Ask Mr. O: Build Your Back

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Q: Can you explain how the exercises in your back routine differ in affecting back width?

A: Each of the exercises below has a unique purpose. For beginners and intermediates, I recommend starting with barbell and T-bar rows. Once you have substantial mass and experience, start mixing those two exercises in with the others.

FRONT WIDE-GRIP CHINS
Pull your body as high as possible, trying to touch the bar to your chest. This rotates your scapulae inward against each other, building big knots of muscle into the supraspinatus-deltoid tie-in area and bringing out detailed separations among all muscles in the top external latissimus region.

NARROW-GRIP CHINS
By narrow grip, I mean that your hands should be at shoulder width. Pull your body as high as possible, trying to touch the bar to your chest. This, too, rotates your scapulae inward against each other, again contracting those same muscles in the supraspinatus-deltoid tie-in area, but it also directs the stress into the lower lats, which are necessary for a draped look to your back (i.e., lats that hang, rather than taper).

BARBELL ROWS
I demur when it comes to specifying a wide grip because, when you pull into your body from the front with your arms spread wide, the range of motion is so restricted that very few muscles are activated. I therefore use a grip at shoulder width or only slightly wider, then pull the bar as far into my lower midsection as I can. This pinches the two latissimus slabs together as no other movement can, thickening the lower lats into huge hanging hunks of meat.

ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROWS
If you keep your body stationary for these, so that your upper body doesn't roll from one side to the other, you can isolate any increment along your outer lat and thicken it; by bringing the dumbbell as high as you can, you also bring out detail at the inner insertions. Use these only as a supplement to--not as a substitute for--barbell rows.

NARROW-GRIP T-BAR ROWS
This is another supplementary movement that builds thickness through the middle of the back and lats. The narrower grip allows you to pull your elbows back farther, directing more contraction toward the inside of your middle lats. For maximum power and to prevent your body from being pulled forward (which can strain your lower back), position your feet all the way to the front and pull into your lower belly.

SEATED PULLEY ROWS
As a supplement to narrow-grip T-bar rows, seated pulley rows offer the dual perks of better isolation of the lower lats and a greater contraction of their inner insertions. Performance tip: Get a full stretch to the front, and pull low into your belly.

NARROW-GRIP FRONT PULLDOWNS
This is a very productive exercise, especially with a V-bar. It, too, enables good peak contractions to bring out striations in the lower lats.

DEADLIFTS
This exercise is the last word in any discussion about back workouts. You cannot have a complete back without them. Heavy deadlifts thicken your erectors and the trunk of your back as no other movement can; in fact, they broaden and thicken your back from your traps all the way to the Christmas tree at your waist. I've always done them and always will.

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