Powerbuilding Back Training: The Ultimate Guide!


There are many different ways to build your upper back.

Many bodybuilders have built impressive backs using high-volume routines with lots of volume and short rest periods. However, in my experience doing a bunch of “pumping and squeezing” exercises is not enough.

If you want to build a world-class back then powerbuilding-style workouts are the way to go! 

Introduction

  • Part 1: Powerbuilding Back Training Strategies
  • Part 2: The Ronnie Coleman Back Routine
  • Part 3: The Dorian Yates Back Routine
  • Part 4: The Dusty Hanshaw Back Routine
  • Part 5: Build Your Own Powerbuilding Back Routine!

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you how some of the world’s best bodybuilders use powerbuilding style workouts to train their upper back.

Powerbuilding is a training style where you use techniques from bodybuilding and powerlifting to build size and strength at the same time. 

Many of the world’s best bodybuilders including Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates have used powerbuilding style workouts to build their world-class backs.

But before we study the back workouts of some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time we have to discuss some powerbuilding training principles….

Part 1: Powerbuilding Back Training Strategies

One of the big reasons most bodybuilders never reach their physique goals is they are too weak. This is especially true when it comes to training the upper back.

If you are stuck doing barbell rows with 200 pounds or lat pulldowns with 130 pounds then you are never going to get the upper back development that you want!

Many bodybuilders will use different high-intensity training techniques on their back workouts to help stimulate strength gains. 

Here are some of the most popular high-intensity techniques for training your upper back:

  • Cheating Reps
  • Rest-Pause Sets
  • Forced Reps

In my experience cheating reps are the best high-intensity technique you can use for building upper back size and strength. This isn’t just my opinion though: many of the best bodybuilders in the world use cheating reps as a core part of their back workouts.

Here is a great video of IFBB pro Stan Efferding using cheating reps on the wide grip lat pulldown. Check it out:

Stan Efferding is leaning back with his upper body before he starts pulling the bar down to his chest with his upper back. In other words Stan is using a little “body-ooomph” to get the weight moving so he can use a heavier than normal weight.

This is an advanced training technique that a lot of pro bodybuilders use to overload their back with heavier weights and eccentrically overload their back muscles.

Here is a video of Larry Wheels using cheating reps on the barbell bent over row:

Larry is using cheating reps to overload his upper back with a heavier than normal weight.

If he were to perform strict barbell rows then there is no way he would be able to use 500 pounds. However, by performing the first half of the exercise like a deadlift he is able to build enough momentum that he can row the weight into his stomach and get a huge contraction in his upper back.

These cheating reps are also extremely effective for strengthening your lower back on various rowing exercises like barbell rows and t-bar rows. 

As you get stronger you will have a big decision to make with your power building back workouts: where do I put deadlifts?

Deadlifts are relatively easy to recover from when you first start lifting weights. However, most bodybuilders find deadlifts are very difficult to recover from when they are lifting 400-600 pounds for reps. 

If you are an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder then there are three deadlifting strategies you should be aware of:

  • Strategy #1: Perform deadlifts at the start of your workout
  • Strategy #2: Perform deadlifts at the end of your workout
  • Strategy #3: Don’t do deadlifts at all!

Let’s take a closer look at all 3 of these options.

Strategy #1: Perform Deadlifts At The Start Of Your Workout

The first option is to perform deadlifts right at the start of your power building back workout. This is how Ronnie Coleman designed his “back thickness” workouts: he performed 1-2 heavy sets of deadlifts and then moved onto different rowing exercises.

This is a good option but many bodybuilders find that heavy deadlifts are just too hard to recover from. 

Strategy #2: Perform Deadlifts At The End Of Your Workout

A GREAT option that many bodybuilders use is to perform deadlifts at the end of their routine after pre-fatiguing their upper back with different pulldown and rowing exercises.

Guys like Dorian Yates and John Meadows are big fans of this option. Your upper back is already pre-fatigued so you don’t have to use as much weight but you still get a ton of muscle stimulation.

