Bent Over Rows:

The Real Back Thickener


Tom McCullough MEd.,MSS


Are you ready to get you back thick.....I mean so thick it feels like it is going to explode? Well let's get started! One of the biggest problems with not being able to develop a thick back is not the lack of genetics, but doing the wrong exercises. To many of us get stuck on the idea that isolation exercises are best. It's alright to use them as tools, but don't ever use them in place of the basic compound exercises. Perhaps one of the best exercises to thicken the back is: "The Bent Over Row." In fact, IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Porter Cottrell says, "Nothing creates the illusion of being bigger and gives you a greater advantage on stage than having a bigger thicker back, and one of the best basic compound movements for the back is the bent over barbell row."

As with most exercises, proper form is absolutely necessary to get optimal growth. The lack of good form means the wrong muscles will be stressed and at the worst....injury. Many times in the gym you will see people doing the bent over row while standing almost completely erect. Then they will even use a complete body swing to lift the weight. This kind of form is incorrect and will not lead to optimal back growth.


So what is good form you ask? Simple. Take a good stable stance with you feet about shoulder's width. Lean forward to about a 45 degree angle and bend the knees just slightly so you almost settle your abdomen onto your thighs with the hips being the center of gravity. The head and eyes should be pointed downward to help keep the back in proper position. Make sure the back is kept stable and flat by keeping that slight arch in the lumbar and the shoulders pulled back before you attempt to lift the weight off the floor. Most injuries come from the weight being lifted with the back rounded and then trying to correct the position in the middle of the lift. So get you body position right first!


Next comes the grip. Should it be wide of narrow? Start out by using a medium grip by grabbing the bar just a little bit wider that shoulders width . Using a grip that is too wide or too narrow only means that you will not be able to get a full contraction of your back muscles. There are however, several different hand positions or grips that we can use. We have the pronated grip (over hand), the supinated grip (underhand), and the over and under grip. Which one is best?
  • Pronated grip
  • With the pronated or over hand grip you want to pull the bar, with the elbows pointing upward, in a straight line up to just below the sternum. This is the point at which the greatest number of back muscles are activated. Where most people make a big mistake is by pulling the bar to the abdomen. This causes many of the adductors muscles of the shoulder girdle (upper back) not to be activated. Because the biceps are deactivated in this movement, you may not be able to lift quite as weight as you would with the supinated grip.

  • Supinated grip
  • Now, if you want to decrease activation of the shoulder girdle muscles and increase lat activation use a supinated or underhand grip and pull the bar up to the abdomen in a straight line. With this grip you should be able to increase the weight you use because you are also increasing activation of the biceps.

  • Split grip
  • The split or over and under grip simply means having one hand pronated and one hand supinated. This grip is more commonly used by powerlifters and will enable you to lift much more weight with out the use of lifting straps. Because the two different grips cause slightly different muscle recruitment patterns, it would be a real good idea to switch hand position every set.

    Now that we know proper form and the advantages and disadvantages of the different grips, letÕs load up the bar and get started developing a much thicker back. With proper nutrition and sound training, there is no reason why you can't develop the back of a champion.


    1. Chek, P. (1997). Rows, pulls, chins, & the deadlift. In: Gym Instructor Series, v3. Chek, P. Prod. La Jolla, CA: Paul Chek Seminars.

    2. Thompson, C.E. and Floyd, R.T. (1994). The shoulder girdle. In: Manual of Structural Kinesiology, 12th ed. Smith, J.M. Ed. St. Louis, MS: Mosby-Year Book.


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