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A monstrous ridge: the Mountain Dog trail

Ein monströser Rücken: der Mountain Dog Weg

Back then...

In the early days of my competitive career, I modeled my leg training after Tom Platz because he had the best legs in the world. Unsurprisingly, his philosophies served me well then and still do today.

In my back training, I tried to emulate the great Lee Haney. I performed a ton of the tried and true basic exercises: Pull-ups, barbell rows and dumbbell rows. Unfortunately, I wasn't getting the same amazing results as Lee Haney.

I tried a few other training programs from bodybuilding legends like Dorian Yates and Bertil Fox, who had monstrous back development.

That also proved to be a failure.

Then I started training with a couple of powerlifters at my gym. These were big, muscular guys with symmetry to spare - in fact, two of them were competing in a bodybuilding and a powerlifting competition on the same day!

These guys taught me that deadlifts are by far the best exercise for building a huge back. There was just one problem here: this didn't work for me either.

My powerlifting training partners and I trained with low volume, high volume, low reps, high reps, low frequency, high frequency, sumo style, conventional style, on a box in a house with a mouse - you name it, we did it.

To my frustration, ever since I found my perfect leg workout, my legs grew so fast that they began to accentuate my weak back even more. My competition coach even told me backstage "When you go on stage, if possible, don't turn around and don't let them see your back. During the compulsory poses, you have to be the last one to show your back pose and the first one to finish it."

Man did that gnaw at me.

I eventually came to terms with the fact that I simply didn't have the genetic predisposition to build mass, width or muscle density in my back. If I ever wanted to have a hope of competing with the wide guys on stage, I had to try exercises that were not standard exercises or simply accept that I would forever have below average back development.

Many exercisers never reach this point. They just keep banging their head against the wall and doing the same thing over and over again because that's how Lee Haney/Dorian/Ronnie did it.

Get over it.

Whether you like it or not, you have to realize that many of the best backs in the sport were built by guys who were at the top end of the genetic pool - genes that you can't even begin to compete with.

Instead, look at guys like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada or Tom Platz - guys with mediocre genetic predispositions for the back, but with huge work ethic and smart training strategies. That's the type of hard-working bodybuilder you should be studying.

Back to the present

Fast forward to 2004, I was always creative and ended up making some remarkable breakthroughs with my back training. I discovered some exercises that worked well for me and was taught some more excellent back exercises by a very creative friend. You'll see these exercises below and trust me when I tell you that these exercises are extremely effective.

Let's quickly go over the Mountain Dog core training principles that I introduced in my leg training article.

Mountain Dog training is what I would call an intensive collection of exercises, repetition schemes and techniques selected to take your body to new levels by not allowing it to adapt to the old levels.

The most important prerequisite for training progress is increased intensity, and in back training, increased intensity often requires creativity - and sometimes even madness!

Key concepts, exercises and stretching

Latissimus thickness is all about the angles

The latissimus has such a large mass of muscle that you need to use different angles for maximum size, detail and separation. Simply performing regular bent-over rowing or dumbbell rowing won't get you far - especially if you're not genetically blessed to begin with.

I've listed a few exercises below that will attack the latissimus from different angles with varying degrees of tension. These aren't just exercises I've come up with to be creative - they've been the nuts and bolts of my back training for the last 6 years. In this context, I should perhaps note that my back has improved more during these 6 years than during the previous 15 years.

Meadows Rowing (

I seriously doubt that I invented this exercise, but I've never seen anyone else do it, so I'm staking my claim. I'm sure I'm the one smeared, as someone like Charles Glass probably used this exercise back in the seventies.

This exercise is a modified version of the one-arm dumbbell row using a T-bar. For this exercise, stand next to the front end of the bar where you would normally stand if you were to add another weight plate. Grab the bar by the handle with one hand and perform the rider exercise, making sure to use grip aids.

To perfect this exercise, you must learn to position your hips to maximize the stretch and engagement of the entire latissimus - and especially the lower latissimus. In a sense, you are 'kicking' your hips away from the bar, which helps to increase the stretch. (If you perform this exercise correctly, you will notice this).

