by Jim Cordova

There are two particular days of my fourth grade experience that I remember quite well. One involves the teacher breaking a long ruler over my butt in front of the class and the other was the day when the school nurse virtually convinced me that I was going to grow up looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame! Of course she was concerned about the unusual hump located in the upper-middle portion of my back, but after probing into the matter, my physician concluded that I simply possessed an unusual amount of muscle fiber in the back region…as in, more than any other ten-year-old that he had ever seen!

You might then suppose that a well-developed back came easy for me and I can therefore teach you very little. On the contrary, I have had my share of sunken traps and narrow lats, with enhancement of the latter being my present goal. The process of seeking to turn my fiber dense back into one of the freakiest in the natural bodybuilding world has allowed me to acquire a vast extent of knowledge over the years. In this two-part article, I am going to share some of my best strategies!

I have great news for those of you that have developed the traps using heavy weight for low reps: You haven’t even tapped into your full potential! There are quite a few studies indicating that more than half of the muscle in the trapezius will consist of slow-twitch fiber, which means it is of great benefit to use higher reps in addition to heavy weight. If you have ever gone for a long hike carrying a heavy backpack or have had the opportunity to watch an episode of the World’s Strongest Man where they shrug or row heavy objects for long periods, it may have dawned on you that the traps are designed for endurance as well as power. This should make sense given that they support your arms throughout the day…hence, my comedic proverb that “the best way to get big traps is lug around a pair of huge arms!”

There is great opportunity for region-specific training of the trapezius muscle and your exercise selection should correlate with each of its three unique functions. The upper trap fibers are responsible for elevation of the scapula, such as when shrugging. The lower fibers mainly serve by depressing the shoulders, which occurs when contracting at the bottom of an overhand lat pulldown. The middle fibers allow you to retract the shoulders back to varying degrees. Performing a higher-angle barbell row will blast this section of the traps to the extreme!

Positioning is everything when it comes to back training. To be more specific, it is so important that you would do yourself a great deal of justice to start viewing the barbell row as a generalized class of different exercises. Upon reading that last sentence, many of you are already thinking along the right lines by dividing the barbell row into the underhand and overhand variations. Good! Yet, there is much more to it. In fact, I can show you how to adapt the barbell row into many distinct movements, each hammering the major back muscles in a unique way!

(As a side note, it is quite difficult to express the constituents of proper form with words alone. Please keep that in mind when reading the following illustrations, as grasping the positioning tactics may take some trial and error. To better clarify them for you, click on the highlighted links to view the video demonstrations.)

You can take the barbell row – arguably the greatest back thickening exercise on the planet - to the next level by being more detailed with your region-specific goals. Regardless of the target region, there are three key factors that you will want to pay attention to. I know it will surprise some of you, but grip style is not one of them! Rather, you will want to focus on the position of your upper arms, the angle of your upper body, and the width of your grip. Grabbing the bar with either a supinated or pronated grip is merely a comfort factor based upon your goal-oriented combination of these three factors.

Let’s begin by contrasting two distinct overhand versions of the barbell row – one that primarily hits the traps and another that shifts more emphasis onto the lats. We will begin by establishing the form basics. First, elevate your arms out to the sides at shoulder level, with palms facing down, so that your upper body forms a cross. Next, lower them down about four to six inches and form your arms into a 90-degree angle. Lastly, while keeping the upper arms at this level, practice elbowing back and just a bit upward. You should feel an outstanding isometric contraction in the mid to upper traps. To align your body against gravity when transferring this into a you will need to maintain a higher angle and bring the bar near the mid to upper ab region, bordering on touching the sternum.

Once you master that, drop your upper arms even further so that they are around 3-5 inches away from your waist and you see your hands ending up aligned around your mid to lower abdominal region. Again, mimic the rowing motion in this position. This version will stimulate the (mid/upper) lat region, and the contraction should make it obvious. When performing them, you will need to bend the upper body down lower than the mid-trap version to use gravity to your advantage.

Now, if you were to drop your elbows any closer to the waist and perform the same test, you will feel the stress transfer down the lats, shifting more stress the lowest region of fiber. An underhand grip will better assist the position of the arms and make it feel natural when transferring it over to the barbell and pulling to the lower abs. Likewise, you will have to bend the lower body down a bit further to optimally line the tension up with lower region of lat fiber. As a general model, you should bend your body lower as you target muscle groups from top to bottom, or from the traps down to the lats.

The ideal width of your grip on every variation of the barbell row can be found by performing the following test: pick a target region, perform a strong isometric contraction, bend the arms at roughly 90-degrees, utilize the most comfortable hand position (pronated or supinated), and there you have it! Keeping the arms bent around 90-degrees upon reaching the ab region is a good basic model to ensure that you are not over-working the biceps. It may have also dawned on you that your grip width becomes a bit narrower and the upper arms begin to tuck closer to the waist as you work the back from the mid trap region to the lats. Lastly, many find the pronated hand position to be ideal when performing most barbell row variations. Upon pulling toward the lower ab and pelvis for the mid to lower lat region, you may find that a supinated grip is best suited to the degree of arm rotation necessary to blast these fibers.

I have devoted the majority of this article to the barbell row since I believe that this exercise stands alone as king when it boils down to delivering rapid lat and trap thickness, particularly fanning out from their origination points along the mid-back region. Of course, if I didn’t have to whip up thirty of these articles to convey a well-rounded view of sound training practice for my readers, I would have written just as much on the dumbbell row, which I find to be better suited for lat development. The freedom to match your grip most naturally to the degree of arm rotation, along with the ability to move through a greater range of motion, makes this movement an essential. Until that time comes, you might want to flip onto the second part of this article, which is devoted to an all out attack on the lats!