Exercise Analysis - Rows

If you understand the concept of synergy, I think you’ll agree that a system is only as strong as its weakest link. It stands to reason, therefore, that when you develop one component while neglecting another, the system will not evolve. In fact, the opposite is often the case as the imbalance you create can make the new system more fallible than the one present when all of the elements were symmetrically lacking. With this in mind, it stands to reason that if bench presses are the most accepted upper body resistance exercise, rows should be the most respected.

Muscles attach to bones and cross joints where bones articulate. When we decide to move, we call our muscles into action. Specifically, our nervous system commands them to develop the tension necessary to overcome any resistance to the desired movement that is present. If they accomplish this, they shorten and pull the attached bones together. Every time we move voluntarily, muscles pull in this manner.

Muscles are great pullers, but they cannot push. Consequently, there are only two ways to move bones back in the opposite direction. If the muscle that created the movement reduces its tension sufficiently, the opposing force will exceed tension development and the muscle will be forced to extend to a greater length. This is what we do after completing a lift when training with weights and is known as the eccentric (negative) phase of a rep. In other instances, the opposing movement will also occur against resistance, so muscles on the other side of the joint must be activated.

Muscles situated on opposite sides of joints are called antagonists, even though their relationship is anything but adversarial. Antagonists operate like partners to coordinate movement and also establish joint position when no movement is occurring. Balanced development of antagonists is critical for maintaining ideal posture.

When artists draw caricatures of bodybuilders, they typically create a postural appearance that resembles that of a gorilla. In many cases, this isn’t far from the truth. Many lifters prioritize their chest and front shoulder muscles, thereby creating asymmetrical development in shoulder antagonists that causes their arms to rotate inward. A telltale sign of this imbalance is palms that face rearward when the arms hang down at the sides. Too many bench presses and not enough rows are often the culprit.

There are a number of ways to perform rows, but in all cases, an opposing force is pulling your arms out in front of you and you must pull your hands toward your torso to complete the lift. This motion is exactly the opposite of what occurs when you bench press, so it should come as no surprise that rows work the muscles of the back. But different upper arm positions dramatically alter which back muscles you prioritize when you row, so it’s important to take this into account.

The major muscles of the upper back are the latissimus dorsi (lats) and teres major. These muscles are responsible for the coveted V-shape, but contrary to popular belief, actually wrap around and attach to the front portion of the humerus (upper arm bone). As a result, they serve as internal rotators, just like the muscles of the chest and front shoulder. The lats and teres major are targeted when you perform rows with your upper arm traveling directly down at your side. Consequently, this type of row doesn’t involve antagonists that offset chronic internal rotation and can actually contribute to it! On the other hand, when you row with the upper arm situated at a right angle with respect to your torso, you involve muscles that externally rotate the humerus (the posterior aspect of the deltoids) and hold the shoulder blade back (the rhomboids and middle trapezius). It is important to include this type of row in your program.

Rows can be done in each of the aforementioned ways with free weights (dumbbells or barbells), cables or on a seated vertical row machine. The machine has a pad that you position your chest against which provides support. This removes stress on soft tissue of the lower back. Conversely, the unsupported forward flexion present when you perform bent-over rows with a barbell can be problematic, especially if injury to this vulnerable area is already present. T-Bar rows (a favorite in the old days) are also done without support, although a lever row machine (the modern version of the T-Bar) comes equipped with an angled pad, which allows you to lie prone and eliminates this concern.

Rowing machines are also popular in the cardio room and provide an alternative to weight-bearing aerobic exercise. Involving movement of the legs and upper body, rowing is superior to stationary cycling because a greater cardiovascular stimulus (and accompanying calorie burn) can be accomplished without local muscle fatigue. However, it’s important to realize this type of exercise isn’t effective for developing muscle. In order to accomplish that objective, a greater load must be applied (one that you can only move for 90 seconds before exhaustion, for example) and you must be able to progressively increase that load as training-induced strength gain occurs. 

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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