The Dynamic Barbell Row: A Semantic Exercise

Posted on 16 Aug 2012 19:58

Consider any simple exercise, and you will find a confounding number of variations. Take barbell rows, for example. Compared to a barbell row, potato salad is rocket surgery. The exercise is just too dirt simple for there to be a need for more than a few variations. Yet there are endless variations.

Sure you can change the trunk angle. There are epic discussions which spawn worship of such clever little variations like the "Yates Row." Probably, if you advocated sticking out the pinky finger during the row, you could paste your name to yet another version. Still, at least most versions have at least some reason for their existence. Changing the trunk angle, deloading or not deloading the bar, these things change the character and impact of the exercise at least a little and they are based on something that makes sense. Something actually is fundamentally different about the versions.

But, lo and behold, you don't have to make sense to come up with your own version. You can use muddy concepts, bullshit kinesiology, and plastic words to really corner the market with an "advanced" version of your own. To that end, we have the Dynamic or Explosive row. Dynamic, in this case, refers to it being "energetic" or "forceful."

Explosive! Well, that word is so undefined in strength training literature it could mean almost anything that ain't standing still, but in this case it means the same thing as dynamic. Both words are used to denote a similarity to a fast Olympic lift.

Dynamic rows, according to whom you ask, are the same thing as the "Pendlay Row" or the "JS Row" both of which are apparently the same exercise. A deloaded row, this version of the barbell row is deemed to "activate" the latissimus dorsi more than a regular barbell row and allow you to lift heavier weights. Although there are many iterations in technique for this, which are not worth my time to try and outline, the basic gist is as follows:

  • Load the bar with much more weight than you can handle for a barbell row
  • With the bar sitting on the floor, bend over at the waste and assume a "parallel" position over the bar (torso is parallel with the floor)
  • Keep the lower back neutral - in its natural arched position, and tight
  • You probably cannot reach the bar from this position without going below parallel

That's okay, just flex forward at the mid back..thoracic spine..until you can reach the bar

  • Now, violently hitch at the hips, in a twitching sort of way, and extend the mid back, so that you bring the bar up to the chest "explosively"
  • If you look like you started to do a barbell row and then suffered a seizure, you are doing it right

Okay, I am making what some would call a "straw man", sort of exaggerating and distorting the whole dynamic row thing. But the simple truth is, there is no way to describe this "exercise" which has no fixed form. But hey, that shouldn't matter, because they are dynamic, and thank God someone invented these "dynamic rows" because I've always performed my rows with absolutely no force or energy in as snail-like a fashion as possible. That's why I really need to do dynamic effort on bench and stuff because all the other days I try to see if I can move the bar so slow I turn back time.

Sarcasm aside, what you have to ask yourself is: Why? Why is it that on any other exercise the word "dynamic" is only applied to speed work. So that when you do speed or acceleration work on bench, or deads, or anything, you do it WITH CORRECT FORM only as fast as possible and you usually of course lower the weight in order to focus on velocity. Speed bench press is still bench. A speed deadlift is exactly the same as a regular deadlift except faster. But with rows…

With rows it's a mess. The dynamic row is basically a cheating movement. Although cheating movements have their place, here and there, in strength training (although more prevalent in bodybuilding), this is a particularly ill advised way to cheat. And of course, cheating is a way of getting a too heavy bar to move when you wouldn't normally be able to move it, using a little Body English. There is no one way to do that. So what is the rationale for this cheat?

rubber ducks in a row

Get Your Ducks in a Row
Image by James Yardley

rubber ducks in a row

Get Your Ducks in a Row
Image by James Yardley

Latissimus Dorsi Role in Spinal Extension

Although I do not know the origin of this myth, according to Glen Pendlay, the so-called Pendlay Row, which some refer to as a Dynamic Row, is superior because it activates the latissimus dorsi more than "bodybuilder rows." According to this theory, the latissimus dorsi is active in thoracic extension and thus the flexion and subsequent extension of the thoracic during these rows strengthens the lats better than rows without this extension. This was determined, apparently, by electromyographic studies, according to bodybuilding forum lore.

