to be worthy of the pro stages.

Lo and behold, exactly one year later he returned to the Nationals to sweep the show. His legs were the most noticeably improved area, but his chest and back had also grown. When I spoke with him about how he’d succeeded in getting his back thicker and to somehow appear to insert lower, his reply was astonishingly simple. “I focused on just two exercises for the past year: deadlifts and barbell rows. In fact, some days I would come into the gym and do just 10 or 12 sets of deadlifts. I might round it off with a couple of sets of lateral pull downs, but that would be it.”

Centopani feels that deadlifts and barbell rows are the two most effective movements you can possibly do for your back, and between the two they cover everything. That isn’t to say that chins and pull downs aren’t also important. But when it comes to building rugged thickness in the lats, traps and spinal erectors, it’s very tough to beat pulling hundreds of pounds upward.

I recall that in my early years of training I did plenty of chinups, and I did have fairly good width to my back. Yet the look was entirely two-dimensional. My actual back musculature was quite shallow. Not until I began to incorporate deadlifts, partial deadlifts and various types of rows into my back workouts did I start to fill in.

Evan knew that if his goal was to stand onstage with the likes of Jay Cutler, Victor Martinez and the rest of the world’s absolute best physiques, having a “good” back wouldn’t cut it. Thanks to a year of concentrating on the two most basic exercises you can do for the back, he’s now closer to holding his own in comparison with the sport’s elite.

If your back lacks that lumpy three-dimensional quality, it’s time you took a break from cables and machines and got familiar with the good old barbell for some heavy pulling.

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