More than a few times we have walked into the gym and proceeded to train only for our eyes to start wandering around. A lot of the time our eyes set sight on others, especially when a simple exercise being performed looks like something out of a circus, more or less like a monkey fucking a football.
My ego has taken control many times over the years while in the gym. On more than one occasion it has definitely got the best of me. Recently, I have learned to tame it, control it, and focus on doing the exercises in my training correctly and not let the weights take over my lift.
One of the most common movements that I see this done with is bent over rowing exercises such as the barbell row and dumbbell rows. These two movements gym goers seem to let the ego into the ring with the most. They load the barbell with multiple plates(way more than they can lift) and proceed to pull the bar towards them while their upper back falls out of position, downwards towards the bar.
Now, let’s go back to basics and explain what these movements train.
Rowing movements such as the two of these mentioned primarily train the middle back, latissimus dorsi muscle , rhomboids, traps, and to a lesser degree biceps and rear delts.
Here is fantastic step by step writeup on how to do the barbell row perfectly from Strong Lifts:
“1. Walk to the bar. Stand with your mid-foot under the bar. Don’t touch it with your shins. Medium stance, toes pointing out.
2. Grab the bar. Use a medium grip width. Narrower than on Bench Press, wider than on Deadlifts. Hold the bar low in your hands.
3. Unlock your knees. Keep your hips higher than on the Deadlift. Bend your knees but keep them back so the bar can’t hit them.
4. Lift your chest. Straighten your back. Don’t move the bar. Don’t drop your hips. Don’t squeeze your shoulder-blades together.
5. Row. Take a big breath, hold it and pull the bar against your lower chest. Lead with your elbows and pull them to the ceiling.”
This video shows you how to correctly execute this movement.
Simply put, if you overload a barbell and attempt this movement you won’t be able to maintain proper form and target the muscles correctly. You also chance the possibility of injury.
The dumbbell row, while being a similar movement typically targets the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, lower traps, and erector spinae, and requires a huge degree of stabilization from the rotator cuff. It is an exercise I included in here because I see it done all too often with poor form and just like the bent over barbell row, people sacrifice form for more weight. By rounding your back , and or bouncing your body just to get the intended weight up, it doesn’t allow the full range of motion to be utilized. Doing this poorly robs your back from making the gains you want!
While doing this movement you want to keep your back neutral and pick a weight you can move through the entire range of motion and get good scapular retraction at the bottom of the movement. When rowing it upward it’s best to think of the cue of moving the dumbbell in the direction of the opposite back pocket instead of just upward towards the ceiling. This will help you from letting the traps do all the work and focus more on the Middle back.
Here is a very overly exaggerated video of poor form where the body goes into kyphosis(exaggerated rounding of the back).
One exercise that is lesser known but is fantastic for keeping your ego in check is the Pendlay Row, which was named after Coach Glenn Pendlay.
This movement is a bent over row in which the bar starts from the floor for each and every rep. This allows you to reset and get into correct position each time allowing more weight to be used because the lower back isn’t needed to support the weight for a long period of time.
Here is a great video from T-Nation showing this exercise performed with perfect form .
If you don’t like this movement, another excellent rowing option that takes the lower back out of the equation( especially if it sore from previous days training) is the Seal Row.
This type of row is done with an elevated flat bench and a barbell positioned underneath it with a moderate weight. With this exercise, you position your body 3/4 of the way on the bench face down, take a deep breath, reach down a little wider that shoulder width, and row the weight towards your butt and squeeze your back in the process.
A lot of gyms don’t have the right style bench for this but where there is a will there is a way as you can see in my video. I utilized a flat bench and elevated it with risers and used a shorter barbell with 25’s on it so I can get the length needed for full range of motion.
Rowing exercises such as these can make you big and strong and should be staples in your training. Just make sure to keep your ego in check and do the movements right and utilize their full potential.
Feel free to email me any questions you may have.
Resources: stronglifts.com, T-nation.com