If you look at any common strength or fitness program, it is probably composed of back squats, power cleans, pull-ups, military presses and snatches. Maybe it will have some lunges and bench pressing. The one exercise that is repeatedly missing from most programs, whether it is for high-level competitors or individuals just looking to function better for daily living, is an awkward to perform barbell lift, most likely leading to its absence. Which exercise am I talking about?
The bent-over row.
When it comes to the compound lifts that make up most competitive exercise programs, one looks to include ground-based exercises that focus on weight and/or speed. While the bent-over row is certainly not a speed-lift, it can definitely be loaded for strength gains. Furthermore, there are a variety of other benefits from performing the bent-over row.
Targets undertrained muscles and joint actions
The only other lift in CrossFit that targets a “horizontal rowing” (horizontal abduction) action is the butterfly pull-up. While fast, the butterfly pull-up does not truly target the same actions and muscle fibers – namely the rhomboids. When strong fibers like the rhomboids go untrained, it leads to imbalances and potential injury (see below).
Strong rhomboids = strong front rack & strong back rack
The rhomboids are integral to providing a strong shelf for the bar during a heavy back squat, but also help maintain an upright torso during the front squat. It is often a weakness in the rhomboids leading to a torso collapse that causes individuals to fail on the font squat. Having strong rhomboids will help you increase your front squats and Olympic receives (see easy bent-over row program at the end of this article).
Improve posture by “reciprocal inhibition”
90% of the time, individuals that have a rounded thoracic spine are not suffering from a “mobility” issue of the vertebrate – e.g. rolling your upper back out on 2 lacrosse balls will not help. Instead, these individuals suffer from tight anterior muscles – namely the pecs. Joints will not move unless a muscle contracts, in the case of the upper back, constantly tight pecs will pull the shoulders forward, leading to a slouched posture.
Performing the bent-over will engage the rhomboids, which in-turn will utilize a principle called “reciprocal inhibition.” Reciprocal inhibition is when the central nervous system relaxes the antagonist or opposite muscle group. In the case of the rhomboids, the opposite muscle group are the pecs. Therefore, performing the bent over through full ROM (range of motion) is going to be more effective at improving thoracic spine (upper back) mobility than rolling on a lacrosse ball.
How to implement a bent-over row program:
The bent-over row is a great compliment to the Olympic lifts, presses or front squats. After your normal strength program for the aforementioned exercises, perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps of the bent-over row once or twice a week – make sure not to cheat and jerk the weight up with your torso.
If you are more focused on general fitness, you can perform the bent-over row with dumbbells or a barbell before your conditioning using a similar set and rep scheme as above.