A Look at 8-Time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s Back Workout

The eight-time Mr. Olympia shows you how to lift big weights to build a big back.

“Light weight, baby!” cries bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman, right before he picks up some of the most jaw-droppingly heavy lifts you can imagine from a physique athlete. If you’ve ever seen any of iconic training footage, you know exactly what that phrase means. 

During his eight-year reign at the top of competitive bodybuilding, Coleman’s approach to physique development was quite different from “light weight” — heavy, barbell-based compound lifting is how he built a posterior chain that bagged him so many wins at the Mr. Olympia competition.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Ronnie Coleman (@ronniecoleman8)

[Related: The Best Bodybuilding Chest and Back Workouts for Building Your Torso]

If you want to get specific (or try Coleman’s back workout on for size), you can give this twice-a-week routine a shot. The workouts, sourced from Muscle & Fitness, are as focused and ferocious as the man that invented them.

The Ronnie Coleman Back Workout(s)

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource.

A Word of Advice

Pursuing a big back is one thing, but you should take care not to rely too heavily on the techniques and training styles of any one bodybuilder — even those employed by an eight-time Mr. Olympia winner.

Following the workouts that Coleman used in his prime won’t necessarily grant you the same results he enjoyed. A bodybuilder’s physique is the result of genetics, years of hard work, and various other factors that go beyond their exercises of choice in the gym.

As such, you should temper your expectations. Coleman’s approach to back training is effective (and has plenty of anecdotal support), but it probably won’t turn you into him overnight. 

The Ronnie Coleman Back Workout(s)

Much like the man himself, Coleman’s approach to back training is light on fluff and heavy on steel. If you want to develop rippling lumbar erectors, offensively wide lats, and an upper back that Everest mountaineers would flinch at climbing, you should prepare to get down and dirty. 

The Workouts

Coleman opted to train his back more than once per week — each session prioritizing a different element of his muscularity. Below, you’ll find two of his cornerstone back days. One focused on developing width, and the latter tailored toward thickness.

Ronnie Coleman Back Workout for Width

Ronnie Coleman Back Workout for Thickness

How to Modify the Ronnie Coleman Back Workout(s)

Perhaps surprisingly, Coleman’s approach to back training isn’t based on utilizing too many exercises or extravagant set-rep schemes. As such, you can probably perform some iteration of his back workout no matter your experience level. 

As a Beginner

If you’re brand new to the gym, you’re in luck. Many of Coleman’s favorite back exercises also happen to be fantastic foundational movements for a newcomer.

However, you should consider reducing some of the higher-rep sets, especially on exercises like the deadlift. There’s nothing wrong necessarily with performing more than 10 reps in a big barbell exercise, but it may be overly fatiguing if you don’t have a high tolerance to lifting yet. 

  • Deadlift: 3 x 5
  • Barbell Row: 2 x 8
  • T-Bar Row or Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown: 2 x 10-12

This modification to the thickness workout maintains the general flow of Coleman’s routine, but should be more than enough volume and intensity for a neophyte lifter to kickstart their training with. 

As a newbie, you don’t really need to differentiate your back training between width and thickness. You’ll develop both just fine in your first few years.

As an Intermediate

An intermediate physique athlete with a few solid years of training behind them is the perfect candidate to benefit from specialty back training. 

Coleman still trains his entire back on each day, but his exercise selection allows him — and by extension, you — to zone in on certain aspects each time, instead of stretching yourself too thin by trying to develop your entire backside on the same day. 

Back Workout for Width

  • Barbell Row: 3 x 6-8
  • Seated Cable Row: 3 x 6-8
  • T-Bar Row: 3 x 10-12
  • Straight-Arm Pulldown: 2 x 12-15

Back Workout for Thickness

  • Deadlift: 4 x 6-8
  • Barbell Row: 4 x 6-8
  • T-Bar Row: 3 x 12
  • Dumbbell Shrug3 x 12

Intermediate bodybuilders are well within their rights to specialize each of their back days. However, you might not be able to stand up to as much high-rep barbell work as Coleman preferred.

In that case, your best move is to keep most of the movements the same, but swap out one exercise for a single-joint isolation finisher instead. This will prevent you from accumulating too much neural fatigue or overly taxing your joints.

As an Advanced Athlete

You might be aspiring for your International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness (IFBB) pro card. Or, you may have already stepped on a bodybuilding stage or two. Regardless, advanced bodybuilders are prime candidates to pick up Coleman’s training as-written.

