How to Really Build Your Upper Back
The chest-support row builds your back like nothing else, and it’s safer than the barbell row. Check out these advanced variations.
The T-bar’s fulcrum is further away from the body, which means better activation of the key movers, like the lats, rhomboids, and lower traps. You don’t have to stabilize your lower back, which acts isometrically in a traditional barbell row.
When you do a free-standing barbell row, you’ll also experience more stress on the hips and lumbar spine, which can detract from the upper-back’s role in the exercise.
If you’re doing your upper-body work 24-48 hours after a lower-body workout, you’ll likely be training the same areas of the body again without enough time for optimal recovery. The chest-supported row eliminates the chances of overtraining and lumbar spine issues.
In short, a chest-supported version is simply more effective. Now, let’s look at some advanced variations:
Position yourself on an incline bench and grab some dumbbells. Use a full range of motion with a solid pause at the bottom of each rep. Do 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps. If you have access to Thompson Fatbells, try them for this. The loading distribution is different than dumbbells or kettlebells.
This variation works best using a cable stack since tension is consistent throughout the range of motion. Do 5 reps, then a 5-second iso-hold at the top. Without rest, do 4 reps with an 4-second hold, 3 reps with a 3-second hold, 2 reps with a 2-second hold, and finally 1 rep with a 1-second hold.
Do that two more times for a total of three sets. That’s 15 total reps per set and 15 seconds of isometric holds, so go a lot lighter than you think.
With this variation, you’ll do a single-arm T-bar row on both sides, then finish using both arms. Do 4 reps on each side, then another 4 reps with both arms. That’s 12 reps per set. Perform 4 total sets.
You may notice that one side is harder to stabilize. That’s why I’m using an irradiation technique with the opposing arm. This exercise also adds a rotary stability challenge, so start light.
This one works well if you have a handle that optimizes the range of motion. Using a supinated or underhand grip increases biceps activation while still smoking your upper back. Use this variation in a metabolic stress setting: 3 sets of 15-20 reps.
The T-bar row with both a neutral grip and a pronated (overhand) grip is the king of all upper-back exercises. You can go heavier for 6-8 reps per set or take a more traditional hypertrophy approach and do 10-15 reps per set.
The type of T-bar you’re using determines what type of loading you can handle. Even slight differences in pad angle can make a difference in the activation of the upper back, so experiment before doing your actual work sets.