When was the last time anyone in the gym asked you “how much do you row, bro/girl?” I’d venture to guess a bit fat “never,” as normally this question is reserved for the chest or booty regions regarding how much you can respectively bench or squat. The fact remains, however, that while lower body strength is imperative to lower back health, if you aren’t matching your pushing strength movements (bench) with an equal or greater number of pulling strength movements (rows, mostly), you are greatly costing yourself in the muscle balance/overall aesthetic realm. Ergo, if you cannot horizontally pull at least 80% the resistance of what you can horizontally push, you likely already have, or are currently developing some chronic shoulder girdle/rotator cuff problems. If the following four rowing [scapular retraction] exercises aren’t in your strength program, consider yourself informed enough after reading this blog post to add them promptly.
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
One of the most basic, regress-able and progress-able strength movements out there, the single arm dumbbell row challenges unilateral (one side of the body) back strength as well as that anti-rotational core strength (see the anti-rotation press) we previously discussed. In this first video, we focus on two points of support (knee and hand on the bench) so that we aren’t adding too much instability too soon. Thus, the athlete or client systematically learns to use the muscles of the upper, mid, and lower trapezius to pull the resistance toward them while stabilizing the shoulder, engaging the abs and glutes, maintaining rigidity in the spine, resisting the urge to shrug, and not preferentially using the bicep muscle as a primary mover but more as a synergist (helper).
Once this movement has been mastered using two-points-of-support, I progress to a standing one-point-of-support position using a hip-hinge stance. Here, only the non-lifting hand makes contact with the bench, the athlete or client has a minimal knee bend (enough so that the knees are not in the way of the dumbbell path during the row) and hips “hinge” so that the butt sticks out, the back is flat, and the abs are tight. A more maximal anti-rotational force is present in this position due to only one-point-of-suppport taking place, and the individual is now able to contract the abs and glutes a bit harder since the feet are able to push more into the ground.
TRX Inverted Row
Nothing in the strength world supersedes the ability to control your bodyweight under tension. Be it the plank, the pushup, the air squat, or in this case the TRX inverted row, you must be able to maintain a tight core and rigid spine “calisthenically” before moving on to heavier, externally loaded movements. The TRX inverted row is not only the hallmark TRX exercise (created by former Navy Seal Randy Hentrick during deployment abroad amidst the need for himself and fellow soldiers to maintain strength and fitness under fire), it is one of the most regress-able and progress-able upper body strength movements in existence. All one must do is simply adjust the strap lengths or move one’s foot placement to immediately alter the level of resistance. Step back to make it easier, step forward to make it harder. It’s a great movement for the most rudimentary beginner client, or even the most seasoned Crossfit Athlete (completely horizontal with the feet elevated on a box, or with external weight on the chest or abs, for example). Make sure to pull the handles into the chest at the end range of motion, and as always, avoid shrugging and instead squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining a tight core.
Single Arm/Bilateral Cable Row
Both these movements are solid unilateral and bilateral alternatives to the unilateral dumbbell row, and the bilateral variation is very similar in procedure to the TRX Inverted Row. The main point of difference is that the cable row allows for a more universal athletic stance to be incorporated, and I personally love any movement that calls for a higher degree of hip extension and all around lower body engagement (that said, the TRX Inverted Row is an essential movement to master in this series of progressions). Thus, whether you are seated for the cable row or standing (shown in the lower video, unilateral only), the glutes and abs are really being forced to brace, and because of the upright position you can really feel the direct contraction of the shoulder blades being pinched together (more so with the bilateral variation- the unilateral variation with precipitate a great anti-rotational contraction similar to the dumbbell row). This trap engagement isn’t as easy to feel during the TRX Inverted Row or single arm dumbbell row even though it is taking place. For many lifters, simply the feel of squeezing the traps is enough verification that the movement is being performed correctly. Just like with the TRX Inverted Row, however, make should that a shrug/upper trap dominant movement isn’t taking place, and that an adequate bracing of the abs and glutes allows for the mid and lower traps to be fully engaged.
Bilateral Barbell Row
Once you master rowing strength, once you master your hip hinge, once you master core stabilization and fusing together the intense contraction of your glutes and abs- the bilateral barbell row (or bent over barbell row) awaits! It deserves a dramatic intro because it is a highly demanding movement, yet remains one of my personal favorites once you gain comfort in pulling a barbell horizontally (somewhat diagonally) while locking your hips and spine in a parallel-to-the-ground, hinged position.
The biggest mistake most people make right out of the gate with this movement is- surprise surprise- putting too much weight on the bar. You could say this about most movements in the gym, but this one in particular requires you to select a weight you can actually lift, because a slightly heavier-than-manageable load is still highly liftable, but not in the correct movement pattern. In other words, you might think you are doing it correctly, but you likely aren’t!
The second biggest mistake most people make with the barbell row (usually caused by the biggest mistake) is coming out of the hip hinge and shrugging the barbell. When you perform this movement standing too upright, the barbell pattern is now too posterior shoulder and upper trap dominant. Instead, lessen the weight, perfect your hip hinge while gaining comfort with it (I mean this-take the time to master it while contracting the butt and abs), and use an empty barbell or even an EZ bar until the bar path feels organic. Furthermore, don’t even try this movement until you have mastered the dumbbell single arm row in both variations, the TRX Inverted Row, and both cable row variations (bilateral and unilateral).
So there you have it- four movements you can start incorporating into your strength routine right now to improve pulling strength, shoulder health, and all around muscle balance and aesthetic. While the TRX Inverted Row, single arm dumbbell row progressions, and cable row movements can be programmed concurrently, the bilateral barbell row is a progression that requires a mastery of the same core engagement performed during an intense front plank, along with the hip hinge. Fail to perform this movement correctly and with proper mechanics, risk injury and see too much an emphasis on the rear deltoids and upper traps. Good ab engagement helps to recruit the mid and lower traps, which is what you want for more complete back engagement in the first place. Remember…earn your progression and adhere to a standard! Build a better back, build a better you.