Here's what you need to know...
- A big back is built from heavy deadlifts, chin-ups, and rows.
- While chin-ups and rows are very effective, you can stall out quickly without the right challenging variations.
- These ten variations are brutally hard and brutally effective.
It's time to add some painful new back development tools to your toolbox. Here are my favorite new twists on the chin-up and row.
Ring chin-ups are easier on the elbows and shoulders while allowing you to supinate your hands throughout the pull, making for a huge contraction in your upper back.
To up the ante on ring chins, try "fly away" ring chins. Pull yourself up normally, making sure to pull all the way to your sternum, but flare your elbows out to the sides and pull them back on the eccentric, almost as if you're doing a front double biceps pose and trying to pull the rings apart.
I love Gironda sternum chin-ups, but they can be problematic for some.
Sternum plank chin-ups may be a better option. They smoke the upper back in a similar fashion, but they're a lot more "user-friendly."
For one, they're safer because you aren't asking your body to bend backwards excessively. They're also easier, so more people will be able to do them. Granted, they still aren't easy by any means and should definitely be considered a more advanced variation, but once you can comfortably do 10+ regular chin-ups with good form, they should be well within your grasp.
Lean way back as you pull yourself up, just as you would with a regular sternum chin-up, but rather than arch your back excessively, keep your entire body as straight as a board the whole time. Pull until your lower chest touches the bar and lower back down under control. The more you lean back, the harder it is.
As an added bonus, they double as one hell of a core exercise if you do them correctly.
I almost never advocate using an intentionally slow concentric. Chin-ups – and on rare occasions glute-ham raises, if I'm feeling particularly masochistic – are really the only exceptions.
I may subconsciously like slower tempo chin-ups just because they're the complete antithesis to the kipping pull-up craze, which I don't like. I much prefer strict chin-ups for back development purposes.
In any case, slow tempo chin-ups can be a good choice for people who are already strong on chin-ups and want to work their back while giving their joints a little break. I don't do them often, but they're a great occasional substitute on those days when your elbows might not be feeling quite up to snuff.
You don't have to go overboard and do crazy long concentrics, but just slow it down a little bit on both the eccentric and concentric – maybe 3-5 seconds or so on each.
If you've never tried these before, you'll be surprised how much harder it feels just slowing it down a little. You'll also be surprised how much they torch your back and arms.
Side-to-side chin-ups are a good way to increase the difficulty of regular chin-ups and add in a unilateral component in a way that's nowhere near as a challenging as a true one-arm chin-up.
Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip with either a pronated or supinated grip. From there, pull yourself up at an angle towards one hand, lower back down under control, and then pull yourself up to the other side in the same fashion.
The wider your grip, the more you'll bias one side over the other and the harder it'll be, so start with your hands closer together and move your grip out as you improve.
As someone with a history of lower back issues, I'm not a fan of traditional barbell rows because they put undue stress on the lower back, and the sizeable risk just doesn't outweigh the reward when there are so many other options to choose from.
Not to mention, you hardly ever see them done well and the "row" usually deteriorates into something that resembles a monkey humping a football.
Dead-stop rows (otherwise known as Pendlay rows) are better because the pause helps to keep the set under control and minimize cheating, but most people can't lower the bar all the way down to the floor without rounding their lower back, again making it a risky choice.
To make barbell rows more lower-back friendly, try split stance rack rows. Set the bar up in a power rack at a point where you can bend over and still keep a flat back, which will be somewhere between mid-shin and knee level.
Next, address the bar with a split stance with the feet spaced about a foot apart, choosing whichever grip you like best. From there, row just like you would a regular barbell row, resetting the bar on the pins after each rep.
I like these better than regular barbell rows for a few reasons:
- Rowing from the pins lets you work in a range of motion that you can do safely.