This is one of my favorite options for advanced bodybuilders and powerbuilders.

You don’t have to deadlift every back workout. However, when you do deadlift you may want to push them towards the end of your workout. 

Strategy #3: Don’t Do Deadlifts At All!

The last option is to skip deadlifts entirely. If they are too hard for you to recover from then this is an option.

If you drop deadlifts from your routine then I recommend you include plenty of heavy “cheating” rowing exercises into your power building back workouts. This is a strategy that some bodybuilders like Stan Efferding and Jay Cutler have used with success.

Jay Cutler never deadlifted but he could cheat-row 400-500 pounds for reps. This was enough for Jay to develop his lower back and spinal erectors without overtraining. 

By now you should know all about the benefits of cheating reps and the different ways you can incorporate deadlifts into your routine.

You are now ready to learn how some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time designed their bodybuilding back workouts!

Part 2: The Ronnie Coleman Back Routine

Ronnie Coleman was known for his unbelievable upper back development. He had the best upper back in bodybuilding history – no one else even comes close!

So how did he do it? Was it some secret powerbuilding training program?

Ronnie Coleman trained his upper back twice per week with two completely different workouts. Here was his training split:

The Ronnie Coleman Training Split

  • Monday: Back / Biceps / Shoulders
  • Tuesday: Quads / Hamstrings / Calves
  • Wednesday: Chest / Triceps
  • Thursday: Back / Biceps / Shoulders
  • Friday: Quads / Hamstrings / Calves
  • Saturday: Chest / Triceps
  • Sunday: Off

This is a modified version of the 6 day push / pull / legs split.

Ronnie performed a back thickness workout on Monday where he focused on heavy deadlifts, barbell rows, t-bar rows and one-arm dumbbell rows. This was his powerbuilding-style back workout where he focused on lifting as heavy as possible for moderate rep ranges.

Here was Ronnie’s exact back thickness workout:

Ronnie Coleman’s Back Thickness Routine

  • A1: Conventional deadlift, 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps
  • B1: Barbell bent-over row, 3-5 sets of 8-20 reps
  • C1: T-bar row, 3-5 sets of 8-20 reps
  • D1: Standing unilateral DB row, 3-5 sets of 8-20 reps

Here is the training video:

For most exercises Ronnie performed a bunch of heavy warm up sets and then 1-2 heavy working sets with as much weight as possible for the target rep range.

Ronnie used “cheating reps” like I talked about earlier on almost all of his rowing exercises. This was Ronnie’s way of overloading his upper and lower back with a much heavier weight than he could if he performed his reps strictly.

It’s pretty rare to see a bodybuilder perform 4 back thickness exercises in one workout. Most bodybuilders would find this impossible to recover from so they perform a mix of back thickness and back width exercises in the same workout.

It worked like magic for Ronnie though!

Later in the week Ronnie performed his back width workout. For this workout Ronnie kept the weights somewhat lighter and trained for the pump. Check it out:

Ronnie Coleman’s Back Width Workout

  • A1: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 3-5 sets of 8-20 reps
  • B1: Behind the neck lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 3-5 sets of x 8-20 reps
  • C1: Seated cable row (v-handle), 3-5 sets of x 8-20 reps
  • D1: Lying DB pullovers, 3-5 sets of x 8-20 reps

Here is the training video:

Ronnie still used the “cheating reps” technique on most of his back width exercises but this workout was more about chasing the pump and getting a lot of quality sets in.

I think the average bodybuilder will have a hard time recovering from Ronnie’s powerbuilding-style back thickness workout.

If you think you can handle it and love training body parts twice per week then Ronnie’s back routine is definitely worth giving a shot. 

Part 3: The Dorian Yates Back Routine

If you looked up the term “powerbuilder” in a dictionary you would find a picture of Dorian Yates! Dorian Yates is one of the most successful bodybuilders of all time. He won the Mr. Olympia contest 6 times in a row from 1991 – 1997.

