Few aspects of an athletic physique are more impressive than a wide, flaring back. In "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," Arnold Schwarzenegger compares the "V" shape of a muscular back to that of a well-tailored suit, broad in the shoulders and tapering toward the waist. You can attain this shape by developing your latissimus dorsi, the muscles that pull your arms down and back.
Some back exercises are better than others for building back width.
The "Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding" describes the chin-up as being the best back-widening exercise. The publication quotes bodybuilding writer Greg Zulak as saying: "This one is simplicity itself. Find a bar and chin is what you do, and thicker, wider lats are what you get." To perform chin-ups, grab a bar and pull your body up to it. A wide, palms-forward grip will minimize arm involvement, better isolating the lats. A narrow grip involves the arms more but allows for a greater range of motion. If you find you can do several sets of 12 or more reps, add weight with a weight belt to really see progress.
The v-grip pulldown simulates the movement of a chin-up but lets you get a fuller range of motion while minimizing arm involvement compared with a standard narrow grip. The v-grip pulldown also has the benefit of allowing easier resistance adjustment, which makes it a good exercise for warming up. To perform v-grip pulldowns, attach a v-grip handle to a lat tower. Grip it with both hands. Pull the handle to your clavicles. Perform sets of eight to 12.
Of all back exercises, the one-arm pulldown gets deepest into the latissimus dorsi, building it from top to bottom with maximum range of motion. The one-arm pulldown allows you to fully stretch your lats while keeping a slight bend in your elbow, which is very difficult to do with two-handed back exercises. To perform a one-arm pulldown, kneel before a high pulley or a lat tower with a handle attachment. Start with your right arm extended all the way overhead and tilt your torso slightly to the left. Feel the stretch in your lat. Pull down until your upper arm is pressed against your side. Slowly release the weight back up. Perform sets of eight to 12 reps with each arm.
The "Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding" describes the straight-arm pushdown this way: "as pure a back exercise as you'll find." Most back exercises involve the biceps, but the straight-arm pushdown is practically all lats. Because you don't retract your shoulder blades, the straight-arm pushdown doesn't involve most of the back muscles that add depth. Straight-arm pushdowns purely build width. To perform a straight-arm pushdown, stand before a lat tower with a standard wide pulldown bar. Hold the bar overhead so that your lats are stretched but the plates are suspended above the stack. Stand with a wide stance if you're too tall. Keeping your arms straight, push the bar in a half-circle until it touches your thighs. Slowly release it back up, not allowing the plates to touch. Perform sets of eight to 12 reps.
- The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding; Arnold Schwarzenegger; 1998
- Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding; Robert Kennedy; 2008