Row Specialization

Most lifters have achy shoulders, poor posture, and backs so narrow they disappear when they turn sideways. So what's the best way to build a thicker back, improve posture, and prevent future shoulder issues? Do a row every time you train.

To add slabs of muscle to your back, you'll have to specialize. To add muscle quickly, increase training frequency and volume, and add new exercises to your back training while dialing back in other areas.

Let's break it down, go over some exercises, and look at a sample program.

Increase Training Frequency

To build a lagging muscle group, short-term bouts of higher training frequency work best. By training a row or horizontal pulling movement every time you hit the gym you're doing three things:

  1. Triggering protein synthesis within target muscle groups more often. More protein synthesis can drive faster gains in size when recovery is sufficient.
  2. Improving motor learning. The more you train a function, the more efficient your body will become. When you row, you're retracting your shoulders, helping to pull them back out of the internally-rotated position where you spend most of your time. Frequent rowing can unwind the damage of unbalanced training and poor posture.
  3. Shocking the muscles. If you've been training back once or twice per week for years on end, increasing frequency can trigger a cascade of adaptations to grow stronger and bigger.

Increase Training Volume

By increasing training volume you'll create a more significant training response for your muscles to adapt. This leads directly into the next two points of varying intensity and decreasing volume elsewhere.

Vary Intensity

When volume and training frequency both increase, it's necessary to adapt the intensity of exercise. When training a horizontal pull or rowing variation each day you'll need to vary the intensity. In this program, we'll use a variety of training stimuli to maximize the effectiveness of training without frying your central nervous system (CNS) and spine. I'll list the exercises in order of how neurally demanding they are on your body:

Intensive Heavy and Explosive Compound Movements

These exercises are performed with high resistance and/or explosive movement. This creates more demand on your CNS so they're best done early in your workouts.

Moderate-Heavy Resistance and Volume

These exercises can be done both heavy and light for high volume. They're not as intense as most barbell lifts yet still create large amounts of total body stress.

One-Arm Dumbbell Row Variations:

Split-Stance Row

Pronated-Grip Dumbbell Row

Dumbbell "J" Row

Extensive, Volume-Based Muscle Builders

These exercises use less resistance and are primarily focused on feeling your target muscles doing the work for a maximum mind-muscle connection. These are less stressful and can be done more frequently to improve overall muscular development.

Cable Row With Pre-Set ISO-Hold

Cable Row With Close Grip

Inverted Row (shown here with pause)

Batwing Row

Reverse Flye

Farmer's walk (for time)

Farmer's walks can differ significantly based on load and time under tension. During this program you'll focus more on longer duration sets rather than heavy sets. You'll vary exercise intensity and volume throughout the program to maximize gains without overwhelming your body.

Decrease Volume Elsewhere

You can do anything, but not everything. The biggest mistake lifters make when trying to build a lagging body part is keeping the volume on other muscle groups the same.

Remember, it's not what you train, it's what you can recover from that will dictate your progress. Your body has a limited ability to recover. You must dial back both intensity and volume on other body parts to maximize recover during a specialization phase.

Why Not Vertical Pulling Exercises?

Exercises like chin-ups and lat pulldowns are great, but they shouldn't be your top priority for building a THICK back and healthy shoulders. Sacrilege? Maybe.

If you're like most lifters, you've dealt with achy shoulders. Your programming as a whole has had far more chest and shoulder-dominant work. In an attempt to build the coveted V-taper you've done lots of pulldowns and pull-ups.

This is logical, but often causes problems. The lats themselves help with internal rotation. When you hammer out pull-ups and get sloppy with technique to get your chin over the bar, you end up crashing your shoulders forward, irritating the front side of your shoulders more.

If you're like most people, you also spend the majority of your day perched over a keyboard or hunched over your phone like a 12-year old finding his first nudie website. When you combine unbalanced training, poor posture, and overdeveloped anterior delts and pecs with a weak set of traps, rhomboids, and lats, the last thing you need is more internal rotation.