Dorian was a die-hard powerbuilder and loved throwing around heavy slag iron in the gym. This was especially true for his upper back workouts. 

Dorian does 2 very unique things in his upper back workouts:

  • He performs forced reps to train beyond failure on many exercises
  • He uses the pre-exhaust method for his upper back and lower back

Earlier in this article I talked about how many advanced bodybuilders use cheating reps to handle heavier weights and eccentrically overload their muscles.

This is an awesome technique but it’s not the only way to stimulate faster size and strength gains.

Dorian prefers to use something called “forced reps” to overload his muscles.

A forced rep is a high-intensity technique where your training partner helps you perform 1-3 extra reps after you reach muscular failure. Your partner helps you lift the weight and then you lower the weight under control on your own.

Forced reps help you fully tax your eccentric strength after reaching concentric muscular failure. Dorian uses forced reps on different machine exercises for his upper back.

Forced reps are so efficient at stimulating size and strength gains that you only need to perform 1 working set to failure per exercise.

Dorian is also a big fan of the pre-exhaust technique. He uses the Nautilus pullover machine to pre-exhaust his lats before his pulldowns and rows. 

Here is Dorian talking about the benefits of the Nautilus pullover machine:

“We can’t talk about back training without talking about the nautilus pullover machine. I always started my back routine with that exercise. I like it because it isolates the lats with no involvement of the biceps. There is no other exercise that does that.”

“So the idea with the pullover machine is that you are isolating the lats and pre-exhausting them so they work harder during your other pulldown or rowing movements.”

Dorian also uses the pre-exhaust method when he performs deadlifts at the very end of his routine. Why would Dorian do this?

Dorian is so strong that he could easily deadlift 700-800+ pounds for reps if he performed them at the start of his workout. That would take a huge toll on his body and would put unnecessary stress on his lower back.

By performing the deadlifts at the end of his routine he only has to use 400-500 pounds to get in a great training stimulus.

Here is Dorian’s full back workout. Check it out:

Dorian Yates’ Upper Back Routine

  • A1: Pullover machine, 1 working set of 6-8 reps to failure**
  • B1: Hammer strength pulldown (supinated grip), 1 working set of 6-8 reps to failure**
  • C1: Standing barbell row to knees, 1 working set of 6-8 reps to failure
  • D1: Seated 1-arm machine row, 1 working set of 6-8 reps to failure**
  • E1: Conventional deadlift, 1 working set of 6-8 reps to failure

Here is the training video for this workout:

For simplicity’s sake I left out Dorian’s rear delt and lower back exercises from this routine. Dorian is basically using 5 different exercises to train his upper back. 

Here is how Dorian organizes his back exercises:

  • Exercise #1: Pulldown variation
  • Exercise #2: Pulldown variation
  • Exercise #3: Row variation
  • Exercise #4: Row variation
  • Exercise #5: Deadlift variation

This is a very simple but EXTREMELY effective way to design a high-volume back workout.

You have all of your bases covered and the exercises are sequenced to create maximum muscle damage while keeping the loading on your lower back within reason.

I can’t recommend this upper back training template enough!

Part 4: The Dusty Hanshaw Back Routine

Dusty Hanshaw is an IFBB professional bodybuilder with an unbelievable upper back. Dusty’s back is so wide that it looks like he could flap his lats and fly away!

The truth is Dusty didn’t always have an impressive upper back. For many years it lagged behind the rest of his body.

In 2008 Dusty Hanshaw started using the DC Training program and his upper back exploded in size. Today his upper back is by far his best body part on the bodybuilding stage! 

