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Great-looking men’s backs exemplify at least two specific features. The upper back spreads like wings during a lat spread, but also the middle and upper back muscles explode with thickness and depth that runs from the hips to the upper back and traps. Most guys with pretty wide backs have spent hours in the gym each week doing pull-downs and chins. However, only the guys with the very best backs have invested in doing the kind of lifting needed to create a deeply muscled and impressive-looking back. Although there are better exercises for increasing the width of your upper back, there are not many exercises better at developing middle and upper back thickness than barbell rowing. Rowing is an effective activator of all middle back muscles, especially the latissimus and teres major and trapezius muscles, for back width and thickness.

Muscles Activated


The latissimus dorsi  (lats) is a superficial extrinsic muscle of the back and its development is critical for an overall thick appearance. It covers all of the middle and much of the lower parts of the back. The latissimus dorsi is attached inferiorly (at its bottom region) to many places, including the thoracic vertebrae and the iliac crest of the hipbones. The fibers of the latissimus dorsi also attach to the lower three to four ribs and the thoracolumbar fascia (a tough connective tissue sheet that covers the lower back). The fibers from all these areas converge like a fan and attach laterally to the upper (superior) portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm. It forms the majority of the width of the upper back inferior (toward the feet) to the armpit (axilla).

The fibers have several different angles of pull depending on where the fibers are attached. In general, the primary function of all the fibers acting together is to extend the humerus (pull the upper arm backward), adduct the humerus (bring the arm toward the center of the body) and medially rotate the humerus (rotate the shoulder so that if the palm of the hand is initially facing forward, medial rotation would turn the palm toward the midline of the body). The lower part of the latissimus muscle has a more direct line of pull with the shoulder flexed and arm raised to about 30 degrees above parallel with the floor. The middle fibers have a more direct pull with the hands and arms working at mid-chest level. The upper fibers are best activated with the shoulders a little above shoulder height.

By increasing the thickness of the teres major muscle, the width of the upper back immediately under the arm in the region of the axilla will be greatly improved. Barbell rowing is wonderful for activating this muscle, and the heavy loads that can be lifted are guaranteed to add thickness and depth to this muscle. The teres muscle attaches along the medial border of the scapula and attaches to the same region of the humerus bone as the latissimus dorsi. The teres major medially rotates the humerus bone and extends the humerus from a flexed position (brings the arm backward). The barbell rows activate the arm extension function of the teres major. Because it begins on the scapula, it’s more completely activated with the arms at mid-chest level (and is less mechanically active in the exercise with the arm and hand closer to the feet). That means it’s particularly important to pull the bar up as high as possible if you want to activate and thicken the teres major muscle.

Although rowing activates hosts of other small back and shoulder muscles, the final muscle that will be discussed in this article is the trapezius muscle. This is a large flat triangular muscle, which begins at the base of the skull and extends from the base of the cervical (neck) vertebrae to the last (12th) thoracic vertebrae in the back. It attaches to the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone) and along the medial border of the scapula. This arrangement forms a unique diamond-shaped muscle with three general regions, with each region having a different function. The middle part is most active in barbell rowing because it pulls the scapula toward the vertebral column (like squeezing the scapula together) at the top part of the row.

Bent-Over Barbell Rowing

1. Place a loaded Olympic barbell on the floor, preferably in front of a mirror. Place your feet under the bar, about shoulder-width apart.

2. Bend over from the waist and flex your knees and hips to reach the bar. There should be a flat line from your shoulders to your hips.

3. Place your hands in a pronated position around the barbell, with a grip that’s only slightly wider than your shoulders. When the weights get heavy, you might want to use wrist straps to avoid losing your grip before your back musculature fatigues.

4. Straighten your knees until your back is just slightly above parallel to the floor. Do not straighten your knees completely, as they should remain slightly flexed to absorb torque in the lower back that will be created by the exercise.

5. Keep your head up (looking into a mirror helps) and pull your elbows away from your ribs so there’s a straight line running from one arm to the other.

6. Pull the barbell up toward the mid-part of your chest (in line with the edge of your lower pectoralis and not your abdomen).

7. Keep your elbows away from your rib cage as the bar is pulled toward your torso. At the finish (highest point in the lift), there should be a straight line between both shoulders and your elbows. 

8. It’s very important that your lower back does not move (flex or extend) as the weight is being lifted or lowered. The slightly bent knees and flat back will reduce the risk of lower back injury; lifting or jerking a weight sloppily upward by having excessive movement in the spine will defeat this purpose and risk injury to your back.

9. From the top position, return the barbell slowly toward the floor (three to four seconds), but do not let the bar hit it. Attempt to obtain a stretch in your upper back with the bar in the lowest position. Do not move your lower back (i.e., this is not a deadlift), but make sure the stretch is in the middle and upper back. Then, pull the weight back to your chest for the next repetition.

