Row Your Way to a Huge Back

Pack on upper-body mass and keep your shoulders healthy

It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a photo of a bodybuilder performing a rear lat spread on a cover of FLEX. That’s because it’s the showy muscles on the front of the body that proclaim someone as a muscle builder, not muscles such as the lats. Because the lats are underrepresented in the pages of magazines, you could get the impression that it’s OK to neglect exercises such as rows. That would be a mistake. 

When it comes to program design in this country, too many people believe that the only exercise needed to develop the upper-back muscles are chinups (and pullups). While it’s true that chinups are a great exercise, being fixated on them to the exclusion of other exercises doesn’t make sense. Here’s why.

For one thing, chinups don’t address the problem of round shoulders, a common postural problem for bodybuilders and other athletes. Round shoulders are frequently seen among lifters who overemphasize flat and incline bench pressing. These movements work the pectorals and anterior deltoids, which (among other functions) pull the shoulders forward. Chinups will not fix this condition. 

One of the primary functions of the latissimus dorsi is internal rotation of the shoulders. If you doubt this, look at the postures of young gymnasts and swimmers. To excel in these sports requires tremendous lat development, and rounded shoulders are a common result. This happens when the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles become chronically stretched from being under continual tension. All this makes these athletes more susceptible to shoulder impingement syndromes and even shoulder dislocations. 

One solution is to do rows. Yes, rows do work the lats, but they also work the rhomboids and traps, upper-back muscles that can pull the shoulders back and thus may help  prevent and even reverse round shoulders. By doing rows for your lats, you also get some biceps work in there. When planning workouts, a sound approach to help you maintain structural balance would be to perform one set of rows for every set of chinups.

To minimize the problem of round shoulders, you’ll find that face-pulls, performed either seated or standing, are particularly effective. This row variation works the rhomboids and middle traps, and at the end of the exercise, you externally rotate your shoulders to aggressively work the infraspinatus and teres minor. That’s a lot of bang for the buck!

Depending upon your goals, other row variations include standing barbell rows, kneeling dumbbell rows, seated cable rows, and machine rows. One issue with bentover barbell rows is that it takes considerable strength in the erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings to maintain good posture in this exercise. This doesn’t mean you should never perform them; but if you want to do them, don’t schedule them on days when you perform heavy-duty exercises such as squats.

The best choice for mass gaining is the one-arm dumbbell row. In this variation you can brace your upper body with your other arm, thus allowing you to devote more mental effort to the upper-body muscles. When used with a neutral grip (with elbows tucked in), dumbbells enable you to work the rhomboids through a greater range of motion. However, when used with a pronated grip (with elbows out to the side), the lats are more strongly engaged. As for dumbbell rows in which you pull in an arc toward your hip, these resemble the function of a lat pulldown, but due to their poor leverage they are more suitable as a finishing exercise. - FLEX

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