How Roy Hilligenn Trains His Back – Ed Yarick (1952)

Today we feature an article on developing the back muscles, as originally appeared in the March 1952 issue of Hoffman’s Strength & Health. This was written by Ed Yarick, known for running the gym where Steve Reeves trained in Oakland, California, USA. The article describes the back training program of Roy Hilligenn, a life-long vegetarian athlete who won multiple physique contests in South Africa and the United States from the 1940s well into the 1970s, before running afoul of the law and spending time in prison; a regrettable fall from grace. Mr. Hilligenn passed away in 2008 at the age of 85 after complications resulting from a fall at a senior center.


A photo of Roy Hilligenn which accompanied the article. Click to enlarge (will open in new window/tab)

Further reading:

A profile and remembrance of Roy Hilligenn:

Magazine Excerpt:

Developing a strong, well shaped back is one of the most important parts of your program. On the average man that does not go in for weight training, the back is the weakest part of the body.

We all know how expensive an injured back can be with visit after visit to the chiropractors. It is so much simpler and cheaper to purchase exercise equipment and prevent a backache or injury than to cure one.

I have seen many fellows walk out of the chiropractor’s office and walk in again five minutes later, for another treatment, just because he bent down to fasten his shoe or turned around too fast.

Every exerciser should realize the importance the back plays in weight lifting, body building, physique contests and in our everyday life.

With a sore arm or leg you could still attempt to work, but how would you provide for your family if you were suffering with constant backache or injury?

The only way to cure a back ailment is by progressive exercise. Usually the back is behind the rest of the body as far as suppleness and strength is concerned, so care must be taken when this course is used for specialization purposes.

Roy Hilligenn’s erector spinae muscles, which run down the back on both sides of the spine, extending down to the lumbar region, are most massively developed. These muscles aid greatly with his lifting and squatting ability. The lumbar region, which includes the small of the back, is the seat of the central nervous system. When this part of the back is strongly developed you will be strong all over, including strengthening of the nervous system.

One of the best and easiest exercises and a good one to do first in your routine is the flat back arch off a high bench. Roy uses a 50 lb. dumbell in this exercise and does three sets of 12 reps. exercise develops and strengthens the whole back without too much pressure on the spine.


Hilligenn demonstrating exercises in photos that accompanied the article. Click to enlarge (will open in new window/tab)

The most common exercise and the best for the trapezius is the shoulder shrug. Here Roy uses 200 x 10; 225 x 10; 250 x 10; 275 x 10. This is one of the most important muscles used in cleaning and snatching heavy weights, or in dead lifting.

When one is asked to display the back muscles, the spread is usually shown. There are many ways to develop the latissimus dorsi muscles. The rowing motion is the most common exercise. Roy varies his grip on the barbell for best results on this one. Doing 220 x 10; 240 x 10; 250 x 10.

One arm dumbell rowing is Roy’s favorite for the “lats,” he uses 105 x 12; 115 x 10; 130 x 10, working the lats alternately, with other hand resting on a bench. Other popular variations are the pulley machines, also included in Roy’s program.

One old and very effective exercise for the entire back is the one dumbell or kettle bell swing between the legs, catching the weight with alternate hands while the weight is suspended in mid-air, here the back bends up and down continuously. who uses an 80 lb. dumbell for this and does reps until he’s tired, usually three sets of approximately 15 reps.

In this category falls the stiff legged dead lift. Roy stands on a bench and lowers his hands until they touch his shoes, and when coming erect, he does a shoulder shrug with a deep breath on each repetition. It’s wise to use only about body weight for this exercise, but Roy’s back is so strong that he uses 250, 275 and 300 lbs. for 10 reps.

The regular dead lift for a strong back should never be neglected; on this Roy does only five reps with 450, 475, 500 and 520 lbs.

The overhead pulleys are included in Roy’s routine while seated pulling down behind neck. Chinning in front and behind neck are especially good movements to include.

To have a completely finished back, the rear deltoid muscles must be fully developed. For this Roy does the lateral raises, while lying face down on a high bench, with 25 lb. dumbells hanging down grip in his hands; raising with straight arms until they are horizontal with the back; then lower. Roy does four sets of 12 reps.

Barbell press behind neck while seated develops these muscles to a marked degree from a different angle. Roy does six sets on this one; 135 x 5; 155 x 5; 175 x 5; 190 x 5; 200 x 3; 210 x 3.

The back respond easily to correct exercise. This will mean a great gain in energy and body power as well as appearance.

There is nothing difficult about developing the back. Just get down to work and strive to obtain muscle and power as your capabilities will permit.

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