I was a big fan of the late Nasser El Sonbaty. He was a big, strong, pro bodybuilder, winner of several Grands Prix and the Arnold Classic. Good as he was, I noticed one weakness in his physique: Nasser had huge lats, but when he hit a back-double biceps pose, his upper-middle back seemed relatively underdeveloped.
Given the amount of time I’ve had to devote to training technique and exercise physiology over the years, I started to think about how a weakness could be worked on. I was able to watch Nasser work out and could see how intensely and consistently he trained. I had no reason to believe that he had such obvious genetic potential for muscle building but somehow nature had shorted him when it came to the middle back. So the factor most likely to be responsible for this weakness was exercise technique.
Almost all other body parts, except perhaps for abs, depend on the movement of a joint. One-joint movements like dumbbell leg extensions for the legs, or two-joint exercises like a leg press. But back exercises involve the action of the entire shoulder girdle, which is attached to the torso with muscle and connective tissue. The basic back exercise is a row, and this is a movement in which the shoulders are pulled from a position in which they are forward and pulled together to a position pulled to the rear and together.
But the back is a particularly complex muscle group. Doing rows through a range of motion, different areas of the back are more or less involved at different points during the lift. It’s also a fact that some back muscles are much bigger and stronger than others. The lats are large and powerful.
The rhomboids, on the other hand, are relatively smaller and weaker. In order to work and develop the lats doing rows it is necessary to use and amount of resistance that is much to large for middle back muscles to handle. They can’t really contract against resistance but simply contract in place to protect themselves and stabilize.
So the amount of weight needed to develop the powerful lats is too much to allow the development of the middle back. Not only too much for these smaller muscles, but too great to allow for the full range of motion doing rows, so the shoulders are never pulled far enough back to directly engage the middle back. So really heavy rowing, without some other adjustment in the workout, is liable to create a back with really big lats but lacking in the detail and muscularity of the middle back.
Exactly what I observed with Nasser El Sonbaty, and a number of other top bodybuilders as well.
Another characteristic of this kind of body is huge arms. When the resistance used in rows is too heavy, after the back contracts through a part of the range of motion, the shoulders stop pulling backwards and the lift is completed by pulling with the arms, which has no benefit to back development.
Develop Your Middle Back Muscles
So what can be done about this? Obviously, you can’t just use less weight for rows, or you risk not getting enough lat development. Instead, I recommend that you treat the lats and the middle back as two different muscle groups and do separate sets for each. For example, after you have done heavy sets with exercises like bent-over barbell rows or dumbbell rows, you follow up with lighter sets, emphasizing full range of motion, with the shoulders drawn all the way back and shoulder blades squeezed together with exercises like cable or machine rows. It is important to concentrate your attention doing these sets on the action of the shoulders, not the effort of the biceps, in doing these lifts.