Developing The Latissimus Dorsi
If you examine closely the backs of the best lifters and the best weight-trained men, particularly those who use cables in their training, you will note that the waist is apparently narrower just under the floating ribs, and from that point to the armpits there is a powerful muscular curve. This curve results from the development of the biggest muscles of the back, known as the latissimus dorsi. As we briefly mentioned previously their main function is to pull the arm downward and backward and to rotate the arm inward.
If you were to visit the York Bar Bell Gym you would be impressed with the fact that all of our champions look broader across the back than they do in the front. This is the result of well-developed and powerful upper backs, particularly the development of the latissimus. These weight lifting stars have practiced the exercises which I am offering in this chapter although their near-perfect all-around development is chiefly the result of practicing repetition weight lifting exercises. If you apply yourself in a similar manner, you too will broaden your upper back and obtain the breadth and curves which are the mark of the superbly built, really powerful men.
Few of us have the opportunity to practice the Roman ring exercises which are really the best for developing the latissimus. While such exercises would not be possible for a heavy man, the man of average size who can draw himself up on the rings, the arms straight and extended to the side, is sure to have most excellent latissimus dorsi development. The best exercises we can devise are those which permit the progressive practice of exercises similar to those which are practiced on Roman rings. On the Roman rings a man must start with body weight. With exercises practiced with cables and overhead pulleys, a very slight resistance can be used in the beginning, and from that point by gradual increases, as little as one and a quarter pounds with weights or one strand with cables, progress and increases in strength and development of the muscles under discussion can be attained.
But don’t form the impression that, because these muscles are developed by pulling the arms down, they cannot be developed by weight lifting. At first thought it would seem that only muscles which will benefit from putting weights overhead will be developed, that the strong force of gravity will bring the weight down unassisted, but the muscles which pull down as in Roman ring work, chinning, rope climbing, or cable pulling, are brought into vigorous action in practicing the two arm pullover. As I will later state, this best of all chest-developing exercises, the two arm pull over, should be practiced with straight arms to being maximum benefit in internally expanding the chest or developing the pectoral muscles. But to bring maximum results in latissimus development a very heavy weight should be employed and the arms may be bent as the weight is drawn over the face. It is evident from this discussion that pulling the weight over in preparation for a floor press, usually termed the supine press, will have a splendid effect in developing the latissimus muscles.
In the room where I am writing this chapter are a number of photos chiefly of our team at various times. Right before my eyes is a photo of the team I sent to
But the center figure is the one which is most interesting in our present discussion. For in the center of this group is the national heavyweight champion of 1937, 26-pound Dave Mayor. Dave made his start in life as a four and a half pound baby. He grew to young manhood and his present height of a bit over six feet, weighting 120 pounds. From that point in a few years’ training, most of it performed in his mother’s kitchen, he built a 265-pound body and was
Dave’s favorite exercise is the rowing motion when holding the body in the bent over position. His ability in this exercise was almost unbelievable and most of the fame he won, the honors he garnered, and the physique he built, came through the practice of this exercise. In his lifting, at which he established United States records in the two hands press,; two hands snatch and two hands clean and jerk, he did most of his lifting with his arms, upper back and shoulders. Had he been able to employ more fully the really powerful muscles of the legs, it would have taken years for John Davis, who holds the present world’s and
It is easy enough to row with 100 pounds, that is, easy enough for any advanced weight –trained man and if you can row with 150 pounds correctly, without a lot of back movement to supplement the strength of the arms and muscles of the upper back, you can consider yourself to be very strong. The rowing motion at one time was a favorite of mine and I have performed ten correct rowing movements with 180 pounds, while my forehead rested upon the back of a chair to insure little or no back movement. But Big Dave has done this with 200 pounds, ten repetitions. And with fast movement and some body action he has frequently practiced this splendid movement with 300 pounds. You can obtain a fair idea of the great strength of Dave Mayor’s latissimus by comparing your own record with that of his in rowing.
