People who understand strength respect a big back. Dave Tate said when he used to powerlift competitively, he never worried about the lifters with big chests or quads – it was the guys with thick lats and spinal erectors that concerned him.
A thick, strong back is a sign of a strong lifter. The erectors, lats, rhomboids, and traps are of paramount importance for both weekend warriors and competitive lifters. We all know guys at the gym that look impressive from the front but resemble middle school kids from the rear. Don't copy them.
Why a Big Back is Important
Training the back is crucial for strength sports as well as overall health and performance. A strong, thick back will bolster your bench, squat, and deadlift as well as support other lifts that help you get big and strong.
A thick upper back creates a nice shelf for the bar to rest when squatting, while strong lats allow a lifter to "lock in" their position on a deadlift and power through to lockout.
Your lats are also the foundation for all pressing movements. The wider and thicker your back is, the bigger the base of support you'll have to press big weights.
Furthermore, the strength in your upper back is crucial for shoulder health. Many people focus too much on pushing movements and neglect their pulling strength. At the very least, you should perform a pulling exercise every time you perform a pushing one to balance out the body.
Shoulder specialists like T NATION's Eric Cressey recommend as much as a 3:1 pull to push ratio when trying to bring up an athlete's strength and correct imbalances.
Enter the Barbell Row
The barbell row (and its variations) is one of the best movements for both back size and strength. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most butchered lifts you'll see performed in the gym, which is a shame, as too much body English completely diminishes the barbell row's potential benefits.
This isn't to say that sometimes you can't work up a little heavier and use looser form, but many take this to an extreme, performing "rows" that resemble a penguin having a seizure. The key is to keep tension on the muscles you're trying to work, namely the upper back. Leave your ego at the door.
Finally, lifters often have horrible shoulder positioning when performing rows. Below is a great method to correct this pattern.
Pack the Shoulders
Safe and effective barbell rowing requires packing the shoulders, or actively depressing and retracting the shoulder blades. First, think of sticking your chest out and pinching a ball in between your shoulder blades. Next, try to pull your left scap to your right hip and your right scap to your left hip.
A very good way to learn this is by performing bat wings, either with your body weight or with dumbbells.
Set up a barbell in a power rack about waist height. Elevate your feet on a bench and perform an isometric inverted row. Keep your chest "proud," while keeping your hips level. Squeeze your glutes, drive your heels into the bench, and keep your neck packed. You're essentially in an upside down plank; learning to keep a neutral spine and packed shoulders.
Dumbbell Chest Supported Row
You can do these with dumbbells or kettlebells. What's great about performing this movement on an incline bench is that it's very hard to screw up. Keep your belly and head glued to the bench and stick out your chest while keeping your shoulders down and back. If your head, chest, or belly come off the bench you're cheating, so it's a self-correcting exercise.
A good idea is adding an isometric hold. These will teach proper shoulder positioning when performing more advanced rowing variations. To accomplish this, simply hold each rep for a one-count and notice the change in muscle recruitment in your back. The difference is quite humbling.
Bent Over Row
When performing bent over row variations, many lifters are too upright and don't sit back enough. You want to try to get your body parallel to the floor so you're completely bent over. This way the resistance directly opposes gravity and allows for much more efficient conditioning of the lats and upper back.
Focus on keeping your core braced to help maintain a neutral spine. Also, keep a "soft bend" in the knee, as too much knee bend will result in the bar crashing into your kneecaps.
You can perform this exercise with a pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand) grip. With all rowing variations, it's important to stick the chest out while pulling the shoulders down and back.
I like to perform rows with a supinated grip as it allows for more external rotation. Think of performing the movement as the opposite of a bench press and tuck the elbows in towards the body as you raise the weight.
This is similar to how I see most barbell rows being performed, although most times I think it's unintentional. This is a good variation for when you want to hit the back a little differently than a traditional bent over row. Your body will be more upright and you'll pull the bar to the lower part of the stomach. This is a very good variation when you want to move a lot of weight for high reps; just don't use it all the time.
Dead Stop Variations
Many lifters don't have enough hip mobility to keep proper position for true bent over rows. A way to work around this is by performing bent over rows in a power rack using a very low pin setting.
This variation allows the lifter to reset his back every rep to ensure his form and positioning is optimal. I also like this exercise for improving deadlift starting strength since the lifter has to lift the weight from a dead stop every rep. You can play with different heights, but usually around the lower part of the shin works well.
This is a dead stop row variation performed from the floor. It requires more hip mobility than the rack row but has the same benefits. You won't be able to use as much weight as a regular bent over row since there's no stretch reflex, and you must lift the weight from a dead stop every rep.
This is another great exercise for improving starting strength. I like to initiate this exercise with my quads as in a deadlift, and then row to my lower stomach. This is a great exercise to perform heavy for pure back strength.
Increase your Grip Strength
Towel Bent Row
This is a great bang for your buck exercise to work your upper back and grip at the same time. Simply grab two towels and wrap them around the barbell where you'd normally place your hands.
This is also a great variation for people with shoulder issues. The towel allows for a neutral grip, which is a very easy position for the shoulders. It also forces the lifter to grip with more force, thereby activating more stabilizer muscles in the shoulder girdle. Lastly, it will force the lifter to use a lighter weight, which again will be a little easier on the shoulder joint.
Towel T-Bar Rows
This is a great way to perform T-bar rows when D-handles and other T-bar machines aren't available. The towel also allows for a more natural range of motion.
Stick a barbell in the corner of two walls or inside a power rack and wrap a towel over the barbell. This movement can be performed very heavy and is a great exercise for size and strength. Like the last variation, this will also work the grip and allow for a shoulder-friendly neutral grip.
One-Arm Barbell Row – Staggered Stance
If your gym doesn't have heavy dumbbells, you can perform one-arm barbell rows. This is also going to work the grip since you need to balance the barbell by gripping it in the middle. Perform them on a bench or in a staggered stance. One-arm rows are great for developing each side of the back independently and can help prevent asymmetries from developing.
One-Arm Barbell Row – Neutral Stance
One-arm barbell rows can also be performed from a neutral stance, which will work the core more since you need to resist the side from bending due to the asymmetrical load. This variation can also be performed inside a power rack with dead stop reps to increase starting strength.
Rowing Wrap Up
As you can see, there are many effective rowing variations you can add to your training. Each of these exercises can be used as a supplemental or assistance movement on your strength building days, or as a main back exercise if you're following a body part split.
But to reap all the benefits of rowing, you must be mindful to keep your technique as clean as possible. Start by performing barbell rows with a lighter weight and master your technique before piling on the weight. You'll be surprised how much weight you really need when you perform rows with strict form.
Here's a summary:
- Make sure to perform a proper hip hinge.
- Sit back to get the body parallel to the floor.
- Only bend the knees slightly.
- Keep the core braced to ensure a neutral spine and to help eliminate unnecessary body English.
- Keep the chest proud and the shoulders packed to ensure shoulder health and optimal muscle recruitment.
- When in doubt, lighten the weight and really focus on the muscle being worked. If you feel it in your legs, lower back, and neck, you're using too heavy a weight.
- Holding each rep for a one-count at the top eliminates most bad technique.
- Work the lats isometrically from time to time.
These exercises will help you set new PRs in your bench, squat, and deadlift, while making your physique an impressive sight when seen from behind. Start performing these exercises regularly – and properly – and build some wide, thick lats that would make Dorian proud!