Want to get more out of back exercises like barbell rows, dumbbell rows, seated rows, and machine rows? Then you need to understand some important biomechanical and physiological factors in order to avoid the common mistakes. Then you need to know how to take advantage of these factors by using some simple, practical training techniques.
Standard Back Row Form
Here's a quick overview of standard row form:
- Maintain a strong and stable spinal position with a normal lordotic curve (the curve of the lower spine) throughout.
- Pinch your shoulder blades together at the end of the concentric (lifting) portion of each rep and allow your shoulder blades to lengthen or extend at the end of the eccentric (negative) portion of each rep.
- Don't allow the front of your shoulders to round forward at the full row position (top of the concentric) of each repetition. A good row isn't about how far your elbows go back. It's about how far your shoulders go back since the target back muscles control your shoulder.
- At the end of the concentric portion of each rep, your elbow should be bent at roughly a 90-degree angle. Bending it more makes the row more biceps dominant, which takes work away from your back musculature.
How to Choose the Right Weight
The resistance curve involved in most commonly used rowing (horizontal pulling) exercises works in opposition to our natural strength curve, but it certainly doesn't make rows somehow bad, dangerous, or ineffective. It simply means that we have to be aware of these factors and choose the load accordingly.
To ensure you can control the weight throughout the entire range of motion, select a weight you can hold for about 4-5 seconds at end of the concentric portion of the range of motion while maintaining good technique. If you can't hold it for a few seconds, then the weight is too damned heavy to perform a full set while maintaining control on each rep.
Rows with Mechanical Partials
Using a weight based on what you can move during the most difficult part of the range of motion (the end of the concentric portion of a row) doesn't work. The load would be too light to create sufficient muscular overload in the less difficult ranges of motion.
This is an excellent reason to incorporate partial reps into your training. Mechanical partials involve moving the bar or dumbbell only through the first half of the range of motion. Since this is the part you're stronger in, and because it also involves a shorter lever arm, the weight used is heavier than what was used to perform the full-range reps. Mechanical partial reps can be used following full range of motion reps of most rowing variations.
A great way to incorporate mechanical partials is with either two-arm dumbbell rows or one-arm dumbbell rows. Dumbbells are a more convenient option than a barbell to transition between using two different loads.
Using the 21s Protocol
Old-school 21s can be adapted to take advantage of these principles. If you're not familiar with them, 21s are most often used with biceps curls and involve doing 7 partial reps in the most difficult range of motion, followed by 7 full-range reps, followed by 7 partial reps in the least difficult range of motion.
You can easily apply this technique to back exercises, but you don't have to only use 7 reps. Six or 8 reps would work equally well. The following back row 21s protocols help you train smarter and harder by adding a new, principle-based challenge to familiar exercises.
This mixes wide-grip barbell rows with underhand-grip barbell rows. The underhand-grip rows are performed last after fatigue has accumulated because they're the easiest.
First 7 reps: Perform partial-rep movements, rowing the bar from halfway down and back up to your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
Second 7 reps: Do full-range reps without jerking the weight.
Last 7 reps: Now quickly switch to the underhand-grip barbell row. Do partial-rep movements, rowing the bar from the bottom of the range of motion to the mid-way point.
Dumbbell + Barbell Row
This one mixes two-arm dumbbell rows (parallel grip) with underhand-grip barbell rows. Like the previous combo, the underhand-grip rows are performed last, after some fatigue has been accumulated.
First 7 reps: Using the two-arm bent-over dumbbell row, perform partial reps, rowing the dumbbells from halfway down and back up to your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
Second 7 reps: Now do 7 full-range reps of the two-arm bent-over dumbbell row.
Last 7 reps: Quickly switch to the underhand-grip barbell row and do partial reps, rowing the bar from the bottom of the range of motion to the mid-way point.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
This one uses one-arm dumbbell rows, but you'll have to change to a heavier dumbbell on the last exercise. You can either perform all three exercises back-to-back, on the same arm before switching arms, or you can alternate arms on each exercise. Both versions are tough in their own way.
First 7 reps: Perform partial reps, rowing the dumbbell from halfway down and then back to chest level.
Second 7 reps: Do full-range reps. No jerking the weight.
Last 7 reps: Using a heavier dumbbell, do partial reps, rowing the dumbbell from the bottom of the range of motion to the mid-way point.
For Science Geeks Only: How It All Works
Two important factors that influence the way we perform all resistance training exercises are 1) the resistance curve involved in the exercise and 2) our strength curve when performing the exercise.
The Resistance Curve: This refers to how the load changes throughout the range of motion based on changes in lever-arm (or moment-arm) length.
For example, when performing standing biceps curls using free weights, the point at which your biceps is being maximally loaded is the point in the range of motion in which your forearm is at a 90-degree angle with the load vector. That's why a free-weight biceps curl gets easier when you move the bar to the top or bottom of the range of motion. That's precisely why people tend to rest between reps at the top and bottom position.
The Strength Curve: This refers to how your strength changes throughout the range of motion of a given exercise, which is due to a principle of physiology known as the length-tension relationship or the length-tension curve.
The muscle length-tension relationship is the relationship between the length of the muscle fibers and the force that the fibers produce at that length. Muscles have the lowest potential to generate force when they're either fully elongated (stretched) or fully shortened (contracted). They generate the highest possible tension in the middle – halfway through the range of motion.
Applying the Science
Now let's look at how these two factors relate to performing common back row exercises.
When performing horizontal rowing exercises, the lever arm is at its longest when your humerus (your "biceps bone") is perpendicular to the force vector. So, if you're doing barbell bent-over rows or one-arm dumbbell rows with your torso roughly parallel to the floor, the lever-arm is at its longest when your humerus is parallel with the floor (in-line with your torso). This is at or very close to the end of concentric portion of the range of motion.
The same goes for performing seated cable rows or machine rows, as long as your torso is perpendicular to the floor and provided you keep your elbow(s) at about a 90-degree angle. This means that as you get closer to the concentric end of the range of motion involved in rowing exercises, you're getting weaker as the weight is getting heavier (because the lever-arm is getting longer).
This is why you often see lifters pull the weight halfway with good form, then jolt it the rest of the way when doing exercises like barbell bent-over rows and one-arm dumbbell rows. It's also why you see so many people turning their torso towards their rowing arm as they pull the dumbbell in on dumbbell rows, along with seeing people staying too upright on bent-over barbell rows and one-arm dumbbell rows, or leaning back to far when performing seated rows or machine rows.
This is important because while most people are in the gym for bodybuilding/physique related goals, they train more like weightlifters. Their goal is to lift the weight by any means necessary. There's a big difference between the two because bodybuilding isn't just about moving the weight, it's about controlling the weight through the entire range of motion.