The exercise fabled to fill the upper back was instead stressing my lower back and hamstrings. And it wasn’t one of those “you’re working the muscle, keep going, rah-rah” kind of feelings either. It was a “fwaarrkkkkk, this can’t be good” kind of feeling.
(As crazy as it sounds, barbell rows also used to aggravate my chronic knee pain. When my chronic knee pain was at its peak, a lot of stiff legged movements—despite having a small range of motion about the knee—flared up my knee. Here’s a little social proof, from back when I asked Mark Rippetoe about my issues.)
Sometime in 2009, I remember trying Yates rows. My memory of this is vivid because I was so geeked going into it. Having a higher torso angle was supposed to eliminate lower back stress and all around feelings of awkwardness.
So I made the decision to stop doing any kind of barbell rows.
For a year it was dumbbell rowing. And then another year there was no rowing, save for batwings.
Around this time, I was also repatterning my lower body. You know, An Athlete’s Guide to Chronic Knee Pain stuff.
POST KNEE REHABILITATION RESULTS
After a host of glute-centric work and all of the goodness that lower body repatterning entails, I went back to barbell rows. Partly out of curiosity. Partly because I just love the dead stop “pendlay” row. (I’m well aware of the naming issues and controversy.)
To my surprise, the movement felt entirely different. But it was short lived. Not long after, I broke my foot. When I got back into training, I opted against them in favor of saving my foot from unnecessary stress.
Earlier this year, I went back for my second tour, post-repatterning, post-chroninc knee pain, and post-brokenness. Maybe the rash of injuries made me forget about my toils with them, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when a client asked me, “Is there anything I can substitute for barbell rows? I’m not sure I feel them in the right place,” that I remembered how troublesome they once were.
WHAT BARBELL ROW ARE WE TALKIN’ HERE?
For the sake of clarity, when I say “barbell row,” I’m referring to the standard overhand grip row done with the back parallel to the floor. If you want to get technical it can be done from either a dead stop or with a stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement. Currently, I opt for the stretch reflex version because I want it to be more of an upper body exercise as opposed to a deadlift assistance exercises.
WHERE SHOULD YOU FEEL THE ROW?
Nowadays, when I do barbell rows, I feel them in two places:
- Mid-Upper Back
I’m fairly certain those are both acceptable answers to the question of where the barbell row should be felt.
The glutes take a large load because they are responsible for holding the bent over position. This position is essentially the bottom of a romanian deadlift, and an isometric hold in the midst of a hinging movement pattern.
Failing to feel the glutes likely means you’re defaulting to the lower back and hamstrings, which is usually accompanied by an anterior pelvic tilt. This problem is very common as the coaching cues used to prevent lower back injuries almost always involve some sort of lower back over arching. This an entirely different topic in itself (again, An Athlete’s Guide to Chronic Knee Pain stuff).
- Getting a full stretch at the bottom (this means protracting the scapula, although I don’t go as far as old Arnie — I make sure to maintain solid lower back positioning)
- Squeezing it all together at the top (this means retracting the scapula—I like thinking “thumbs to armpits, which I can thank Dan John and bat wings for)
WHY CAN I SUDDENLY ROW?
When I was fixing my knee pain, I spent a lot of time doing isometric and “slow moving” work to get a mental connection with my hips. Firing my glutes in the bottom romanian deadlift position was, and still is, a given because all of the man hours put in.
Although I didn’t correlate it until recently, I spent an entire summer doing no rowing but bat wings. Bat wings are a Dan John-ism that are nothing more than isometric rows.
There seems to be something to repatterning and doing things slowly — even to the point if no movement — at first.
WHY YOU SHOULD BE DOING BARBELL ROWS
These days, it seems the barbell row is frowned upon. Other exercises prove more worthwhile through EMG studies, they say.
But I can confidently say the barbell row has been a huge contributor to my back’s growth, and I don’t plan on getting rid of them anytime soon.
Aside from the sexiness, the barbell row is one of those useful connect-the-dot tools.
If you can’t barbell row without your glutes afire and upper back ablazing, you probably have some wiring issues. If this applies to you, here are some things to think about:
- Your glutes aren’t in charge of your lower body. And when that happens, you’re at risk for knee pain and other lower body trouble, not to mention decreased performance as a whole.
- Your upper back has trouble commanding scapular retraction. And when that happens, your shoulder is in trouble.
So if you’re avoiding the barbell row, you might want to think about why to see if you’re not just covering up unresolved problems. Now, it’s not like I have room to talk as I threw them to the curb for two years. But after jigsawing this all together, few exercises provide a hit the entire backside quite like the barbell row.
The good news is that getting started is as simple as getting started. If you ditched them, un-ditching them starts with nothing more than grabbing a hold of the barbell, bending over, and getting the work done.
You will struggle a bit at first. But keep at it.
As for motivation, when was the last time someone needed less glute and upper back work?
The good news is that there’s hope for you yet. Even if you think you’re doing them completely wrong, you’re probably better off than I was at the start. Yet here I sit, now declaring man-love for the barbell row. I do them weekly, my knees are healthy, my lower back feels great, and my upper back ain’t too shabby.
If you can’t even fathom how to use your hips more and “repattern” for the row, be sure to check back over the next two weeks for suggestions. I’ll let all of this sink in before barraging you with more. And if your interest is peaked, you might as well sign-up for the newsletter (form at the top of the page) so you don’t miss any posts.
Oh, and that “project” I talked about in my blurb a few days ago — it will be released very shortly. And it might just fix your row woes in addition to to wiring issues you have.
Where and how would you start repatterning for the row if you’re completely out of whack?
Do you do barbell rows. If not, why?