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Try these five simple rowing moves for a bigger, thicker back
Written By Greg Merritt
It's virtually impossible to build a great back without at least one rowing exercise in your routine. Here are five options to help you build a barn-door back.
Every type of row is a compound lift, which means it stresses numerous muscles simultaneously. First and foremost, rows emphasize your latissimus dorsi and the smaller muscles of your upper outer back: the infraspinatus, the teres major and minor and the rear deltoids. Your lower trapezius (the diamond in the center of your back) will also receive work, especially during the contraction of each repetition. Meanwhile, your biceps contribute to the pulling, and your forearms help you hold on. Depending on the rowing exercise, your spinal erectors may also get into the act.
Your lats serve two primary functions: to pull your arms down and to pull your arms back. Chins, pull downs and pullovers force you to do the former, and rowing emphasizes the latter. Due to the mechanics of these motions, the arms-overhead exercises tend to be better for width; rowing is better for thickness. However, rowing will also help you grow wide, especially if you include a deep stretch at the start of each rep.
Five popular rowing options and how to perform each for optimum results.
#1. BARBELL ROWS
Barbell rows require no more equipment than their name suggests, and yet they're arguably the single best lift for building overall back mass. Other rows provide better stretches and contractions, but this tried-and-true classic allows you to load on the free weight.
To maximize the stretch, some trainers stand on a block, barbell plates or a bench. We don't recommend standing on a bench; that is potentially dangerous and the act of balancing can hinder your performance. You may find it best to keep your feet on the floor and simply lean up slightly, so that the barbell plates stay elevated.
#2. T-BAR ROWS
If your gym doesn't have a T-bar, you can improvise one with a standard Olympic barbell. Put one end of the bar on the floor against a wall, preferably in a corner, and place weights (such as the handle of a heavy dumbbell) over that end to keep it down. Load the other end with your required resistance, then slip a V-handle under that side, against the collar.
Hold the handlebar, keep your knees bent and your back arched, and pull the bar up until the weights touch your chest. Raise your torso slightly with each rep. T-bar rows provide a greater stretch than barbell rows because you can easily begin each rep from a deeper position and because of your narrower hand position. As with barbell rows, your spinal erectors will receive some attention, but resist the temptation to rock up and down greatly with each rep, as this will divert too much pressure to your lower back, lessening the stress on your lats and potentially leading to injury.
#3. DUMBBELL ROWS
Performed one arm at a time, dumbbell rows are an excellent method of stretching the lats. Balance your nonworking arm (and perhaps the corresponding knee) on a bench or rack. Grasp a dumbbell and keep your torso nearly parallel with the floor. Pull the dumbbell up to your side until the weight touches your rib cage. Let the dumbbell travel slightly forward at the stretch of each rep to maximize the pull. Do an equal number of reps and sets for each side. Try these five simple rowing moves for a bigger, thicker back
#4. LOW CABLE ROWS
Because of its unique stretch, this exercise tends to emphasize the otherwise hard-to-hit lower lats. You can use virtually any bar for variety, but V-handles place your hands parallel and close together, maximizing the lat stretch. Sit with your knees bent. In the starting position, the handle should be near your feet so that you have to reach forward to begin each rep. From this stretched position, pull the handle to your abdomen while simultaneously leaning back so that your torso ends up perpendicular with the floor. Resist the temptation to lean back any farther, as this will divert attention from your lats.
#5. MACHINE ROWS
Most gyms have at least one rowing machine and some have a variety of mechanical options. You'll sit perpendicular to the floor or leaning forward. Either way, your chest rests against a pad. Different machines provide unique stretches and contractions due to their lever or pulley configurations and the positioning of the handles.
Most machines have separate handles; this allows you to pull your hands past your sides and achieve an excellent contraction. Since such machines restrict torso movement, they also greatly minimize the chances of lower back injury and allow someone already suffering from lumbar pain to safely work his upper back. On the other hand, they also prevent maximizing the lat stretch.
Beyond the beginner's stage, you should typically perform four lat exercises for three or four sets each. Try to maximize your variety.
Choose two lifts predicated on pulling your arms down (chins, pulldowns, pullovers) and two in which you pull your arms back (rows). The rowing exercises to include are a matter of personal preference, but try to pick dissimilar movements. For example, if you do barbell rows, don't also do T-bar rows. Perform, say, seated cable rows instead.
If your current back routine emphasizes chins and pulldowns more than rows, add a rowing exercise and drop one of the arms-overhead movements. The split should be near equal between the two motions, but, if forced to choose, rowing will do a better job of building a thick and wide back than pulldowns, chins or pullovers. Rowing is as essential to bodybuilders as it is to a man in a skiff. Don't get caught up a creek without a paddle, and don't try to build a great back without plenty of rows.