There is an old adage in bodybuilding that’s still relevant today: The show is won from the back.
A barrel chest and round arms are great, but the best bodybuilders in the sport are known for back double-biceps poses that accentuate the vaunted V-taper and rear lat spreads that seemingly get wider as the contest progresses.
There are countless athletes with phenomenal back development, but the 13 competitors below — listed in alphabetical order — stand out from the rest.
Three-time Classic Physique Olympia champ Chris Bumstead has become a mainstream superstar, with a physique that lives up to its billing. “CBum” has outstanding size, shape, symmetry, and detail in his back from top to bottom, and he’s wide from side to side. That’s why he’s at the top of his division and why so many people want to emulate him.
Bumstead isn’t afraid of going heavy and hard with barbells, but machines allow him to concentrate on the finer details. Many of his training videos feature exercises like seated machine rows and variations of the lat pulldown, showcasing his tried-and-true approach to back workouts.
Ronnie Coleman always gets credit for his massive arms and legs, but his back was arguably his most astonishing asset on the stage. It helped carry him to 26 professional wins, including eight Mr. Olympia titles and the 2001 Arnold Classic championship.
Coleman famously concentrated on heavy lifts with free weights throughout his training. And the videos of him barbell rowing 500 pounds and deadlifting 800 pounds for a double are still watched by fans decades after they were filmed.
The late Franco Columbu has the unique distinction of being both a Mr. Olympia winner and a participant in the inaugural World’s Strongest Man contest in 1977. Even though he competed under 200 pounds, his density more than made up for his weight.
Columbu championed wide-grip pull-ups during his back training, and is credited with deadlifting around 750 pounds at his peak. In the 1977 film Pumping Iron, he displayed his back (and posterior chain) strength to the masses when he picked up the rear bumper of a car and moved it out of a parking spot.
If you ever wanted to see an athlete tailor-made for physique contests, look no further than Shanique Grant. The two-time Women’s Physique Olympia champion had an unmatched structure that she showcased through shredded conditioning. And she rode her unparalleled figure to two Olympia titles before turning 26.
When Grant faced the curtain, her back was tapered, wide, and had incredible detail — and her lower body matched it, making it game over for anyone hoping to top her. She hasn’t competed since 2020, but fans still hope for a comeback.
Kai Greene really broke through in bodybuilding after winning the 2009 Arnold Classic, eliciting memories of the great Ronnie Coleman as he hit his arsenal of back poses. Greene was shorter than the eight-time Mr. O, but they both had similar “wow” factors.
Greene won three Arnold Classic titles and engaged in one of the most prominent rivalries in bodybuilding history with seven-time Mr. O Phil Heath. Greene’s back development is still revered today, nearly six years after his last contest. And while his competitive future remains a mystery, he still maintains a physique that could be considered stage-worthy.
When Samir Bannout won the 1983 Mr. Olympia, his wide upper back and signature “Christmas tree” lower back were two of his standout features. But by the following year, Lee Haney came along with an even more impressive package. He was taller, bigger, and even wider than Bannout — and while he was big from every angle, his back was the highlight.
Haney won eight straight Mr. Olympia titles from 1984 to 1991. Even though his overall physique improved throughout that reign, his back was still his greatest weapon. His training philosophy was “stimulate, don’t annihilate,” meaning he trained with high volume while using moderately heavy weights. This helped him on moves like the reverse barbell shrug, which built those beefy traps.
The top bodybuilder of the 2010s would have to be Phil Heath. “The Gift” was also known as “Mr. Saturday Night” because he would show up for the finals of the Mr. Olympia with full muscles, shredded skin, and a back that slammed the door on any opponent hoping to secure the Sandow trophy from his grasp.
Heath worked with coach Hany Rambod, and he was an advocate of Rambod’s FST-7 system. Doing seven sets with short rest periods at the end of workouts helped him add a ton of volume quickly. The results spoke for themselves as his seven Mr. Olympia titles are tied for the second most ever with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
[Related: The Best Pre-Workout Supplements for Muscle Gain, Weight Loss, and More]
James “Flex” Lewis was a teenage prodigy before becoming the greatest 212 bodybuilder in history. Even early in his career, he would hit impressive back poses that grew more awe-inspiring as the years progressed.
His coach, Neil Hill, swapped training styles often, so Lewis’s routine wouldn’t get stale. He did heavy sets of six to eight reps one week and supersets of 20 reps the next. Muscle confusion may or not be real, but the Welsh Dragon’s results certainly were. Lewis retired from competition in 2022, but his impact will live on for decades to come.
In the early days of the Ms. Olympia, size wasn’t the name of the game. Then, Lenda Murray came along. After the retirement of six-time champion Cory Everson, the more muscular Murray was considered a drastic change, and the fans loved it.
Murray dominated the stage with grace and hit her poses with intensity. When she turned around for the back shots, you could see her months of training — including endless pull-ups and chin-ups — had paid off. She won eight Olympia titles before calling it a career in 2004.
When Andrea Shaw stepped onstage at the 2020 Ms. Olympia, fans knew that women’s bodybuilding was back. When she faced the back of the stage, clenched her fists, and drove her elbows to flex her upper back, fans knew the contest was over. The following year yielded the same results, as Shaw improved upon her back even more.
Shaw’s lower back is on another level, and it’s clear that it’s something she spends countless hours perfecting in training. It’s hard to say how many Ms. Olympia titles she could rack up before calling it a career, but she already has one of the best backs in the sport in any division.
This may be the only name that leaves fans scratching their heads, but Joel Stubbs is on the list for good reason. Stubbs competed as a pro from 2005 to 2010, and while he never won a show, he had one of the biggest backs in the sport at the time. And remember, this was when bodybuilding was dominated by the likes of Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Markus Rühl, and other mass monsters.
Stubbs — who also worked as a pilot while competing on stage — stood 6’3” and reportedly weighed around 300 pounds in his off-season. Unfortunately, he had underdeveloped legs that kept him from seeing victory. His most high-profile contest was the 2009 Mr. Olympia, where he failed to place. Stubbs’s career in the sport isn’t over, though — he’s currently the president of the Bahamas Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (BBFF).
Sarah Villegas is the woman who defeated Shanique Grant for the Women’s Physique Olympia title in 2020. (And successfully defended the title the following year.) Aside from her ability to get super lean, her lats are a strong part of her physique. Even when she hits front poses, you can see her width, which makes her waist look even smaller.
Once Villegas turns around and shows off the rippling detail in her upper and lower back, it’s a hard act to follow. Expect her to maintain her reputation for having one of the best backs in the sport as she continues her division dominance.
Dorian Yates had a methodical approach to training. He used specific exercises, built up to one all-out work set to complete failure, and moved on to the next. His “Blood & Guts” version of high-intensity training, combined with movements like the Nautilus pullover machine and the Yates row, helped him create a back that was ahead of his time in the 1990s.
Yates’s only loss at the Mr. Olympia was to Haney in 1991. From 1992 until his retirement after his sixth win in 1997, no one touched him. More often than not, he closed the door on opponents when he turned around to show off that dense and grainy back he carved in his Temple Gym in Birmingham, UK. To date, he is the UK’s only Men’s Open Olympia champ.
More Bodybuilding Content
Check out these other bodybuilding stories from BarBend:
Featured Image: @philheath on Instagram