Rowing movements or horizontal pulling should be in any good strength training program. Now that we live in a world where our default posture is a kyphotic or hunchback posture, it is very important that we work on proper rowing to maintain shoulder health. There are so many variations of the row too so it’s not like you could ever get bored with it. Plus, rowing just feels good.
My last post on squatting was rather lengthy so I will be keeping this post a little shorter and easier to digest. The Row itself is not a very complicated movement, but what trips us up is lack of scapular (shoulder blade) mobility. This could be from years of having poor posture, lack of knowledge of the technique or a combination of both.
I will break down the basic steps for successful rowing, but keep in mind that in writing this explaining what someone with relatively health shoulders would look like whole doing a row. As I have said in previous posts, if you are newer to strength training it might be beneficial to have a coach or someone with experience watch you so that you know that you are rowing well. If you do not focus on the details, then you might end up doing more harm than good.
Point #1. Puff Out That Chest!
Let me clarify. I am not asking you to excessively arch your back and compress you T-spine. I just want you to hold your chest up high enough so that your back is not hunched over. If you try to do a row with a hunch back and your shoulders rounded forward, chances are you will not be able to do the complete movement. Our shoulder blades are designed to glide across the rib cage, but with a funky posture they can start to sit in weird positions. An example of this is scapular winging where your scapula drift away from the rib cage and stick out from your back. Not only is this indicative of a potentially unhealthy shoulder, but it just looks plain wacked!
By keeping your chest high and your back flat throughout the movement your shoulder blades should be able glide naturally on the rib cage. In many cases I coach people to have just a hint of spinal extension in their upper back because it really helps to get people to pull their shoulders back and get tall. This is actually very common among seasoned lifters even though there is a big push for keeping a neutral spine. As long as the spinal extension or arch in the upper back is not excessive, I have never had an issue with it. It has certainly helped a lot of my clients get into a better position. You still want to keep your abs tight and keep your head looking forward (neural) so that you are reinforcing a solid rowing pattern. Everyone’s shoulders are a bit different but generally a tall and very slightly arched position works well.
Retracted Scapula (Shoulder blades together)
Partial Protraction (Shoulder blades apart)
Point #2. Pull with the Scapula
The muscles of the shoulder girdle are many. Your shoulder is a very complex joint that allows you to go through a wide range of movement. The main movements that your shoulder blades can perform are retraction, protraction, upward rotation, downward rotation, elevation and depression. When you row properly, you want to retract and depress your scapula. The main muscles that are involved in rowing include the biceps, trapezius, rhomboids, teres major, latissimus dosi, rear deltoids. The main muscles involved in retraction and depression are you rhomboids and trapezius.
When you perform the row, you want to start the movement with retraction and then pull the elbows back. I always tell my clients to bring their shoulder blades down and together. If you do not mention the importance of bringing your shoulder blades DOWN as well as together then they are likely to use their upper traps too much by shrugging up. Even if you want big upper traps, you do not want to get into the habit if forgetting to kick on your lower traps to pull the shoulder blades down. Doing so will train your body not to go through a full range of motion and you simply won’t get as much development in your lower traps.
Shrugged Pull (Upper trap dominant)
Lower Trap Activation (Proper pull)
Point # 3. Don’t Round Out Your Back Before You Pull
In exercise there are two phases of a muscle contraction. The phase when you shorten the muscle is called the “concentric” phase, and the phase when you lengthen the muscle is called the “eccentric” phase. When you pull back for your row, that is the concentric phase, so when your shoulder blades come apart and your arms straighten up again, that is the eccentric phase.
Still with me? Good.
When you do the eccentric phase of the row, you may feel like rounding out your back to get maximal protection so that you can also get full retraction. I would not recommend rounding out your back at any point during the row. We do not want to put stress on our spine by continuously flexing and extending the spine while under load.
Full Protraction & Rounding (Improper starting position)
Flat Back with Partial Protraction (Proper starting position)
I recommend that, yes, you let the shoulder blades come apart (eccentric phase), but you should also maintain a flat back and keep your chest up. In this position you will be in what would be considered partial protraction, but it is only because you are maintaining a strong, flat back. That way you can focus on making the movement happen primarily happen in the scapula. If you do this right, your back will look jacked and your shoulders won’t hate your guts.
The row is a fantastic exercise for building the back and establishing good scapular health. If you have trouble with vertical pulling movements like pull ups then rows are a progression. If you don’t include rows in training I hope this post helps you to see them in a different light.
Thanks for reading!
Ah the squat. A great exercise and probably one of the greatest topics of debate in the fitness industry. I am not here to prove anyone else wrong or get crazy specific with technique (even though it is needed sometimes). I just want to impart what general wisdom that I do have to those who are either brand new to squatting or for novice lifters who have never looked at the details.
Squatting is a very natural human movement. Technically we are designed to squat all the way down to the ground with little to no restrictions. Sadly, however, our modern day habits have morphed us into sedentary chair lovers. Our nervous systems have to deal with so much stimulation that many of us have just become giant blobs of stress, which means tight tissues for everyone!