Let’s take a look at how Dusty structures his back workouts to turn his weakest body part into his strongest one. Check it out:

Dusty Hanshaw Back Workout #1

  • A1: T-bar row, 2 x 12-15
  • B1: Pull up (wide / overhand grip), 1 x 11-20 RP**
  • C1: Dante row, 1 x 20-30 RP**
  • D1: Hanging lat stretch, 1 x 60-90 seconds

**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set.

Here is the training video for this workout:

Dusty Hanshaw’s back routine is about as simple as it gets! He performs 1 heavy compound exercise for back thickness and back width. After that he performs a high-rep finisher exercise and an extreme stretch for his lats.

This workout is much lower in volume than anything that Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates used but it works like a charm for Dusty. The key is to use the progressive overload principle.

Every time Dusty is in the gym he is trying to break his previous best on every one of these exercises. He knows that if he gets stronger over time on his key back exercises then his back will have no choice but to grow.

As you become more advanced it can be hard to continue hitting personal records every workout. Dusty has a few tricks up his sleeve to get around this issue.

One of the big reasons Dusty continues to get stronger over time is he rotates through 3 separate exercises per body part. 

Here is how Dusty might rotate his “back thickness” exercises:

  • Workout #1: T-bar Rows
  • Workout #2: Deadlifts
  • Workout #3: Dead Stop Barbell Rows
  • Workout #4: T-bar Rows
  • Workout #5: Deadlifts
  • Workout #6: Dead Stop Barbell Rows

And so on. Each workout Dusty tries to break his personal best on one of these three exercises.

Rotating through three different exercises like this is a great strategy for advanced bodybuilders. It gives your central nervous system more time to recover between workouts which is very helpful if you are lifting very heavy weights in the gym.

Dusty uses a similar strategy for all of his heavy back width exercises. For example he might rotate between pull ups, rack chins and machine pulldowns for his three back width exercises.

If you want to learn more about how to rotate through several different workouts for each muscle group then check out the following article:

Neurotransmitter Based Program Design: The Ultimate Guide!

Here is another one of Dusty’s back workouts where he uses the exact same workout template. Check it out:

Dusty Hanshaw Back Routine #2

  • A1: Deadlift, 2 x 6-10
  • B1: Rack chin, 1 x 11-20 RP**
  • C1: Dante row, 1 x 20-30 RP**
  • D1: Hanging lat stretch, 1 x 60-90 seconds

Here is the training video for this workout:

Once again Dusty follows the same upper back training template. He performs 1 heavy back thickness exercise, 1 heavy back width exercise, a back width “finisher” movement and an extreme stretch for his lats.

Dusty only performed about 5 work sets for this entire workout. If you want to train this way then you really need to put everything you have into your sets.

Most people who use the DC training program get better results performing their back width exercises first in their routine. This is a way of pre-exhausting your upper back which reduces the amount of weight you have to lift for your heavy back thickness exercises like deadlifts and barbell rows.

Here is a back workout where Dusty uses this exact strategy. Check it out:

Dusty Hanshaw Back Routine #3

  • A1: Rack chin, 1 x 11-20 RP**
  • B1: Rack deadlift (above knees), 2 x 10-20

Here is the training video for this workout:

The bottom line is the DC Training program is an awesome way to train for a bigger upper back.

Dusty Hanshaw is proof that a simple progressive overload based routine can take your upper back from your weakest body part into your strongest one.

That’s what powerbuilding is all about: finding the training methods that actually work for building size and strength and then hammering them home while ignoring everything else!

Part 5: Build Your Own Powerbuilding Back Routine!

We’ve looked at how three of the strongest bodybuilders in the world designed their own power building back workouts.

Now let’s talk about how YOU can design your own power building back workout to meet your individual needs!

The hardest part about designing your own workouts is to learn how to manipulate all of the different training variables. You should think of yourself as a mad scientist experimenting in his laboratory.

If you were a mad scientist you wouldn’t just “wing it” in your laboratory. You would run many different experiments, record the results and find creative new ways to get closer to your goal of world domination.

You need to use the same thought process when designing your own powerbuilding workouts!

Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself before designing a powerbuilding back routine:

  • Training Frequency?
  • How Many Workouts?
  • How Many Exercises?
  • High Intensity Training Techniques?
  • Pre-Exhaust vs Post-Exhaust?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions.

Question #1: What Training Frequency Should You Use?

Choosing the right training frequency is one of the most difficult parts of designing a training program. This is especially true when it comes to training your upper back. Let’s look at some of the options. 

Ronnie Coleman trained his upper back twice per week using a 6 day push / pull / legs split. This is a very difficult training split to recover from but it worked like magic for Ronnie.

He used this split to perform 1 back thickness workout and 1 back width workout per week.

Other bodybuilders like Dorian Yates and Dusty Hanshaw train their upper back with 1 hard workout every 6-7 days. This lower-frequency approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

You get more time to rest between workouts but you also need to push yourself very hard during the workouts because your frequency is so low. If you do a half-assed workout once every 7 days then you will never make progress.

This low-frequency approach often works well for very advanced bodybuilders who are already very strong and aren’t as focused on “beating the logbook” every workout. 

Question #2: How Many Workouts Should You Rotate Through?

Let’s say you figured out your ideal training frequency.

One of the next questions you have to ask yourself is how many workouts should you rotate through? In other words should you repeat the same workout over and over or should you rotate through 2-4 different back workouts?

Dorian Yates preferred the first option. He repeated the same back workout over and over throughout his career. If he plateaued on an exercise then he would rotate it out for something else.

For example Dorian sometimes swapped out barbell rows for seated cable rows or 1-arm machine rows for 1-arm dumbbell rows. However, he always performed the same basic workout week after week.

Ronnie Coleman and Dusty Hanshaw took a very different approach. Ronnie Coleman liked to rotate through 2 different workouts while Dusty Hanshaw rotated through 3 different back workouts.

Here is what Dusty’s exercise rotation looked like:

  • Workout #1: Routine “A”
  • Workout #2: Routine “B”
  • Workout #3: Routine “C”
  • Workout #4: Routine “A”
  • Workout #5: Routine “B”
  • Workout #6: Routine “C”

Dusty’s goal was to hit a personal record on each exercise every time he repeated a workout. For example every time he repeated his “routine A” his goal was to hit a record on his 2-4 back exercises.

Rotating through 2-4 different workouts like this works awesome for a lot of advanced bodybuilders and powerbuilders.

Other bodybuilders like John Meadows will change the exercises literally every single workout so they never perform a workout twice in a row.

This strategy works but it’s hard to get stronger training this way so I won’t talk about it more. After all, this is an article about powerbuilding and that means beating the logbook!

So which option should you use? Should you repeat the same workout or rotate through 2-4 different workouts at a time?

The important thing is that you can get stronger. If you can get stronger repeating the same workout like Dorian Yates then do that.

If you can’t then you may want to follow Dusty Hanshaw’s lead and rotate through several different workouts. This is especially true if you are throwing around very heavy weights on exercises like deadlifts, barbell rows and t-bar rows.

Question #3: How Many Exercises Should You Perform Per Workout?

This is one of those questions that bodybuilders LOVE to argue about. Let’s look at our three powerbuilding heroes to see what some of our options are.

Ronnie Coleman trained his upper back twice per week with four exercises per workout. That means he used 8 total exercises per week. This is a ton of volume and should probably be the upper-limit for most bodybuilders.

Dorian Yates used a moderate volume approach. He trained his upper back with 5 exercises about once every 6 days.

I really like the way he organized his upper back exercises:

  • Exercise #1: Pulldown variation
  • Exercise #2: Pulldown variation
  • Exercise #3: Row variation
  • Exercise #4: Row variation
  • Exercise #5: Deadlift variation

This is the sweet spot in terms of training volume for a lot of advanced bodybuilders. You could drop the deadlifts or swap them for something else if they are too taxing for you.

Dusty Hanshaw is known for his low-volume training style and it’s easy to see why when you look at his back workouts. He performs about 3 exercises for his upper back each week.