Rowing may be practiced in a variety of ways; with the bar bell several methods are possible. The usual manner of rowing is to pull the bar to the chest with the grip of the hands more than shoulder width apart, keeping the elbows far out from the body as the weight is brought to the chest. A closer grip, pulling up the weight with the elbows close to the body, will provide a somewhat different range of action for the muscles. Normally the bar touches the chest near the shoulders but at times you should touch the body with the bar low upon your chest or even upon your abdomen.
Another little known and splendid result-producing form of rowing id to lie face down on a rather high bench or a heavy plank placed across two carpenter’s horses, boxes or platforms of some sort. Pull the weight up until it touches the board just below the chest in the first style of practicing this special method. This has the advantage that the body is supported, and that there is no opportunity to supplement the movement by aid from the back. The upper back, particularly, and the arms exert the full force in this movement and receive the chief benefit.
This same position makes it possible to practice another good latissimus developer. Keeping the arms straight, raise the weight to a position just below the thighs. You’ll feel the muscles which result from the practice of this exercise after you have made a number of repetitions.
Before going on with additional exercises I wish to digress for a moment. While counting the number of movements with each exercise makes it possible for you to definitely measure the amount of work you are doing, the actual counting prevents you to some extent from concentrating fully on the correct performance of the exercise which you are performing. If you will contract the habit of continuing each movement until comfortably tired, concentrating the full force of your mind upon the muscle group involved in the exercise, superior results will be attained. While it is necessary to rally extend yourself at times, to make stern demands upon the muscles, to work on your nerve, to work up to or beyond your best efforts of the past, you should never work on your nerve more than once a week. On the usual training night you should continue with a movement until you are comfortably tired. Don’t confuse laziness with being really tired, but continue with the movement you are practicing at the moment, for a count or two after you feel the exercise considerably.
When more than half body weight is employed in the rowing motion some effort is required to keep the body balanced and from toppling forward. Rowing with a bar bell does not give the upper back muscles the full range of movement as the deeper your chest, the sooner the bar touches it. Therefore single and alternate arm rowing with dumbells should be a part of your training program. Leaning forward and alternately rowing with a pair of fifty-pound weights, or even seventy-fives or more for the stronger, heavier men, dropping the weight to the lowest possible point and pulling it very high will produce splendid results. But the one arm rowing motion with the body leaning over and the other hand resting upon a low box is one which permits the greatest range of action. As the chair or low box braces your body you can put much greater effort into the rowing motion and pull so much higher. Your ability in this form of rowing will rapidly increase and soon you will find yourself able to row single armed with seventy-five to one hundred pounds and, best of all, you will have made a great improvement in the thickness and shape of the muscles of the upper back.
There are a number of dumbell exercises which are of importance in developing the muscles of the upper back. One of the best of these is to lean forward with the upper body at right angles to the legs; keeping the arms straight, swing dumbells to the side and at shoulder height, lowering them until they are suspended below the body. This is a splendid developer of the upper back. A few years ago I had a visit from a well-known strong man who told me that this was his favorite exercise. One morning while I was shaving and we were at our summer bungalow, I looked out the window and counted twenty-two repetitions which he made in this exercise while utilizing a pair of forty-five pound dumbells. One of this man’s favorite positions was to lie upon the floor while reading, chest down, legs straight, feet turned to one side as a Polar bear frequently lies, with his upper body propped up on his elbows. In this position the development of his trapezius and upper back muscles showed their truly imposing proportions. Another good dumbell exercise, primarily used as a developer of the triceps, is to lean forward, holding the dumbells at the sides with the upper arms parallel to the body; extend the arms backward, straightening them and at the same time hardening the latissimus. All forward and lateral raises, while numbered among the best developers of the deltoids, also bring the trapezius and the latissimus into action. There are so many good dumbell exercises which aid in the development of the upper back. The only objection to dumbell training could be that they don’t provide the heavy resistance that can be had with bar bells, so very heavy work with bar bells must occupy a major portion of your training time.
