How do you stand out from the crowd in a T-shirt?
You could be one of those asshats who thinks wearing “Big Johnson” T-shirts are cool. They’re not. And if you wear those you’re lame and no one likes you anyways. No, the best way to stand out in a t-shirt is to have back muscles that pop your shirt off your body.
As we brotastic bros like to say: if you wanna grow, you gotta row.
When it comes to building more strength and slapping Hulk-sized muscle on your spine, there’s nothing better than barbell rows. Dumbbell rows have their place. But barbell rows allow you to stack on more plates which challenges your muscles to advance to the next level.
Of course, you can always challenge your back muscles by changing the position of your hands — supinating them and rowing underhand or using a snatch-grip — but where you pull the barbell also affects what muscles in your back are stimulated.
- Pulling the barbell towards your stomach activates more of your latissimus dorsi.
- Pulling the weight closer to your chest stimulates more of your trapezius, rhomboids, and rear deltoids.
How to Barbell Row
If you want to grow stronger and more defined back muscles, you have to row. And the barbell row will allow you the ability to push your strength to new levels.
To perform a barbell row, start by loading a barbell with weight — start with 85-95 pounds for men and 50-65 pounds for women. With the barbell one the ground, perform hinge at the hips, keeping a slight bend in your knees, and grab the bar with wide overhand grip.
While in the hinged over position, pull the bar up to your knees and stay bent over. Make sure to keep a straight spine and squeeze your abs and glutes to help maintain proper spinal position. Now, pull the weight towards your body, squeezing the muscles of your back as tight as you can at the top.
Then slowly extend your arms and shoulders back to the starting position, the weight should be hovering a few inches off the ground. Perform four sets of 8-10 reps.
Row To Your Chest
Once you’ve learned how to barbell row, you have a choice:
- you can either row the bar towards your stomach, or
- bring it close to your chest, near your nipple line.
By rowing the bar to your chest, you’ll use more of your traps, rhomboids, and rear delts as you fight gravity. If you have poor posture or rounded shoulders, this is the best way to improve the muscles responsible for proper posture.
Pulling towards your chest also allows you to squeeze your shoulder blades together which can aid in helping improve shoulder stability and health. And for those who sit at a desk all day, this is an excellent exercise for alleviating tense and tight muscles in your shoulders and neck.
The Pendlay Row
The Pendlay Row will not only help you build a stronger back, but it will force you to make your hip hinge even more solid.
Another reason I love the Pendlay Row is that you have to row the weight from a dead stop on the floor. This aids in developing more upper back power by using explosive strength to pull the weight from the ground to your chest.
Strong upper and mid-back strength will help you improve posture along with adding more strength to your overhead pressing movements and adding more stability for your shoulder blades when you bench press.
Prone Plate Holds
Static holds are a fun way to end any workout.
And Prone Plate Holds isolate and hammer your rhomboids.
Your rhomboids are dastardly little buggers. But they’re also some of the most undertrained muscles of the back. And because many of us sit hunched over at desks all day, they’re not as strong as they could be.
But strong rhomboids go a long way in developing and maintaining optimal shoulder strength and stability. Their main functions are to hold your scapula (should blade) on your rib cage, as well as pulling your shoulder blades into your spine.
You won’t need much weight here as this is more of a burn out exercise. But lay face down on a bench with a 5-10 pound plate underneath you. Grab the plate with your hands, and without bending your elbows, pull your shoulder blades together. I love telling clients to imagine that their shoulder blades are named Romeo and Juliet. So imagine you’re rehearsing the kissing scene and bring those blades together.
Hold this position for as long as you can. Only performing 1-2 sets.
Row to Your Stomach
There’s a certain energy drink on the market claims to “give you wings.” But if you want to grow your own wings in real life, you need to build and strengthen your lats. Your lats are important not only for back strength or aesthetics, but they’re also important to other lifts like front squats, deadlifts, and overall core function.
Performing the bent over barbell row and pulling the barbell into your belly button activates more of your lats. Like the muscles of your upper back, your lats play an important role in stabilization of your shoulders but they also work to stabilize your spine and the stronger they are, the better your core strength will be as well.
3-Point Dumbbell Row
The 3-Point Dumbbell Row is the most kick ass row variation I use with my online training clients.
It’s more effective at engaging the muscles of your body while fixing some of the most common one arm dumbbell row mistakes — rounded shoulders, non-neutral spine, and pulling the dumbbell beyond the body — that I see in the gym.
Why is it so freaking kick ass?
The 3-point Dumbbell Row forces your core to resist rotation in your torso as you row the weight into your body, meaning you get more activation out of your obliques. But that doesn’t mean you should be pulling heavy weight from day one.
In fact, to get the most out of the 3-Point Dumbbell Row pick a weight that allows you to pause with at the top of the movement — where your elbow is touching your hip — so that you don’t swing the weight or use momentum to get the dumbbell up.
This will allow you to create more tension in your muscles and thus elicit more growth.
Gentlemen Rows are the BEST way to light up your lower lats. This is a bit more of an advanced row variation, but if you’re looking to build a bigger and more prominent back, Gentlemen Rows should become a part of your fitness arsenal.
But here’s another reason why these are great: they force you to engage your glutes and challenge hip stability. And that’s an important part of your lats and back strength that most men and women overlook. Your lats not only pull weight toward your body, but they stabilize your trunk and torso.
Keep the weight moderate on these. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per side with 60 seconds of rest. If you really want to feel your back like never before, make sure to MAINTAIN tension in your lats as you lower the weight to the ground — don’t be careless with the lowering portion of this lift, keep it controlled.
Change Your Row By Changing Your Grip
Changing how you grip a weight can drastically alter an exercise. Flipping your wrist around during a bicep curl to where your hands are facing the ground versus the ceiling can make a once easy weight to lift feel like it’s far heavier.
When it comes to barbell rows, you can grab the bar with a pronated (palms facing the floor) or an underhand (supinated) grip (palms facing the ceiling). The pronated grip feels more natural for many people and places less stress on your elbows and wrists.
Grabbing the barbell with a supinated (underhand) grip recruits more of your bicep muscles as you row the weight to your body. This grip will not only help you build a stronger back, but it will help you increase the strength and size of your arms.
Half-Kneeling Supinated Cable Row
Cable rows can help you build a stronger and more jacked back. But with a flip of your hand, they can turn your dollar store water gun sized biceps into Super Soaker bazookas.
By supinating your hand, turning your palm to the sky, you put your bicep in a more advantageous position. If you pay attention to how my bicep flexes as I row, it looks similar to the standard bicep curl. Thus, you elicit more of your bicep muscle vs a standard prone or neutral grip row. And the more of your bicep that you work, the more gains you’ll make.
Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side; resting for 45-60 seconds after each set. And make sure to SQUEEZE your bicep as hard as you can once you pull the cable in-line with your body.
PS: doing this in the half-kneeling position allows you to squeeze your glutes as hard as you can which does two things:
- relaxes your tight hip flexors; something that everyone who sits at a desk suffers from
- helps you increase your mind-muscle connection in your glutes which if you sit all day at a desk you probably lack
Here’s to you and your soon to be bigger biceps.
Barbell Rows: So Do You Row to Your Chest or Stomach?
Pulling the barbell or dumbbell toward your chest or your stomach depends largely on your goals. You will target your lats in all row variations. But if you’re looking to add hunks of meat to your mid-back then you’ll need to pull closer to your chest to hit more rhomboids, traps, and rear delts. And if your goal is more lat specific, then pull more toward your stomach.
It’s really that simple. But to have an all-around better looking back, make sure you’re training multiple row variations so that you hit every muscle in your back.