Row to Grow

Learn the RIGHT way to build a massive back

Tricia and I are bodybuilding at a new gym and our first workout there was a back session. So it was interesting to look around and see who else was training back, what they could do, and what they looked like.

We immediately spotted what’s so typical of nearly every gym. On one extreme, we saw two guys training back together. They were tattooed, middle-aged, wide-waisted, weekend-warrior gym rats, more than willing to test their manhood and hoist maximal poundage at the expense of form just to puf their chests up and fan out zero width.

Row, row, row, row, that’s all they did. It started with a sloppy bentover row from a semi-upright position. Then it was on to heavy T-bar rows with them piling on and struggling with five plates on the end of the bar. Then it was on to a cable row on the pulldown with a close grip, and finally finishing with one-arm dumbbell rows with the 120-pound dumbbell. Have you ever seen two dumbbells doing dumbbell rows? And did I mention that they wore those fatty-fat weightlifting belts and fingerless lifting gloves, and used straps to hold on to the weight? But I do have to admit, despite the stupidity of their routines, the sloppy form, and their überwide midsections, you could still see they’d both managed to put on some inner-back thickness from all that rowing.

At the other extreme, there were two young college-age kids next to us doing chin-ups. On an exercise that most people avoid as much as deep squats, we put our time into chins and do at least five working sets each before progressing to any other movement. I have to say, these two young guys must’ve done at least that many. In fact it was so many sets, they were clearly burning out on the movement as they provided assistance to each other to force even more reps. After that, they headed to the wide-grip lat pulldown, where they completed a series of sets both in front and behind the neck. Unlike their rowing counterparts, these guys were all about pulldown work and no rows, and it showed. While they’d actually built some lat width, they both lacked any back depth or detail.

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So, the point here is that, while width is a key prerequisite to building an impressive back, gnarly thickness undeniably comes from rowing movements. It’s no quiet mystery that I’ve been an avid proponent of chinups for building a great back. I mean, without the proverbial wide “canvas” to build on, you won’t end up with much. The real jaw-drop when you turn to the back has everything to do with back width on a tiny waist. But assuming those chins are attended to as the cornerstone of your routine, if you really want your back to look like a bag of snakes, incorporating some form of rowing is an absolute must.

Rowing motions give your back depth and thickness. The way I look at it is that the chinup (which starts of every back routine I do, and for which I do the most sets of any back exercise) tends to work the back from the outside in. In other words, it hits mainly the muscles on the edges of the back just under the armpits, which are primarily the outer-upper aspect of the latissimus dorsi muscles. On the other hand, a row tends to focus the stress from the inside out, punishing those cords of muscle that make up your mid- and upper-inner back muscles, which include not only the inner portions of the latissimus dorsi, but also muscles like the erectors, teres, and rhomboids.

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