We must remember that practically all lifting movements involve the muscles of the upper back to a considerable degree. In practically any exercise where the bar bell is lifted to the chest, the upper back is bound to be heavily involved. The phenomenal backs of the great old time strong men – Saxon, Cyr, Sandow, Rolandow, Gorner, Cyclops, Rigoulot, Barre – and equally famous but still living greats – Travis, Davis, Abele, Grimek, Stanko, Steinborn, and Klein – all illustrate the wonderful backs which will result from pure lifting.
Most of these men are stars at very heavy lifting. Gorner and Rigoulot, in particular, were exceptional at dead weight lifting, Travis and Cyr at harness and platform lifting, Steinborn and Rigoulot at the quick lifts, one and two hands snatching, and one and two hands cleaning and jerking. Sandow and Saxon were particular stars at the bent press. They trained hard with the sole intention of establishing records, but they built great physiques, particularly excelling in the muscles which we are discussing in this part of the present volume.
In any form of lifting from the floor and standing erect with the weight, the upper as well as the lower back is directly involved. In overhead lifting the arms must be drawn back as they are straightened. In cleaning and snatching, although leading lifters endeavor to pull the weight straight up, the bar in the snatch is thrown back as the wrists turn and pulled well in at the shoulders for the clean. Much of this strength is imparted by the latissimus muscles. In the dead weight lift if the shoulders are brought well back as they should be, as best results are attained by exercising the muscles over the greatest possible range (from extreme of extension to extreme of contraction), the latissimus and the trapezius will obtain maximum benefits from the movement.
The bent press is a great developer of the latissimus. A heavy bent press creates terrific pressure and contraction of the muscles on the side of the body. The shoulder blades are pressed tightly together midway through the lift, are separated as the arm is straightened and utilized in a different manner as the weight is held overhead. Supporting the tremendous weights which are possible in this position will develop the muscles of the upper back.
If a bent press is held in the proper position (this position varies in the case of different lifters), the weight will “rise on the latissimus” as I like to phrase it. The triceps muscle should rest crossways upon the latissimus and as the body inclines to the side and front the latissimus muscle hardens and actually elevates the heavy weight. While side pressing is beneficial it does not provide quite as much work for the muscles of the upper sides, but it does cause considerably more leaning to the side and involves the muscles beneficially from a somewhat different angle. The exercise which leads to proficiency in the side or bent press is best known a shoulder builder but is also wonderful for the upper back. It is a modification of the side press. To practice this movement, take a dumbell and lift it to the shoulder. Stand with the feet about shoulder width apart and step forward approximately six inches with the opposite foot. If you are lifting with the right arm you will stand with that leg straight and the hip thrown to the right for balance; the left knee is somewhat bent and serves chiefly as a balance. As you lean in the direction of the foot on the non-lifting side, push the dumbell to arm’s length with the right arm. Straighten your body as your arm is straightened, and then comes perhaps the most important and most beneficial part of the movement for the upper back. Lower the arm slowly so that the bell is kept away from the lifting shoulder. Have the bell turned so that the front end of it is just a bit forward from a line parallel with the shoulders. While lowering the dumbell slowly, deliberately harden the latissimus. The horizontal right arm will gradually lower until it rests on this muscle. When you learn to perform this movement properly you will find that very little pressing effort is required; you lean forward and the bell goes up almost of its own accord.
While the bent press and the actual side press are lifts in which you should employ heavy weights, the movement I am describing is an exercise and the amount of weight practiced is less important than just how the exercise is done. I have been specializing in the bent press for the last few weeks. I start off each day’s training with successive pressing with 50, 60, 75 and 100-pound dumbells. I have a 120-pound dumbell and sometimes progress to it but at other times continue to work up using the bar bell. I make my first presses with each weight, not permitting it to touch the body, elevating it with the pressing power and the action of leaning forward. On the second series, however, I go through the motions in the actual bent press position except that I don’t lean far to the side. The arm rests on the latissimus and with a twisting of the dumbell – so that it hangs toward the right eye, as I stated before, with the part of the dumbell toward the head a bit forward of a line parallel with the shoulders – the bells go up with astonishing ease. I pressed a hundred-pound dumbell in that style twenty-two repetitions almost effortlessly until near the end. While all men differ a bit in the position they find best for their individual selves in bent pressing, I have found my best spot to be as I am endeavoring to describe. And this particular method is a splendid developer of the latissimus. I found my coats getting a bit too tight and requiring alterations upon the upper back. You can’t do too much lifting, for it will pay great dividends in strength, health and of course the developing of all the muscles.