10. Take 90 seconds or more between sets if you’re lifting particularly heavy. You will likely need this much time to prepare both mentally and physically for the next heavy set.

Training Tips

If you want to reach the uppermost fibers of the middle and upper back during barbell rowing, keep your torso about 20 degrees above a position that’s parallel to the floor. This position increases the emphasis on the teres major and reduces slightly the activation of the lowest fibers of the latissimus in favor of reaching fibers placed closer toward the head. It also activates the middle parts of the trapezius muscle and the upper parts of the trapezius (but of course, not nearly as strongly as shrugs or other direct trapezius exercises).

Your hands can be placed closer than shoulder-width and this will increase the range of motion for the latissimus muscles. However, the closer grip may increase arm (biceps) fatigue, decrease the amount of weight you can lift, vs. a wider grip and diminish the activation of the teres major muscles.

A thick back doesn’t come about with light weights, but heavy weights will take a serious toll both mentally and physically. As a result, your back is probably the most energy-draining area to train, at least next to the quadriceps. However, the barbell row is one of those great exercises for which the effort is worth it and you can obtain an enormous back “pump” after almost the first set. Although a pump is not permanent, if you’re serious about wanting a nice thick back, barbell rowing will eventually push your back to possess to a new dimension of thickness, even without a pump.

Barbell rowing will slowly add permanent slabs of new dense muscle to your middle back. Sure, barbell rowing is tough, but hang in there; the effort will be worth it.



Agur, AMR and MJ Lee. Grants Atlas of Anatomy. Tenth Edition. Philadelphia. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 1999, pp. 442-453.

Butterwick, D. J., Mohtadi, N. G., Meeuwisse, W. H., & Frizzell, J. B. Rupture of latissimus dorsi in an athlete. Clin.J Sport Med, 2003, 13, 189-191.

Kuechle DK, Newman SR, Itoi E, Morrey BF, An KN Shoulder muscle moment arms during horizontal flexion and elevation. J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 1997 Sep-Oct;6(5):429-39.

Lehman, G. J., Buchan, D. D., Lundy, A., Myers, N., & Nalborczyk, A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. 2004 Dyn Med, 3, 4.

McMulkin ML, Woldstad JC, Hughes RE. Torso loading via a harness method activates trunk muscles less than a hand loading method. J Biomech, 1998 Apr;31(4):391-5.

Miniaci A; MacLeod M. Transfer of the latissimus dorsi muscle after failed repair of a massive tear of the rotator cuff. A two to five-year review. J Bone Joint Surg Am, 1999 Aug;81(8):1120-7.

Moore, K.L. and A.F. Dalley II. Clinically oriented Anatomy. Fourth Edition. Baltimore, Lippincott Williams & Williams, 1999, pp. 690-697.

Williams GR Jr, Shakil M, Klimkiewicz J, Iannotti JP. Anatomy of the scapulothoracic articulation. Clin Orthop, 1999 Feb;(359):237-46.

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By: Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Title: Get a Bigger Back With Barbell Rows
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Published Date: Mon, 08 Nov 2021 20:39:55 +0000

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Ripped Leg Blast for Carved Thighs



Powerful and thick thighs require gut-busting exercises like squats and leg presses. However, once you have acquired adequate thigh mass and strength, you should consider adding some balance and sharpness to the muscle bellies in your thighs. Although tough to accomplish, leg extensions provide a great way to carve the separations between the muscle bellies, and to accentuate the “teardrop” shape of the four quadriceps muscles of the anterior thigh.

Active Muscles in Leg Extensions

The three vasti muscles comprise most of the anterior thigh.1 The vastus medialis covers the medial (inner) part of the femur bone (thigh bone). When it is well developed, it forms a teardrop-like shape over the medial side of the knee joint. The vastus lateralis muscle attaches to the lateral (outer) part of the femur bone. The vastus intermedius connects to the femur bone between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis muscles. The fibers of all three vasti muscles come together at the quadriceps tendon, which crosses the patella (kneecap) to attach to the tibia bone just below the knee.1

Together, the three vasti muscles extend the leg at the knee joint, although the vastus intermedius may be more fatigue resistant than the vastus lateralis.2 The vastus medialis oblique (VMO), which is a small part of the vastus medialis muscle, attaches to the medial part of the patella. It is thought to help the patella track properly during movement of the knee. Improper tracking can increase the likelihood for knee injury.

The vastus medialis and especially the VMO part of this muscle are primarily responsible for tibial rotation (rotation of the tibia bone of the lower leg on the femur) during knee extension. This rotation or “twist” has been shown to increase the activation of the VMO portion of the vastus lateralis even more than doing knee extensions with the hip adducted (thigh rotated so that the medial portion of the knee is facing mostly upwards).3 Dorsiflexion of the foot (moving the ankles so the toes are pointing towards your head) also increases the activation of the VMO by more than 20 percent.4 Likely this is because the dorsiflexor muscles stabilize the tibia during knee flexion and resist rotation of the tibia on the femur as the knee straightens.

