Throughout the 1990s, Dorian Yates was the dark lord of bodybuilding. “The Shadow,” as he came to be known, loomed large and mountainous over every competition he attended. Yates was notoriously reclusive; when his competitors would disrobe backstage to begin pumping up their physiques, Yates remained shrouded in baggy clothing. Not that he needed to — his silhouette spun the tale that the competition was over before it even began.
Yates heralded the iconic “mass monster” era that defined bodybuilding for decades (and influences it to this day). His back, in particular, helped him rampage through the IFBB (now the IFBB Pro League), bagging six Mr. Olympia titles along the way.
If you want to bring up your back and cast your own shadow over the weight room, you’re in luck. Yates isn’t nearly as shy about sharing his back-building secrets as he was about unveiling his physique. This is the Dorian Yates back workout, mapped out.
The Dorian Yates Back Workout
The workout below was pulled directly from Yates in his 1998 autobiography, A Warrior’s Story. (1) In it, Yates went into great detail about his training style and philosophy, remarking that the back is, “[other than the thighs] the most powerful and most complex muscle group of the body.”
As such, if you want to build your back the way Yates did, you’ll need to devote an entire workout to it.
To perform Yates’ back workout as written, you’ll need access to a well-furnished commercial gym. Yates relied heavily on machines to assault his back from different angles and safely push past the point of muscular failure. If you don’t have access to these machines in your own gym, you’ll have to make some substitutions.
Barbell Row: 2 x 12-15, with a very light weight
Hammer Strength Pulldown: 1 x 8-10
Barbell Row: 1 x 8-10
Hammer Strength Single-Arm Row: 1 x 8-10
Seated Cable Row: 1 x 8-10
Machine Rear Delt Flye: 1 x 8-10
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rear Flye: 1 x 8-10
Back Hyperextension: 1 x 10-12
Deadlift: 1 x 8
How It Works
If Yates’ back day buffet looks like a lot, well, it is. However, don’t be fooled by the litany of exercises he relies on. You’ll notice that, barring two light warm-up sets prior to his first exercise, Yates opts for a low-volume, high-intensity approach to bodybuilding. The two defining features of Yates’ style are:
A single high-intensity set to absolute muscular failure (or beyond).
Utilizing a wide variety of exercises to target back width and thickness concurrently.
Yates, to this day, retains a stoic approach to physique development: You’re better off spending your time and effort on one all-out set, taking your body to the brink, than delicately calibrating the appropriate amount of intensity on a set-by-set basis. The margin for error there, he argues, is too large.
Dorian Yates’ Back Workout Tips
Yates’ approach to bodybuilding training may have been more sledgehammer and less scalpel, but that doesn’t mean there’s no nuance to his workouts. Here are the main technical beats Yates values on each exercise in his back workout.
Hammer Strength Pulldown
You can substitute a standard lat pulldown for this exercise if you don’t have access to a plate-loaded machine.
Go for an underhand grip rather than a pronated hand position.
Allow your shoulders to fully elevate at the top of each repetition to stretch your lats.
[Related: How Strong Was Dorian Yates?]
Use as much weight as possible “within the parameters of good form.”
Maintain a fairly upright, roughly 70-degree torso angle.
As you fatigue, utilize partial reps to push further past the point of failure.
Yates recommends performing one warm-up set of rows, since it is the first movement that loads your lower back during a hip hinge.
Hammer Strength Single-Arm Row
Perform the exercise by alternating arms, rather than pulling both handles simultaneously.
At the point of failure, shift into performing a few forced reps and then a few eccentric-only repetitions.
This exercise closely mimics the dumbbell row. Yates suggests working with the machine, since lugging around ultra-heavy free weights may be more trouble than it’s worth.
Seated Cable Row
Take a wide, overhand grip.
Lean forward slightly at the start of each rep to stretch out your lats.
Keep your elbows high and pull toward your midriff.
This is one of Yates’ favorite exercises for developing thickness throughout the upper back. He notes that you can include some negative repetitions at the end if you wish.
Machine Rear Delt Flye
Sweep your arms out fully behind you, but don’t let the arms of the machine return fully to their initial position.
Opt for forced repetitions rather than negative reps here.
Yates regards rear deltoid work as the “meat of the back-training sandwich”; an interim between another bout of heavy compound lifting.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rear Flye
Sit on the edge of a weight bench and curl your torso over such that your arms hang down with the weights behind your ankles.
Raise the dumbbells up and out until they’re about shoulder level.
Push past the point of failure with up to three partial repetitions at the end.
Yates doesn’t specify whether he prefers a neutral or pronated hand position, so you can opt for whichever helps you best connect with your rear delts.
Place a light pre-loaded barbell on your traps to load the exercise rather than holding a weight to your chest.
Hold the fully contracted position for a moment at the top of each repetition.
According to Yates, exceptional lower back development — the coveted “Christmas tree” aesthetic — is owed largely due to genetic factors and low body fat. However, direct lower back training remains a must-do.
