Everyone that wants to have a barn door back likes to spend most of their time on width-focused movements like pulldowns and pull-ups. But if you look at the training routines of Sandow winners like Dorian Yates and Lee Haney you’ll realize that dense backs are best built with heavy rows. Rows help you add another dimension to your back development – not only do they augment you’re the width of your lats but they also focus on the muscles of your mid-back that add serious depth.
But even Lee and Dorian stepped away from the barbell row now and again. Total back building requires the infusion of several different types of rows, each offering a slightly different muscular emphasis. Master them all and no back fiber will go unscathed. These six versions are a good starting point. Mastering these and understanding how they tax your back will get you ready to move on to more challenging versions in no time.
The Emphasis: erector spinae, lats, rhomboids, middle traps
The Breakdown: This is the classic, tried-and-true mass builder both for the upper and lower back. In order to stabilize the torso, the lower-back (erector spinae) muscles are forced to work very hard. This is magnified the heavier you go. Along with deadlifts, this is the best exercise to help bring out that Christmas tree look in the lower back that bodybuilders strive for. This variation hits the lats, of course, but it does wonders for the rhomboids, rear delts, and teres minor (upper-back muscles).
The Plan: You should do this exercise early in the workout while you are fresh, since it taxes the lower back significantly. I also suggest using this as a main strength and mass builder. Keep reps low – in the 4-8-rep range – to ensure proper form. As you fatigue, it will be hard to maintain good core position. Low reps and heavy weight work best. But because of the postural demands, be sure you select a weight that allows for picture perfect form at the selected rep range. If you have to start using momentum to get the weight from A to B, you are putting your lower back at risk as well as compromising the benefits of the exercise.
The Emphasis: Lower lats, traps
The Breakdown: It’s always been around but six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates popularized this exercise. He was known to use this as his main back mass builder during his prime and, as a result, had sinewy lats from top to bottom. That’s because the underhand grip keeps your elbows closer to the body, activating the typically undertrained lower region of your lats. If you want to increase lower lat thickness, grip and biceps strength, and trap size, this is your go-to exercise.
The Plan: Like the standard barbell row, this is an exercise best done early in your routine since it taxes the lower back significantly. Since it’s also a primary mass builder, keep reps in the 4-8-rep range and work hard to ensure proper form on each rep.
The Emphasis: lats, rear deltoids, traps
The Breakdown: Nothing brings together the back muscles better than the seated cable row with the neutral grip. It hits every muscle in your posterior musculature and helps emphasize the “squeeze” of the scapula pulling the back muscles together. This move is commonly used by bodybuilders to finish off the back and the cable offers a smooth, consistent resistance.
The Plan: Use this as a finishing back exercise in your routine. Since you are in a fixed position, the seated cable row is the perfect exercise to safely develop the muscles in the back. Go as heavy as you can for 10-15 reps.
The Emphasis: Lats, rhomboids, lower traps, erector spinae
The Breakdown: When performed correctly, the dumbbell row is one of the most versatile “bang for your buck” upper-body exercises. The movement involves scapular contraction and depression, along with spinal extension and compression through the thoracolumbar region, and also acts as a core stabilization exercise through anti-rotation and anti-flexion.
The Plan: The one-arm dumbbell row can be used as a big-weight strength builder but it is great to use as a high-rep muscle builder. If going heavy, a little body English is acceptable but most of your sets should be done under control. Matt Kroczaleski popularized the use of this exercise as a high-rep back builder. Strive for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps with heavy weight.
The Emphasis: Middle back, rear delts, traps, erector spinae
The Breakdown: If you are a meathead, all you can in vision is Arnold pulling heavy weight during the classic scene from pumping iron. Arnold used this exercise for a good reason. This exercise, which keeps the weight in a smooth, arced line of pull, forces you to workout hard and hits just about every muscle in the back, making it the perfect-mass builder. This exercise has its advantages over the barbell row because most T-bars offer a variety of options for hand placement. Because you can use both hands, you can load more weight, and that gives the T-bar an edge over other rows.
The Plan: Since the T-bar row can be very taxing on the lower back and nervous system due to the load, use it early in the workout while performing heavy sets of 4-8 reps to build mass and strength. You can use a little body English to get the weight up, but do so sparingly. If your T-bar allows it, flirt with different grips from workout to workout to slightly alter the muscular emphasis.
The Emphasis: middle back, rhomboids, lats, and traps
The Breakdown: Typically done in a power rack or Smith-machine, the inverted row calls for you simply grab a racked bar staged around waist height and pull your chest to the bar for reps. Despite the fact that it’s a bodyweight-only move, this may be the best all-in-one back exercise on the planet. It is shoulder friendly, hits the entire back and is a great finisher when you are fatigued due to its variability in intensity. It is also a great alternative to pull-ups if you have a shoulder injury or are too heavy to perform enough pull-ups to instigate growth.
The Plan: This is another great exercise to use as a finisher when you are fatigued. It is generally a safe exercise that uses just your bodyweight as a load and has a high variability of intensity. It is also great to use if you are coming off a shoulder injury and are looking to help increase you back strength. Try performing a few sets to failure. It’s important to note that the higher the bar is, the easier the sets become, so if you’re new to this move, start with a higher-racked bar and move it down as you gain strength.