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The Power Of THIS Upper Body Exercise

sandbag workout equipment

One of the big lessons I have learned about better workouts is that to get superior results it can just be about the details of a movement. When people tell me that an exercise doesn’t work the first thing I do is ask to see them performing the exercise. Not because I don’t think they don’t know what they are doing, but all of us can allow little compensations to creep into our technique or workouts and we don’t even know it because let’s be honest, it is hard to watch yourself! That is what happens to what I believe one of the most powerful upper body exercise that people often allow those compensations to creep up on them without knowing and we tend to underestimate its effectiveness and progressions.

You might feel a bit let down when I tell you it is bent rows, an upper body exercise that can be so important for so many aspects of training but we tend to overlook because it feels so “basic” to many. I don’t have to explain in great detail why the bent row is such a potentially powerful upper body exercise. Training the upper back muscles help us from everything from better real world strength, balance of the upper body (especially the shoulders), and cosmetically, a bigger back makes us generally look how many desire. So, what are the big issues that I see people miss when it comes to the bent row and optimizing this great upper body exercise?

#1 Bouncing

I started working out at 14 and like so many young men I did way more chest and arm work than I did my upper back. That led me to feeling like I could lift so much more pushing than pulling and to be honest, that was very frustrating. When I learned that I should be much stronger in my pulling exercises I started doing way more rows, but like many I began the infamous bounce! That is what you commonly see in bent rows where people to to use the whole body to move a weight up. A big “jerk” of the whole body occurs allowing the heavier weight to be lifted. What’s the problem with that? Don’t we want to lift heavier in such an upper body exercise?

1 1/4 Bent Rows are a great way to get more out of the upper back while also teaching greater core stability and we make a light weight feel heavy fast! Most of all, we can quickly identify the tendency to “bounce” in the row. Drills like 1 1/4 rows are also so effective in slowing people down as far too often people move WAY too fast in their rows!

Of course we want to go as heavy as we can, we the caveat of good form. When we bounce, we tend take load OFF of the upper back because the load is partly being lifted by our legs and trunk. Unless that is the goal of the training, we need to reduce the weight so that we can perform the row without bouncing of the whole body. This may be a hit of our ego (we all have some lifting ego), but it will pay off BIG in the long run!

#2 Understanding The Movement of Upper Body 

One of the big concepts we discuss in DVRT is the difference between task vs. intent. For example, if I gave a client 60 pounds to row, they often would look at the goal being to lift the 60 pounds. What I am really more interested in is HOW they lift the weight. There have been plenty of times in such an upper body exercise and other movements that even in my own training I thought I could move “x” weight, but upon trying to move the weight I realized it would take too much compensation of my body and had to drop the weight.

Over the years there have been all sorts of cuing to make the bent row a better upper body exercise. I’ve done them myself so I know what these ideas are all too well. Concepts like just pulling back the shoulders without moving the arms. Why teach that in such an upper body exercise? Because a lot of people row a weight up without the shoulders coming back into what we call retraction. That means we lift the weight, we load the arm and the shoulders, but we never really get the impact to the upper back. So, the idea of pulling the shoulders back without the arms moving was to help people get a sense of what the intent of the exercise is really about.

From purely a teaching stand point that can help, however, we don’t want to use it for a long time in training because it tends not to have the carryover to making the bent row a better upper body exercise because there is a natural sequencing that should occur where the arm pulls to initiate the movement and then the shoulder and scapula produce more and more movement causing the retraction we want to see in the shoulders. Often when people stop way short in a bent row, it is a sign that they actually have a weak back and can’t produce enough retraction of the shoulders to pull the weight the rest of the range of motion. When that happens, we can either move to a more stable environment where the client, or ourselves, can focus on this aspect of the upper body exercise, or simply try to reduce weight.

DVRT concepts in an upper body exercise like a bent row really allows us to maximize what is happening at the arms, shoulders, and upper back. 

This concept goes hand in hand with the bouncing because often when people think they can’t pull the weight the rest of the range of motion, they reflexively try to use the rest of the body to move the weight. However, that is why we lose the essence of our training.

Jessica and I break down some keys that are often overlooked in performing the bent row. 

