Build a Big Back Without Machines
You don’t need fancy equipment to build a big back. All you need is the dumbbell row. Here are the five most effective variations.
THE BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL ROW
The dumbbell row builds big backs and vice-like grips. It’ll even improve your posture. Sure, vanity muscles like pecs and arms are impressive, but a wide, thick back is the real hallmark of a high-performance body. That’s what makes heads turn.
The good news? You don’t need any machines or complicated exercises to score one; all you need is the row. Here are the five best dumbbell variations.
1. Kroc Row
1. KROC ROW
The Kroc row was created to fix grip issues on a deadlift, but it does more than that. It adds thickness and width to the upper back.
It’s a heavy, high-rep row designed to demolish your grip and build upper-back strength. While your technique might not be as “pristine” as a typical dumbbell row, it shouldn’t be sloppy.
Here are some pointers:
- Don’t arch the dumbbell. Use a controlled tempo or pause your reps.
- To maximize the stretch in your lats, fully extend your shoulder at the bottom and pull it up at the top.
- Retract your scapula as far as possible and imagine pulling your shoulder blades together.
- Keep your shoulders higher than your hips. Use an adjustable bench at the lowest setting.
- Straps are optional. They’ll help you lift more weight and build your posterior chain but leave some grip strength and forearm gains in the tank. Rotate between using straps and not.
- Do two lighter ramp-up sets of 8-10 reps, then one all-out set. Rest two minutes and repeat on the other side.
- Aim to hit 20 reps. Once you can hit 25 with the weight, increase the resistance. If you’ve maxed out the weight at your gym, move to 25 and 30 reps.
2. Chest-Supported Row: 10-6-10 Method
2. CHEST-SUPPORTED ROW: 10-6-10 METHOD
Chest-supported rows are an incredible exercise because the bench prevents you from cheating while helping you maximize the quality of each muscular contraction. By comparison, single-arm rows often resemble a flustered teenager trying to pull-start a dormant lawnmower.
Before jumping into the 10-6-10 method specifically, keep the following tips in mind with all chest supported rows:
- To emphasize your lats, imagine pulling your elbows to your hips. This creates a harder “squeeze,” particularly in your lower lats.
- To emphasize your traps/rhomboids (upper back), use an overhand grip and flare your elbows out to the side at 45-60 degrees. You won’t be as strong with this variation, so go lighter.
- Scoot your body forward on the bench and hang over the top. Maintain a neutral neck position. If you turn your head, you’ll change the muscle-firing pattern.
- Start light and squeeze. Treat chest-supported rows as an isolation exercise.
- Set the angle of the bench at 45-degrees or less; a smaller angle will hit your lats harder. A higher incline will place more tension on the upper back. Adjust as needed.
The 10-6-10 method has three phases:
Phase One (isometric contraction): Hold for 10 seconds at the beginning of the set to maximize your mind-muscle connection. Squeeze as hard as you can.
Phase Two (deliberate reps): Do 6 controlled reps. Try lowering the weight in 4 seconds (slow). Don’t pause on the bottom of the lift with your arms extended. Lift in one second (fast). Finish by squeezing your muscles at the top of the lift for a second.
Phase Three (overload partials): Do 10 partial reps to overload the tissues. You’ve already hammered the mind-muscle connection and used a slow tempo to create tons of metabolic stress. The 10 partial reps at the end finish off your muscles, creating tons of overload directly on the tissues to help you grow.
3. Iso-Dynamic Chest-Supported Row Ladder
3. ISO-DYNAMIC CHEST-SUPPORTED ROW LADDER
You’ll never maximize muscle growth in a muscle you can’t feel. It’s crucial to use methods that maximize the mind-muscle connection. The iso-dynamic row ladder fits perfectly.
Here’s what to do:
- Lay facedown on an adjustable bench inclined at a 45-degree angle.
- Row both dumbbells to your chest. Pause and hold the peak contraction for 2-3 seconds.
- While keeping the contracted position with your left arm, do 5 reps with your right arm. Pause and hold the last rep. Then do 5 reps with your left arm.
- Continue in descending fashion performing 4-3-2-1 reps, alternating arms.
Pick a weight you can do for 8 reps and push for a 5-1 countdown ladder. If you complete the set, you’ll be using your 8 rep-weight to do 15 total reps. Do two sets of this and call it a day.
4. Band-Resisted Dumbbell J-Row
4. BAND-RESISTED DUMBBELL J-ROW
The “J” row is a slight tweak on the classic dumbbell row to optimize the contraction of your lats.
Muscle fiber anatomy is often overlooked. Specifically, which direction muscle fibers run. To maximize the development of a muscle, train it in alignment with muscle-fiber orientation.
Your lats run from your shoulder down to your lumbar spine in a diagonal fashion. To get the most out of your row, allow the weight to travel in front of your body in a “J” pattern. This stretches and engages the hard-to-reach fibers that reside up near your shoulder.
So, where does the band come in? The band provides additional resistance at the peak contraction of your lats when the weight is close to your torso. The goal here isn’t to make the exercise significantly harder. Instead, the band (and the tension it creates at the end range) serves as a reminder to squeeze your lats.
When you add resistance from a band, you’ll maximize the quality of the muscular contraction at the opposite end of the movement as well.
- Anchor a band against an immovable object and loop it around your wrist.
- Align your torso with a bench. Place the hand supporting you on the bench along with that inside leg. Your outer foot will be on the ground.
- Brace your core to prevent rotation through your torso.
- Let the dumbbell start directly below your forehead. Row it up, arching from your forehead back to your hip pocket.
- Slightly pull your elbow back and around your rib cage, maximizing the contraction in your lats.
- Lower the weight back to the original position.
The band-resisted J-row is deceptive. Use 70-80% of your normal weight. The goal isn’t to go as heavy as possible. It’s to extend your range of motion and improve the contraction in your lats.
5. Batwing Row
5. BATWING ROW
Most one-arm row variations emphasize the lats. Batwing rows emphasize the rhomboids, which are crucial for optimizing posture and rear delts.
Your rhomboids are primarily responsible for retracting your shoulder blades. Most lifters have shoulder blades that are “stuck” to their rib cage because of poor thoracic mobility and sedentary lifestyles.
The batwing row teaches you to optimize shoulder retraction, helping you improve mobility and stability by reinforcing the movement of the scapulae with a muscular contraction.
- Lay on a low-incline bench. Hold weights directly below your shoulders.
- To start, imagine letting your arms hang down as if your body was wrapping around the bench.
- Initiate the movement by stretching your shoulder blades and pulling the weight back until your thumbs are tickling your armpits.
- Pause for 2-3 seconds to reinforce the muscular contraction.
- Keep the weight light. The goal isn’t to hoist as much weight as possible.