How Ronnie Coleman Built It…Or Did He?

Okay before we get into eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s bone crushing back workout, there may be those who disagree with that “Best back Ever” proclamation. There will be those who cite the rear guard flexion of six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Others will lobby for, in no particular order: the crazy detail and shape of Flex Wheeler; the inventor of the Xmas tree, Samir Bannout; Lee Haney’s lat, lat show; the fullness, roundness and crevice like back of Phil Heath; Kai Greene’s unique contours and cartoonish detail; the sweeping magnitude of Dennis Wolf; the fight going on in Momo Benaziza’s back shots as the teres major, rhomboids, upper and lower lats, and erectors battle it out for real estate; the “I can fly” batspread of Tony Pearson; Joel Stubbs maybe the widest back ever — its Jumbo dimensions so fitting for an airline pilot; the giant canvas, but bereft of brush strokes, that is the back of Big Ramy; the “WTF just happened” thickness and width of the “Swiss Jeez” Jean-Pierre Fux; the 2009 wide and shredded rear view of Jay Cutler; and the powerlifting back built by Mike François. And there will be others we’re sure who will be pushed forward as candidates. Just for the hell and back of it, post your favorites and let us know you’re top three.

In the spirit of “Throw Back Thursday”, its time to turn the clock back and review a 2001 story we ran shortly after the then three-time Mr. Olympia had won that year’s Arnold Classic at 245 pounds. Some say that was the former policeman’s most arresting development, others cite the 287 other worldly pounds look that dominated the 2003 Olympia and won him his sixth Sandow.


He’s been described as looking “wider than a Hummer and denser than a rain forest,” with lats that “start down in Texas [where he’s from] and sweep outward to Oklahoma.” In fact, at his competition weight of 245 pounds, Ronnie Coleman looks at least 20 pounds larger. But it’s his doublewide back that gives him such a massive presence. He actually has to turn sideways to get his huge wingspan through a normal doorway.

Ronnie trains his back with his biceps twice a week. When he doesn’t go heavy, he does 15 to 20 reps on each exercise. Other times, he does giant sets, using three exercises: seated rows on the low cable pulley machine, one-arm dumbbell rows and front pulldowns.

He typically prefers to mix up mass and shaping; it would be a mistake to rely on just one type of machine or weight. Therefore, he generally starts his back workout with deadlifts (thickness exercises take the most out of you) and proceeds to pull-ups, bent-over rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, seated cable pulleys and pulldowns. Here’s a typical Ronnie back workout from that time.

First Exercise: Deadlifts – 5 sets

Ronnie actually warms up with this exercise, starting with a light weight and increasing it. He uses a regular overhand grip about shoulder-width apart. Starting out squatting low, he keeps his back slightly arched and tight. He begins the movement with his hips and then switches the emphasis back to his muscles as he straightens up.

  1. 135          x 15 reps: warm-up
  2. 225          x 10 reps
  3. 315          x 10 reps
  4. 405          x 10 reps
  5. 495          x 10 reps
  6. 585          x 10 reps

Second Exercise: Pull-ups – 4 sets x 15 reps with bodyweight

Using a wide grip (about 6” outside shoulder-width), Ronnie lifts with palms in on a V-Bar. He pulls his chin up to the bar, goes all the way down, and tries to control it on the downward motion. He has said, “I’ve learned to feel my lats through the movement.”

Third Exercise: Bent-Over Barbell Rows – 4 sets

Using a shoulder-width grip, Ronnie arches his back and keeps his legs straight. His knees are slightly bent as he pulls the weight right up under his chest, palms over the bar. Concentrating on contracting his back, he lets the weight down to his feet without letting it touch the ground. He squeezes and contracts all the back muscles during the movement.

135 x 15 reps

225 x 15 reps

315 x 12 reps

405 x 10 reps

Fourth Exercise: One-Arm Dumbbell Rows – 4 sets

Ronnie places one knee on the bench and the other leg on the floor. With a slight arch in his back, he goes all the way down with the working arm and then brings the weight all the way up to his chest. Keeping his elbow in tight, he makes sure to get a good extension. His elbow is about level with his rib cage. He gets a stretch at the bottom and at the top and concentrates on using his back muscles rather than his arms.

160 pounds x 12 reps

Fifth Exercise: Seated Low Cable Pulleys – 4 sets

Using a small handgrip, Ronnie goes all the way forward, extending his arms. On the contracting motion, he pulls the weight in tight, sticking his chest out when the handle comes in. He keeps a slight arch in his back, with his shoulder blades back as far as possible. The more you arch your back in, the more of a contraction you get in the center of your back. At the midpoint he keeps his torso erect at a 90-degree angle to the bench and never leans back.

215 pounds x 15 reps

Sixth Exercise: Rear Pulldowns – 4 sets

Using lots of heavy weight, Ronnie gets a wide grip on the bar while sitting straight up. He then pulls the bar down behind his neck, tensing his back muscles. On the way up, he maintains control. He gets a full stretch and a full extension.

200 pounds x 10-12 reps

Well that’s how the eight-time Mr. Olympia built his back, back in the day. Follow his routine and you too can maximize your rear guard potential.