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Rich Piana is without a doubt one of the most well known figures in bodybuilding. He was a massive human-being, and one that always wanted to get bigger. Piana’s desire for size is what many people now refer to as bigorexia. Although his body image issues eventually led to his death, Rich trained like an animal to achieve his physique.
During his time as a pro, his back double bicep pose was one of the best around. Rich Piana’s back workouts were intense, and throughout this article I will explain how he trained to get such great results.
Focusing on Compounds - Bent Over Rows
Compound and bodybuilding are like bread and butter. Usually deadlifts, bent over rows, or weighted pull-ups are performed as compound lifts on back day. Rich Piana preferred to do bent over rows, which is no surprise.
You might have heard of the saying “row to grow”, and this could not be anymore true. Bent over rows work your whole back, but primarily engage the lats. Over time, you will develop a thick and wide back with proper form.
Key Points Regarding Bent Over Rows:
To row properly, you should first practice hip-hinging. Being able to do a proper hip-hinge is essential because it allows you to keep your lumbar spine aligned. Don’t worry so much about your back being parallel to the floor, this will ultimately depend on your hip flexibility. Maintaining a flat back throughout the exercise is what truly matters.
If you’re new to bent over rows, start light until you’re confident with your form. Not only will this prevent injury, but good form will allow you to row heavier weight in the long run.
Lat Pulldowns - Piana Style
We’ve all seen lat pulldowns before, they are undoubtedly one of the most common back exercises. Instead of traditional pulldowns, Rich Piana hit his back with two unique variations.
Modified Lat Pulldowns: To do these, you will need access to a dual-pulley cable machine. You want to set up each pulley at its highest point, as if you were setting up cable chest flies. Piana sets up a bench in the middle of the cable system and then proceeds to do the exercise. This is a difficult exercise if you’re still working on mind-muscle connection. You truly need to focus on driving your elbows behind your body to engage your lats. Proper form can be noted in the video below.
Partial Rep Pulldowns: Piana’s second pulldown variation is slightly easier to grasp. In this case, you’re basically doing 10% of a regular lat pulldown. In the video below, you will notice that Rich says he performs “the first two inches” of this movement. Because you’re not performing the entire movement, you should be able to go substantially heavier on this exercise.
Seated Low Rows
Seated cable rows are a staple in most back routines, and for good reason. Rich Piana performed seated rows at a hypertrophy rep-range on each of his back days. Instead of your typical chinning bar (the one with two handles), Piana preferred to use a straight bar for his seated rows.
It’s important to leave your ego at the door when performing this exercise. Use a weight that you can perform 8-12 controlled reps with. Seated rows are great because you can emphasize the eccentric, and get a good squeeze at the peak contraction of each rep. Notice in the video below that Piana emphasizes the importance of form and getting a good stretch.
Rich also comments that he goes much lighter on seated rows compared to bent over rows and dumbbell rows. Cable low rows are considered an accessory lift, so it makes the most sense to perform more reps with moderate weight. Heavy compounds, like barbell rows, are done with a heavier weight for less reps to prime your body for accessory lifts like seated rows.
A lot of golden-era bodybuilders never targeted their traps directly. The reason for this is that most back exercises indirectly work your trapezius muscles. Nowadays, with the emphasis on size in the open division of bodybuilding, most guys isolate their traps on back day. Rich Piana had mountainous traps, and he built them primarily by doing barbell shrugs.
Proper shrugs are performed by drawing your shoulder blades to your ears. There’s a lot of controversy regarding the movement itself, but shrugs should be done in a straight up and down fashion.
When you do barbell shrugs, it’s important to start light on the bar. You should be able to hold the top of the shrug for 2-3 seconds before starting the next rep. Getting a good squeeze with each shrug will recruit more muscle fibers and ultimately build bigger traps. Rich Piana explains how he does shrugs, and the importance of starting light in the video below.
Pullovers have become very popular in recent years. In my opinion, they are one of the few back exercises where you can really feel your lats being worked. Rich Piana implemented wide-grip pullovers in his back workouts to promote lat width.
A key point for cable pullovers is to make sure you’re allowing the bar to go slightly past your head. Keep a micro bend in your knees, and squeeze your lats as you complete the movement. Remember to let your back do the work, as this is not a tricep pushdown. Rich Piana was a strong believer in doing pullovers at the beginning and end of your back day. Although this is not necessary, you can opt to do so if you can handle the added volume.
As with all accessory lifts, you should do cable pullovers with a moderate weight and shoot for 8-12 repetitions. Piana preferred a wide-grip, but this exercise can be done with a narrow or neutral grip as well.
Piana Vouched For Behind-the-Back Shrugs - But Take Caution
What’s not to love about a typical Rich Piana back workout? There’s compound lifts, plenty of volume, and unique twists on certain exercises to recruit more muscle fibers. One of Piana’s favorite exercises, however, could do more harm than good if you have shoulder problems – behind the back shrugs.
The exercise is quite simple, you shrug like you normally would, but the bar is gripped behind your back. Rich swears in the video below that doing shrugs behind the back will get you huge traps. While this may be true to an extent, BTB shrugs also put a lot of stress on the shoulders. If you have rotator cuff issues, be cautious if you choose to add this exercise to your back day. The position itself can also be awkward at first, so it may take some getting used to.
Remember to listen to your body. If the movement is too awkward, or too stressful on your shoulders, you can always do regular barbell shrugs.
Achieving the stingray-like v-taper that Rich Piana had is dependent on volume and consistency. You now know what exercises he did on back day, and there are really no surprises here. Many of the exercises mentioned in this article are bodybuilding staples because they give results.
Lastly, yes it’s obvious that Rich was on large doses of steroids for nearly his entire career. Chances are that you will not get a back of his caliber as a natural athlete. Despite this, with proper training, consistency, and a good diet, there is no doubt in my mind that your back will grow. Incorporating these exercises will eventually get you that thick, wide back that Rich Piana would certainly be proud of.
Remember: “Whatever it takes!”