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Why you row wrong (and how to fix it)

I’m going to make a big call here, and say that 90% of people are performing their horizontal pulling (rowing) movements incorrectly or at the very least sub-optimally.

I’d even go so far as to say that the one-arm dumbbell row is the most commonly butchered movement in the gym.

The worst part about this issue is that these types of exercises when performed incorrectly have almost the opposite effect intended.

The breakdown

The reason for doing rowing movements (or anything classified as horizontal pulling) is to develop the upper back and arm musculature, specifically the biceps, forearms, lats, rhomboids and trapezius.

However, the most important (for shoulder health) of these muscles are often under stimulated or completely inactive during most of the horizontal pulling movements I have witnessed.

So what is going wrong?

The issue is a combination of things;

Firstly, muscular imbalances resulting from poor posture (or is the other way around?) make it difficult to engage muscles in the correct sequence, and some of the target musculature receives little - if any- stimulus.

Secondly, 99% of the people I have worked with don’t quite understand what they are actually trying to do when performing rowing movements, which results in the movement coming largely from the arm instead of the shoulder.

So how do we fix it?

The first priority is to understand the purpose of any exercise before attempting it.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Apparently not, as this is appears to be a step people often skip over when trying an exercise for the first time.

Understand that any horizontal pulling movement needs to engage the scapular (shoulder blade) retractors and depressors at least as much as the lats and biceps. This is important for 2 reasons;

  1. The lats (although often considered the opposing muscle group to the pecs) actually act as an internal rotator of the humerus (upper arm), which means the much maligned ‘shoulders forward and turned in’ posture (see image) is actually made worse by incorrectly performed rowing movements.

  2. Because the biceps tendons attach to the shoulder blade at 2 different spots, if you don’t have this structure stabilised it will be pulled forward and tilted up, making it very difficult for you to recruit the correct muscles, and putting you in a position to impinge on the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus in particular).

This means that if you have issues with posture around the shoulders (99% of people), it’s not enough to just have an equal number of ‘chest’ and ‘back’ movements in your program.

Once we understand why we are doing these movements, (to engage mid-back musculature, at least as much as lats and biceps) we can proceed to…

How to do it.

  1. Rowing movements should almost always begin with some retraction and depression (pulling back and down) of the shoulder blade/s. Exceptions to this are people with very low upper trapezuis tone, who should aim for a more 'retraction only' based approach

  2. Ensure that your shoulder does not slide forward as the movement progresses and your arms get closer to your body.

  3. Ensure that your elbow is never back further than your shoulder as you finish the movement. The front of your shoulder should be flush with the arm, not sticking out forward.

  4. At the peak of the movement you should feel the muscles in between and around your shoulder blades contracting. (not your upper traps and delts)

In Summary

If you have existing postural dysfunction, simply incorporating ‘back’ movements is not sufficient, you must ensure that the right muscles are engaging in the right order.

Once you can do this, you can begin overloading and progressing your rowing movements with the confidence that you aren’t exacerbating existing postural issues. This will of course lead to less pain, and more gains.

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