Death by Bench Press!

(Or at least you may get a nasty imbalance)

Where are you going to be in five years? Will you have added 30 pounds of solid muscle? Will you have put hundreds of pounds on your powerlifting total? Or will you be a has-been who talks about the good old days, simply because you've beaten your body up so bad it won't listen to you anymore?

Most people like to bench press. Fine, but the problem is almost no one puts as much effort into developing their back, and this can lead to some serious injuries that can sideline you and put you on the road to Has-Beenville! These injuries could and should be prevented!

For whatever reason, the bench press is performed week in and week out, but work for the back is usually neglected by most gym rats. Some say they just don't know any back exercises besides pulldowns; others just get bored with back training. Well, if you want to avoid the has-been scenario described above, you better balance out all that benching with appropriate back work, and that means rowing!

Before giving you the exercise smorgasbord, let's start off with a little functional anatomy. Not only is it important to know what you're working, but why you're working it as well.

Latissimus dorsi (lats)

Movements: Adduction of humerus, internal rotation of humerus, extension from a flexed position, downward rotation of the scapula.

The lats are extremely active in almost any back exercise, but they aren't our primary focus when developing rowing strength. Overdeveloped lats can actually hamper muscular balance around the shoulder joint due to their role as an internal rotator of the humerus. And that just ain't funny.


Movement: Scapular retraction

The rhomboids (and middle trapezius fibers described below) are vitally important in keeping the shoulder joint healthy and injury-free. As noted, the primary movement of the rhomboids is scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades back together).

Trapezius (middle fibers)

Movement: Scapular retraction

The trapezius is a tricky muscle group because different orientations of the fibers produce multiple lines of pull: the upper portion performs scapular elevation, the lower portion scapular depression, and the middle portion (the one we're most interested in) performs scapular retraction. When all the fibers are contracted simultaneously, scapular retraction is produced as well.

Our goal in developing the scapular retractors is to stabilize the scapula (and therefore the shoulder) when performing bench pressing movements. When the scapula is retracted and stable, not only do we decrease our likelihood of injury, but we also move a lot more weight. Pretty cool, eh?

Below are some key points that should be adhered to when performing any and all back movements:

  1. Stretch at the bottom. Make sure you allow full extension of the elbows at the start; if there's any bend, you're cheating! If you really need to force the issue, make yourself relax completely for one second at the starting position before performing the next rep.
  2. Pull through the elbows. When performing pulling exercises, think of your lower arm being welded in a perfectly straight line. Instead of pulling with your hands, you now have to pull through your elbows to perform the movement. This point isn't as important in pronated or neutral grip exercises, but more so with supinated (underhand) grips where the mid-arm muscles are more likely to contribute.
  3. Squeeze at the midpoint. This is another critical point. You want to make sure you're using muscular strength and not momentum to perform the reps. If you can't pause with the weight at the midpoint of the movement, you're using too much weight!

Below are enough rowing exercises and variations to keep you strong and injury-free for the rest of your training days. The goal is to give you a plethora of exercises so that when you get bored with one, you can ditch it and have another hundred to choose from for your next cycle. Also keep in mind that this is just a short list. Feel free to add in your own variations or creations to keep your training fresh and your body growing!

I know that some of you are going to ask, "Why just rowing movements?" Here's why: Lehman did a study that examined muscle activity in the lats, biceps, and middle trapezius/rhomboids during different pulling movements. Research concluded that the highest levels of electrical activity in the middle traps/rhomboids were in seated rows, as compared to lat pulldown exercises. (1)

So there, tough guy. Now get to rowing!

Let's start out with the most basic of the rowing movements, the bent-over row. Before the days of fancy dual-axis machines and the Hammer Strength monopoly, many great backs were built using only basic movements like bent-over rows and chins. Bent-over rows should be the first option in your rowing arsenal because you can use the most weight, which gives you the most potential for muscle growth.

Proper execution of the bent-over row is critical. First off, you want to make sure you're starting with your chest up, a slight arch in your lower back, and your butt and thighs pushed to the back. Begin the movement by pulling through the elbows; think of pulling the weight into your lower abdomen or waistline. Squeeze the weight at the midpoint, then slowly lower under control to the starting position.

Finally, make sure your muscles are moving the weight and not your ego! Most people (especially beginners) have a tendency to really load up the weight and end up using tons of body English and momentum to get the bar up and down. I don't know about you, but I work my legs hard enough on lower body days; they don't need extra loading when I'm working on my back!

Bent-Over Row
  • Version Shown: Supinated (medium grip)
  • Variations: Supinated (wide grip), Pronated (wide grip, medium grip)

I spoke at length about proper execution of the dumbbell row in my first back trainingarticle, so I won't waste internet bandwidth going over it again. The nice thing about this version is that you're more stable and can therefore use more weight. Beyond that, dumbbell exercises allow you to work each side independent of the other, ensuring that you negate any potential left-to-right muscle imbalances.

Dumbbell Row
  • Version Shown: Pronated-to-Supinated grip
  • Variations: Supinated grip, Neutral grip, Pronated grip

I learned about the following version of the dumbbell row from fellow biomechanics buff Eric Cressey. This version ensures that you aren't using any momentum to move the weight.

