Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Nothing signifies strength like a big, strong back. Thick, broad and detailed lats, rhomboids, teres minor and major and a thick, cable-like lumbar are all attributes sought after by many but achieved by few. Building said back requires toiling away with the right kind of tools and applying a heavy dose of intensity. Wasting precious time in the gym with non-essential exercises, resulting in little gains and a lot of frustration isn’t the best and most efficient way to get to your goal.
Two big boys on the block regarding back mass, strength and thickness are the deadlift and the bent-over barbell row. No other two exercises come close to packing on the mass and thickening your back than these two power houses. But what are the pros and cons of each and which comes out on top for your back mass needs? Let’s break down both moves for a closer look at how to perform them and what each is best at.
As the ultimate whole-body exercise, nothing will challenge you in one move quite like the deadlift. Calves, quads, hams, glutes, lumbar, lats, traps, biceps and core are all stressed to a great degree. As a highly efficient move, the deadlift is a one-stop shop for overall body mass. Bend down at your hips and knees with a straight back and grasp a bar close to your shins. Take an alternating grip that is shoulder width apart and make sure your hips and glutes are low.
Begin the move by pulling the bar up simultaneously using your hips quads, back and stabilizing with your shoulder girdle. Continue pulling the bar with a straight back while keeping the bar close to your body and your core tight. Straighten your body without leaning back and stressing your spine too much. Once at the top, reverse the motion and repeat the same form touching (not slamming) the bar back to the floor and repeat for reps.
Pros: As a relatively full-body move the deadlift works a myriad of musculature. It is quick to pack on the mass and strength and sets in motion a natural surge in growth hormone and testosterone to help you with all your muscle-building needs. The deadlift is also considered a highly effective functional exercise enabling you to conquer everyday laborious tasks with ease. It will also aid other lifts, supporting ancillary muscles for better performance in the squat, standing presses, rows and other standing exercises.
Cons: For the untrained and unfamiliar, the deadlift can be a potentially dangerous exercise. Spinal compression, hip and knee injury and neck strain can all stem from poor form and little preparation. Also, since the deadlift causes great central nervous system expenditure, it can quickly lead to burnout and over training when not scheduled into a program correctly. Careful consideration and proper form and technique are musts when performing a correct deadlift movement.
Another big back mass builder is the bent-over barbell row. Rows are thought to be the bench press for the back. When performed correctly, the row enables you to move a lot of weight and really thicken the lats and other areas hitting the entire back. With a barbell in hand at a shoulder width, overhand grip, bend over at the hips (not the waist) with your butt out behind you and knees bent as if you were in the down position of a Romanian deadlift.
Pull the bar toward your waistline squeezing your shoulder blades. Slowly reverse the motion and repeat for reps. Be sure to actually bend over at least at a 80 degree angle as to not turn this exercise into an upright row which is seen far too many times. Use a moderate weight that you can handle with proper form before adding any additional weight.
Pros: The barbell row is a true mass builder if there ever was one. Nothing spells more muscle than ripping the bar off the ground and rowing some heavy stuff. Cables and machines can’t compare to the row for overall muscle-building potential and upper body strength. Although the bent-over row can come in many versions: dumbbell, t-bar and reverse grip, the free weight row is a staple in any routine.
Cons: If performed with less than textbook form the row can be a potentially dangerous exercise much like the deadlift. Spinal stress, lumbar strain and other pulls are just a few of the injuries that may occur. Several other factors can easily come into play due to poor execution or just plain ego such as too much of an upright posture, too much weight used and too much sway and jerking the weight up.
As both exercises pack on the mass, there are some significant differences in not only the function of each but also the actual mechanical muscular action. The deadlift, although known for thickening the back, mostly gleans itself as a static contraction type exercise with little movement in the lumbar. The barbell row on the other hand lends itself as a true stretch and contract type move in the more traditional sense. Another similarity is the stress each move puts on the CNS. This would have to be closely regulated in any program to minimize injury and burnout. This is also evident when you throw squats into the mix.
Both the deadlift and barbell row have their places in an effective back building program but would be best alternated from one back workout to the next. Both have their own unique way of stimulating growth and strength but can also lead to too much strain and chronic soreness if not used and performed properly. Give them both a try and see for yourself.