Admit it. Your back training hasn’t been nearly as intense as it could be. How do I know that? Take a look around most any gym and you’ll see for yourself. With all the super-smooth machines and cable devices designed to train the back, it’s almost as if an entire generation of bodybuilders have dismissed the most effective back developer there is – the barbell row.

The main reason for the abandonment of the barbell row is the fact that it’s so very uncomfortable! Unlike pulley pulldowns, low cable rows or even machines that are intended to simulate the action of a barbell row, a free weight row requires the back to stabilize on its own accord. Nothing on which to lay face down, no back supports, no knee braces, no platforms – just the natural support of your spine and the erector muscles in your lower back. And if that isn’t tough enough, the bent over position places additional stress on your ability to breathe. Top it all off with the fact that the hamstrings are placed under tension (in order to stabilize the upper body) and it would appear there are too many factors working against you in order to efficiently work the latissimus muscles you’re looking to target. However, the perception is flawed.

When the body is braced, the lats may be more specifically isolated but the end results are sub par. That’s because the back is a muscle group that works as a unit. The latissimus, rhomboids, and erector spinae are all components integrated to work in tandem. Even the trapezius gets involved, yet most bodybuilders treat this muscle group as a separate entity. They think of the traps more as shoulder muscles but what they don’t realize is that the traps extend down along the spine to the erectors. When these muscles contract, they effect muscles throughout the back. For instance, when the traps are activated, the scapula moves down and in, resulting in deeply etched grooves throughout the back. When performing exercises like lat pulldowns, these muscles barely come into play! That’s the reason why so many trainees who rely on machines have shallow backs. They may have decent lat development in that there’s some width when viewed from the front, but when they turn around – nothing.

If you want thick, dense muscle throughout the back it’s imperative that you work the muscles in which nature intended – as a group. The back must be forced to stabilize, and all the muscles forced to work. It must also be worked heavy, with no support and no assistance. That means awkward, breathing debilitating, painful, uncomfortable barbell rows. There’s no way around it.

Proper technique when performing barbell rows is of utmost importance. Loose lifting and heaving of the weight won’t work the muscle sufficiently and can lead to potential damage. It’s necessary to remain strict and contract completely. Again, a very

uncomfortable action, but one that’s vital if complete development is the goal. Remember, the function of the back is not only to pull, but to arch. By not completing the “final” phase of the exercise (the contraction), full development is impossible.

The back must also remain in a contracted position in order to prevent injury. As long as the lower back is flat and slightly arched, it’s virtually impossible to injure, yet back injuries are the most common of all training impairments. This is almost always the result of hunching the back, which compromises the integrity of the small muscles in the lower region. This explains why some people can hurt their backs merely by picking up something light with incorrect posture. Yet, as soon as the lower back muscles are stabilized, it’s possible to lift tremendous poundage – another example of how the back is designed for heavy lifting.

Now that we’ve established the need for barbell rows, let’s examine proper technique.

A common lament among novice trainers is they have a hard time “feeling” the back.
(out of sight, out of mind) When rowing, you must envision how the muscles are moving in order to get the best results.

Keep the poundages light for the first set and concentrate on the muscles throughout the full range of the movement. When you’re ready to go heavy, you must be prepared to sacrifice a little form in order to handle more weight.

At all times, you must emphasize squeezing and contracting throughout the concentric phase.

Bend down in front of the barbell while staying conscious of keeping the lower back tight.

Grab the barbell with an overhand grip. (Note: Using an underhand grip is an excellent variation that will place more emphasis on the lower lats. Incidentally, the underhand barbell row was a favorite of Dorian Yates – which is as good an endorsement as I can think of.)

Maintaining the arched back position and keeping the arms extended, use your legs to raise yourself up until your torso is parallel to the floor. The legs will remain slightly bent. Row the bar up and just under the chest. Once the bar is in the contracted position, hold it and contract the back muscles together for two seconds. S-l-o-w-l-y lower the bar down, once again staying aware of keeping the back arched. Think of your arms as handles, serving as “hooks” for the back muscles. Make your back do the work! At the end of the set, bend the knees to lower your body in order to return the bar to the floor.

That’s all there is to it – but it’s easier said than done. Heavy barbell rows are brutal. They not only demand a lot physically, they require extreme concentration in order to derive ultimate benefit and prevent injury. They aren’t a “knock out a few sets and get it over with” exercise by any means! They’re the real deal. And when you set your mind and motivation toward making them the main movement in your back workouts, you’re going to see some drastic changes. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that all you need for a great back are chins and barbell rows. Everything else is just fluff.

Make Barbell rows the sole exercise in your back training routine for one month. In this way, you’ll accurately determine the difference this one movement makes. Work

in the 10 rep range, making sure you can complete at least 6 reps with perfect form but can’t complete more than 12 reps without a little “cheat.” Shoot for 8-10 sets. And prepare for some serious sweating.

Thick, defined back mass from all angles will be yours. All you need to do is supply the effort. It’ll be worth it, though. You’re going to look big and broad – coming, and going.

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