Most people only train the muscles they can see in the mirror.
Chest, biceps, abs. Maybe quads. That’s a big maybe. Most guys just opt to wear pants instead.
But if you want to look like you actually lift, it’s the muscles you can’t see that matter most.
Lats, upper back, traps. These are the muscles that need to be trained effectively if you want to look and perform at your best.
A strong, muscular back is going to literally improve everything, from:
increasing your other lifts
improving your posture
filling out your V necks
making your shoulders feel less like rusty door hinges
While I’m personally not into training for the sole purpose of improving my appearance, it’s not lost on me that the primary reason a lot of people start to lift weights is because they want to look better. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as how you feel when you look in the mirror is going to have a big impact on your confidence and how you carry yourself. That’s all very important.
But it’s also important to realize that building muscle is a painstakingly slow process. Like watching paint dry on growing grass slow.
So, if muscle size is the only metric you use to gauge progress, it’s going to be really hard to stay the course, and you’re liable to ditch one program for the next one promising huge gains. This is the most common reason people don’t ever get anywhere with their training.
Instead, focus on improving your strength and performance, and the look will follow as those improve.
How to Build a Big Back
Since the average human attention span is about 8 seconds, here’s a quick bullet point tutorial on how to build a bigger, more muscular back:
Get stronger by centering your training around compound exercises, as they can be more readily loaded and progressed over time. This means getting stronger on squats, deadlifts, chin ups, carries, and rows, as they all put immense stress on the lats, traps, and scapular stabilizers. More stress=more training response, ie: more gainz.
Pick exercises that maximally stimulate muscles while minimally stressing joints. This is why you should favor dumbbell rows over traditional barbell rows.
I don’t typically advocate focusing on the working muscles on most exercises because it takes away from the effort. If you’re thinking about squeezing this and flexing that, it’s hard to do put forth your best effort towards actually doing the work. Generally, if you put yourself in the right positions, then the rest takes care of itself. Rowing is a bit different though, because without giving some special attention to your technique, it’s common to start pulling with your arm more, rotating your shoulder forward, or twisting side to side, all of which keep you from getting what you want out of the exercise-a big back.
Keep at least a 2-1 ratio of pulling to pushing reps in your program. While you generally want to adhere to rule #1, mixing in sets of band pull aparts, rear delt raises, and face pulls between sets of lower body and pressing exercises can help to counteract all of the sitting, slouching, and previous benching you’ve done in your life.
Why Dumbbells Over the Barbell?
Barbell rows have been staples in bodybuilding programs for decades because, when done correctly you’re able to move some serious weight.
The downside is that your lower back takes a serious beating if you load it heavy enough to elicit strength gains, and if you go light to save the lower back, it doesn’t really do much for building strength.
This is why dumbbell rows are a superior option: you get enough support from a bench to take some stress off the lower back, while still being able to load the exercise sufficiently enough to build strength.
More so, using a dumbbell better allows your shoulder blade to rotate outward and upwards on the way down, meaning you have to do the opposite to row it back, which will work the stabilizing muscles of your scapula to a larger degree.
While dumbbell rows are uber effective at building a strong back, they can get boring AF if you do them in the traditional 2 point manner forever. Luckily, a few small adjustments can make them feel significantly different and give a novel stimulus.
The 5 Best Rowing Variations For a Bigger, Stronger Back
2 Point 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
This is Old Faithful, and the most common way to perform dumbbell rows. Here are a few key coaching points:
Keeping your spine neutral and head in line with your body, position one knee on a bench with the other out to the side enough to give you a stable base.
Grip a heavy dumbbell with a vice grip and start the movement by pulling your shoulder blade into your opposite back pocket.
Think about driving your elbow back towards your hip, not towards your armpit.
“Push your chest to your hand,” is another cue I use a lot.
Allow your shoulder blade to rotate out around your rib cage at the bottom of each rep, and repeat by pulling it down and back to start the next rep.
3 point 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
This variation will give slightly less support from the bench, which give a bit more of an anti rotation core challenge.
The execution is the same as on the 2 point DB row, but the position is different as you have both feet on the ground.
Be sure to have your feet far enough back so that your legs are out of the way as you row
Keep your weight balanced between the hand on the bench and your feet
Staggered Stance 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
By staggering your feet, you’ll have even more of an anti rotation challenge than with the 3 point DB row.
Be sure to keep your hips square, as the staggered stance will make you want to rotate and open up your hips.
Dead stop 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
Dead stop rows are going to build pulling power by challenging the concentric portion of the exercise while nearly eliminating any eccentric component.
These can be done with a 3 point or staggered stance.
Start by “pulling the slack” out of your arm to begin by setting your shoulder blade down and back.
Once you have tension through your arm and shoulder, drive your elbow back towards your hip as explosively as you can.
Return the dumbbell to the floor quickly, but controlled.
There should be no jerkiness to the movement at all, but rather a controlled, explosive action.
Bench Supported Meadows Row
While not a dumbbell row, this is a nice change of pace variation.
Position a barbell in a landmine nearly 90 degrees to a bench.
Set up as if you were going to perform a 2 point DB row.
Grab the sleeve of the barbell and row it in the same way you would any other DB row.
Sets, Reps, and Loading
You can use a variety of set and rep schemes on dumbbell rows, from super heavy sets of 5 through higher rep sets of 20+. Generally, I like to keep them in the 3-5 set range for between 5 and 12 reps, as, with most exercises, things tend to get sloppy as the reps go up. By keeping the reps in a more moderate range, you’ll be able to keep tension throughout the entire set, while loading it sufficiently enough to build strength.
As a general rule of thumb, the more advanced you are, the higher you can push the reps. If you’re new to an exercise, or have trouble “finding,” your lats, keep the reps on the lower end and focus on feeling your back muscles work. Adding in a 1-3 second pause at the top can help with this as well.
Did reading this clear up any confusion? Change your mind about anything? If so, I’d appreciate you sharing it and/or giving your thoughts below!