Building a strong, muscular back requires more than just deadlifts and pull-ups. You need heavy horizontal pulling and lots of it.
Think that means fancy machines? Think again. Check out these tried-and-true rowing variations that can be done in basically any gym.
1. The Bent-Over Barbell Row
It's one of the best ways to build brute strength and a big back, but most people get it wrong. If you're doing light bent-over barbell rows thinking you're effectively training your lats... you're wrong. The only thing you're doing with 65 pounds is wasting valuable training time.
I don't care about a perfect bar path or a perfectly flat back; doing lightweight rows does not send your body a signal to grow bigger or stronger.
Remember, this is a major compound movement that incorporates a lot of muscles: the low spinal erectors, hams, glutes, lats, rhomboids, traps, forearms, biceps, etc. To maximize the benefits, you must maximize mechanical tension. Go heavy. It's totally acceptable to use some body English when doing these.
Do 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps. And do them right after your final set of deadlifts. Just strip the bar down to 60-70% of your heaviest deadlift and immediately do your rows. You'll take full advantage of the potentiation effect, and these heavy rows will feel amazing.
2. The Seal Row
When your low back or CNS feels fried from heavy lifting and bent-over rows are out of the question, make these your go-to rowing variation.
Seal rows are amazing for building the lats and mid/upper back. Having your chest supported takes the low back, glutes, and hamstrings out of the equation. By eliminating those major posterior chain muscles, you put all the stress on the mid/upper back, allowing you to really focus on isolating the lats, rhomboids, and traps.
Imagine pulling the bar through the bench to maximize ROM and muscle activation. This might make a loud clang every rep, but who cares?
If you're really feeling it, try doing a 5-10 second isometric hold, pulling the bar against the bottom of the bench on the final rep of each set.
You can also do the seal row with dumbbells or kettlebells. The set-up takes less time and allows for a greater ROM on the concentric phase without the bench blocking you.
When training for strength, do 3-5 heavy sets of 5-8 reps. When training for hypertrophy, do 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps at a moderate weight. Have a pair of straps handy to eliminate grip fatigue and allow you to take each set close to failure.
3. The One-Arm Dumbbell Row
This row lights up your lats and lower traps. It's best to do the 3-point row with a bench since it allows you to keep your chest more parallel to the ground so you can better isolate the lats without other muscles compensating too much.
Try using a heavy dumbbell for 3 sets of 15-20 unbroken reps. I've found this to elicit the most metabolic stress and best hypertrophy response.
Don't worry too much over the exact dumbbell path in the rowing motion, either. This is minutiae. If you're doing heavy weight for high reps, you'll get an awesome training effect.
Focus on the mind-muscle connection and make sure you're not swinging the weight or using too much momentum. Use straps so you can take the lats and traps to complete muscular failure.