Back Width: Genetics vs. Training

Lee Haney's opinion and advice on developing a wide back.


I’ve heard conflicting information about developing wide lats. Some people say it’s all genetic; others insist you can widen your back if you train it a specific way. What do you think? 


Far be it for me to say that genetics don’t play a role in determining the width of a person’s back. My sister nicknamed me “Big Back” when we were kids because I was lucky to have had a head start in the back department. 

That doesn’t mean a person who doesn’t have my unique set of genes can’t widen his back significantly. Heck, as wide as my back was when I was a kid, it was only a fraction of what it became during my Mr. Olympia run. So I fully believe you can expect great changes in your back if you dedicate yourself to changing it as I did. 

The first and most important exercise you can do to add width to your lats is the wide-grip chinup. No other exercise comes close when it comes to filling in the portion of your lats underneath your armpits. Of course, not all trainers are strong enough to do the number of sets and reps required to stimulate growth in their lats. Fortunately, there are options for getting you up to speed. 

The assisted chinup machine is great because it gives less-experienced trainers the chance to develop strength in an exercise that can be quite challenging. The other option is to perform pulldowns in front of the neck. For me, these don’t quite hit the lats in the same way as chinups, but the advantage to doing them is that you can adjust the resistance easily. You can use either machine as a steppingstone to full-on chinups. 

Once you have become strong enough to perform chinups without assistance, I recommend that you do four sets of at least six reps each. As you get stronger and find that you can knock out 10-12 reps per set, you can add weight by means of a plate-loading belt. If you’re heavy like me, your own bodyweight will probably suffice. 

When doing chinups, it is very important to stretch fully by coming to a “dead hang” at the bottom of each rep. I see a lot of guys doing half reps, keeping their elbows cocked instead of straightening their arms. The negative portion of the movement is at least as important as the positive half and maybe even more so. 

I don’t want you to get sidetracked with the idea of adding width to your back while neglecting thickness; these two attributes go hand-in-hand in back development and, to get both, you need to train for both. Three exercises that work well to add width and thickness are barbell rows, T-bar rows and seated cable rows. I recommend alternating barbell rows with T-bars from workout to workout and finishing up your back training with seated cable rows. Then, every third workout, throw in three sets of single-arm dumbbell rows for an extra stretch. 

When I performed stiff-leg deadlifts as part of my hamstring workout, I didn’t see a need to do lower-back work during my back routine. If you want to hit your lower back, though, you can always add a few sets of Roman-chair back extensions to your ab workout. 

Good luck building your back. I’m confident you will in due time. Just remember the three Ps of successful bodybuilding: patience, perseverance and persistence. - FLEX 


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