7 Row Variations to Build a Stronger and Thicker Back

Tired of your normal back training routine? Try some of these row variations to build a stronger back.

We have all seen a back that commands respect, one that was built by heavy deadlifts, carries, and squats. But, behind all those classic strength movements are accessory exercises, like the row, that truly build a stronger, bigger, and THICKER back.

In this article, we will offer lifters and coaches of all levels a variety of dumbbell, barbell, and bodyweight row options to build a bigger, stronger, and more impressive back.

3 Reasons Why You Should Do More Rows


Below are three benefits of training the back with intensity and focus.

1. Increased Back Strength

Did you know you can increase back strength by doing back rows? Of course you did. However, did you know that a stronger back is at the root of nearly every “strength” movement in strength, power, and fitness sports?

A stronger back enables lifters to withstand and support heavy loads during some of the most effective strength-building compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, carriedls, and even pressing movements.

Best Dumbbell Row Variations
Photo by Nikolas_jkd / Shutterstock

2. Injury Resilience

A stronger back can help stabilize the torso during loaded movements like squats, carries, and deadlifts. The back works to support spinal extension and posture, with weak backs often leading to spinal flexion/rounding and broken backs.

So, the next time you wonder why you slouch forwards in a deadlift and/or squats; address your technique and add some rows!

3. Stronger Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press

If you aren’t consistently training the back via rows and pull-ups, you are leaving a significant amount of gains on the table. Top strength and power athletes alike will continually recognize the power of developing a strong back and its effects on compound strength movements like deadlifts, squats, and bench pressing.

Rows add strength and size to the back, biceps, and forearms; all of which directly increase performance in key strength and hypertrophy movements.

Muscles Worked – Rows


Below are the three main muscle groups targeted during most row variations. Note that some variations can be done to minimize lower back involvement (any supported row variation) and/or increase biceps involvement (underhand rows).

 

Back (lats, rhomboids, and traps)

The back, which includes the latissimus dorsi muscles, rhomboids, and trapezius (upper, middle, and lower) are all stressed during most row variations.

Supported rows (incline rows and seal rows) decrease the involvement of the lower back, furthering demands upon the back muscles.

Biceps and Forearms

The biceps assist the back muscles in most pulling movements, with rows being no different. Higher-rep based and underhand row variations can be great accessory exercises to develop stronger biceps and grip muscles.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae, also known as the lower back muscles, work to assist the back and core stabilizer muscles in the bent over position of most rows. The erectors are responsible for stabilizing the spine and resisting spinal flexion under load.

To decrease stress placed on the lower back, lifters can perform supported row variations.

7 Row Variations to Build a Bigger, Stronger Back


Below are seven (7) row variations athletes, coaches, and beginner lifters can integrate within training programs to build a bigger, stronger back.

1. Rack Row

The rack row is a bent over row variation that is performed in a power rack. Much like the rack pull, this limited range of motion pulling movement will allow lifters to focus on concentric pulling strength.

Additionally, this can be done at a variety of torso angles to isolate various muscle fibers and stimulate new muscle growth.

Before tackling rack rows, make sure you own the barbell row first to fully understand the movement and mechanics needed.

How-to Barbell Row

1.
Grip the Bar, Set the Back

Grip the barbell with a grip that’s similar in width to your deadlift, or slightly wider. Once you’ve established your grip, lift the bar off the ground and bend over maintaining a strong set back and hip hinge. 

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

2.
Initiate the Row

Once your stance, grip, and back/hip angle are established, then it’s time to initiate the row. When beginning the pull, think about bringing the elbows back as if you’re starting a lawnmower, and focus on utilizing the latissimus dorsi to move the weight. 

Coaching Tip: If the weight is causing you to drop your chest or the elbows are flaring, then it may be too heavy and the weight used should be scaled back. 

3.
Squeeze the Back, Begin the Descend

At the top of the movement, squeeze the full upper back and contract the lats without breaking your hip angle and set back. Think about pulling the barbell fully to the body to ensure you’re fully contracting the upper torso’s musculature. 

