What’s the best “big lift” you can do for the upper body? If your gut reaction says either bench press or military press, perhaps you need to start focusing a bit more on pulling than pushing. Truth is, the classic barbell row will give any upper-body exercise a run for its money in terms of developing pure strength and piles of muscle. In fact, most reputable trainers would probably tell you upper-body pulling movements should be prioritized over presses in your program. Why? Because, chances are, your shoulders are hunched at least slightly forward due to guys’ press-happy nature in the gym, plus all the posture-destroying texting, typing, and driving people do, which sets the shoulders even further forward.
If rows aren’t currently a focal point of your training, it’s time they get there—and fast. This one basic movement (rowing) can be done any number of ways for a bigger, broader, more badass back. Here are six of those ways.
1. BARBELL ROW
DEFINING DIFFERENCES: This is your classic back-thickening move - the reference point for any free-weight row. The weight is heavy, the palms are facing back (pronated), the torso is somewhere between 45 degrees and parallel with the floor (depending on how heavy the weight is), and all you’re thinking about is pulling that bar, with force, up to your stomach while keeping your body stable.
ACTION: Stand holding a barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip and your knees slightly bent. Bend over at your waist until your torso is between parallel with and 45 degrees to the floor. Start with the bar hanging straight down toward the floor and your arms extended. Bend your elbows and contract your back muscles to pull the bar up to your stomach, keeping your torso in the same position throughout. Squeeze the contraction at the top, then slowly lower the bar back to the arms extended position.
WHEN YOU DO IT: As the first exercise in your back workout, or at the very least your first rowing move after doing heavy lat pulldowns or pullups.
2. REVERSE-GRIP BARBELL ROW
DEFINING DIFFERENCE: The reverse-grip (supine) barbell row was the version favored by six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, owner of one of the most insanely thick backs ever, in his competitive heyday. In fact, when performed with a slightly more upright torso (somewhere around 30 degrees), this exercise is often called the Yates row. Dorian liked the reverse-grip because he felt it hit the lower lats more effectively than the overhand grip and even provided slightly more range of motion at the top of the rep. Supine rows may call on the biceps a bit, too, but with a strong mind-muscle connection, this is another great back builder.
ACTION: Start in the same position as a standard barbell row, except with an underhand grip on the bar (still at around shoulder width). Bend over at your waist to the 45-degrees-to-parallel position, start with arms hanging toward the floor, and pull the bar up to your stomach. Again, maintain the same torso angle throughout the lift. Squeeze the contraction at the top, then slowly lower back down. Keep your elbows in tight to your body.
WHEN TO DO IT: In place of standard (pronated-grip) barbell rows as the first or second exercise (first rowing move) in your back workout.
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