By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
The back is comprised of a lot of muscles and to work them well requires an enormous amount of energy. However, your torso cannot have a strong frame without a strong back. A solid back can help stabilize your torso so that you can lift greater loads in other exercises (e.g., squats and presses).
There are not many exercises better than the barbell rows for developing middle and upper back thickness and strength. Rowing is an effective activator of all middle back muscles, especially the latissimus and teres major and trapezius muscles of the back.
The latissimus dorsi (lats) covers all of the middle and much of the lower parts of the back.1 The latissimus dorsi is attached inferiorly (at its bottom) to the thoracic vertebrae of the spine and the iliac crest of the hip bones and the lower three to four ribs. The fibers converge like a fan and attach on the upper (superior) portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm.1,2 It forms the majority of the width of the upper back inferior to the axilla (arm pit). The fibers of the latissimus dorsi have different angles of pull depending on where they attach. In general, the primary function of all of the fibers when they act together in barbell rowing is to extend the humerus (pull the upper arm backward).
The teres muscle attaches along the medial border of the scapula, and runs to the same region of the humerus bone as the latissimus dorsi.1,2 Barbell rows activate the arm extension function of the teres major, but it is important to pull the bar up as high as possible if you want to fully activate this muscle.
Although rowing activates hosts of other small back and shoulder muscles,3 the largest of the group is the trapezius muscle.4 This flat diamond-shaped muscle begins at the base of the skull and extends from the cervical (neck) vertebrae to the last (12th) thoracic vertebrae in the back. It attaches to the lateral part of the clavicle (collar bone) and along the medial border of the scapula.2 The middle part of the trapezius muscle is most active in barbell rowing because it pulls the scapula towards the vertebral column (by squeezing the scapula together) at the top part of the row.
THE EXERCISE: BENT OVER BARBELL ROW
1. Place a loaded barbell on the floor with your feet under the bar, about shoulder-width apart.
2. Bend over from the waist and flex your knees and hips to reach the bar. There should be a flat line from your shoulders to your hips.
3. Place your hands in a pronated position around the barbell (palms facing downward), with a grip that is only slightly wider than your shoulders.
4. Straighten your knees until your back is just about 10 degrees above parallel to the floor. Do not straighten your knees completely, as they should remain slightly flexed to absorb torque in the lower back that will be created by the exercise.
5. Pull your elbows away from the ribs so that there is a straight line running from one arm to the other. Pull the barbell up towards the mid part of your chest (in line with the edge of your lower pectoralis and not your abdomen). At the finish (highest point in the lift), there should be a straight line between both shoulders and the elbows.
6. From the top position, return the barbell slowly towards the floor (3-4 seconds) but do not let the bar hit it. Attempt to obtain a stretch in the upper back with the bar in the lowest position. Do not move the lower back (i.e., this is not a deadlift) but make sure the stretch is in the middle and upper back. Pull the weight back to the chest for the next repetition.
It is very important to prevent the lower back from moving as the weight is being lifted or lowered, as excessive movement in the spine will reduce latissimus work and risk lower back injury. Starting with your torso at about 30 degrees above a position that is parallel to the floor will increase the activation of the teres major and middle-upper trapezius while reducing the activation of the lowest fibers of the latissimus. A closer hand position (more narrow than shoulder width) will increase the range of motion for the latissimus muscles but it may also increase arm (biceps) fatigue, which will limit the work on the back.
- Agur, AMR and MJ Lee. “Grants Atlas of Anatomy”. Tenth Edition. Philadelphia. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 1999, pp. 442-453.
- Moore, K.L. and A.F. Dalley II. Clinically oriented Anatomy. Fourth Edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, 1999, pp. 690-697.
- So RC, Tse MA, Wong SC: Application of surface electromyography in assessing muscle recruitment patterns in a six-minute continuous rowing effort. J Strength Cond Res 2007;21:724-730.
- Wages NP, Beck TW, Ye X et al: Resting mechanomyographic amplitude for the erector spinae and trapezius muscles following resistance exercise in a healthy population. Physiol Meas 2013;34:1343-1350.
- Ratamess NA, Chiarello CM, Sacco AJ et al: The effects of rest interval length manipulation of the first upper-body resistance exercise in sequence on acute performance of subsequent exercises in men and women. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:2929-2938.
- Romano N, Vilaca-Alves J, Fernandes HM et al: Effects of resistance exercise order on the number of repetitions performed to failure and perceived exertion in untrained young males. J Hum Kinet 2013;39:177-183.
Illustrations by William P. Hamilton, CMI