Great-looking men’s backs exemplify at least two specific features. The upper back spreads like wings during a lat spread, but also the middle and upper back muscles explode with thickness and depth that runs from the hips to the upper back and traps. Most guys with pretty wide backs have spent hours in the gym each week doing pull-downs and chins. However, only the guys with the very best backs have invested in doing the kind of lifting needed to create a deeply muscled and impressive-looking back. Although there are better exercises for increasing the width of your upper back, there are not many exercises better at developing middle and upper back thickness than barbell rowing. Rowing is an effective activator of all middle back muscles, especially the latissimus and teres major and trapezius muscles, for back width and thickness.
The latissimus dorsi (lats) is a superficial extrinsic muscle of the back and its development is critical for an overall thick appearance. It covers all of the middle and much of the lower parts of the back. The latissimus dorsi is attached inferiorly (at its bottom region) to many places, including the thoracic vertebrae and the iliac crest of the hipbones. The fibers of the latissimus dorsi also attach to the lower three to four ribs and the thoracolumbar fascia (a tough connective tissue sheet that covers the lower back). The fibers from all these areas converge like a fan and attach laterally to the upper (superior) portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm. It forms the majority of the width of the upper back inferior (toward the feet) to the armpit (axilla).
The fibers have several different angles of pull depending on where the fibers are attached. In general, the primary function of all the fibers acting together is to extend the humerus (pull the upper arm backward), adduct the humerus (bring the arm toward the center of the body) and medially rotate the humerus (rotate the shoulder so that if the palm of the hand is initially facing forward, medial rotation would turn the palm toward the midline of the body). The lower part of the latissimus muscle has a more direct line of pull with the shoulder flexed and arm raised to about 30 degrees above parallel with the floor. The middle fibers have a more direct pull with the hands and arms working at mid-chest level. The upper fibers are best activated with the shoulders a little above shoulder height.
By increasing the thickness of the teres major muscle, the width of the upper back immediately under the arm in the region of the axilla will be greatly improved. Barbell rowing is wonderful for activating this muscle, and the heavy loads that can be lifted are guaranteed to add thickness and depth to this muscle. The teres muscle attaches along the medial border of the scapula and attaches to the same region of the humerus bone as the latissimus dorsi. The teres major medially rotates the humerus bone and extends the humerus from a flexed position (brings the arm backward). The barbell rows activate the arm extension function of the teres major. Because it begins on the scapula, it’s more completely activated with the arms at mid-chest level (and is less mechanically active in the exercise with the arm and hand closer to the feet). That means it’s particularly important to pull the bar up as high as possible if you want to activate and thicken the teres major muscle.
Although rowing activates hosts of other small back and shoulder muscles, the final muscle that will be discussed in this article is the trapezius muscle. This is a large flat triangular muscle, which begins at the base of the skull and extends from the base of the cervical (neck) vertebrae to the last (12th) thoracic vertebrae in the back. It attaches to the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone) and along the medial border of the scapula. This arrangement forms a unique diamond-shaped muscle with three general regions, with each region having a different function. The middle part is most active in barbell rowing because it pulls the scapula toward the vertebral column (like squeezing the scapula together) at the top part of the row.
Bent-Over Barbell Rowing
1. Place a loaded Olympic barbell on the floor, preferably in front of a mirror. Place 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, with a grip that’s only slightly wider than your shoulders. When the weights get heavy, you might want to use wrist straps to avoid losing your grip before your back musculature fatigues.
4. Straighten your knees until your back is just slightly 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. Keep your head up (looking into a mirror helps) and pull your elbows away from your ribs so there’s a straight line running from one arm to the other.
6. Pull the barbell up toward the mid-part of your chest (in line with the edge of your lower pectoralis and not your abdomen).
7. Keep your elbows away from your rib cage as the bar is pulled toward your torso. At the finish (highest point in the lift), there should be a straight line between both shoulders and your elbows.
8. It’s very important that your lower back does not move (flex or extend) as the weight is being lifted or lowered. The slightly bent knees and flat back will reduce the risk of lower back injury; lifting or jerking a weight sloppily upward by having excessive movement in the spine will defeat this purpose and risk injury to your back.
9. From the top position, return the barbell slowly toward the floor (three to four seconds), but do not let the bar hit it. Attempt to obtain a stretch in your upper back with the bar in the lowest position. Do not move your lower back (i.e., this is not a deadlift), but make sure the stretch is in the middle and upper back. Then, pull the weight back to your chest for the next repetition.
10. Take 90 seconds or more between sets if you’re lifting particularly heavy. You will likely need this much time to prepare both mentally and physically for the next heavy set.
If you want to reach the uppermost fibers of the middle and upper back during barbell rowing, keep your torso about 20 degrees above a position that’s parallel to the floor. This position increases the emphasis on the teres major and reduces slightly the activation of the lowest fibers of the latissimus in favor of reaching fibers placed closer toward the head. It also activates the middle parts of the trapezius muscle and the upper parts of the trapezius (but of course, not nearly as strongly as shrugs or other direct trapezius exercises).
Your hands can be placed closer than shoulder-width and this will increase the range of motion for the latissimus muscles. However, the closer grip may increase arm (biceps) fatigue, decrease the amount of weight you can lift, vs. a wider grip and diminish the activation of the teres major muscles.
A thick back doesn’t come about with light weights, but heavy weights will take a serious toll both mentally and physically. As a result, your back is probably the most energy-draining area to train, at least next to the quadriceps. However, the barbell row is one of those great exercises for which the effort is worth it and you can obtain an enormous back “pump” after almost the first set. Although a pump is not permanent, if you’re serious about wanting a nice thick back, barbell rowing will eventually push your back to possess to a new dimension of thickness, even without a pump.
Barbell rowing will slowly add permanent slabs of new dense muscle to your middle back. Sure, barbell rowing is tough, but hang in there; the effort will be worth it.
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