You need to focus on horizontal pulling and dial back internal rotation-based exercises, even pull-ups and chin-ups. Sure, those should be part of your program, but most lifters follow inherently unbalanced programs most of the time. When combined with an internally-rotating posture, it's beneficial to dial back vertical pulling exercises and instead focus on horizontal pulling exercises like rows.

Sample 4-Week Training Plan

This plan varies intensity, volume, and subtle aspects like grip to provide a novel stimulus. Follow the program for four weeks, then get back to a more balanced training program.

Weeks 1 and 2

Day One: Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Incline Barbell Bench Press 5 5 2 min.
B Barbell Bentover Row 4 6 90 sec.
C1 Dumbbell Bench Press 4 10 1 min.
C2 One-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 10 1 min.
D Pull-Up or Lat Pulldown 2 12 1 min.
E Cable Face Pull 4 12 30 sec.
F Farmer's Walk 2 2 min. 1 min.

Day Two: Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Front Squat 4 6 2 min.
B Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 3 8/leg 45 sec./leg
C Snatch-Grip RDL 2 8-10 1 min.
D Leg Press 3 15 1 min.
E1 Inverted Row 3 12 45 sec.
E2 TRX Fallout or Ab Wheel Rollout 3 12 45 sec.

Day Three: Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Pronated-Grip Batwing Row (3 sec. contraction) 3 12 1 min.
B Barbell Overhead Press 5 5 1 min.
C1 One-Arm Incline Bench Press 3 8 45 sec.
C2 Dumbbell Sawing Row 3 8 45 sec.
D Wide-Grip Seated Row 3 12 1 min.
E1 Seated Cable Face Pull 3 15 30 sec.
E2 Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extension 3 15 30 sec.

Day Four: Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Box Jump 5 5 45 sec.
A2 Close-Grip Inverted Row 3 10 45 sec.
B Pendlay Row 3 5 90 sec.
C Deadlift 3 5 2 min.
D Dumbbell Step-Up 3 10/leg 1 min.
E Goblet Squat 2 20 45 sec.

Weeks 3 and 4

Day One: Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Incline Barbell Bench Press 5 5 2 min.
B Supinated Barbell Bentover Row 4 6 90 sec.
C1 Dumbbell Bench Press 4 10 1 min.
C2 Pronated-Grip Dumbbell Row 4 10 1 min.
D Ring Chin-Up or Underhand Grip Pulldown 2 12 1 min.
E Cable Face Pull 5 10 30 sec.
F Farmer's Walk 3 2 min 1 min.

Day Two: Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Front Squat 4 4-6 90 sec.
B Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 2 8/leg 45 sec./leg
C Snatch-Grip RDL 3 8-10 1 min.
D Leg Press 3 15 1 min.
E1 Inverted Row 4 12 45 sec.
E2 TRX Fallout or Ab Wheel Rollout 3 8-12 45 sec.

Day Three: Upper Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Pronated-Grip Batwing Row (3 sec. contraction) 3 12 1 min.
B Barbell Overhead Press 5 5 2 min.
C1 One-Arm Incline Bench Press 3 8 45 sec.
C2 Dumbbell Sawing Row 3 12/10/8 45 sec.
D Close-Grip Seated Row 4 12 1 min.
E1 Seated Cable Face Pull 4 15 30 sec.
E2 Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extension 4 15 30 sec.

Day Four: Lower Body

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Box Jump 3 5 45 sec.
A2 Close-Grip Inverted Row 3 12 45 sec.
B Pendlay Row 3 5 90 sec.
C Deadlift 4 3 2 min.
D Dumbbell Step-Up 3 10/leg 1 min.
E Goblet Squat 2 20 45 sec.
F Dumbbell Renegade Row 2 6/side 1 min.

Related:  The 10 Best Ways to Build Your Back

Related:  The 100 Day Squat Challenge

Reference

  1. Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: A meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9.