If Ya Wanna Grow - Ya Gotta Row
Admit it. Your back training hasn't been nearly as intense as it could be. How do I
know that? Take a look around most any gym and you'll see for yourself. With all
the super-smooth machines and cable devices designed to train the back, it's
almost as if an entire generation of bodybuilders have dismissed the most
effective back developer there is -- the barbell row.
The main reason for the abandonment of the barbell row is the fact that it's so
very uncomfortable! Unlike pulley pulldowns, low cable rows or even machines
that are intended to simulate the action of a barbell row, a free weight row
requires the back to stabilize on its own accord. Nothing on which to lay face
down, no back supports, no knee braces, no platforms -- just the natural support
of your spine and the erector muscles in your lower back. And if that isn't tough
enough, the bent over position places additional stress on your ability to breathe.
Top it all off with the fact that the hamstrings are placed under tension (in order to
stabilize the upper body) and it would appear there are too many factors working
against you in order to efficiently work the latissimus muscles you're looking to
target. However, the perception is flawed.
When the body is braced, the lats may be more specifically isolated but the end
results are sub par. That's because the back is a muscle group that works as a
unit. The latissimus, rhomboids, and erector spinae are all components
integrated to work in tandem. Even the trapezius gets involved, yet most
bodybuilders treat this muscle group as a separate entity. They think of the traps
more as shoulder muscles but what they don't realize is that the traps extend
down along the spine to the erectors. When these muscles contract, they effect
muscles throughout the back. For instance, when the traps are activated, the
scapula moves down and in, resulting in deeply etched grooves throughout the
back. When performing exercises like lat pulldowns, these muscles barely come
into play! That's the reason why so many trainees who rely on machines have
shallow backs. They may have decent lat development in that there's some width
when viewed from the front, but when they turn around -- nothing.
If you want thick, dense muscle throughout the back it's imperative that you work
the muscles in which nature intended -- as a group. The back must be forced to
stabilize, and all the muscles forced to work. It must also be worked heavy, with
no support and no assistance. That means awkward, breathing debilitating,
painful, uncomfortable barbell rows. There's no way around it.
Proper technique when performing barbell rows is of utmost importance. Loose
lifting and heaving of the weight won't work the muscle sufficiently and can lead
to potential damage. It's necessary to remain strict and contract completely.
Again, a very uncomfortable action, but one that's vital if complete development
is the goal. Remember, the function of the back is not only to pull, but to arch. By
not completing the "final" phase of the exercise (the contraction), full
development is impossible.
The back must also remain in a contracted position in order to prevent injury. As
long as the lower back is flat and slightly arched, it's virtually impossible to injure,
yet back injuries are the most common of all training impairments. This is almost
always the result of hunching the back, which compromises the integrity of the
small muscles in the lower region. This explains why some people can hurt their
backs merely by picking up something light with incorrect posture. Yet, as soon
as the lower back muscles are stabilized, it's possible to lift tremendous
poundage -- another example of how the back is designed for heavy lifting.
Now that we've established the need for barbell rows, let's examine proper
A common lament among novice trainers is they have a hard time "feeling" the
back. (out of sight, out of mind) When rowing, you must envision how the
muscles are moving in order to get the best results.
Keep the poundages light for the first set and concentrate on the muscles
throughout the full range of the movement. When you're ready to go heavy, you
must be prepared to sacrifice a little form in order to handle more weight.
At all times, you must emphasize squeezing and contracting throughout the
Bend down in front of the barbell while staying conscious of keeping the lower
Grab the barbell with an overhand grip. (Note: Using an underhand grip is an
excellent variation that will place more emphasis on the lower lats. Incidentally,
the underhand barbell row was a favorite of Dorian Yates -- which is as good an
endorsement as I can think of.)
Maintaining the arched back position and keeping the arms extended, use your
legs to raise yourself up until your torso is parallel to the floor. The legs will
remain slightly bent.
Row the bar up and just under the chest. Once the bar is in the contracted
position, hold it and contract the back muscles together for two seconds.
S-l-o-w-l-y lower the bar down, once again staying aware of keeping the back
arched. Think of your arms as handles, serving as "hooks" for the back muscles.
Make your back do the work!
At the end of the set, bend the knees to lower your body in order to return the bar
to the floor.
That's all there is to it -- but it's easier said than done. Heavy barbell rows are
brutal. They not only demand a lot physically, they require extreme concentration
in order to derive ultimate benefit and prevent injury. They aren't a "knock out a
few sets and get it over with" exercise by any means! They're the real deal. And
when you set your mind and motivation toward making them the main movement
in your back workouts, you're going to see some drastic changes. It wouldn't be
an overstatement to say that all you need for a great back are chins and barbell
rows. Everything else is just fluff.
Make Barbell rows the sole exercise in your back training routine for one month.
In this way, you'll accurately determine the difference this one movement makes.
Work in the 10 rep range, making sure you can complete at least 6 reps with
perfect form but can't complete more than 12 reps without a little "cheat." Shoot
for 8-10 sets. And prepare for some serious sweating.
Thick, defined back mass from all angles will be yours. All you need to do is
supply the effort. It'll be worth it, though. You're going to look big and broad --
coming, and going.
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