When it comes to building up a thick and wide back, Deadlift and Pull-up variations are up there, but you still need to be doing a lot of rows to make help you stay injury free and to train your back optimally. Old school bodybuilders used to always say; “Wanna grow? Gotta row!” and they didn’t say it for nothing. Rows are real bang-for-your-buck exercises and should NEVER be neglected. Long time readers of FWE know that everytime I make a program I always incorporate a lot of rowing variations for better posture, less shoulder injuries, more strength and better aesthetics.
Lee Haney, Ronnie Coleman, Arnold, Franco and all of the old school bodybuilders and even powerlifters with the best backs all did a shitload of rowing variations, so why shouldn’t you?
It’s sad because nowadays people try to find shortcuts to getting a bigger back by doing soft workouts, but back then if you wanted a big back everybody knew that you had to do a ton of deads, weighted chins and rowing variations, end of discussion. The good news is that more and more people in today’s generation are starting to understand the importance of doing heavy rows (and not just heavy bench pressing), but the big problem is that most people perform rows incorrectly.
You have one crowd who goes way too light because they don’t want to hurt their lower backs, other crowds who go way too heavy with a tiny range of motion and you have others who just don’t know how to contract their back properly.
This article is going to go over 9 common mistakes that some people make with rows and how you can fix them today! Mind you, there are hundreds of other mistakes and I will dropping a book called 101 Back Training Mistakes in the future, but for now you can take in this article to get a few ideas.
1) NOT KEEPING THE CHEST UP AT THE TOP OF EVERY REP.
It’s not a bad thing if your chest is caving in a bit when you are getting a stretch in your back on certain exercises like seated cable rows or chest supported rows, but once you pull the weight close to your body, your chest must be as tall and erect as possible. Try to imagine that you are in the military and you have to keep your chest up as high and proud as possible without exaggerating too much and you will feel a better contraction and squeeze in the parts of the back you are trying to target. If you don’t keep your chest up during this part of the movement then you are pretty much just wasting your time with rows and won’t get much out of them. The contractions that you get with this are just so much better and you just can’t go wrong.
2) NOT KEEPING CORE TIGHT.
Your core must be tight when performing exercises like Pendlay rows, Tbar rows or barbell rows because your lower back is basically working in an isometric fashion and it may not hurt now, but I guarantee you that it will affect your recovery when you get to heavier weights if you don’t keep your core tight throughout the movement. Remember that the weakest link in the chain always cracks first so sometimes you may have gotten 5 reps with 275 on your barbel rows, but could have gotten 8 reps if you just kept your core more tight and stable.
3) PULLING WITH THE BICEPS INSTEAD OF LEADING WITH THE ELBOWS.
This is one of the biggest rowing problems and it is very popular with gym newbies. The back is one of the hardest muscle groups to activate because you can’t see it and it takes a lot of visualization. The classic situation is you’ll have someone using their biceps way too much when rowing and then they wonder why their backs look exactly the same even though they are lifting heavy. I was a perfect example of this because for my first 2 years of lifting, my back literally looked exactly the same and its a shame because all of my rows were going up, but I literally looked exactly the same.
A simple cue to help fix this is to try to visualize that you are leading with your elbows. If you are still having trouble feeling your back then have somebody put their hands on your triceps when you are rowing and focus on driving your elbows backward. This tip works like a charm and it may not work right away but if you give it a bit of time you will most likely start to feel your back working properly.
Another thing you want to focus on is thinking about the part of the back you are targeting throughout the whole set, visualization is key when it comes to rowing and back training.
4) PULLING ELBOWS WAY TOO FAR BEHIND THE BODY.
You don’t need to row past 90 degrees of elbow flexion. Many people row way too far and this actually takes the stress off your back and can potentially lead to an injury. 90 degrees of elbow flexion is fine and if you find that it’s too easy then you can add more weight.
On top of that, rowing with your elbows too far back might cause your chest to cave in which could mess up your posture and injure your shoulders in the long-run.
5) FORWARD HEAD POSTURE AT THE TOP OF EVERY REP.
Most people are actually making their posture even worse by rowing which is funny because it’s supposed to be doing the opposite. One of the most common rowing mistakes (especially when you start going heavy) is a forward head posture at the top of each rep (I was guilty of this myself, but my form is a lot better now).
To fix this problem, you have to keep your chin tucked or what other coaches call “packed”.
Also, if your head sticks out at the top of every rep then chances are that you are probably going too heavy and might have to lower the weight a bit.
6) LEANING BACK AS YOU PULL.
This is one of the worst mistakes you can make because at the top of the repetition your upper body should resemble somewhat of a straight line. Leaning back is very dangerous for your lower back in 99% of cases (unless if you are extremely advanced and have very good body awareness).
Again, chances are that if you have to lean back too far when performing rows then you are going too heavy. Remember that most people don’t really care about how much you row so you might as well do it properly.
7) ROUNDING THE LOWER BACK WHEN TRYING TO STRETCH THE BACK.
This is also one of the biggest rowing mistakes that could put your lower back in an extremely compromised position. When doing exercises like cable rows, chest supported rows and dumbbell rows it is good to let your upper back round to stretch the lats but most people will take this to the extreme and let their lower backs round too which defeats the purpose and will only set you up for an injury. If you want to do the 3 rows listed above properly and safely then you can round the upper back a bit when you are getting a stretch, but do so while keeping the lower back in a neutral and safe position.
Warning: Rounding the upper back can be safe on some rowing variations, but not bent over barbell rows, Pendlay rows and t-bar rows unless if you are more advanced and have good body awareness.
8) NOT SQUEEZING YOUR BACK HARD ENOUGH AT THE TOP OF EACH REPETITION.
Most people talk about how they squeeze their backs hard when they row, but they have no idea what squeezing hard really means. If you are serious about building a bigger and stronger back then you have to make every single rep count.
Johnnie Jackson has one of the biggest backs in bodybuilding today and he is a big advocate of squeezing muscles hard at the peak contraction to bring more blood flow to that area and improve the mind-muscle connection. I found that squeezing the targeted muscles of my back at the top allowed me to get a much better mind muscle connection as well.
Don’t count the reps, make the reps count.
9) NOT KNOWING WHICH PART OF THE BACK YOU ARE TARGETING.
This one really pisses me off because some people will just do any row while not even knowing what part of the back they are targeting. Why are you doing a wide grip cable row? Do you know which muscles it works? If you don’t know which muscles the exercise is supposed to work then how in the world is your body supposed to know?
You have to have a clear idea of which part of the back you are training when you are doing rows. If you want specific results then you need to train a specific way. If you are doing cable rows with a close neutral grip then you are targeting more of the lats, but if you are doing them with a wide neutral grip and puling to the mid chest with your elbows flared out the the sides then you are targeting more of the upper back.
So there you have it, there are more tips that I will add in the future and be on the lookout for the book in the near future. The reason why you don’t see many people walking around with big backs is because they don’t know how to row properly but hopefully this article will change that a bit.