Rows and Low Back Woes

Q: My lower back is bit cranky, so I've had to take barbell rows out of rotation for a bit. That bent-over position is rough. Got any back-friendly substitutions?

A: That bent-over position is often rough for males. (Relax people, it's just jokes.)

I'm a big fan of barbell and T-bar rows, but I'm also a big fan of chest-supported rowing. If I'm not deadlifting, then I do more axial loaded movements like the barbell and T-bar versions. I do those just to keep the lumbar spine working against a significant load to some degree. It's important not to get away from that totally.

But if you're needing some rowing variations that keep stress on the lumbar to a minimum, then I got you, bro.

Cable Rows with Ab Straps

If you have access to leg-raise straps and haven't used them for back work, you're missing out. Especially if you're one of those lifters who can't feel his lats working due to having strong biceps or a tendency to pull with his arms during back work. To really engage your lats, get your elbows behind you. Focus on the contraction.

Standing Cable Row with Stretch

Get a good stretch at the bottom then bring it home: arch hard as you transition into the concentric phase and really get the elbows back and the chest out.

Muscle Retention When Dieting

Q: Most bodybuilders say that you have to expect some muscle loss when dieting. Well, I'm not doing a bodybuilding show or anything, but I want to keep as much muscle as possible while I rediscover my abs. Any tips?

A: Here's the rub with your question: Bodybuilders, especially natural ones, may lose muscle because they must get into low single digits, which means energy intake is super low for a while, and energy expenditure is high. There's really no other way to get truly inside-out ripped.

But if you're just looking to get lean (9-12% body fat), then that can be done intelligently without fear of muscle loss – especially if you're patient and willing to stretch out the fat loss over a longer period of time. Then muscle loss can be significantly minimized (if any is lost at all) if done properly.

The first step is simply to establish your caloric baseline. Meaning, the number of calories you need to take in each day just to maintain your current weight. Once that's established (and yes, you'll need to track calories during this whole time if you're trying to do it right), reduce daily intake by 300-500 calories.

The reduction will come from your carb or fat intake. Protein intake should never dip below 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight, and keeping at 1 gram per pound is even better.

All of this of course will lead you to ask, "What's a good caloric intake to start with and establish this baseline?"

For the great majority, it's going to fall within the bodyweight x 13-15 range. Now if you eyeball that number and know right out of the gate it's too high, the answer is kinda simple. Reduce that. It's simply an estimate to help someone find their maintenance range.

For the non-competitor, or someone looking to just get lean and not ripped, I also recommend setting a caloric floor: you're going to have a set number of calories you never go below. Ever. And once you hit that floor, if you wish to get leaner, you're going to increase your activity level to facilitate further fat loss.

The floor for most people will be bodyweight x 10. Once you get to that point, increase cardio by duration, frequency, or both.

Summary

  • Find your maintenance intake: bodyweight x 13-15. (Track calories. Figure it out.)
  • Reduce daily intake by 300-500 calories.
  • Don't ever fall below bodyweight x 10. Increase cardio duration or frequency instead.
Paul Carter

Simple Warm-Ups For Lifters

Q: Do you do any type of general warm-up before lifting? Most old-school meatheads would run a few minutes on a treadmill then get to work. Today with all the prehab, mobility, foam rolling, band work, and activation stuff out there, I'm getting overwhelmed.

A: Here's my warm-up:

  • I walk into the gym and find the barbell station or machine I want to start the workout with.
  • I do 20-30 reps with a light weight as my first warm-up set.
  • Then I add weight and do 15 reps or so and continue to repeat this process, reducing reps, until I'm warmed up enough to lift some real weight.

That's how I've warmed up for 30 years. I don't do the treadmill or a bunch of mobility or activation stuff. I'm not saying you shouldn't; I'm saying it's highly individualistic.

Sure, getting a general warm-up on the treadmill or some other cardio machine can be beneficial. It wakes up the nervous system and helps get the blood pumping through the entire body.

I do have issue with all the mobility work that certain trainers and coaches espouse. They believe that mobility work is always the answer. The problem is, people aren't asking the right questions. And here are the right questions:

  1. Can I perform this movement through a full range of motion, pain free?
  2. Do I need more mobility, or am I just not strong enough to hold certain anatomical positions during movement execution?

This second one requires the lifter to have enough self-awareness to assess his own short comings, or to have a good enough coach to eyeball him and tell him which one of these is the problem.

Here's an example: I had two different clients with the same mechanical problem: knee valgus on their squat (their knees collapsed inward during the concentric portion of the rep).

Valgus Knees

Valgus Knees

One client had terrible ankle and foot flexibility. His ankles went into pronation as soon as he came out of the hole in the squat. When this happens, the rest of the kinetic chain will follow suit. The knees will collapse inward and the hips will internally rotate.

For lifters with this issue, the solution is usually to increase strength and mobility at the feet and then the ankles. Then address whatever muscular weaknesses that issue has created.

But he lacked adequate dorsiflexion in the foot and had very tight calves, both of which can be fixed by simply stretching the calves. The other solution was to force him into ankle pronation by holding a kettlebell in one hand and lifting the leg off the ground on that side.

This will force the grounded ankle into supination in order to maintain balance. It also strengthens the glute medius on that side within the proper patterning required by the squat, because the glute medius stabilizes the pelvis.

For the other client, he could drop into a sub-maximally loaded squat without valgus. However, once the loading increased, the valgus would rear its ugly head. In this case, he had weak hip strength in comparison with his adductors.

The solution there was to bring up his glutes (medius, maximus, and minimus) so that they could hold external hip rotation and bring up his VMO to improve knee stabilization.

Same problem, two different solutions. One needed mobility and strength, while the other just needed to shore up some muscular weaknesses.

So, the 10 minutes on a treadmill is not a bad idea. From there, always start with an empty bar for your first movement and do 2-3 sets of 20 reps with it. This alone will give you feedback regarding how you're moving through that exercise on that day, and how you're feeling overall.

The reason I don't do all of that mobility, pre-hab, activation stuff is because the lifts themselves, done with a full range of motion and executed properly, give you mobility. That's how I've always done them, and I've never had any mobility issues.

And lastly, you want a certain degree of tightness when it comes to strength training. An increase in flexibility, without a congruent increase in strength, decreases stability in the joint. There's not a lifter on the planet that will benefit from becoming hyperflexible or hypermobile.

Related:  Question of Power 1

Related:  Question of Power 2