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Default Back to Basics: Back Training Considerations
by BendtheBar 03-30-2011, 08:02 AM

Back to Basics: Back Training Considerations

Back to Basics: Back Training Considerations

Barbell row

The barbell row is a popular yet controversial exercise for strength athletes. According to Todd Bumgardner of, it has a great carryover to the deadlift. “I think the carryover is pretty big when you consider that it’s strengthening your lats and upper back, which will help the pull from the knee up.” Bumgardner, a powerlifter who competes in the 198-lb and 220-lb classes added, “It also strengthens the entire posterior chain due to the exercise being performed in the bent position.”

Undoubtedly, the barbell row can pack on slabs of muscle mass and get you stronger due to the high number of motor units being recruited. However, the exercise is often performed incorrectly, thus inviting injury, or it’s improperly prescribed, especially for beginners who often lack adequate core strength and hamstring flexibility. These shortcomings are often compensated by excessive lumbar flexion, which can lead to injury, especially when compressive and shearing forces are acting upon the spine while a heavy load is being lifted. If you’re new or just getting back in the game, go light until you get the movement down pat or preferably use chest supported rows or bench supported dumbbell rows. If you’re an experienced lifter or a strength athlete, barbell rowing can go a long way in getting you stronger. Just be sure to keep a neutral spine. Often times, I’ll have my clients lighten the load and pull them off the floor similar to the Pendlay row (5). Keep the hips flexed and the back and head perpendicular with the wall, pull the bar to the midsection, and return the bar to the floor following each rep. I find that this really hammers the lats, erector spinae, lower traps, and rhomboids far better than performing them with less hip flexion. The more you open up your hip flexion angle, the more you will be hitting your upper traps and back.

The more your hips are flexed, the more your back is being worked. This prolonged prone position can limit the duration of the set, making it challenging to keep good form. You’ll have to lighten the load if your torso is closer to the ground. The barbell row not only places more compressive forces on the spine in comparison to the inverted row and one armed cable row, but it also causes the most spinal stiffness (2).

Greater loads will cause the lifter to stand more upright and use more momentum, sometimes making the exercise look like the first pull of the power clean. Sure, you’ll hit your traps at the expense of good form, but the barbell row is intended to target the lats, rhomboids, and to a degree, the rear delts.

Flip your grip. By supinating your hands, you’ll be able to drive your elbows and shoulders further back, thus really hitting your lats and causing the scapulae to protract less during the eccentric movement. Remember, pronation creates more scapular protraction.

Barbell rows should not be dismissed as an effective exercise. It’s a contraindicated exercise that if properly programmed can elicit considerable strength gains within a resistance training program (3, 4).

Cable rows

Witnessing someone performing these correctly is rarer than finding a hotel fitness center with dumbbells heavier than 50 lbs. Usually, the person doing cable rows resembles former San Francisco 49ers safety Merton Hanks doing his “funky chicken” dance following an interception. Cable rows are a great test of scapular stability, scapular retraction, and to a degree, thoracic mobility. A lack of scapular stability may glare mightily during the concentric portion of this exercise via extension of the torso. Additionally, this exercise, much like prone planks and bird dogs, can reveal sacroiliac (SI) joint instability. If a person exhibits any of these during the execution of the exercise, I’ll have them perform chest supported rows, progressing from machine rows to dumbbell and then eventually barbell rows on an incline bench. I’ll also toss in some corrective exercises that will help restore proper SI joint functioning, such as the supine leg alternating push/pull and supine leg wipers with a flexed knee.

Sit erect on the bench while keeping a neutral spine. Initiate the movement at the shoulder by retracting the scapulae and drawing the elbow toward the body with the back. If I’m working with beginners or someone who has a history of back and elbow injuries, I’ll have them wrap the handle to help them familiarize themselves with the proper movement, which is using the back, not the arms!

If you want to engage the core a bit more, drop your feet off the platform and on to the floor. This will really fire the RA, TA, and the obliques by forcing you to keep a neutral spine. From here, I may progress the client to rowing from a standing, kneeling, and eventually an isolated squatting position.

Behind the neck pull-downs

One of the most widely debated and subsequently covered exercises is the behind the neck pull-down. Behind the neck pull-downs require a high degree of shoulder external rotation and when loaded can place more stress on the anterior glenohumeral joint. Literature suggests that pull-downs be performed to the front, which minimizing the unfavorable end range position (1), thus allowing for the safer handling of greater loads. Behind the neck pull-downs and their equally problematic sibling behind the neck pull-ups, often referred to as “prison pull-ups,” require cervical protraction and/or flexion as the bar clears the back of the head, thus possibly promoting the forward head posture, which as we know, is pretty prevalent among office workers.

If you want to befriend your local chiropractor or physical therapist or want to unnecessarily suffer from neck pain and cervical headaches, this is the exercise for you! More advanced athletes may use the following exercises to prevent injury and increase performance.

Face pulls

Demonstrated by Steve Morris, face pulls help activate the mid and lower traps and external rotators of the shoulder. To Steve, face pulls are a must have in any strength program.

“You’re not only going to need them for a bigger bench but for shoulder health. As we all know, most guys press about five times more than they pull! They’re also good for building up the yoke, which is important for any contact sport including football and wrestling.”

As Steve mentioned, many trainees, including strength athletes, have flawed push to pull ratios. Use these as part of your program to safeguard your shoulders.

Rack pulls

Yet another controversial exercise is the rack pull. Trainees have had a hard time figuring out where it fits in one’s program. It is postulated by many lifters that heavy rack pulls will help improve dead lift performance.

Josh Bryant, the owner of an 810-lb raw deadlift disagrees.“Rack pulls are generally better for hypertrophy and overall limit strength but rarely get the desired transference to the deadlift. They allow you to pull a short range of motion with optimal leverage. Most of the time when you miss a deadlift, your position sucks.”

In addition to thickening the upper back and traps, rack pulls can be a great tool to overload the grip. If grip strength is your weakest link, you may want to consider adding rack pulls to your program. However, as Josh mentioned, it may not directly help your deadlift performance.

From a hypertrophy perspective, rack pulls will deliver a thicker upper back and traps similar to heavy barbell shrugs. They will also overload one’s grip.

So there you have it—just a few pointers on some exercises that are widely discussed and debated. Feel free to add your two cents. Stay strong.


1. Corrao M, Pizzini GH, Palo DR (2010) Weight training modifications for the individual with anterior shoulder instability. Strength Cond J 32(4):52–5.

2. Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM (2009) Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. J Strength Cond

3. Miranda H, Fleck SJ, Simao R (2007) Effect of two different rest period lengths on the number of repetitions performed during resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 21:1032–36.

4. Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG (2010) The effect of an upper-body agonist-antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load and efficiency. J Strength Cond Res 24(10):2632–40.

5. “Strong lifts: How to perform the Pendlay row with correct technique.” Available at: Strength and Muscle Building Strategies without The Bull. Accessed: January 5, 2011.

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Old 03-30-2011, 08:16 AM   #2
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Great article Steve. I have stayed away from the traditional Bent BB Rows for just the reason's cited here.
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