Row, row, row your back… gently up the placings! If you're currently happy with your back development and content to having an average set of lats, keep on strolling. However, if you are hell-bent on building up a massive set of wings, capable of lifting you above the competition, whether it is on the bodybuilding stage, on a casual beach posedown, or even making your mark in a strength competition, then you've come to the right place!
When it comes to building a massive back, most lifters in the gym are in about the same place. They bounce around with the lat pulldowns and rowing machines for a year or three. Eventually, most of them learn about the benefits of barbell training, and they add deadlifts and pull-ups to their routine. Deadlifts are excellent for overall back mass and thickness, as well as adding beef to your entire physique. Chins are amazing for building up the lats and overall back strength, even if they are a bit painful for beginner and heavier athletes. But there is one movement - rows - which are often neglected by even more advanced athletes. The movement isn't particularly rewarding, fun, or complimentary, and its importance is often ignored by lifters. However, if you are serious about maximizing your potential for back muscle and strength development, then you are going to need to include rows in your training regimen. Let's learn more about them!
Get Your Form Right
Your form needs to be spot on, if you want to maximize the results you see from using rows. You will want to maintain a very stable spinal position, using a normal curve throughout the duration of each repetition. You should pinch the shoulder blades almost together toward the end of each repetition, which is known as the concentric portion of the repetition. Allow your shoulder blades to slowly spread or "protract" at the end of each rep, known as the eccentric portion of the repetition.
Never allow the very front of the shoulders to round out forward at the top of the concentric (full row) position as you complete each rep. Put differently, the best rows don't involve just how far back your elbows can go. Rather, successful reps are those where your shoulder is going back the furthest, thus activating the maximum number of back muscle fibers. This leads to an optimal amount of muscle growth.
Work to possess masterful and deliberate control of each repetition throughout your complete range of motion. Focus your efforts upon the targeted muscles during each repetition. Keep the form perfect and always avoid cheating when completing your reps. There are many exercises where cheating, or the employment of a bit of "Body English" can be effective - but this is not one of them!
If your goal is building pure, unadulterated brute strength, then you are going to want to keep your repetitions in the 1 to 5 repetition range. Your emphasis will be upon the concentric part of each repetition. Use as much force as you can when completing each repetition. Move the weight slowly and deliberately. Maintain a completely controlled lowering (eccentric) portion when completing each repetition.
Many lifters enjoy the underhanded barbell grip when completing rows. It is the strongest grip for most lifters, making it very useful for heavy lifting in the 1-5 rep range. Barbell is useful, but the single arm dumbbell bench row variety also should not be overlooked. Use a three point stance, keeping both of your feet on the floor. Keep a hand on the bench and maintain complete control throughout the duration of the repetition.
There are many other variations of the row which you should try. Single-arm free standing rows are a great way to actually force your legs, glutes and lower back to work harder. If these are areas of weakness for you, then this lift may be a great idea for you. The simple act of flexing your body while rowing will make this into a super-compound movement, spurning growth all over your body!
If you want to move into some higher repetition ranges, making the emphasis muscle gain and not pure strength, then 6-10 reps per set is going to be the poison for you! Barbell rows with a wider grip, as well as overhand grips, are going to be ideal for mid-range rep work. Keep the wrists as straight as possible. Pull that bad almost "through" your chest, without rotating the shoulders or wrists inward.
Other useful mid-range lifts for bodybuilding purposes exist, and you should be using them regularly. Machine rows, T-Bar barbell rows, single-arm suspension rows, and half-kneeling single-arm high cable rows are all lifts with high success rates for building up muscle mass. Work to keep your torso and hips from rotating as you complete these movements.
If you are in pre-contest mode and looking to etch some detail into your back muscles, then it's likely time to move into the 13 to 20 repetition per set range. Exercises such as Cable X-rows, using a force vector with a diagonal approach, are highly useful for this purpose. Two arm suspension rows, wide-elbow suspension rows, band speed rows, and even alternate arm speed band rows can be creative means for etching detail into your muscles while using higher repetitions.