#3 A Weak Core

It can be really frustrating to differentiate what are good functional training concepts and what are novel movements masked as functional exercises. That is why for the past 20 years I have been blogging almost daily to try to help fitness enthusiasts and coaches alike have a better filter. Trust me, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I will tell you of those mistakes so hopefully you can avoid them yourself!

Because I hurt my low back at 14 during a basketball game, when I would perform bent rows as my primary pulling upper body exercise, I would feel discomfort in my low back. I wrote them off because who wants to train and hurt right? That led me to ignoring the real issues and building a bigger imbalance in my upper body training because I would do most of my pulling very supported. Whether it was my chest supported, or my whole body supported by a bench or machine as I would row.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the bent row is a total body, not just an upper body exercise like overhead pressing. The issue wasn’t the bent row as a good upper body exercise, but I had a weak core and had no idea that my feet and lower body were also important. These are things that we don’t usually teach in the bent row, but when we look at how the body is connected, it makes a lot of sense.

bent rows

Using mini bands around the feet (barefoot works best or in socks) gives feedback upon using the feet in the bent row and having the proper hip hinge. 

No part of our body really works independent of another naturally. This would just be inefficient movement and design of our bodies. Modern bodybuilding (early bodybuilding focused on more integrated movements) taught us to develop a muscle more we should isolate it. If the goal is solely to develop a muscle, then yes, that is correct, but that would also mean that most of our training should occur on machines we goes against the natural design of our bodies.

Simple progressions like using our off-set grip requires us to use more of our core and lower body to stabilize and build more unilateral strength in this upper body exercise. This can be a great bridge to true single arm rows where we don’t get any tension/stability from the opposing side. 

The reason you see our opposite arm and leg swing while we walk or run is because our whole body is a careful connection of chains to produce efficient movement. Does this mean that when we perform an upper body exercise that is more integrated we lose some of our upper back development? In theory, not really, let me explain.

IF, and that is a big if, our lower body and core are appropriately trained and strong, then we shouldn’t be hampered by them when we perform an upper body exercise like a bent row. I have instantly taken away people’s discomfort just by getting them to use their feet and be more deliberate in how they use their hands (which I talk about in a moment). That is because when we use our feet and hands properly we teach our core how to brace correctly and don’t going into the big pelvic tilt that often happens to many lifters. I would even argue that any muscular development we may lose (which should be nominal) is made up in making the strength we are developing have better carry over to real world.

The bent row progressions Cory Cripe shows above is about making a stronger challenge to the hips, core, and upper body all at once. These types of drills should help even other rowing exercises like push-up rows where core stability is typically the limiting factor. 

#4 Grip Plays A Big Part

Oh I loved them back in the day! In my early lifting years I was a big fan of straps, it allowed me to lift WAY more weight than gripping the weight just with my hands. Of course as any of us love to see our lifting numbers go up, I never gave much thought to the issues the straps were developing for my strength. Over time I realized that there was a bigger and bigger imbalance to me lifting with straps and me lifting without straps! It wasn’t just this significant difference I noticed, as I learned more and more about the body, I also saw how this was causing shoulder issues in myself and my clients (of course anything we love to do we usually encourage our clients as well).

shoulder exercises

The quote from renown physical therapist, Gray Cook, I think sums up why grip is so crucial to an upper body exercise like a bent row. The image you see is of the Deep Front Arm Line discussed in Thomas Myers “Anatomy Trains”. You can see how our hand and upper body are so interconnected and why study after study shows a strong correlation to grip strength and shoulder health and stability. This of course means loosely gripping a weight, just “cupping” a weight”, and/or using straps are causing us to miss some HUGE benefits of bent row.

bent rows

Using “grip rows” (where we roll in the end flaps of our bigger Ultimate Sandbags as you see above) and Atlas rows (named after the move of lifting Atlas stones) really allow us to make grip a bigger part of our bent rows. This means we get way MORE out of such an upper body exercise and build strength that will help us in and outside of the gym.

You see the ways we integrate other tools into our bent rows in the video below so that we have greater purpose and ways to benefit from the movement. Having a hip hinge, a plank, and an upper body exercise at once allows us to achieve so much with one exercise, that is why it is a staple in our program. Plus, you might not see it instantly because the bent row is more of an upper body exercise, but it primes us well for cleans, shouldering, and other DVRT more advanced hip hinges that require the strong foundation of that hip hinge and plank. 

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