Monday, September 22, 2014

I'm Bringin' Sexy Back

Continuing with last week's musical intro, I bring you sexy back - aka start doing more rows! 

The Row

Rows come in many forms, but the ultimate goal is the same, strengthen the upper back muscles.  I mentioned how squats have been replaced by chairs in our modern Western culture, but chairs and office jobs are also taking their toll on our back and spines.  When we sit all day at a computer we round forward, our chest gets tight, and our back muscles (among other things) get weak.  We start looking hunched over, and may end up with back pain, or other issues due to the imbalance. 

There are a variety of rows that you can perform – seated, bent over, single arm, rowing machine, inverted row, etc. – but the majority of them work the same muscles:

Why Row?

We spend so much time looking in the mirror that we tend to focus on what we can see.  Exercises like push-ups, squats, abdominal exercises, and biceps curls are often in the limelight.  They work the muscles we can see, and hey, it’s awesome looking at your bulging biceps as you lift that heavy box, don’t pretend that you haven’t done it.  But things in our bodies tend to come in pairs, and everything on your front side has a counterpart on the backside.  These are the muscles we forget to work.  When our bodies become imbalanced, injuries and pain can occur. 

Rowing is great for better posture and alignment, balance between front and back, as well as core engagement. 


Because there are so many types of rows that target the back muscles, I’m going to give some general technique tips, and some more exercise specific instructions when I discuss variations.

Shoulders – There are two key things that you want to remember when it comes to your shoulders for rows “back and down”.  Now if you’ve ever had a trainer or instructor say these words to you and you don’t know what they mean, pay attention. 

Back: this cue is intended to get you to slide your shoulders towards the back wall, and slightly together – think “the opposite of hunching forward”.  The motion throughout the row should be focused on sliding the shoulder blades closer to one another, like they’re laced like a corset and someone is tightening those laces, bringing the two sides closer together.  If you’re not bringing your shoulder blades together (scapular retraction, if you like fancy words), you’re going to be using mostly your biceps/triceps and not strengthening your back. 

Down: this refers to not shrugging your shoulders.  It’s really hard to do a proper row when your shoulders climb towards your ears.  Slide the shoulders away from your ears, and remember that everyone looks better with a little more neck!

Neck – whatever version you’re doing, make sure your spine is in a neutral position.  If it’s a bent over row or a single arm dumbbell row, this means you’re looking at the floor, not at your flashy shoes or in the mirror.  If you need to see yourself, turn sideways and look sideways (in a mirror).  If you’re doing an inverted row, you still want a neutral spine – don’t let your head flop back and don’t curl your chin to your chest. 

Core – Core engagement is uber important here.  When you “engage your core” you want to keep your spine from excessive arching or rounding.  To get a little bit more core work out of this one, brace your core – which is akin to making your stomach tight, like someone is going to punch you in the gut 


Sharp shooting pain is always bad.  If this occurs in any movement you are doing, stop doing that movement and seek professional help before attempting to do that movement again. 

Depending on the variation of a row you are doing, so may put more strain on the lower back than others.  Exercises like a bent over or dead row are more likely to experience lower back fatigue than an exercise like a single arm dumbbell row, or a seated row.  If you have lower back problems, start with rows that put less stress on the back until either your core is strong enough to properly support other forms of rowing or your back issues have been addressed and solved by the appropriate health care practitioner. 


Seated row – Seated rows can be done with cables (those pulley contraptions in the gym with the big stack or weights on them) or tubing.  The idea is the same – sit tall, grab the handles (for tubing, the middle of it will be wrapped around your feet) and pull your elbows back against your ribcage while bringing your shoulder blades closer together.

Similarly, both exercises can be executed standing, maintaining good spinal stability, and performing the same motion. 

Dumbbell row the dumbbell row is also a good introduction into the world of rowing.  Placing one hand on a bench provides more support for the back, and dumbbells are very accessible and “non-threatening” if you’re new to the weight lifting scene. 

In this version, your supporting arm is placed on the bench with the wrist under the shoulder, and your elbow with the weight pulls up towards the sky.  When your arm is at the bottom position, keep the shoulders level (ie that arm shouldn’t hang down too far below the other one!)

A similar movement can be added to a plank for more of a challenge.

Inverted row – Inverted rows are great for using just body weight, and can be a good progression towards a pull up.  The other thing I love about these is you can do them just about anywhere.  Below is a picture of someone using a bar, but you can use a sturdytable or desk 

This can also be performed with suspension straps (like TRX) or on a swing in the park.

Start with hands wider than the shoulders, and pull body up towards hands.  Again, slide the shoulder blades together, and keep your shoulders away from your ears, and avoid rounding the shoulders forward at the bottom.

  Bent over row – a bent over row is a little more complex, and can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells.  Folding forward from the hips until the bar reaches approximately knee level, row the bar into the body, pulling the elbows back and the shoulder blades together.  The bar should be close to the legs, and following the same angle as the thighs.

Pull ups/chin ups – all of these exercises are great progressions to get yourself closer to being able to do a chin up.  I’m definitely not there yet myself, but if this is a goal for you, Steve over at Nerd Fitness has a great post all about how to get there!!  You’ll see that dumbbell rows and inverted rows are the first two steps! So get rowing!!

What's your favorite back exercise? Let me know in the comments!

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