As the chief function of the latissimus is to draw the arms down and back, as we have already said that swimming, chinning, and rope climbing are good exercises (although not the very best) to develop the muscles of the upper back, notably the latissimus, it is a good plan to rig up an apparatus for the progressive practice of the movements which bring such beneficial effect to the latissimus. You can be sure that if you will faithfully and persistently follow the exercises contained in this and other chapters, you’ll be pleased, actually thrilled at the fine results you obtain.
Pulleys should be placed overhead. If you have access to a well-equipped gymnasium such an outfit will probably be present. If not, you can go to the hardware store and obtain two pulleys. Place them overhead, obtain long ropes, handles such as are a part of a cable set or Home Gym and you are ready to proceed. In addition to developing the latissimus, these movements are particularly advantageous in developing the rib-like muscles of the sides, the serratus major and serratus minor. These muscles placed between the ribs really hold them together, so that they are continuous as are the links of a chain. They become very strong and well developed in the powerfully built man, and provide some bulk and increased measurement at the point of the upper chest usually encircled by the tape in taking one’s own measure.
The first movement consists of pulling the arms down form overhead sideways, arms straight, exhaling as the arms are lowered, inhaling as they are raised. The inhalation should be performed very deeply and the movements practiced, as is advantageous in nearly all weight exercises, so that you can feel the resistance of the weight every inch of the way. Inhaling slowly and steadily should see the lungs completely inflated when the arms are straight and overhead. Therefore this exercise which is desirable for developing the latissimus and also takes rank with the best of the exercises which expand the internal chest or rib box. Not quite the same effect or as good an effect will be had if the weights are pulled down with the arms extended to the front but it will involve the muscles in a somewhat different angle and of course will be helpful as a developer. This exercise will bring quick results. If you were to measure the width of your back when you first start with this movement you will be surprised to find that you have gained from one to two inches in breadth in a single month’s time. And this one to two inches may be the difference between as ordinary appearing physique and one which has the marks of strength and development to an extent which will cause it to attract favorable attention wherever it is seen.
Another exercise which all of you will not have the desire or the opportunity to practice is one which has helped develop my own latissimus. That is the breaking of chains with the power of the chest. A leather belt is used which comes within six inches of entirely extending around the chest. Two holders of some sort must be fastened as tightly as possible between the ends of the belt. Inflate the chest to the limit, the actual breaking of the chain being done with the power of the latissimus muscles. I frequently break four sizes of chains in this manner.
It best attests to the power of the human body when one considers that soft, moist tissues, the lungs, must be strong enough to force the ribs out sufficiently that when coupled with the strength and power of contraction of the muscles of the chest, a heavy chain is broken. A number of professional strong men break chains, mostly of small size. My chains have been examined by professionals and they agree that the chains have not been tampered with and that they are large than any chains they have seen broken in a similar manner. I use four sizes of jack chains and at one of our strength exhibitions the heaviest of these chains sustained a weight of 830 pounds. The professional who showed me how to perform this feat of strength told me that he broke two ribs the first time he was trying it. And he was only using a small size chain. Ribs, muscles, and lungs must become strong enough to exert sufficient pressure to break the chain. Many people, realizing that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, believe that chains have been tampered with before a feat of strength of this sort. I know that mine are new ones right out of the hardware store, and subject them to substantial weight before I attempt to break them – proof that the chain is new, strong and tough.