- Using a split stance helps take a lot of stress off the lower back by allowing you to post up on the front leg (you should feel this in your glutes). You'll find it's much harder to round your back in a split stance than a symmetrical stance because the front leg serves almost like a safety brake, so it helps ensure that you maintain good alignment.
- The split stance discourages you from cheating too much because it's harder to get leg drive, making for a stricter row that you'll feel more in the upper back and less in the lower back, which is what we're going for.
These also work great if you have the Dead-Squat® Bar because you can take a wider stance without the bar hitting your front leg, and you can pull back farther at the top because you don't have to worry about the bar hitting your chest, making for a huge contraction.
It also allows for a semi-supinated grip, which I love because it hits the lats in much the same way as an underhand barbell row without the undue stress on the wrists that you get from a straight bar.
Here it is in action:
With both of these exercises, alternate which leg you place forward each set.
This is similar to the Dead Squat exercise above, only this time set up with the bar flush against the rails of the power rack and keep it pressed against the rack the whole time. You won't be able to handle as much weight, but it feels great and takes even more stress off the lower back.
Unfortunately, these don't really work with the straight bar because the front leg gets in the way.
These are Meadows Rows with a lower back friendly twist. I like John's exercise a lot, but given my history of lower back issues, I feel better having the bench for support.
To do them, put a barbell in a landmine unit (or securely in a corner if you don't have a landmine) perpendicular to a bench and row just as you would with a regular dumbbell row. Once you've finished with one arm, leave the bar right where it is and just turn around on the same side of the bench and do the other arm.
I recommend using straps when you go heavy or else your grip will greatly limit the amount of weight you can handle.
In a previous article about trap bar deadlifts, I showed a simple way to add band resistance by looping a band around the sleeves of the bar and standing on top of it.
This method also works really well for rows with the trap bar.
Remember that the purpose of the bands for rows is different than it is for things like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses. For those exercises, bands mimic the strength curve, so they provide less tension at the bottom portion of the rep where you're weakest, and provide incrementally more tension throughout the rep as your gain a greater mechanical advantage.
For band-resisted rows, though, the tension is actually greatest where you're the weakest, at lockout. This doesn't do you a whole lot of favors as far as strength is concerned (so plan to use less weight than you would for a regular row), but it makes for one hell of a contraction and fries your upper back and lats.
To maximize the effect of the bands, try holding each rep for a second at the top.
These are inverted rows performed with the hands set wider than normal and your elbows flared out instead of tucking them in close to your sides as you would with a regular inverted rows.
If you've ever done a wide grip, elbows out barbell row, it's very similar to that, only without the lower back stress. You'll feel it differently than a regular inverted row, too. While it works more-or-less the same muscles, there's proportionally more stress on the rear delts, so if that's something you're looking for, it's a great choice.
You don't need suspension straps to do them, but they enhance the exercise greatly because they allow you to use a neutral grip. I actually prefer somewhere between a neutral and pronated grip, but the point is that the straps allow you to pick the hand position that's most comfortable for you rather than being locked into a fixed hand position.
To keep the straps from sliding inward, hang them from either side of a power rack rather than hanging them together from the front.
If you don't have straps, just grab the bar with a wider grip.
These are quite a bit harder than regular inverted rows, so you'll probably want to start with your feet on the floor and progress to elevating them on a bench as you get used to the movement.
You want to start with the straps set far apart from each other, so if you're doing them in the power rack, hang the straps from the sides. From there, grab the right strap with the left hand and the left strap with the right hand and row as normal.
These feel quite different from regular inverted rows, in a good way. With a regular inverted row you're pulling straight up, whereas here you're pulling up and out to counteract the straps trying to pull your arms inward. This pulling action makes for an awesome contraction, especially if you try to hold each rep at the top for a second.
These are definitely harder than regular inverted rows, so keep that in mind and make sure you've mastered the necessary progressions before trying them.
Try some of these exercises and enjoy the upper back growth that comes along with them. Just don't get mad at me if your shirts start splitting at the seams and you're forced to buy new ones.