Rows and Pull Ups: Are They Enough For Back Training or Do You Need More?

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Rows and Pull Ups are more than enough to train the upper back muscles. Pull ups are considered one of the best exercises for lat development. Whereas rows are ideal for strengthening the lats, traps, and rhomboids.

Back Workouts From the Golden Era of Bodybuilding

Men From the Golden Era of Bodybuilders

I’m a massive fan of the Golden Era of Bodybuilding.

I still find myself mesmerized by reading old stories, or viewing black and white photos of these old-time bodybuilders.

Most of these guys had some of the most impressive physiques you are ever likely to see.

This was an age where there wasn’t such a thing as performance-enhancing drugs.

These guys simply trained the basic barbell and dumbbell exercises and did extremely high volume bodyweight training.

Plus, they seemed to live off a diet of steak, eggs and gallons and gallons of milk.

So, basically these bodybuilders from years gone by kept things extremely simple and yet looked absolutely fantastic.

Someone that we all know, who is typically thought of as one of the most important figures in the history of bodybuilding is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold became part of the Golden Era and learned to train in the same way as everyone else.

Just a side note, still one of my favourite Arnie stories is when he first met the legendary Vince Gironda.

Arnie strolled up to Vince and told him, “I’m going to be the greatest bodybuilder the world has ever known”.

Vince look Arnie up and down and then replied, “You look like a fat f**k to me.”

Arnie’s Back Workout

Anyway, back to the point.

In Arnie’s book, The New Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, he spoke of some of their training principles from years gone by.

A huge part of their training was performing high-volume bodyweight exercises, especially for the upper body.

They would perform a wide variety of pull ups until they could no longer hold onto the bar.

This would involve close grip, wide grip, behind the head, underhand, overhand, weighted, etc.

In total these guys were performing anywhere between 30-50 sets of various pull ups, and as I say, until they could no longer hold onto the bar.

And that was their entire back workout.

So, if pull ups are good enough for Arnie, other Mr. Olympias, and the greats from the Golden Era of bodybuilding, then it’s good enough for you and me.

How to Train Rows and Pull Ups

“Master the basic pull-up and barbell row before moving on to fancy variations. These two exercises will build a solid back for any lifter.”

John Meadows (Bodybuilder & Trainer)

Now, I’m all for high volume pull up training.

In fact, I have a pull up bar at home and I typically perform a few hundred pull ups a week outside of my normal training regime.

Basically, every time I walk past the bar I crank out a few pulls or chins.

However, I think if you throw a variety of rows into the mix, well then we’re really talking.

If you train row and pull up variations this will be more than enough to develop muscle and strength in your back.

More specifically, your lats, traps, and rhomboids.

I honestly believe that there are few better lat-builders than pull ups.

Plus, taking a leaf out of Arnie’s and the old-time bodybuilders’ book, you can play around with hand position.

This will ensure that you’re hitting the lats and upper back for a wide variety of angles.

So, in essence, when you change your hand grip you’ll be working different muscles.

When it comes to rows I think that horizontal pulling can complete your back training.

Pull ups, chin ups, etc. are vertical pulling exercises, i.e. your torso remains vertical throughout the movement.

However, exercises like bent-over rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, and bodyweight inverted rows are all horizontal pulling exercises.

So, your torso remains horizontal throughout the movements.

You’ll still get a lot of lat work with horizontal pulling, but due to the angle of your body you’ll also hit the traps and rhomboids to greater effect.

I would also say that you should be performing at least twice as many horizontal pulling exercises than vertical pulling exercises.

So, a decent back workout may involve:

  • 2 sets of 3-5 reps of weighted pull ups
  • 3 sets of 6-8 reps of bent-over rows
  • 3 sets of 10-12 reps of inverted rows
  • 3 sets of 8-10 reps of one-arm dumbbell rows
  • 2 sets of 8-10 reps of chin ups

Obviously, by the time you get to your final two sets of chin ups you may find that grip begins to become a problem.

However, this is an extremely evenly spread upper back based workout.

Your Erector Spinae Muscles Won’t Get Trained

The only real issue I have with just using rows and pull ups for the back is that you won’t hit the entire back.

Basically, the lower back won’t receive much stimulation, and more importantly neither will the erector spinae muscles.

The erector spinae muscles are extremely important in allowing the vertebrae and spinal joints to move freely.

Basically, twisting from side-to-side, lumbar extension, and rotating the spine.

Not only are these movements important in exercise, you utilize the muscles with simple everyday activities, such as standing and walking.

So, suffice to say the erector spinae muscles play a huge role in daily life.

“The erector spinae is a powerhouse muscle group for spinal health and posture. Don’t neglect it! Choose exercises that target this area directly for optimal back development and injury prevention.”

Stu McGill (Strength Coach)

There are various exercises which target the erector spinae muscles to great effect.

Among my favourites I’d include deadlifts and rack pulls.

I will say that bent-over rows target the erector spinae muscles to some extent.

You are typically getting into a hip-hinge exercise, much the same position as you would for a Romanian deadlift.

However, this is where the similarity ends.

Most exercises which target the erector spinae muscle will also work the lower part of the posterior chain too, e.g. glutes, hamstrings, etc.

So, while I feel rows and pull ups are potentially all you need to train the upper back, don’t forget there are other back muscles which are just as important.

Key Learning Points

  • Bodybuilders from the “Golden Era of Bodybuilding”, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, often train their upper back with nothing but pull up variations.
  • Adding row variations would make a for a better all-round upper back workout.
  • Rows and pull ups will mainly work the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
  • The lower back, especially the erector spinae muscles, won’t be stimulated very well by just performing pull ups and rows.
  • For overall back development you should also perform exercises which target the lower back and erector spinae muscles.

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