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!