Luckily exercise and daily self TLC can help combat this chronic state of stress. When you go to do your squat at first, I am willing to bet that you probably have a mobility restriction somewhere. Don’t panic. You can still squat, but you will definitely need to find a good coach to help you increase your mobility so that you can continue to get better. Eventually you will be a squatting champ! Well, maybe not a champ, but you will at least be able to squat safely and experience the benefits of a strong lower bod.
I will try to cover the most important parts of the squat technique. This will cover the bodyweight squat but the majority of this technique will apply to loaded versions of the squat like barbell squats, kettlebell front squats, etc. Let’s get to it!
Rule # 1. Maintain a NEUTRAL SPINE
Your spine has natural curvature. The Lower spine has a natural lordotic curve and your T-spine has a slight rounded curve. When your upper back has an excessive curve it is called kyphosis and when your lower spine has an excessive curve it is called hyperlordosis. Essentially your spine should resemble a very slight S. When your spine looks like a very pronounced S, that’s when you can run into problems. If that is the case, then you need to find a way to fix your posture. A good corrective exercise specialist or therapist can help with that. In extreme cases sometimes surgery is needed.
If you have a generally healthy spine, then keeping it neutral means keeping it in the position that you would have it in if you were standing up very straight. This does not mean creating excessive spinal extension. I usually tell people to have a “proud chest.” This will usually get people to go from a rounded posture to a tall, flat backed posture. If you ever see someone whole walks with confidence, they probably have their head up, their shoulders are not rounded forward, and their chest doesn’t look like its hiding from the world. This is the position that your spine should be in for the squat. If you sit down most of your day then you likely have some degree of that kyphotic and/or hyperlordotic posture that I explained earlier. Again, I cannot stress enough how important it is to work on correcting your posture. Otherwise you may end up with musculoskeletal problems down the road. No Bueno!
During the squat the head can be up and slightly extended (slightly tilted back) or completely neutral if you'd like to be 100% by the book. You just want to make sure that you are not maximally extending the cervical (neck) spine even though its probably what you will instinctively want to do.
Simply put, for a neutral spine position your back should be one straight line from head to tailbone. (See image below)
Rule # 2. BRACE, BRACE, BRACE!
This next point is very important. When I learned to do this, my lower back stopped hurting and I was able to lift significantly more weight. Bracing is generally characterized by maintaining tight abdominals throughout a certain movement. Keeping your ribs down and abs tight creates more rigidity in the torso and helps you to maintain that neutral spine that we just talked about. Breathing correctly plays a role in this too, but for now I just want to emphasize the tights abs. If you forget to brace your abs, chances are that you will begin to compensate by excessively extending your back and using your lower back muscles. In the squat, this can be problematic, especially if we have weight on our back. The combination of a neutral spine and tight abs makes for a strong torso throughout the squat. The two tactics work in synergy. One helps to maintain the other.
In terms of breathing, you want to start your inhale just as you are starting to sink down into your squat. There will be a brief period where you might want to hold your breath. In my opinion, you do not want to hold your breath for very long at all as this can lead to too much intra-abdominal pressure. If you hold your breath as you push back up from the bottom of the squat, then you could be at a higher risk of injury. You could develop a hernia for example. What works for me is an inhale at the top and finishing the inhale on the way down, then a brief hold at the bottom, followed by a strong exhale on the way up. Some people like to inhale at the top, hold as they sink and then exhale on the way up. Figure out a sequence that works well for you, but just remember not to hold your breath on the way up from the squat.
Rule # 3. Leg & Foot Position
This is right around the time when the debate for squat technique starts to get crazy. I will explain what has worked well for my clients and me. Remember that everyone has different levels of mobility. Some people can squat from any angle and others are limited to one or two variations. For the standard squat, having your feet anywhere from shoulder width to about 10 inches outside of shoulder width apart seems to work for most people. Any narrower and you start to see more restrictions in mobility, though not always and only if you are trying to go for depth, which I will explain next. Any wider and you might as well do a sumo squat. Still, if you find a range outside of what I recommend that is comfortable for you then more power to you. I like to have my stance a fairly wide as this feels the most stable for me. (See image below)
As for the feet, you have two options. You can either keep your feet pointed forward or turned out up to 30 degrees. Again, if we were doing a sumo squat then we would allow for more foot turn out, but in this case we want to be in a stable position where we are not constantly fighting to keep our knees from falling in and having our feet over-pronate. Keeping the feet in one of these two positions is the standard. If you struggle to be in either position, then you know that you have some mobility work to do. Do not fret though, you can still do other squat progressions that will assist you in gaining the mobility that you need.
Toes out roughly 30 degrees
Rule # 4. Hip Position, Squat Depth & The Butt Wink
Yet another topic of debate is what to do with the hips when sitting down into the squat. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so I am not going to say that the way that I am about to explain it is the end all, beat all. However, when I was coached to change my form, I was able to use my glute, hip and pelvic muscles a whole lot more.
