Saturday, 13 April 2013

Chin Ups And Rows Are Not Assistance Exercises

For some reason in the strength world the business of pulling things towards you is regarded as an unimportant afterthought. In countless programs chin ups and rows are seen as some kind of assistance exercises you do for your main lifts. You bang out a few light sets of ten after your heavy benching and your done. I believe this attitude should change. I believe that upper body pulling should be just as important as upper body pressing. Just because they aren't the power lifts and no one cares how much you row or chin doesn't mean these lifts should be branded the same as goodmornings, and cable cross overs.

Firstly upper back strength is of fundamental importance to all round body strength. Strength is not just being able to do the big 3 but is about exerting force in any direction whether you be pulling something towards you or pushing it away. The upper back is also of great importance as a stabilzer for the spine and shoulders. This means a stronger upper back will always you to produce more force from the other muscles due to greater stability aswell as reduce the chance of injury.

The beautiful thing about pull ups is they show who is really strong and who is simply lifting a lot because they are fat/have better leverage/reduced ROM etc. If I can do a chin up with 60kg hanging on me at 80kg bodyweight then a 140kg man should also be able to do a chin up otherwise my muscles are producing more force than his.

Think about how important the upper back is for the 3 power lifts. During the squat you have to keep your upper back bunched together and flexed hard. This not only keeps the bar from moving around on your back but also helps to keep your chest up and maintain your lower back arch.

During the bench you have to keep your upper back squeezed hard to give yourself a good base of support as well as to protect the shoulders.

During the dead lift the upper is working hardest of all to maintain your arch. If your upper back crumbles your lower back will follow which will set you up for failure and injury. You upper back has to be strong to help break the bar off the floor. You could have very strong legs to get the bar moving but if your upper back cannot support the weight isometrically then the bar will come crashing down.

Back strength is also incredebly important for injury prevention. The back muscles help keep the shoulder joint balanced and supported. They improve Posture by keeping your shoulders back in  their natural position rather than rounded forward like most people's. Poor posture is very common due to our modern lifestyle of constant sitting and hunching over a computer. Lots of back training will help correct this without the need for shoulder external rotations with 5kg dumddells supersetted with band pull aparts. Lots of heavy back work, basically rows, chins and dead lifts will counteract the need for any prehab, mobility stuff. let's face it if you are putting up some big numbers on pressing exercises is 5lbs rotor cuff work really going to protect your shoulders? It doesn't make much sense to me. Doing a bunch of very light isolation exercises for something as small as the rotor cuff just isn't going to stress the muscles and connective tissues in the same way that they are going to be used when pressing a heavy load. Now if your back is so strong  and developed as to balance out the strength of your pressing your shoulders will be far better supported and shoulder injuries will be non existent.

As opposed to


Aside from all these great benefits of doing more heavy back work big backs just look cool. They are a real sign that someone is strong and has spent years under the bar. I've never seen someone I'd consider strong who didn't have decent back development, even on the lightweight guys. A decent back is not something you can get from a bunch of pumping isolation stuff. I've never seen a poser in the gym with a good back since it comes from hard work and heavy weight. While many guys may well do plenty of rows and chins they are usually done far too light or with very little volume and frequency compared to their pressing exercises. Heavy compound back exercises give you a real power look which can't be achieved with other exercises.

I have already talked about chin ups in a previous post here. The only thing I will add is please don't be the idiot who does kipping pull ups. Pulls and chins are to build a stronger back not for having a seizure on a pull up bar. They are the equivalent of doing ego swinging bicep curls in the squat rack.

                      The only circumstance where a kipping pull up is justified.

Next we come to rows. My favourite are dumbbell rows. This is because I feel it allows the best form to be used and doesn't beat up your lower back as well. I'm not a big fan of standard barbell rows as the form tends to go to shit as soon as it starts getting heavy. Are you getting stronger or are you just moving your chest down to meet the bar. Also there is too much lower back involvement especially in the sloppy version. If you are already training heavy squats and deads in the week then you don't need extra work for your lower back. T bar rows are everything that is wrong with the barbell row x10. I have never seen someone performing these that didn't look like a camel trying to have sex. The range of motion seems so limited unless you ram the barbell into your balls. Just avoid them.

When it comes to dumbbell rows perform them with both feet on the floor and your free hand resting on a bench. This is a much stronger position than putting your knee on the bench and allows you to use heavier weights. The dumbbell row is an exercise that can be trained heavier than most people think. Sets of 5s work great and you will probably find that the heaviest dumbbells in your gym are too easy for you. At this point I you have 2 options. Either continue using the heaviest dumbbell in the gym but up the reps.You can do this either conventionally. Such as going from 5x5 to 3x10 or try Kroc rows which is basically just one all out set with the heaviest dumbbell there is. If you do this still try to keep the form fairly strict and don't use too much body English. I know Matt Kroc does them that way but you aren't handling 300lbs dumbbells.

The other option is to get hold of an Olympic dumbbell handle and plate load your own dumbbell. The one in my gym is good for about 100kg and I'm currently hitting sets of 5 with 70kg. You'll probably find you can get quite strong at these. But try to keep the form strict and don't go below sets of 5. No one cares what your Max dumbbell row is.

 I would suggest the Olympic handle first at least until you max out its loading potential. This is what I believe Matt Kroc did before he started with the Kroc rows and looser form. Then its time to build your own.

     If your dumbbell doesn't at least somewhat resemble this you're doing it wrong.

I find it helps to detract your shoulder blades in the bottom of a dumbbell row kind of like the opposite of a shrug. When you pull you also shrug your shoulder blade back as if you are trying to pinch your shoulder blades together but only on one side. I find this feels stronger as well as activating the back muscles more so your row doesn't just turn into an arm exercise.

The most important point I want to make with this post is that you need to have more emphasis on your compound back exercises. There needs to be just as much volume and intensity as your pushing exercises. For every set of bench presses there needs to be a set of rows in the program. For every set of overhead press there needs to be a set of chin ups. Treat them as major lifts and put a lot of effort into them. They are not some afterthought assistance exercises. If you treat your rows with the same regard that you do benching you will be a lot bigger, stronger and more useful. Start to work hard at your chin ups and you won't have to walk around with imaginary lat syndrome because you will actually have some doesn't matter how you set up your program. Whether you have a back day desperate to chest day or train total body just make sure that for every set of pressing their is an equally challenging set of rows or chins.

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