Bulletproof Your Back: The 10/20/Life Bank of Rows

By Brian Carroll

I’m a powerlifter. That means I squat, I bench, I deadlift, I overhead press from time to time, and I row.

Read that last one again. For emphasis.

I row, I row, and I row some more. For my money, rows should be a part of every program no matter what your goals happen to be. If you’re training heavy, you’re probably benching and overhead pressing—and if you’re benching and overhead pressing, you should be pulling and rowing.

After my back injury—multiple broken vertebrae and flattened disks—I thought I wasn’t ever going to row again. That’s because I just assumed it was going to hurt, and I wasn’t looking forward to a life of stuff that would give me pain. What I didn’t realize, however, was that I was rowing incorrectly for years.

When you’re putting your back in a compromised position, you have to have everything completely tight in terms of your form and technique. That’s what I learned to do with rowing—and ever since I did, my back is making progress like crazy, and I’ve eliminated pain from both my daily activities and my training.

Here are my favorite rowing movements:

BARBELL ROW: I had issues with this one for years because I wasn’t bracing myself properly. In this article, I touched on the lifter’s wedge. When you do barbell rows, the idea is to stand like a gorilla, only slightly bent over—no rounding—with your head forward, not looking down.

I like to use moderate weights here so I don’t swing. This is a dangerous position for your back that can cause serious disk injuries, so don’t swing and rock all over the place. The technique here is to row toward your middle abs, focusing on pulling your elbows back instead of heaving the bar into your stomach.

Three sets of 6-12 reps is perfect here, depending on where you are in your 10/20/Life cycle. Don’t use straps, and don’t take an alternating grip. Start with a medium grip, with a medium stance, and use a variety of grips to take advantage of this row variation to build mass in your back.

ONE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW: I like doing these with one arm down and braced on a bench. Row back, contract hard, keep your spine neutral, and brace your abs, too. Keep your reps slow and controlled the entire time. If you have to swing the weight, you’re going too heavy. Again, concentrate on pulling your elbow back, and not just moving the weight.

I stick to the same rep scheme here—three sets of 6-12 reps. It’s also not a bad idea to rotate between barbell and dumbbell rows, especially if you have grip issues—and again, don’t use straps.

TWO-ARM REVERSE-GRIP DUMBBELL ROW: This is essentially a standing two-arm barbell row, only you’re taking an underhand grip with a dumbbell, and it’s not as violent of a movement as the previous two exercises. Using dumbbells allows you to get a little more range of motion, along with a good squeeze at the top of the lift.

Using an underhand grip is a nice touch for your lats, and it’ll give your wrists a break after the wear and tear of lots of barbell movements. Execute your “gorilla lean,” as described above, because you’re once again putting your back at risk here. Take the same stance as your barbell rows, and row toward your middle abs/obliques—meaning you’ll be rowing each dumbbell toward your obliques at middle ab level.

T-BAR ROW: Perform these either on a dedicated machine or holding a v-handle under a barbell that’s loaded on one end. Again using the “gorilla lean,” pull your elbows back and squeeze with each contraction. You’ll be using the same cues you did for the other rowing movements we discussed, only at a slightly different angle. T-bar rows are a great close-grip exercise that work the middle of your back, and I like doing them with lighter weight and higher reps: 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps.

INVERTED ROW or FAT MAN PULL-UP: Set up a bar in a power rack, making sure the rack is sturdy and anchored. You can place the bar atop the spotter pins, or keep it in the J-hooks if it’s safe to do so. The idea is to slide under the bar and row up, as though you’re doing a horizontal pull-up.

This is a great warm-up for your back on deadlift day, and a terrific general warm-up move overall. Inverted rows do a fantastic job of moving blood into your lats, rhomboids, pecs, biceps, and shoulders. You can do these with various grips, and with your feet either elevated or on the floor. To add weight, just drape chains on yourself. 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps should be perfect.

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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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