Adhere to “textbook” deadlift technique and prioritize good form, especially since you’re working in a fatigued state.
Concentrate on squeezing your lats from start to finish.
Avoid any intensity techniques like forced reps or negative reps.
Yates believes that deadlifts effectively “round out” a solid back workout and help develop your lower lats and lumbar erectors.
[Related: Best Pre-Workout Supplements of 2023]
How to Modify Dorian Yates’ Back Workout
Yates’ training ethos may revolve around quality rather than quantity, but that doesn’t mean that his training style is for everyone. If you’re a fresh-faced aspirant bodybuilder, plowing through multiple compound exercises may prove a tall order.
You can, however, make some small adjustments to Yates’ training regimen, depending on your experience level, and still reap its benefits wholesale.
As a Beginner
If you’re taking your first steps on your bodybuilding journey, you probably shouldn’t try to walk in the shoes of a six-time Mr. Olympia winner. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow from Yates’ ideology. After all, there’s more than enough proof of concept on his resume.
Early on, your best bet is to reduce the number of total exercises you perform and tone down the intensity of each movement slightly. For instance, you can get away with one rear delt exercise and one lower back exercise each, rather than two.
Cut the deadlifts from the end of the session; they’re intricate enough for beginners as is, and you’ll find it difficult to develop proper technique if you’re already tired from other movements. Regarding intensity, research indicates that training to muscular failure isn’t strictly required to gain mass, (2) particularly for beginners who are quite sensitive to the stimulus provided by lifting weights. Leave a rep in the tank on each exercise and you’ll do just fine.
As an Intermediate
Several years past your fledgling foray into physique development, you should have a pretty good sense of what works for your body and what doesn’t. You should also have a sharpened sense of what you want to get out of your time in the weight room.
In such cases, your best bet as an intermediate bodybuilder adopting Yates’ workout is to adjust exercise order. After a year or two of acclimation to weight lifting, you have a lot of ground to gain in different areas, such as strength.
Perform the deadlifts early into the workout, rather than at the end, to maximize the total-body strength development from the pulls. Strength and size have a synergistic relationship; they perpetuate each other. (3) It pays to get strong while you’re pursuing a mountainous back.
As an Advanced Athlete
After many years of dedicated bodybuilding training, you should have the experience and wisdom to tackle just about any bodybuilding routine out there, and Yates’ back workout is no exception.
Run the routine as written. You’re certainly able to make subtle changes in exercise or equipment selection if you prefer to work with, say, cables over machines, but with many years of hard training to your name, Yates’ back workout should be easy pickings.
Who Is Dorian Yates?
Born in 1962 in Warwickshire, England, Yates began his bodybuilding career with a series of regional wins in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. By 1992, he ascended to the pinnacle of the sport when he bagged his first Mr. Olympia title, beginning a new dynasty in the wake of eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney‘s retirement the year before.
Yates’ first victory was more than just an exchange of the belt from one fighter to another: Yates blitzed the bodybuilding world with an august, shockingly large physique never before seen by fans. His muscularity and bare-bones, blood-and-guts training style rebuked Haney’s more conventional approach of focusing on “stimulation over annihilation.” With his six consecutive Olympia wins from 1992-1997, Yates proved that there was more than one way to the top.
In less than a decade, Yates turned the tide of competitive bodybuilding. Few athletes in the sport’s long history had made such an impact in so little time. In fact, Yates’ hulking physique even drew the ire of golden-era greats like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who criticized his excessively muscular appearance. (4)
Yates retired from competitive bodybuilding in 1997, though he remains active in the sport’s community. He owns a gym in Birmingham, England, maintains a supplement company, and conducts seminar tours on his approach to physical training and longevity.
Cast a Shadow
The mantra “bodybuilding shows are won from the back” is half lore, half law. While you can certainly build a mighty impressive pair of pecs or shake the stage by stomping your quads, bodybuilders’ careers are made (and unmade) by their backs.
Dorian Yates knew this; it’s why he kept his winning hand under wraps at competitions until the last moment. It’s why he punished himself in the weight room, carving swaths of new muscle through his back with set after set of brutal, unglamorous effort. Take a page out of the Yates playbook and use his back workout to cast your own shadow.
Yates, Dorian. McGough, Peter. Dorian Yates — A Warrior’s Story. The Life and Training Philosophy of the World’s Best Bodybuilder. 1998, 2006 Dorian Yates Limited.
Refalo, M.C., Helms, E.R., Trexler, E.T. et al. Influence of Resistance Training Proximity-to-Failure on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Med 53, 649–665 (2023).
Akagi, R., Kanehisa, H., Kawakami, Y., & Fukunaga, T. (2008). Establishing a new index of muscle cross-sectional area and its relationship with isometric muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 22(1), 82–87.
Heffernan, Conor. Tracing the Mass Monster in Bodybuilding. Physical Culture Study. September 10, 2015.
Featured Image: @thedorianyates on Instagram
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