Take heed of your own capabilities in the gym and don’t push yourself too hard. Replicating a written workout is one thing, but even a seasoned gymgoer might be unable to contend with Coleman’s famous in-the-gym intensity. Work hard, but be realistic about your limits.

How Ronnie Coleman Trains His Back for Bodybuilding

Powerbuilding may be enjoying prominence in the world of strength training, but bodybuilders like Coleman employed many similar techniques long before there was a buzzword for it.

While there’s (way) more than one way to effectively train bodybuilding, Coleman’s approach — especially for his back — mixes the right ingredients in the right amounts and then coats it all in extreme effort. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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[Related: Brandon Curry and Nick Walker Train Shoulders Together]

Here are some of the driving principles behind Coleman’s back training, and why they’ll work for you too.

High Reps

Bodybuilders certainly aren’t afraid of high-rep training, but it’s somewhat less common to see a physique athlete pump their rep count up on an exercise like the deadlift.

Regardless, a high-rep approach to the biggest compound movements clearly contributed to his shocking back development. 

Modern research mostly agrees that you can grow muscle in a variety of rep ranges, no matter the exercise. (1) Coleman may have preferred high-rep deadlifting due to how quickly it generates muscle fatigue from head to toe. 

High Intensity

Coleman’s renowned intensity and shouting in the gym were good for more than just being a quasi-pre-workout. High-intensity training isn’t mandatory for muscle growth, but Coleman clearly knew the importance of (and the results that accompany) lifting hard and heavy as a bodybuilder. 

There’s a strong synergistic relationship between muscle size and strength. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, and a stronger muscle will allow you to create more muscular damage for hypertrophic purposes. (2)

Tactical Cheating

Technique matters in the gym. It’s as important for first-time lifters as it is for an eight-time Mr. Olympia.

That said, Coleman and other bodybuilders know how valuable it can be to loosen the reins from time to time. If you only work within rigid technical parameters, you might find it difficult to really hit the intensity levels you need to facilitate growth.

Moreover, research has documented that advanced lifting techniques like cheating your form (within reason) can be beneficial in limited doses. (3)

Compound Movements

A bodybuilder should be open to using any and every tool at their disposal to build muscle. Hypertrophy is a personal process, and the same exercises Coleman prefers may not work for you.

That said, his approach to back training is highly efficient. Compound lifting recruits large amount of skeletal muscle and can save you time in the gym as well. (4

While a longer workout with more single-joint exercises would work as well (provided you roughly equate your training volume), Coleman clearly thrived with a bare-bones approach to his back days. 

Who Is Ronnie Coleman?

Born in 1964, Ronnie Coleman clawed his way to the top of the sport of bodybuilding since his professional debut at the 1992 IFBB World Amateur Championships. 

Standing at 5’11 as a competitor, Coleman was renowned for his harrowing stage presence as one of the largest — but well-proportioned — bodybuilders of the era. Coleman was known to compete around a bodyweight of nearly 300 pounds, presenting slabs of tightly-carved muscle and winning title after title. 

Beginning in 1998, Coleman won the prestigious Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition over and over in a sequential run that remains undefeated nearly two decades later.

Coleman is also regarded as one of the strongest physique competitors to ever live. Proof of which can be seen across his various training footage, which features extraordinary lifts like an 800-pound deadlift for multiple reps just a few weeks out from taking the stage at the Olympia.

Nothin’ But a Peanut

You need to be a special sort of special to win the Olympia more than once. To bag eight Sandow trophies in a row? That makes Ronnie Coleman more than special in the world of bodybuilding — it makes him the debatable G.O.A.T.

A large portion of that basically-unassailable pedigree is owed to Coleman’s unbelievable back development. Following his training methods may not grant you his eye-popping physique, but it certainly won’t do you any harm.

At worst, you’ll get stronger, add some muscle, and enjoy following in the footsteps of one of the best to ever do it.

References

  1. Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4897.
  2. Casolo, A., Del Vecchio, A., Balshaw, T. G., Maeo, S., Lanza, M. B., Felici, F., Folland, J. P., & Farina, D. (2021). Behavior of motor units during submaximal isometric contractions in chronically strength-trained individuals. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 131(5), 1584–1598. 
  3. Counts, B. R., Buckner, S. L., Mouser, J. G., Dankel, S. J., Jessee, M. B., Mattocks, K. T., & Loenneke, J. P. (2017). Muscle growth: To infinity and beyond?. Muscle & nerve56(6), 1022–1030. https://doi.org/10.1002/mus.25696
  4. Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.)51(10), 2079–2095. 

Featured Image: @ronniecoleman8 on Instagram