The back is commonly known as the most complex group of muscles to train. It covers a large area so you have to address it from many possibilities to get a bigger back. Make sure to include rows, pull-ups, pull-downs, pull-overs, deadlifts, shrugs, and bent-over raises to start. You must use many grips, going wide or narrow to emphasize specific parts. Vary it further with overhand, underhand, and neutral grips to etch in finer details.
You also need to pull toward different heights on your midsection to hit certain fibers. You have to develop both width and thickness and choose separate exercises for each quality. Horizontal pulls build thickness and vertical pulls build width. You need hyperextensions for the lower back as well.
Use many sets and rep ranges to leave no fiber untouched. Generate lots of lactic acid to spur growth by really feeling the burn. Mix it up with free weights, machines, and maybe even use gymnastics rings. Hit the back with all manner of exercises, angles, and positions.
The traditional approach to back training is redundant at best and will lead to overtraining for most. You only need a single exercise to develop the whole back. You can work all the relevant muscles with a row.
The back does have several major areas that each has different functions. They come together though during any basic pull. Using awkward positions to hit each part of the back can harm your joints. It disables some muscles to make others seem to work harder. Instead, choose to hit everything hard and safely with just one movement. Feel good about your decision by considering these facts.
Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.
– Peter Drucker
- The whole back comes together for shoulder extension and scapular retraction.
That lats and teres major can internally rotate the shoulder. The rear deltoids can externally rotate the shoulder. The lats, teres major, and rear deltoids extend the shoulder as a unit though.
The upper traps elevate the shoulder blades. The lower traps depress the shoulder blades. All portions work together though to pull back the scapula along with the rhomboids.
So even though each muscle can have its own functions, they converge for any motion with shoulder extension and scapular retraction. This occurs on a row best. Most of these other functions are meant to take place unloaded as well.
- Muscle appearance comes from genetics and growth, not exercise selection.
Instead, adding size reveals shape.
Due to the broad attachment points for some of the back muscles, exercises probably do have slight differences in activation but only when used with very light weights. Once you go heavy enough to stimulate size and strength on the right exercise, all the fibers that can play a role will.
If you pay attention closely, you can contract your upper chest instead of your lower chest and vice versa. If you squeeze your chest as hard as possible though, you cannot choose which portion to activate. This same concept applies for the back muscles.
- A wide grip will not isolate the lats better.
A wide grip instead can cause shoulder impingement. We usually assume that impingement comes from overhead movements such as the overhead press, but it can come due to extreme external rotation as well. This also prevents the elbow flexors from contributing much, making it a less complete movement.
- An overhand grip does not work best.
An overhand grip does not isolate the back better. It merely cuts off the biceps from activating fully. An overhand grip forces the tendon of the biceps to wrap around a bone in your forearm called the radius. This prevents the biceps from helping much, which fails to create more tension in the back. If anything, research shows that muscles work harder when challenged alongside other muscles. This occurs due to synergy, more stability, and other factors.
- Do not flare the elbows or tuck them.
Flaring your elbows does not activate more of your upper lats, traps, and rhomboids. Instead it leads to impingement just like going widely does. It also lessens elbow flexor contribution.
Dropping the elbows does not hit the lower lats better either and emphasizes the elbow flexors too much.
The attachments remain the same regardless of where you place your elbows. It just changes where the bulk of the muscles lies and deceives you into thinking different parts work more. This will just use less muscle and possibly harm your joints.
- The upper and lower lats cannot be emphasized.
Once again, the attachments remain the same. Often lifters will say deadlifts and pulling lower on your torso hits the lower lats. Pull-ups and pull-downs hit the upper lats better.
These just hit something suboptimally and may harm your joints. Your forearms should be seen as perpendicular to your body when viewed from the side. This means the upper ribcage is the best place to pull the weight into your torso.
Training to failure with this position should recruit all the possible fibers. This is similar to contracting hard on the flat bench press. This hits both the clavicular (upper) and sternal (lower) parts of the chest. You have no need for decline and incline pressing and should eliminate them both. Avoid training from awkward angles and just focus on getting much stronger. Any slight differences could only occur with far less weight.
- Olympic lifting is unsafe and works poorly.
The Olympic lifts certainly work the back and many experts recommend power cleans for the back. These lifts are unsafe though. They also allow for no negative and fail to work the elbow flexors much.
- The pull-over works poorly.
On the surface, the pull-over seems like a winner. It hits the chest, back, long head of the triceps, shoulders, and core. These are big muscles all hit at once. The pull-over has the strength curve wrong though. The weight feels heaviest when your muscles stretch too much, preventing you from generating as much tension. Tension is the main stimulus for more strength and size. It also puts you into an overhead position which harms the shoulder.
The row works the same muscles more safely and effectively.
- Pulling through just the shoulder harms results.
Some recommend trying to pull back without using your elbows. This method claims to better isolate the back as you visualize the arms as hooks. The largest muscles always drive a movement no matter what. If anything, this technique just reduces the stimulus to everything. The arms never take over the back, and if you use the proper medium grip then all the involved muscles work about evenly.
- The lower back is a stabilizer.
The lower back is not meant for a range of motion. As such, avoid hyperextensions and instead focus on keeping a stable core through squats. You must keep a neutral, good posture to work the lower back safely.
- The degree in which the lats stretch makes no difference.
Often bodybuilders will say you need a really good stretch to stimulate growth. This applies especially to so-called stubborn muscles such as the calves. While a slight stretch will activate the pre-stretch and have some value, going for a very deep stretch may feel good but does little to stimulate growth. The length-tension relationship establishes this fact. The middle of the range of motion works best.
Get a Bigger Back with Rows
The row works the all of the back, protects the shoulder, and matches the weight with your strength. You also get the benefits of a major compound free weight exercise, including less joint strain and more muscle activation. They stimulate the lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, rear and middle shoulders, other elbow flexors, forearms, hands, core, neck, and many more muscles.
On the row, try to keep your arm 45° relative to the body. This will activate the back evenly along with the shoulders and arms. Avoid hyperextension of the shoulder to generate the most tension on these muscles and stay tight.
Just as importantly, make sure you eat and rest well enough to grow your back. Most trainees stimulate growth but fail to realize it due to these factors. They expect to magically grow bigger backs while not consuming enough calories and overtraining. Row n the safest and most progressive manner possible for a bigger back and ignore all the complexity out there.