The fourth muscle of the quadriceps group is the rectus femoris muscle. It attaches to the anterior part of the hip bone just above the hip joint.1 The largest bulk of the muscle fibers are located on the upper three-quarters of the thigh, whereas the largest belly of the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis are more inferior (i.e., closer to the knee). The distal end of the rectus femoris muscle becomes tendinous and it creates a deep valley between the lateral and medial vastus muscles as it approaches the knee.1 It assists the other quadriceps muscles by extending the leg at the knee joint, although it is less effective when the hip is flexed than if it is straight.

Leg Extensions

The three vastus muscles of the anterior thigh are strongly activated by single-leg knee extensions. The rectus femoris is not activated as strongly, but it does undergo some overload when the anterior thigh is under contractile effort, about halfway up to the top of each repetition.

1. You should always warm up your knees with some stationary cycling prior to getting into leg extensions. Furthermore, the resistance on your first set should be fairly light to allow the joint to fully warm up before you get to the heavier stuff.

2. Adjust the knee extension machine so that the pivot point of the lifting arm is directly adjacent to the center of the side of your knee joint.

3. Position the ankle roller/leg pad over the lower part of the leg (above the ankle joint).

4. Take about three seconds to slowly extend (straighten) both leg so that the weight is lifted upward from the stack.

5. Continue upwards until the tibia and the femur bones form a straight line and the knee angle is straight. Hold this for two seconds at the top.

6. Slowly lower the weight (about four seconds down) towards the starting position. Once the knee has reached 90 degrees, start the upwards extension phase again. Continue for 12-15 repetitions for the first set. Lower the number of repetitions but increase the resistance for subsequent sets.

7. On the next sets, lift the weight upwards until the knee joint becomes almost straight, but just slightly short of a total knee lockout. Be careful that you do not “jam” the knee joint into a fully locked out position, because this could cause knee cartilage damage5, especially with heavy weights. Hold the top position for a count of three before lowering the weight.

8. Lower the weight slowly (four to five seconds) towards the starting position where your knee is flexed to 90 degrees. Just before the weight stack contacts the remaining plates at the bottom, start lifting it upward for the next repetition.

The downward movement should be slower than the upward phase because you are resisting the pull of gravity. The slow lowering of the weight stretches the muscle under a resistance and this is a great stimulus to improve muscle shape and size.6

Make sure that you do not hold your breath during the lift upwards.7 Rather take a breath at the bottom (start) of the lift, and exhale as you extend the knees/legs. Take another breath at the top and slowly exhale as the weight is lowered. Take another breath at the bottom and repeat the sequence.

This is a mechanically simply exercise, but it really can be very challenging and blood depriving8,9, especially if you try to control the weight as it is moving up and down. However, if you are willing to work through some discomfort, you will be soon enjoying your new shape and slabs of carved thighs.

GettyImages 674163248 600


1. Moore K.L. Clinically Orientated Anatomy. Third Edition. Williams & Willkins, Baltimore, 1995; pp 373-500.

2. Watanabe K, Akima H. Neuromuscular activation of vastus intermedius muscle during fatiguing exercise. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2010;20:661-666.

3. Stoutenberg M, Pluchino AP, Ma F et al. The impact of foot position on electromyographical activity of the superficial quadriceps muscles during leg extension. J Strength Cond Res 2005;19:931-938.

4. Coburn JW, Housh TJ, Cramer JT et al. Mechanomyographic and electromyographic responses of the vastus medialis muscle during isometric and concentric muscle actions. J Strength Cond Res 2005; 19:412-420.

5. Senter C, Hame SL. Biomechanical analysis of tibial torque and knee flexion angle: implications for understanding knee injury. Sports Med 2006;36:635-641.

6. Alway SE, Winchester PK, Davis ME et al. Regionalized adaptations and muscle fiber proliferation in stretch- induced enlargement. J Appl Physiol 1989;66:771-781.

7. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011;43:1334-1359.

8. Denis R, Bringard A, Perrey S. Vastus lateralis oxygenation dynamics during maximal fatiguing concentric and eccentric isokinetic muscle actions. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2011;21:276-282.

9. Ueda C, Kagaya A. Muscle reoxygenation difference between superficial and deep regions of the muscles during static knee extension. Adv Exp Med Biol 2010;662:329-334.

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By: Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Title: Ripped Leg Blast for Carved Thighs
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PRIMAL Preworkout



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A Better Pump

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30 minutes prior to training, consume 2 rounded scoops (20.3g) with 8-12 oz of water or your
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(10.1g) to assess tolerance.

PRIMAL Preworkout

• Enhances energy and endurance†
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PRIMAL is a pre-workout that will power your performance and enable you to crush it every time you train.

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†These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This product is not
intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Title: PRIMAL Preworkout
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