Row To Grow, Bro: 8 Rowing Variations To Help You Build A Strong, Massive Back

If you wanna look big, you gotta get big. And if you wanna get big, you gotta train your back.

Big biceps are great. A broad chest is cool. But if you wanna look like you lift bro, building a wide back is a major key.

The back is not only a big player in making you look like you lift, but in how you actually life as well. Having a strong back will help you increase strength in almost every exercise you do.

Let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the back. Then I’ll show you some exercises to target each one of these muscles:

  • Trapezius – Also known as the traps. These start at the neck and extend down the center of the back. Big traps produce the power, or “no neck” look.
  • Latissimus Dorsi – The lats start under the armpit and run down to the waist. Their main function is to help draw the arms back and down.
  • Rhomboids – These attach to the lats in the middle of the back around the shoulder blades. Their main function is stability of the shoulder blades.

There are other smaller muscles of the back such as the spinal erectors and the teres major/minor, but the three above are the ones we’re going to be focusing on.

Here are 8 unique rowing variations to help you build a strong, stable, massive back…


There are actually three parts to the trapezius: the upper, middle, and lower traps. The upper traps sit on top of the shoulders and at the base of the neck. Their main function is elevating the shoulders. The middle portion of the traps retract the shoulder blades, pulling them towards the spine while the lower traps depress the shoulder blades, pulling them down.

The lower and middle traps are targeted alongside other muscles with most back exercises so the two exercises below are specifically designed to hit the upper traps and help develop the “power” look.

Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs

I like this shrug variation because it promotes pulling the shoulders back. Many of us spend a majority of our time with our shoulders rolled forward (which contributes to poor posture and back problems) so to me it doesn’t make sense to promotes the forward rolling of the shoulders.

That and my junk always seems to get in the way with front barbell shrugs.

Upright Rows

Upright rows are another great way to hit the upper traps, as well as the shoulders. This row variation gets a lot of hate because it’s said to be unsafe. Conventional thinking says to bring the elbows high, typically up to the ears. This however places a lot of strain on the rotator cuff. Limit the elbow movement to shoulder level to reduce the strain. The upright row is like any exercise. When done properly, it is completely safe.


With any rowing variation, taking a wider than normal grip is going to help emphasize the lats. Tanner talked about the snatch-grip row in this article. Here are two other great wide-grip variations:

Wide-Grip Seated Cable Row

The range of motion here is pretty short, but this exercise hits the back muscles pretty hard, especially the lats. Like any seated row, make sure the torso stays in a stationary, upright position and is not rocking back and forth as you move the weight.

Wide-Grip Pulldowns w/ Pause

Pull-ups would be my first choice here, but many people struggle to do pull-ups with proper form. This is where the wide-grip pulldown is a good option. Adding the pause at the bottom of the movement really increases the stress and tension on the lats.


The rhomboids and teres major/minor muscles make up most of the mid-back, and help provide that thick, strong look we’re after. While almost every back exercise is going to hit these muscles, the following four exercises really work well for adding size and strength in the rhoms.

Pendlay Row

Named after coach Glenn Pendlay, this variation is essentially a barbell row. The difference however is that each rep starts from a dead stop. This allows more weight to be used because the lower back doesn’t need to support the weight for long periods of time like with a regular barbell row. The Pendlay row is great for increasing strength and power.

Incline Dumbbell Row

This is a great variation because it removes a lot of the body English from the rowing movement. Lying on the bench allows you to isolate the back by removing the hips and lower body from the movement.

Standing T-Bar Rows

This not-often-seen exercise is great for increasing mid-back size and strength. Much like a barbell row, you want to keep a slightly arched back, with your head in a neutral position and your knees slightly bent.

Inverted Rows

Just because they’re a bodyweight exercise, don’t discount them. They certainly aren’t easy. And if you struggle with pull-ups, this is an easier alternative that will help. To decrease the difficulty, raise the bar higher off the ground. To make the move harder, elevate your feet.

The muscles of the back are key players in almost every exercise, so having a big, strong, stable upper back is key. Use these 8 variations in your programming and soon you’ll be walking sideways through doors.