When I coach the squat I tell people to keep their whole foot on the ground, but put 60% of the weight in the back half of the foot. I simultaneously tell them to sit back into their hips like they are sitting back into a chair. Some coaches do not like this cue for various reasons, one major one being that it might make a squatter load their weight improperly. I think that it is situational. For people who tend to load more into their knees, this cue works well because they finally start to let the big muscles around the hips do the work. For other people it could be an issue with the squat sequence, balance or anything in between. How you do the squat will ultimately depend on your individual anatomy and mobility, but generally, sitting back into the hips and heels works well.
The butt wink is quite a controversial topic. It is the point in your squat when your tail bone begins to tuck under and your lower back initiates total rounding of the spine. In an ideal world the butt wink would not happen no matter how deep you go into your squat. Unfortunately for most people who are not experienced lifters or naturally mobile, the butt wink will occur at some point before they reach a full depth squat.
Generally I go by the hip crease below the knee rule. This means that when you go down for your squat, you should be able to keep a neutral spine as the crease where you bend at your hip goes just past the knees. I have found this to be safe while squatting with relatively heavy loads. However, I still believe that if you plan to lift for a long time, a full depth squat with a neutral spine should be a goal that everyone with generally healthy joints has. Some people who have injuries or permanent restrictions may not be able to reach this goal, but in those cases there are always alternatives.
Example of butt wink and rounding back
Rule # 5. What to do with the Knees?
So where should your knees be as you sink into your squat? Well, I know you’re getting tired of hearing this, but….it depends. Lots of coaches will tell you to drive the knees out and not let them come too far over the toes. Others will tell you to keep your knees in line with your feet and let the knees come over the toes as much as you need to get good squat depth. Again, it is completely situational and both modes of thinking could be correct. As long as you can load into your hips enough, you are maintaining good squat posture and you aren’t coming up off of your heels then in my book, you’re good. Everyone moves a little differently, and as long as you are being safe, you do you.
What you do NOT want to do is let your knees cave in. This is called a valgus knee pattern, or knock knees. This is usually referring to walking gait, but in people who have this tendency you might also see it when they strength train. It can happen in walking, running and of course, squatting. This is a hard thing to address in some people, but in my experience, this is where the cue to drive the knees out in the squat can come in handy. People who have this faulty pattern my also want to spend some time doing specific corrective exercises to try to fix the problem. It can take a while to adapt to a new motor pattern, but it will save you from a whole lot of knee, hip and back pain if you can address it.
Valgus knee pattern
I cannot express enough how everyone is different when it comes to movement. Yes, we all have the same general anatomy and physiology, but specific things like bone length, bone density, tendon thickness and general coordination have a lot influence on how you move. That’s why you hear that some people are born to be sprinters or gymnasts and others are born to be bodybuilders or powerlifters. At the end of the day though, humans evolved doing squatting movements. It is considered a fundamental human movement and anyone with all of their joints intact can benefit from training it in some way.
I hope that this post helped you to better understand the squat. If you have any questions or you would like to talk about it, feel free to leave a comment.
Thanks for reading. Now go do some SQUATS!
Most of my strength training is based around gymnastics, but I do love weight training as well. Depending on the day or week, I will lean more towards one or the other. However, as of late I have really been trying to focus on strength based gymnastics skills such as the front lever, quality freestanding handstand push ups, and the straddle planche.
Most people will tell you that mixing up your exercises is the only way to “confuse” your muscles so that you can constantly make gains. While that may be true to an extent, it may not apply directly to skill based training. At least not in the same way. In skill based training progressive overload can either be in the form of adding weight to an existing skill progression, or choosing a more difficult skill progression. An example of this could be moving from handstands on a wall to freestanding handstands.
When I am doing skill work, I use more of a skill progression method, but for general strength exercises like pull ups and dips, I like to simply increase reps or add weight to my body. I try to do both skill work and general strength work all of my training sessions. The template below is what I generally like to use for putting together training sessions. It could include more or less volume, and it can even be entirely different at times, but I almost always come back to this general template. This template does not include other training such as martial arts or parkour, but you can certainly take it and adapt it to other training disciplines.
It is a combination of programming ideas that I have learned over the years from mentors, books and experimentation. This is certainly not the end all beat all, but it has worked fairly well for me. See the template below.
Training Session Template:
I may also do some mobility work afterwards, but most of the time I like to do my mobility work at a different time of day. More often than not I will do a little bit of isolation work too if I’m not too fatigued. Up next I will give you some examples of what this might look like with different training focuses.
Upper Body Sample Session:
Lower Body Sample Session:
This one is a little different for me. I tend to do a little less volume on the main lifts if I am doing a strict leg session. Here is what I typically do.
Full Body Sample Session:
As you can see, there is a good mix of exercises when it comes to the general strength work, but when it comes to skill work I stick with skill progressions until I have the skill and have it clean.
As stated previously, this is not the only template that I use for my training. Mixing things up IS important, but in my opinion, it should be done in a calculated way as opposed to coming to a session with no plan and randomly choosing exercises on the fly. At least not at every training session ;)
At the end of the day what matters most is that you are training, and as long as you are performing the exercises well, do whatever the hell you wanna do :D
Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to ya soon,