This exercise, more than any other exercise, is responsible for the mass and detail I've developed in my latissimus area and is a key exercise for anyone asking me for help with a stubborn back. Aim for 4 sets of 10 reps.

Single arm barbell row (

This is another exercise that in my experience is brutal and effective for latissimus development. Stand next to a loaded barbell, reach down, grab the barbell and start rowing.

As with the Meadows Row, you should emphasize the stretch on the way down. Use 20 kilo plates to increase the range of motion and achieve the greatest possible stretch.

Dumbbell dead stop rowing (dumbbell rowing with a complete stop) (

This is the way dumbbell rowing should be done! Get into the standard dumbbell rowing position and perform this exercise as usual, but set the dumbbell down at the lowest point of the movement, pause for a second and then explosively move the elbow up as fast as possible (along with the weight, of course).

The complete stop of the weight at the lowest point of the movement eliminates any momentum and the explosive movement from the lowest position is the killer. I insist I developed this exercise, so please don't ruin this for me by knowing better.

Incorporate an intense stretch into your latissimus exercises for maximum width and detail.

The latissimus and shoulder girdle can easily become hard and tight from a lot of hard training, which can result in adhesions within the muscles, preventing them from working at maximum efficiency.

Certain exercises are ideal for such extra stretching - provided you are careful. This stretch is a great way to achieve good muscle separation while loosening up the connective and soft tissues, resulting in increased flexibility in the shoulders.


This exercise has loosened up my shoulder girdle more than any other exercise. Stand facing a lat pulldown machine and place one foot on the seat. Using a close grip, perform a kind of rowing movement with the weight. Fully extend your arms and duck your head down during the stretched part of the movement.

This will feel a little uncomfortable in the shoulder area during the first few sets. Next, pull the bar into the mid-abdominal area and perform a hunch while contracting your latissimus powerfully. You will notice that you will become looser as you perform the exercise, which will result in an awesome pump.

Lat pulldown with forced stretch (

I love this exercise for the width of the upper latissimus. However, you need to make sure you perform this exercise correctly (a good training partner is worth its weight in gold), otherwise you could injure yourself.

Perform regular lat pulldowns on a machine, but overstretch your arms while performing the negative part of the movement. Your training partner will push the weight down for added tension, increasing the pressure as your arms come close to full extension. Don't perform 3 second negative reps here - stretch your latissimus and pause for a second at the top of the movement while your partner continues to apply pressure.

Heavy partial repetitions for lat pulldowns (

Use a heavy weight with which it would be impossible for you to perform an entire repetition over the full range of motion. Pull the weight only to the top of your head and let it stretch you at the highest point of the movement - relax your shoulder blades.

The weight should literally pull you out of your seat for a few centimetres. Here, too, you should proceed intelligently and not get sloppy.

Mountain Dog overlays (

Most people perform pull-ups across a bench. Try my variation instead. Lie on a bench with your head hanging down from the top of the bench. Slowly lower the weight and pull your forehead up. Your latissimus should become looser with each set and you'll reap the added benefits of a great serratus workout.

Shoulder raises with pause and shoulder blade retraction with pause for trapezius and diamond muscle development

The muscle fibers of your trapezius run in three different directions. Shoulder raises primarily train the upper part of the trapezius. Here are the types of shoulder raises that I find most effective, even if they are rarely performed.

Dumbbell shoulder raise with 3 seconds pause/flexion at the highest point of the movement

This exercise will literally destroy your trapezius. The pause and contraction will kill any momentum and force your trapezius to work much harder than the more common method of sweeping up and down movements. Grab a pair of 45 kilo dumbbells and perform 12 repetitions with 3 second rests. You'll see what I mean.

Barbell shoulder raise with 3 seconds rest/flexion

This is the same exercise as above, only now you're using a barbell.