This may not look like much but when you throw in rest-pause sets, extreme stretches and cheating reps then it can be more than enough.

So how do you know which training volume is right for you?

If you are training like a powerbuilder then you should record all of your workouts in a training logbook.

If you are recovering from your workouts and getting stronger than you are on the right track. If you are getting weaker then you know you need to increase or decrease the number of exercises to start making progress again.  

Question #4: Should You Use High-Intensity Training Techniques?

Some of the best high-intensity training techniques for building a huge back include cheating reps, forced reps and rest-pause sets.

Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates and Dusty Hanshaw all used at least some of these techniques in their own programs to make faster progress.

So what does that mean for you? Should you use high-intensity techniques in your power building back workouts?

If you are the type of person who loves lifting heavy in the gym then they can be a great choice. You already have the mental toughness to push through pain barriers so using something like rest-pause sets will be no problem for you.

These high-intensity techniques can help you build size and strength much faster than regular straight sets.

They also help you get stronger while training in medium-high rep ranges. This is very helpful for bodybuilders who want to avoid the 1-5 rep ranges to minimize their risk of injury.

The downside is they are much more difficult to recover from. If you are using these techniques then you should perform a maximum of 1-2 working sets per body part. 

Question #5: Should You Use The Pre-Exhaust Or Post-Exhaust Method?

This is another very important question to ask.

Some powerbuilders like to put their heaviest exercises first in their routine when they are fresh.

This is one of Larry Wheels’ favorite back training strategies. He will go heavy on barbell rows or some other back thickness exercise and then perform a bunch of higher-rep bodybuilding exercises.

Here is a great example:

Larry Wheels’ Powerbuilding Back Workout

  • A1: Barbell row (bounce on floor), 3 sets of 5 reps
  • B1: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • C1: Pull ups (narrow / neutral grip), 3 sets of AMRAP**
  • D1: Hammer strength low row, 3 sets of 10-15 reps

**Perform as many reps as you can with just your bodyweight

Here is the training video for this workout:

Here is the training video for this workout:

Larry Wheels lifts 573 pounds for 5 reps on the barbell bent over row. Talk about an incredible lift! 

Performing your heavy back thickness exercises first in your routine is one option. It tends to work best for all-out strength gains and bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Dusty Hanshaw really like it. However, it is not the only way.

Another great option is to perform your heaviest rows or deadlifts a little later in your routine after your back is pre-fatigued. Many bodybuilders find they get better upper back growth when they use this kind of pre-exhaust strategy.

The bodybuilding coach John Meadows definitely falls into this category. He doesn’t always do deadlifts in his back workouts, but when he does he always pre-exhausts his upper back first. For example:

John Meadows’ Pre-Exhaust Back Routine

  • A1: Machine pulldown (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 15, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated cable row (v-handle), 4 x 8, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Bilateral bent-over kettle bell row, 4 x 8, 1/0/1/1, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Rack deadlift (just below knees), 3 x 5, 1/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: Reverse hyperextension, 2 x 15, 1/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest

Here is the training video for this workout:

John structures his back workout so that he is performing rack deadlifts AFTER pre-fatiguing his upper back.

John found through trial and error that strategy worked best for building his lats while keeping his lower back healthy.

The pre-exhaust strategy works great but so does performing your heavy back thickness exercises early in your routine. I recommend you try both of these strategies to find what works best for you. 

Conclusion

There are many different ways to train for a world-class back.

Many powerlifters have built impressive backs just by focusing on heavy deadlifts. On the other hand many bodybuilders have built impressive backs with lots of “squeezing” exercises and high rep ranges.

However, in my experience nothing beats an old-school powerbuilding routine for making your back wider and thicker.

Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman had two of the best backs in bodybuilding history and they are the poster boys for the powerbuilding training style.

“All I know is that the first step is to create a vision, because when you see the vision, the beautiful vision, that creates the want power.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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