Big backs are way cool.
Whether it's the back of a bodybuilder like Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman, a powerlifter like Ed Coan, or an Olympic lifter like Pyrros Dimas, big backs are a byproduct of moving heavy iron for an extended period of time. You can't pump and cramp your way to a big back.
One of the all-time great movements to develop your back is the row. In fact, it's so good I devoted an entire article to the row and its variations in Wanna Grow? Gotta Row. While I gave some great tips on proper execution, I've come to the realization that tons of people still don't understand how to row correctly.
The functional anatomy
Rowing variations will develop three primary muscle groups: the middle trapezius, the rhomboids, and the latissimus dorsi. For the sake of brevity, let's examine the muscles of the mid back (middle traps and rhomboids), as they are typically our primary target.
Note that in the above paragraph I did not mention that the spinal erectors are targeted here. This may come as a shock to many who are writhing around instead of performing a clean, strict row, but we'll get into that later. Just remember that the target is the mid-back and we're good.
When rowing, the primary movement we're looking for is scapular retraction, or a pinching together of the shoulder blades. In fact, as you'll see, focusing on or visualizing the movement of the scapulae during a row is a sure-fire way to help improve your performance.
Performance and Execution
This is where things get fuzzy. I can't tell you how many quirky variations of rows I've seen in the gym. Regardless, there's a right way and a wrong way to row. Hopefully this next section will help.
Regardless of which bilateral rowing variation you've chosen (bent-over, low cable, inverted, etc.), the basic principles must always be adhered to. Start with your elbows extended and allow your shoulder blades to protract, or "drift," to get a slight pre-stretch on the middle traps, rhomboids, and lats.
From the stretched position, think about pulling through your elbows and actively squeezing the shoulder blades back and together. As you perform this part of the movement, make sure to stay tall and don't lean back! If you have to lean back, chances are the weight is too heavy.
As you return to the starting position, think about allowing your shoulder blades again to "drift' and glide around your rib cage until you get a stretch in the mid-back and lats.
If you're performing a single-arm/unilateral variation, performance should be identical. One flaw you'll see quite frequently, however, is where someone substitutes torso rotation for scapular protraction and retraction. Keep the torso rigid throughout. Whether you're using a unilateral or bilateral exercise, the key to proper execution lies within the shoulder blades. If you can imagine your shoulder blades gliding from front to back, you'll be that much closer to performing a flawless row.
Common Rowing Mistakes
As I stated before, the row should be an extremely easy exercise, but very rarely do I see people performing it correctly. Maybe I'm just a stickler when it comes to technique, but I also expect that if you include an exercise in your program, you actually want to get certain benefits from its inclusion!
This is quite common, and something I've only recently started to notice following a lengthy discussion with Bill Hartman. When you see someone who is rhomboid dominant try to row, they are constantly holding a slightly retracted scapular position. Instead of allowing the rhomboids, lats and middle trapezius to stretch at the beginning and end of each repetition, they maintain a slight retraction.
A verbal cue may be all that's necessary. If not, try using a partner's hands to "guide" the scapulae into protraction. More times than not, though, you'll need to drop the weight and groove your technique from there.
We've all seen this guy before. He's got huge friggin' arms and he wants to use them on every single exercise, even ones where he shouldn't be emphasizing them!
Instead of pulling cleanly through the elbows, Johnny Biceps wants to "curl" the weight instead of row it. This is very easy to spot as there's minimal retraction at the midpoint, and quite often this person can't even get their hands to the chest/abdomen.
To rectify this, have Johnny relax his biceps and instead think about driving the elbows back. This simple cue will generally help to engage the appropriate musculature while disengaging the biceps.
Hinging at the lumbar spine
I'm going to say this once and for all: this is a weight-lifting row, not a rowing exercise. If you're flexing and extending your lumbar spine while rowing in the weight room, let me forward you my contact information because you'll be needing some low back rehab in the future!
When I was coming up I frequently saw magazines like Flex and Muscle and Fitness where the "pros" (who probably didn't even write the article), advocated flexing the lumbar spine forward to get a pre-stretch, and then extending the lumbar spine to help initiate with retraction.
Last time I checked, rows were a mid-back exercise, not a low back exercise. Leave the low back out and focus on developing the appropriate areas and you'll be just fine.
Leanin' back worse than Fat Joe
Leaning back when rowing is generally seen when someone has too much weight on the bar (or machine), and instead of retracting at the midpoint, leans back with their upper torso. This gives the appearance (and to some extent the feel) of scapular retraction, but is in fact a compensation that should be addressed.
Don't lean back: you may end up looking like Fat Joe.
If this person is doing everything else right, just drop the weight a little bit and cue them to focus on staying tall and retracting versus leaning back at the midpoint. With good cuing and less weight, this problem is easy enough to solve.
Note: For extremely high-level strength athletes, there is some leeway with regards to this tip. I'll concede there can be some very slight cheating, but this should be reserved for the advanced trainee. Of course, if you're 130 pounds dripping weight, you're not advanced and so you don't need to worry about this technique. Leave it for the big dogs.
And for those of you who caught the Fat Joe reference, let me say this once and for all: dude can't rap worth crap, but he'll continue to get paid as long as he keeps Lil' Wayne on his albums. Just my $0.02.
Torso rotation on unilateral variations
Torso rotation, our final flaw, is only evident in the unilateral variations due to the rotational forces produced. In this case, the trainee has a tendency to rotate around either the upper thoracic, or in some cases, the lower lumbar vertebrae. This is typically seen in someone who has poor scapular control/stability.
To correct this flaw, think about "locking down" the entire torso, making it as rigid as possible. From this position, focus on allowing the scapulae to glide into protraction and retraction. Dropping the weight is pretty much inevitable here.
A Progression to Get that Row up to Snuff
If you know anything about me or my training philosophy, you know I like to have a progression or rationalization for everything I do. If you can't rationalize why you're doing something, why are you doing it? And along those same lines, if you're weak as a kitten you don't need to progress into the most difficult variations of any exercise.
Whenever you're working on technique, always utilize the exercise that's the simplest to perform from a complexity standpoint to ensure that you're doing it correctly. In other words, if you aren't strong enough to do an inverted row yet, don't do it! Start with a lower level exercise like a low cable row to hone your technique and develop the appropriate musculature.
I think it's interesting that even my really out-of shape clients can almost always do body weight drills for the lower body, but quite a few middle-aged men can't do one single pull-up, inverted row, or push-up! Understand that body weight exercises for the upper and lower body are different beasts, and treat them that way.
Progressing on rowing exercises is pretty easy. I'll have my clients start with a low-level exercise like a low cable or supine row in the beginning to make sure they're performing the exercise correctly and without compensation. Once they've mastered this, we can either progress to a higher weight or transition them to body weight variations such as inverted rows, dependent upon their goals. For higher level athletes who aspire to more than body weight mastery, you'll eventually need to come back to the big, basic rowing variations and start piling on the weight to build the back you desire.
As I stated in the beginning, big backs are way cool. While some guys like to brag about their arm size, a big, strong back is silent evidence that you've paid your dues with the iron. No bragging required.
Now go pay your dues.