And before closing this chapter, I cannot overlook the great value of cable expanders, or the Home Gym in developing all of the muscles of the upper body, particularly those of the upper back. Cables have a definite and important place in physical training. Every man interested in physical improvement, the building of strength and a perfect physique, should have a set of cables to use either until he procures a set of weights of his own, or to use in conjunction with a set of weights if he already owns one, or is a member of a club where weights are available.
Invariably when you see a man with a wide-spreading back and mighty shoulders, even if he is a star weight lifter, you will learn upon investigation that he has spent considerable time in cable training. A few years ago, Joe Miller, who was definitely one of the strongest men in the world of his weight (only his inability to master best lifting forms prevented him from establishing world’s records, although he gathered much fame through being senior national champion of the United States and a member of the Olympic team in 1936) spent a winter in the practice of cable exercises. He had used them in the beginning of his physical training career and they had played an important part in aiding him to set a record in chest growth of twelve full inches in his first year.
He habitually trained in an unheated garage back of his home. Constant training in the cold made his muscles stiff and sore, so he gathered together a real cable outfit and a number of inner tubes which he employed in his training and with which he exercised in his home. He worked hard that winter with chest expanders as they are so often called. In the spring he was stronger than ever as evidenced by his unusual lifting ability. Now don’t feel that I am trying to tell you that cables will develop the huge muscles of the legs and back to an extent which weights will, but Joe already had a phenomenal lower back and legs, and the cable exercises coupled with his usual work were enough to keep these muscles in shape. He greatly increased the strength of his upper body, notably the muscles of his upper back, which more than offset his lack of weight lifting training. What a back the man had! When the latissimus was tensed his arms stood out to the side at an angle of forty-five degrees. On the Fourth of July he posed in that manner for a newspaper photographer which gave rise to the opinion that weight lifters were so muscle-bound that they couldn’t even hang their arms at their sides.
Every cable exercise has a good effect on the muscles of the upper body and there are many of them. But the best of all is an exercise which cannot be practiced with weights. The chest expander is extended at arm’s length overhead, then, with arms straight, the cable is stretched so that the arms are pulled down, slightly below shoulder level. You can feel the big muscles of the back in operation as this exercise is practiced. A somewhat similar movement and one that is also highly beneficial for the muscles we are discussing is as follows: Holding the cables overhead with palms out, keep the upper arms level with the shoulders and extended to the sides; the forearms at the start are up in the goose neck position. Straighten the arms. While this movement is admirable for the triceps, you will feel that the latissimus is also heavy involved.
The front press, the archer’s movement and the back press are other good cable exercises, particularly the latter, for in this style more resistance can be used than in any other way. Raise the cable up and back so that you have the strands extended across the back, knuckles out, the shoulder blades compressed. Extend the arms steadily to the side, pressing the shoulders out as far as possible. Hardening the muscles as the shoulder blades are brought together will aid in the effects obtained from the movement. Everyone admires a broad, well-muscled back. You’ll find that nothing surpasses cable training for broadening the back. Nearly every exercise in which the upper body is involved with cables will develop the muscles of the upper back. The lateral raise with the use of stirrups has the same effect as a similar movement with weights. Leaning and extending the arms to the side as in the dumbell swing and various forms of rowing motions, all develop the latissimus.
I can’t urge you too strongly to include some cable or chest expander exercises in your training. They will fit in between the heavier weight exercises, or on your easy days of training – the days I often term tinkering days, when you perform a multitude of exercises which are not possible to practice on the heavier days of training. You must remember that to obtain the finest possible development, unusually shapely muscles and greater strength, you cannot perform too many exercises. Eighteen to twenty-four are not too many on a single day’s training. But you should keep a record of the exercises you use in each training period. Don’t get in ruts; don’t leave out the good ones and don’t make a habit of practicing the same movement always. Over a considerable training period be sure that you have included all the exercises which are mentioned in this book as well as others which must be included in a good all-around body conditioning and developing program.