Rowing against resistance is one of the best ways to increase your back thickness. Although barbell and dumbbell rows are the gold standards for back thickness in the mind of most hardcore trainers, there are some machines that offer you some outstanding lower latissimus stimulation, without the lower back risks associated with bending over and holding a weight. By keeping the handles low, you will target the lower parts of your back for extra back width and thickness, especially just above the waist.
The latissimus dorsi (“lats”) muscle is strongly activated by low rows. It covers all of the middle and much of the lower parts of the back. The latissimus dorsi attaches to the thoracic vertebrae of the spine and the top of the iliac crest of the hip bones. The fibers converge on the upper (superior) portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm. It forms the majority of the width of the upper back just beneath (inferior to) the armpit (axilla). In seated low rows, the fibers of the latissimus extend the humerus (pull the upper arm backward), and to a lesser extent, adduct the humerus (bring the arm toward the center of the body).
The teres major is a small muscle that attaches along the medial border of the scapula, and runs to the same region of the humerus bone as the latissimus dorsi. It extends the humerus bone from a flexed position (brings the arm backward). A well-developed teres major muscle adds width to the upper back, especially to the area under the arm in the region of the axilla. Low rows activate the arm extension function of the teres major as the arm is pulled posteriorly in the row.
The middle parts of the trapezius are also strongly activated to assist the latissimus and teres muscles. The middle one-third of the trapezius muscle stretches from the upper thoracic spine, laterally to the posterior side of the scapula and clavicle. These fibers “squeeze” the two scapula bones toward the midline of the body. The trapezius fibers contract strongly as the arms are being pulled posteriorly and the scapula are pulled closer together.
The posterior fibers of the deltoid attach along the upper and posterior side of the scapula. These fibers are strongly activated as the humerus bone is moved posteriorly in low rows. Low rowing activates hosts of other shoulder and arm muscles, including both the short-head and long head of the biceps brachii muscle and the brachialis muscle in the arm, just to name a few. Thus, in addition to hitting the middle and lower back muscles, many accessory muscles in the shoulder and arms are strongly activated by seated low rows.
THE EXERCISE: MACHINE LOW ROWS
1. Sit in the rowing machine, and adjust the seat height so that the torso support contacts the chest at about mid-sternum. The seat height should put the handles at the lower ribs when they are pulled toward your chest. The chest brace should also be placed out far enough so that when you are in the machine, you can just reach the handles, thereby making sure you get a good range of motion at the bottom of the exercise.
2. Grab a handle in each hand. Brace your feet on the foot supports, slightly arc your back and inhale as you pull your hands and arms backward.
3. Pull the handles back toward the sides of your chest. The elbows should point directly backward, as you are pulling the handles backward. Continue pulling the handles until the hands are at about the midway point in your lower ribs.
4. Slowly lower the weights and let your elbows extend and straighten your arms. Resist the weight on the way down and do not let it drop in an uncontrolled fashion. Exhale as the weight is being lowered.
5. Hold the bottom position for a count of two. This will stretch the middle back musculature between each contraction.
You should always make the effort to try to slow the weight on the downward part of the lift, as this eccentric part of the contraction is at least as important as the lift upward. It is also important to pull your elbows back as far as possible in each repetition. Completing full ranges of motion in seated rowing are critical to ensure complete activation of the entire back musculature. To more fully activate your trapezius, try squeezing your scapula together as you are pulling the arms backward.
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