You also have a middle and lower section of your trapezius. The middle part of your trapezius pulls your shoulder blades inwards towards your spine. This area works as a team with your rhomboid muscle. To really nail this area, the most important thing to pay attention to is the alignment of your elbows: You need to keep your elbows higher so that your latissimus doesn't take over. This will also bring your rear shoulder muscles into play.

Each type of assisted rowing allows you to focus on elbow alignment and a deliberate hard contraction and for this reason I have chosen to use a machine.

Assisted rowing with a 1 second hard contraction at the highest point of the movement

Make sure you stretch well in this exercise too! Keep your elbows high, pull the weight back and consciously contract your muscles hard. You can use machines with different angles of movement - you can sit up straight, bend forward, lie on a bench, etc.

We won't go into the lower part of the trapezius and rhomboids at this point, as this area is trained by lat pulldowns (it pulls the shoulder blades down).

Use old-school methods for the back extensions

You don't need anything trendy or fancy at this point. The following three exercises have allowed me to develop thick and dense back extensions. The most important thing here was just to stay consistent and do them every week.

Reverse Hypers

This is Louie Simmons baby. When I trained at Westside Barbell during the nineties, this was our main lower back basic exercise. This is my absolute favorite lower back exercise and if you have one of these machines, I highly recommend you use it excessively.


Deadlifts didn't help me get a huge, wide latissimus, but this exercise definitely helped me develop my lower back. You can do this exercise from the floor or from a rack - the important thing is that you do it. You'll probably have noticed that I put lower back exercises at the end of all my back training programs - it's brutal to do deadlifts after all the other back training you've done up to that point, but it works.


Last but not least, an exercise I love: hyperextensions. This exercise will leave you in no doubt as to whether it works or not. Do 30 reps of hyperextensions and then stand up and try to walk around with that insane pump in the back extensor area and you'll see what I mean. I do this exercise every week. This exercise is also a great rehab exercise and there is certainly nothing wrong with a healthy lower back.

Exercise sequence

Just as with leg training, the order of exercises is very important on back day, although it's not quite as critical as on leg day. However, there are a few general rules that I like to follow.

Rowing first

Train your latissimus with rowing first if you still have your full strength and can rush through your sets like a rabid animal. The modified rowing described above is a perfect start to your training session.

Stretching exercises follow rowing

Once you've pumped a lot of blood into your latissimus, it's ready to be stretched. Use the stretching exercises described above and always remember not to do them first. I believe that these exercises can actually be harmful if you place them in the wrong place in your training session. Even though I can't prove this scientifically, my experience tells me that they work best after rowing.

Trapezius and rhomboids can be inserted anywhere in your training session

Don't be afraid to do them first if they need more attention.

The back extensors come last

You simply cannot perform and feel rowing for the latissimus when your lower back is pumped full of blood. Always save these exercises for last! However, there is one exception. If you can perform deadlifts without a burn or an extreme pump, you can also place the back extension exercises anywhere in your training session. And what about performing hyperextensions before Meadow's rows? Bad idea, young padawan.

Intense stretching

You may remember from the Mountain Dog leg training article that I love intense stretching of the legs - the same goes for the back, but should only be done when the latissimus is fully pumped. Make sure that the stretch is intense and that you hold it for at least 30 to 60 seconds.

Pump Up The Volume

My 12 week program looks like this in terms of volume:

Phase 1 - Week 1 to 3

Use a medium volume approach. The total number of sets ranges from 11 to 14 sets. You won't need a lot of sets as the training angles and intensity will work well with a moderate volume approach.

Phase 2 - Week 4 to 9

Use a high volume approach. From now on we will start to increase the volume each week. Your body will adapt to the intensity you used during Phase 1, so we will continue to push it out of balance by slowly increasing the volume over the next 3 weeks.

The number of sets will typically go up to 16-20, with more high-intensity sets added each week. You will need to push yourself hard during the 6 weeks of this phase.

Phase 3 - Week 10 to 12

Use a low to medium volume approach, with almost all sets being high intensity sets (following an adequate warm up). The number of sets will be 8 to 10, which means that the overall volume will now drop - but these sets will be the hardest you've ever done in your life.

