The back is the largest muscle group in the body and is also the most complex. From the top of the trapezius at the base of the neck to the bottom of the lower back muscles, a number of other muscles co-exist. As this is not an anatomy lesson and is aimed at beginners, there will be no discussion of each individual muscle. Maybe for another time. Suffice to say that we will divide the group of muscles in the back into the upper back muscles and the lower back as they have a somewhat separate motion.
The upper back muscles serve mostly to pull the arms and shoulders back while the lower back muscles extend the torso away from the legs. It is not possible to isolate each group completely as they assist each other yet completely different exercises will be need to target each group. At this stage we will focus on the upper back as exercises for it also recruits the lower back as stabilisers. The back row is the exercise that targets the whole upper back muscles and the latissimus dorsi in particular and to a lesser extent, the lower back in order to support the upper back.
Into the starting position
In the standing position, start by holding a barbell in front of your body, palms facing down. Your grip should be slightly wider than shoulder-width and should form an angle of 90 degrees when you bend your elbows. Bend your knees a little into nearly a semi-squat position. Bend your back forward, up to an angle of 45 degrees to the floor and keep it flat at all times. Keep your neck in line with your back so that you look down and forward. This is your starting position. It does sound complicated with all the angles but it is important to get it right otherwise you will not stress the muscles correctly.
Take a deep breath then pull the bar up towards your belly button while breathing out. This is the concentric phase. When doing the pulling motion for all back exercise, imagine that the bar is attached directly to your elbow and that you have no forearms to move about. So you are pulling directly with your upper arms and that will reduce the emphasis on your biceps. If you allow the biceps to do too much work, then not only will you not be targeting the muscles of your back but your relatively smaller biceps will tire out before your back.
At the top of the concentric phase, when the bar is into your abdomen, squeeze tight your back muscles before lowering the weight again and breathing in. at the bottom of the movement, don’t let your arms hang down with the weight but keep tension in them. You have completed one rep.
The back row is an exercise that I found hard to master at the beginning because the position and movement seemed unnatural to me. There are many small variations that you need to experiment to find the right form for you.
It is also hard for many beginners to work the back muscles deeply in any back exercise because they are unable to see the muscle work. The eye-muscle link is a great tool to focus on the motion and feel the muscle work but with the back it is not possible. In this case you have to visualise the muscle working and some have trouble doing that.
You bend your knees to make the position more comfortable and to prevent you from toppling over. How much you bend your knees does not affect how much you will target your lats.
You can certainly change the angle at which you bend your torso. The position I just explained is the standard one which does not work at all for me. Dorian Yates, multiple times Mr Olympia, used to bend his back just barely, about 70 degrees to the floor and this is also the way I like to execute the barbell row. Be warned though, the less you bend, the more you target the muscles higher up on the back. So if you think your lower lats need more development, you should bend all the way to 45 degrees.
You can also change your grip, not just the width but also with palms facing up or down. I find that I can lift very heavy with a slight bend in the back, a narrow grip with palms facing up. At the top of the movement, I will squeeze my lats together hard and then lower the bar. I will only occasionally use lighter weight and bend further, especially when seeking a wider range of motion for the arms and when warming up.
So there you have it; palms up or down, wide or narrow grip, slight bend or as much as you can.
Although this post is to describe how to execute the back row, I feel it would be incomplete without mentioning a couple of other exercises very briefly.
The deadlift is also a major back exercise that works the whole body in a similar way to the squat. However, the deadlift targets the lower back muscles much more than the lats whereas the barbell row targets both muscles groups with more emphasis on the lats. It has also received a bad reputation among beginners who did not perform it properly and ended up with back pain. The form is very important in the deadlift and there is also a tendency to round the back when pulling the weight off the ground. I also much prefer the barbell row to it as I don’t feel the deadlift targets my back muscles sufficiently. For these reasons, I recommend the barbell row instead.
The other exercise I wanted to mention is the dumbbell row, performed with one arm at a time while the other arm supports the upper body. I won’t explain it here but suffice to say that it is also an excellent all-round back exercise.
The lats are very receptive to stimulation, or in plain English, they grow quickly in size when you work them out. You will find yourself popping wings out under your arms. Well, not that easily – you still need to sweat it out – but these are muscles that grow more easily than other muscle groups. By developing your lats, your upper body will attain that V-shape much sought after and will give the illusion or wide shoulders and an athletic figure, as long as you get rid of your paunch.