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Mastering the Big Three Lifts

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Every bodybuilder should deadlift, but mastering the various other pulls can help you build a thick back from top to bottom.

By Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro; Photography: Rich Baker; Model: Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro

[Q] Johnnie, besides the deadlift, what’s the best move for back thickness?

[A] I definitely think that the barbell row would be next in line for thickness. The amount of weight you can use lends itself to great growth. Dumbbell rows are a bit better when getting ready for a contest or trying to get added detail because you can isolate a bit further. Although dumbbell rows tend to hit the lower lats more because of the position of your elbow relative to your body, the barbell rows allow you to move max weight.

[Q] There seems to be a lot of debate over what grip is best for barbell rows if you want to gain mass. Which do you prefer?

[A] I think whichever grip is most comfortable. I like an overhand grip, a little bit wider than shoulder width that best targets the upper lats. With an underhand grip, you use more biceps and lower lats, while going overhand allows you to decrease biceps involvement. If you get too wide, it takes away your range of motion, which means you work half of the muscle and get half of the benefit. An overhand or underhand grip that’s too close is also awkward unless you’re using a neutral grip.

[Q] Johnnie, a training buddy of mine always rips on me because I don’t do pull-ups. I tell him I can do pulldowns for reps with the stack, so why do I need pull-ups? What do you think?

[A] I think you should start doing pull-ups. I think bodybuilders or regular trainers should be able to move their own bodyweight. You should definitely have that strength. Plus, doing pull-ups works the target muscle a little differently and I think it puts more tension on your lats. There’s no point to doing a movement in which you can relax because you have to hold yourself up. On pulldowns, you lose a bit when the weight is up top when it stretches you out – you tension seems to be released. As far as grip width, Arnold used to say a wider grip makes for a wider back. My aim is about comfort; so again, place your hands a little bit wider than shoulder width so that you won’t focus on your grip, just the movement.

[Q] Free weights seem to be the name of the game in back training. Can cables and machines play a part in awesome backside development?

[A] Definitely. I use the whole gym. Pros like Branch Warren and I use every possible piece of equipment. When you use a machine you don’t have to stabilize the weight so it becomes a little bit easier, so you use a bit more weight or get a few more reps, so each piece of equipment has its own advantages and works the target musculature a little bit differently.

JOHNNIE’S FAVORITE MACHINE BACK MOVES

Here’s how Johnnie makes ordinary machines become extraordinary on back day:

Smith-Machine Row

I do barbell rows on a box, elevating myself a bit for a longer range of motion. Then I make it a little bit harder by letting the bar rest on the pins at the bottom for a second, so that every rep in the set is like that first one because you lose all built-up elastic energy. And of course, I’ll add a bit more weight ⎯ I go up to six plates with the machine instead of five.

Seated Cable Row

I use different attachments and versions every time. We tend to invent in the gym. I like to use the large V-bar with a slight forward lean (about 45 degrees) and stay there instead of coming up perpendicular to the floor.

Low-Row Hammer Strength

I’m a bit partial to this one; it’s just very fluid. It feels like you’re using free weights. I hit my upper lats really well, and you can get a really good squeeze by holding the peak contraction for 1–2 seconds.

Plate-Loaded Machine Row

MetroFlex has a great plate-loaded machine row, where you put your chest against a pad, pick your grip (overhand or neutral) and just go. I usually go neutral on this one. As soon as you pick it up there’s tension and you feel every bit of the movement in your back.

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