Unloading phase - 2 weeks

As with any hard program, there is an unloading phase that you will benefit from in the long run, not least because of the rebound effect of cumulative neuronal fatigue that accompanies such high-intensity training. Two weeks of light training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks of training, although of course everyone is different.

How do you know when you need those 2 weeks? You will have one or more of the following:

  • Increased heart rate at rest
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Bad mood
  • Difficulty developing much strength during heavier multi-joint exercises

Intensity techniques

If you've read my leg training article, you'll have noticed that I use things like 3 second negative reps, descending sets, etc. Some of these techniques are also used in back training, but many are not.

For the back, I like the following intensity techniques:

  • Rest/pause - This technique works well with dumbbell dead stop rows and bent-over rows on the multi press (with the stoppers at mid-shin height)
  • Continuous tension - You should focus on consciously contracting the target area hard in almost all back exercises. Sometimes it's hard to build a proper mind-muscle connection with the back muscles, and this technique is the best way to overcome this.
  • Partial repetitions - I like these with certain back exercises. You can use these on any lat pulldown or pull-up variations in the stretched portion of the movement. For all cable or machine rowing variations, you can use this technique in the contracted phase of the movement.

Intensity techniques that I don't like in back training include:

  • Descending sets - I find that the arms are overused during the execution of descending sets - even when using grip aids - so they won't add much in the way of back strain. Descending sets are great for the legs, but not for the back.
  • 3 second negative repetitions - these are also great for the legs, but not for the back. Doing cable rows or lat pulldowns with a 3 second negative repetition just doesn't work well - the arms and shoulders seem to take too much work from the latissimus.

Example workouts

Now that you've learned the background to my training approach for back training, let's take a look at a sample training session. Here is a typical phase 2 training session (19 sets in total).

A) Meadows Rowing - 2 warm-up sets followed by 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

Get used to the correct form of the exercise and then don't be afraid to work your way up to a heavier weight. Remember to pay attention to the correct hip position - play around with this until you find the right point that allows you to feel your ENTIRE latissimus working.

B) Dumbbell Dead Stop Row - 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

Use a heavy weight that challenges you but doesn't make you sloppy in the execution of the exercise.

Perform a fascial tissue stretch for 1 minute for each side of your latissimus - do this twice

C) Stretchers - 2 sets of 12 repetitions

Remember the correct form. Stretch your arms and bend your head down

D) Heavy partial repetitions lat pulldowns - 2 sets of 8 repetitions.

Perform a fascial tissue stretch for 2 minutes for each side of your latissimus - do this twice

E) Assisted rowing - 3 sets of 10 repetitions

Remember to keep your elbows high.

F) Dumbbell shoulder lift - 3 sets of 12 repetitions.

Hold the highest point of each movement at maximum contraction for 3 seconds.

G) Hyperextensions - Perform a set with medium weight until muscle failure, then reduce the weight and perform a few more repetitions. Halve the weight on the next set and repeat. Perform the third set using only your body weight and with as many repetitions as possible.

For example, hold a 20 kilo dumbbell in front of your body and perform 15 repetitions, then drop the dumbbell and try to perform 10 more repetitions. For the second set, use a 10 kilo dumbbell and perform the same number of repetitions. Try to complete 25 reps on the third set. This is absolutely brutal

Bonus exercise

There is another exercise that I love for the lower back and trapezius. It's a modified version of the old Reeves deadlift where you grab the barbell by the plates( This version is performed explosively and it's absolutely wicked - I love it.

Final thoughts

I hope you appreciate my approach. I'm not saying that barbell rowing, pull-ups and deadlifts won't help you get a massive back. I'm simply saying that they didn't work for me, so I had to get creative.

The exercises presented may seem unique, but if you take a closer look at them, they are still very basic - and I would argue that all my exercises are very basic in nature.

And it's the basic exercises, done repeatedly with intensity, that deliver results.

By John Meadows


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