I’ve spent plenty of time here on Muscle & Strength blasting poorly executed presses, squats, and deadlifts.
Last article, even pull ups got thrown under the bus.
But an underdog movement that has a high incidence of being botched at the gym would be the row. And I don’t just mean one variation – I mean all variations.
It’s a very rare occasion where I see rows being used properly to actually engage the upper back to do the work.
It seems like a simple task, but it takes more critical thought than most give it credit for.
Allow me to help walk you through the how-to’s.
First: How do you Set your Shoulders?
Hold your arms out at full extension in front of you. Really reach as far as you can forward and let the shoulder blades move as far apart as you can make them go. Next, without bending your elbows, make your arms shorter.
That’s not a trick cue. To pull this off, you have to pull from the shoulder first. Drawing your shoulder blades towards one another and raising your ribcage will engage the back muscles, pull your arms closer, and make your extension shorter.
This might feel strange but it’s the most effective and safest way to set up for most upper body movements – and absolutely vital if you want rows to hit your back.
And there’s more.
You also want to get used to this contraction and relaxation between every single rep. It’s not as worthwhile to set your shoulders once and then think you can maintain that shoulder-set for the entire duration of your 10 or 15 reps. Muscles get tired, and it takes an isometric muscle contraction to hold your shoulder blades in that set position.
Instead, focus on relaxing the muscles and letting the shoulders “go” between each rep so you can reset a strong position. Here’s an explanation of it referring to another back exercise (all the same principles apply).
Variation 1: Seated Row
The bread-and-butter movement for most guys doing rows is the seated row. The setup itself is something that requires plenty of review. Many guys sit on their tailbones and use weight that’s far too heavy for what they’re after.
As a result, the slouched position and heavy loading changes body mechanics and the posture can’t be addressed at all. Apply these cues in order to get the most out of the seated row:
- Set your feet so that the knees are bent at about a 120 degree angle. Your legs shouldn’t be straight, but they shouldn’t be bent the way you’d sit in a chair either.
- Attempt to sit on your hamstrings, and not your glutes. This will help emphasize an anterior pelvic tilt and keep your posture tall. Sitting on your tailbone will cause you to slouch.
- Set your shoulders first, and pull the weight toward your mid section, using the right point of contact: The upper abdominals. Pulling too high will engage more of the arms, and pulling too low will encourage your shoulders to exit the proper position.
- Remember to raise your ribcage on each rep to emphasize the back muscles even more. It’s OK to finish the lift on a very slight backward lean.
Variation 2: Bentover Rows
For starters, I’ll put it this way: If you can’t deadlift, don’t even bother trying bentover rows.
The reason I make this rule is because the bentover row requires plenty of lower back stability to hold position while performing another activity with the arms. Being able to self-cue a flat lumbar spine while bearing load is the first step to success here.
But there’s a little more to this one. In the case of bentover rows (and truthfully, even seated rows to a lesser degree), an experienced lifter after size needs to learn how to safely incorporate more of his body. Using a properly implemented top rock will avoid the scenario of the arms no longer being able to pull a weight that the back can easily handle.
Staying completely still and letting the arms do all the work while contracting the shoulder blades is effective, but only to a certain point. If you want to expose the muscles of the back to more load, especially during the eccentric portion of the lift, it’s okay to use a sharp, well executed top rock to create momentum.
When you think of actual rowers, a component to their sport’s movement is a “reach” before the “pull” phase. This puts the hips into deeper flexion and allows for a row that involves the entire back. The same logic applies here. There’s nothing wrong with this directive as long as the spine is kept in neutral or slightly extended while it’s being applied.
For more, view the video below.
Variation 3: Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
So you put one knee up on the bench and row to oblivion. No need for toprock and it’s way easier to set one shoulder than it is to set both. No room for errors, right?
Aside from the unbearable twisting I see most lifters do when moving too much weight in this exercise, a key mistake most lifters make even with a proper setup is that of pulling the weight at the wrong angle. To be fair, many lifters mistakenly think the single arm DB row is a great hit for the scapular muscles, especially since it has “row” in its title.
In truth, it may not occur to them that this setup is more conducive to the lats getting developed if the exercise is executed properly.
It all depends on the force angle. The fibers of the lats travel on a bit of a slant. Making sure your upper arm follows that path will make the dumbbell travel on a bit of an angle.
If you treat the single arm row as a scapular exercise, it’s not quite as effective (done “correctly” for that purpose) as it would be if you treated at as a lat exercise (also done correctly for that purpose). Lower the weight, and chase higher reps done the right way.
It’s time for an ego check. The back muscles are too important to tamper with. Don’t be a hero.
You won’t develop your back by trying to lift the world, because the result will be poor form, and a pair of jacked forearms to go with your chicken wing shoulder blades.
If you want a pump for the ages, you’ll have to take things down a notch and hammer down proper technique.
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