Coaching Tip: If you’re looking to improve hypertrophy with the barbell by increasing time under tension, then try adding a pause at the top of the movement (full row), or slow down the eccentric (lowering portion). 

2. Seal Row

The seal row is a supported row variation that can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, and even a trap bar. To perform the seal row, a lifter lies prone (chest/face down) on a bench. This position forces the lifter to only use the back and arms to lift the load. This also minimizes lower back and hip involvement.

The trap bar seal row is an excellent variation that allows for high amounts of loading, well-balanced handles/weights, and a greater range of motion than the barbell; a recipe for gains.

3. Inverted Row

The inverted row is a bodyweight row variation that can be helpful for beginners or individuals who may want to improve back strength and body control.

This rowing variation challenges core, grip, and back strength and can be done using a barbell, TRX straps, or rings.

4. Meadows Row

The Meadows Row, named after John “Mountain Dog” Meadows, is a unilateral row variation that can be done to build back strength and size.

Using a heavy dumbbell or landmine set up, stagger your stance and allow the torso to have a slight incline (rather than parallel to the body). This variation uses a fluid full range of motion with some momentum to maximize training volume and loading.

5. Incline Bench Dumbbell Row

The incline bench dumbbell row is a chest-supported row variation that can be done to add training volume to the back while minimizing loading and stress to the lower back muscles.

This is a great variation to be done with higher repetition training (and heavy loads, see below). Additionally, by using dumbbells you allow lifters to manipulate wrist and elbow positioning in the row (neutral grip, T-row, underhand row) to better target specific needs.

6. Isometric Dumbbell Row

The isomeric dumbbell row, which can be done with any type of row, is simply adding a 2-5 second pause (isometric contraction) at the top of the row. In doing this, you allow lifters to fully engage and maximally contract the back muscles at the top.

Lifters who struggle with feeling the back muscles working in the row, or who have issues performing rows with flat backs can benefit from this row variation.

Start with a 3-second pause at the top of the row, with light weights, and build up. The emphasis should be on the lifters ability to contract the back muscles, not simply heaving heavy weights around.

7. Heavy High-Rep Dumbbell Row

High-repetition training, with heavy weight?! A lot of people will read 20 reps per set and instantly scale back the weight. Instead, choose a load you would normally do 12-15 reps in a row, and force yourself to do it for 20 reps.

Heavy, high volume rows are one of the most powerful rowing variations one can do to stimulate new muscle growth. Like the legs, chest, and shoulders, the back can handle high amounts of loading and volumes, so don’t be afraid to live on the wild side.

How-to Dumbbell Row

1.
Grip and Set the Back

Grip the dumbbell with a full grip, one in each hand. Once you are standing erect, push your hips back and load the hamstrings and glutes as you assume a bent over position, similar to that of other bent over rows/deadlifting movements.

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

Coach’s Tip: You can rotate your palms (palms forwards, palms facing you, or palms backwards) to place more emphasis on the back vs biceps.

2.
Initiate the Row

With the back set, pull the elbows slightly back towards the hips and upwards, so that the forearm is perpendicular to the floor.

Do not pull the load directly vertical, but rather slightly back and up, which will match the lat muscle fiber’s angle better than pulling straight up.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure not to over row the dumbbell upwards. Many lifters will pull too high and allow the shoulders to collapse forwards as the load is lifted. Rather, be sure to keep the shoulders pulled back the higher the load is lifted.

3.
Squeeze the Back, Lower, and Repeat

Once you have reached the top position, maximally contract the back muscles to increase muscle engagement. This should occur on every repetition. Once you have felt the back contract aggressively, lower the load in the same slightly arching motion it was lifted and repeat.

Work to keep tension on the back throughout the entirety of the set.

Coach’s Tip: When lowering the weight, do not lose tension in the back muscles.

Want to Build a Thicker, Stronger Back?

Looking to build serious back strength and size to boost deadlifts, back squats, bench pressing, and more? Check out the below articles and get training!

Feature image from Nikolas_jkd / Shutterstock.

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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