Lie face down on an incline bench with a dumbbell in one hand. All the same rules apply here: pull through the elbow, squeeze at the midpoint, and lower all the way down at the start and end. A key point here is to keep your chest on the pad at all times. If you find yourself violently flailing around, you're using too much weight, or perhaps having a seizure. Both bad. Anyway, this is an excellent variation for those who don't have a chest-supported row in their gym.

Incline Dumbbell Row
  • Version Shown: Pronated grip, on incline
  • Variations: Supinated grip, Neutral grip, Supinated-to-Pronated grip

Ah yes, another unilateral exercise. This version is often revered by the "functional training" specialists, but the truth of the matter is it's a solid exercise. The only drawbacks are that you can't use as much weight because it's single-arm, and you won't be as stable because you're standing.

Start off by attaching the single-arm attachment to a low-cable row machine. Load up the iron and take a step back, placing the weight on the middle of the foot (or shifted slightly towards the heels). General rules apply here: force the chest out, back flat, and keep a slight bend in the knees. With a neutral grip, pull through the elbow to a point adjacent to your lower abdomen. Squeeze the shoulder blade back and then return under control to the starting position.

Cable Row
  • Version Shown: Single-arm standing, Neutral grip
  • Variations: Single-arm standing (Pronated, Supinated, Pronated-to-Supinated), Single-arm seated (same variations as above)

The seated version is a more traditional variation of the cable row exercise. The version shown below is a pronated, medium-width grip row, but the possibilities are endless as far as variations.

Attach a standard wide lat handle to a low cable row and grip just outside of torso width. Again, focus on pulling through the elbows and squeezing the shoulder blades back at the midpoint. Hold for a second and then return to the starting position.

Seated Cable Row
  • Version Shown: Seated row – Pronated, medium-width grip
  • Variations: Pronated, wide-grip; Supinated (wide, medium, narrow grips), V-Bar, D-Bar, Neutral, Neutral to Supinated

Chest-Supported Row

This is one machine I like to use when available. In my not-so-humble opinion most machines are junk, but there are a few exceptions (the glute-ham, reverse hyper, lat pulldown/cable row machines all come to mind here).

Lie face down on a chest-supported row machine and start off lighter than you think you should. This is a humbling exercise and to get the full benefits you need to use a full ROM (range of motion). Follow the keys and you'll be fine: stretch out at the bottom, pull through the elbows, and squeeze at the midpoint. Voila!

  • Variations: Pronated (wide grip, medium grip); Neutral grip

This is a lesser known rowing variation I like quite a bit. Put the end of one barbell in a corner, with the other end coming out at a 45 degree angle. About two-thirds of the way out from the wall, put a V-bar attachment underneath the barbell. Load up some iron (preferably with 25 pound plates or smaller to enhance the ROM) and you're ready to rock!

Get set-up by straddling the barbell; you'll want to line up the V-attachment so that you're rowing into your lower abs/waistline. Once you're holding the attachment, you want a slight bend in the knees, the chest up and a slight arch in the lower back (this is essentially the same body position you use with bent-over rows).

Again, remember the mantra: stretch, pull, squeeze, repeat. (Please insert your own masturbation joke here. You know you want to.)

The supine row is another little known exercise that can do wonders for your upper back. Beyond the numerous benefits of rowing, I also like to use it as a precursor for someone who wants to start doing chins. One of my newbie trainees stated that one of his goals was to eventually perform an unassisted pull-up. Starting off he was pretty weak even performing the negative portion of pull-ups, so I've had him on a steady diet of supine rows. His strength is coming around nicely now.

The nice thing about this exercise is that it resembles a reverse bench press. With either a pronated or supinated grip, grab the barbell at a comfortable width. With regards to your foot position, it really depends on your strength levels; however, here's the progression most use, going from easiest to hardest:

Feet on Ground → Feet on Bench → Feet on Ball

This whole cycle can also then be recycled by placing additional weights on the chest. I won't bore you by telling you how to perform the lift. If you don't know after reading all this, I don't think I can help you anyway! Just be aware of keeping your body tight and in a straight line, and try to pull yourself up to approximately the point where you'd lower the bar on a bench.

Supinated Supine Row
  • Version Shown: Supinated grip, feet on ball
  • Variations: Feet on ground, feet on bench, all of previous with weight on chest
Pronated Supine Row
  • Version Shown: Pronated grip, feet on ball
  • Variations: Feet on ground, feet on bench, all of previous with weight on chest

Let's face it, we as T-Nation citizens surrender certain rights when we start reading and writing here. One of the first rights we waive is that of being a total idiot and bench pressing our shoulders into oblivion! I'm all for having a stout bench, but not at the expense of the only two shoulders I'll ever have.

So next time you go through a heavy bench workout, take the time that day or the next to get in an awesome back workout that uses a few of these rowing variations. Your shoulders will thank you!

  1. Lehman GJ et al. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med. 2004 Jun 30;3(1):4.