The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

No to Squats and Barbell Rowing?

11/07/12
Squat

I love my critics. It's just sometimes, they're wrong.

I'm often criticized for being anti-squatting. Maybe it's because I've written a lot about the merits of single-leg training, or simply because I don't believe that every lifter has to do squats to build a strong, muscular physique.

Whatever the reason, while I realize that criticism is just part of the territory when you put yourself out there, that particular criticism kind of grinds my gears.

• It's just not true – anyone that knows me or has lifted with me knows I love squats. I'm actually pretty good at them too, for whatever that's worth. Single-leg training and squatting don't exist in binary opposition to one another.

• There's just something about squats that gets people's panties in a twist. Maybe it's because it's a part of the sacred "Big 3," but even so much as suggesting an alternative to squatting ignites an almost visceral reaction from certain individuals, almost like you insulted their momma.

Think about it. If you asked me my opinion on whether I like barbell rows or dumbbell rows better, I might answer like this:

dumbbell-row


"I'm not a big fan of barbell rows for my own training or for that of my athletes.

"It's not an inherently bad exercise by any means, and I think they're absolutely fine with lighter loads, but it's an exercise that lends itself to very heavy loading, and I find that as the weights increase, it's very easy for form to break down and have the stress shift away from the intended muscles (i.e., the lats) and onto the lower back.

"Instead, I prefer dumbbell rows.

"With my own training, and given my history of serious back issues, dumbbell rows are the wiser option. Heavy barbell rows always bug my back, even when my form is flawless, just because the nature of the exercise involves significant spinal loading.

"I also find it's next to impossible to keep perfect form under heavy loads, and if I'm not careful, I catch myself cheating and compensating in a way that puts my lower back at extreme risk of injury, especially when I'm pushing hard for that last extra rep at the end of a set.

"Moreover, I find that my lower back gives out before my lats, so I always finish feeling that my lats could've handled more.

"With dumbbell rows, I'm able to push myself really hard without worrying about my lower back, and I feel it much more in my lats – which is my goal with that exercise anyway.

"Interestingly, I've found that with dumbbell rows, I can lift well more than half of what I can handle with barbell rows, leading me to believe that it may be a better way to overload the lats, too.

"My own training aside, from a coaching standpoint, you have to realize that I work primarily with large groups of athletes. That means I need to pick exercises that are user-friendly, meaning most people will be able to perform them correctly, and their bodies will be able to tolerate them.

"It's much easier to keep good form with a dumbbell row than it is a barbell row, and it's also more widely tolerated lower-back wise, making dumbbell rows a better choice in my book given the circumstances.

"If I had a personal training client with no history of low back pain that was hell-bent on doing barbell rows and could do them really well, then I guess I'd be okay with that; I'd just make sure they kept good form to minimize the risk of injury.

"But I've never had a client like that. Most clients couldn't care less which exercises they do and just want to look and feel better, so my job is to get them there in the safest way possible.

"You certainly won't get me to say barbell rows are a bad exercise though, because many a jacked dude has used them for years to build huge lats – and at the end of the day, results speak louder than words and theory.

"It's clearly an effective exercise, and people that can do them pain-free probably can't understand why guys like me don't advocate them or do them more. I understand that perspective, and if you've never had serious back issues, I certainly can't expect you to know what it's like.

"But coming from someone on the other side of the fence, I'll say that for every dude that's built huge lats doing them, there's another dude that struggles to feel them the right way and/or has hurt his back doing them, so it's up to you to figure where you fall in the continuum and plan your training accordingly."

dumbbell-row-1

I doubt many folks would have a problem with the above, and I bet most would even agree that it makes a lot of sense.

That's because barbell rows aren't considered a sacred exercise – and barbell rows and dumbbell rows are more-or-less interchangeable in most peoples' programming because both have been proven to get good results.

Now go back to the preceding paragraphs and substitute squats for barbell rows, Bulgarian split squats for dumbbell rows, and quads for lats. Keep the rest of the passage exactly the same.

Here's what you get:

bulgarian-split-squat

"I'm not a big fan of squats for my own training or for that of my athletes.

"It's not an inherently bad exercise by any means, and I think they're absolutely fine with lighter loads, but it's an exercise that lends itself to very heavy loading, and I find that as the weights increase, it's very easy for form to break down and have the stress shift away from the intended muscles (i.e., the quads) and onto the lower back.

"Instead, I prefer Bulgarian split squats.

"With my own training, and given my history of serious lower back problems, Bulgarian split squats are the wiser option. Heavy squats always bug my back, even when my form is flawless, just because the exercise lends itself to heavy spinal loading.

"I also find it's next to impossible to keep perfect form under heavy loads and if I'm not careful, I find myself cheating and compensating in a way that puts my lower back at extreme risk of injury, especially when I'm pushing hard for that last extra rep at the end of a set.

"Moreover, I find that my lower back gives out before my quads, so I always finish feeling that my quads could've handled more.

"With Bulgarian split squats, I'm able to push myself really hard without worrying about my lower back, and I feel it much more in my quads – which is my goal with that exercise anyway. Interestingly, I've found that with Bulgarian split squats, I can lift well more than half of what I can handle with squats, leading me to believe that it may be a better way to overload the quads, too.

"My own training aside, from a coaching standpoint you have to realize that I work primarily with large groups of athletes. That means I need to pick exercises that are user-friendly, meaning most people will be able to perform them correctly and their bodies will be able to tolerate them.

"It's much easier to keep good form with a Bulgarian split squat than it is a squat, and it's also more widely tolerated lower-back wise, making Bulgarian split squats a better choice in my book given the circumstances.

"If I had a personal training client with no history of low back pain that was hell-bent on doing squats and could do them really well, then I guess I'd be okay with that; I'd just make sure they kept good form to minimize the risk of injury.

"But I've never had a client like that. Most clients couldn't care less which exercises they do and just want to look and feel better, so my job is to get them there in the safest way possible.

"You certainly won't get me to say squats are a bad exercise though, because many a jacked dude has used them for years to build huge quads – and at the end at the day, results speak louder than words and theory.

"It's clearly an effective exercise, and people that can do them pain-free probably can't understand why guys like me don't advocate them or do them more. I understand that perspective and if you've never had serious back issues, I certainly can't expect you to know what it's like.

"But coming from someone on the other side of the fence, I'll say that for every dude that's built huge quads doing them, there's another dude that struggles to feel them the right way and/or has hurt his back doing them, so it's up to you to figure where you fall in the continuum and plan your training accordingly."

heavy-squat

Nothing really changed from one passage to the other, and the logic is exactly the same, but I'm willing to bet the second passage pissed some of you off.

If it did, I'm willing to wager it's because you love squatting and have gotten good results from squats in the past and don't suffer from back pain.

If that's you, I'm jealous.

But realize that not everyone is as lucky as you, so before you call for my head, at least realize where I'm coming from and what I'm actually saying.

11/07/12