Well, I've looked and looked but I can find no scientific evidence that the latissimus dorsi has ever been implicated as an active thoracic extensor. Let's look at the origins, insertions, and actions of the lats, both known and theorized.

The latissimus dorsi originates on the spinous processes of the last six thoracic vertebrae, the first two lumbar vertebrae, the lateral raphe of the thoracolumbular fascia, the iliac crest, and ribs 9 to 12. Covers a lot of ground doesn't it? The muscle inserts onto the intertubercular groove of the humerus (upper arm). A review of how we determine origins versus insertions of muscles tells us that the origin is usually the attachment that is least moveable, which tends to be the proximal attachment. The insertion of a muscle, typically, moves toward the origin. So, if the latissimus dorsi originates at the spine, the thorax, and the ribs, but inserts onto the upper arm, what would you guess to be its role, if you didn't already know? Something to do with moving the upper arm, possibly toward the body? Well, yep, you'd be right. Surely, then, the lats will be more worked by the shoulder's action in the row than by any extension of the spine, although not as much as in a pullup or lat pulldown.

The main roles of the latissimus dorsi is to adduct, extend, and internally rotate the arm. I think that explains why we consider the pull up and the lat pulldown to be the premier lats exercises. But can it extend the spine? It can exert only a trivial force toward extending the lumbar. It may, according to McGill and Neumann, play a role in core stabilization. When it comes to actually extending the lumbar, it plays a supportive role, at best. The reason for this is that the erector spinae (the main extensor) is covered by the thick thoracolumbar fascia, which attaches to the lumbar vertebrae. This fascia becomes continuous with the apaneurosis and fascia of the latissimus dorsi (and abdominals). Remember above when I said the lats originate, in part on the thoracolumbar fascia, well, it is really more correct to say that the apaneurosis and fascia of the lats sort of "melds" with this fascia tissue. Together with the erector spinae, the fascia and the lats is a kind of tube or sheath around the spine. When you extend the your back, the thoracolumbar fascia tightens thus pulling on the lats which help provide support.

What kind of force can the lats actually contribute to extension, other than a supportive stability role? A trivial amount of force. According to Bogduk, et al., while the lats can contribute up to a whopping 529N of force on the shoulder, the maximum extensor moment on the lumbar, in their experiments, was 6.3N, with a maximum moment of 30N on the sacroiliac joint. Getting past the jargon, that is about 118lbs of force exerted on the shoulder as opposed to 1.4lbs on the spine, and 6.7 on the sacroiliac.2

Now, how do we translate all this into the lats role in thoracic extension? Well, to start with, the thoracic spine is a bit complex so we best keep to the most essential facts. One thing to realize is that thoracic extension rarely occurs on its own. It is usually accompanied by lumbar extension. Many of the same muscles active during lumbar extension are active in thoracic extension. The need to keep the lumbar extended during the barbell row will activate the latissimus to some degree, as it does assist in extension of the thoracic spine, but adding an active thoracic extension to the mix could hardly have a large effect on lat function, especially when weighed against the anterior-posterior spinal segment loading/unloading which is a recipe for disaster. The lats are much more active at the shoulder in extending, adducting, and medially rotating the upper arm.

What to Do Instead

Besides all that, you can't get 3 people to agree on how to do a regular row let alone this dynamic thingamajig. It might be nice to have some consensus of opinion on what a wheel is before it is reinvented. As above, you could describe the dynamic row as bastard child of a row and the Olympic lifts. If you want a 'power' lift, do an Olympic lift. If you want a row do a correct row.

The dynamic row seems to be seen as a sort of posterior chain exercise, I'll get more into that later. Most of us should be doing lots more posterior chain work anyway. Deadlfit variations, pullthroughs, Olympic lifts if desired, glute-ham raises (which we prefer supine), so on. The effective training of which will be a hundred times more effective for the posterior chain as well as the entire back ESPECIALLY if you save the row exercises to be done correctly with a full range of motion to target the upper and mid back.

Perhaps this dynamic row would not have come up were there not people out there rowing in s-l-o-w motion. All the bodybuilders and the focus on TUT and Superslow this or that is always causing this confusion when the quest for strength meets ideas that are about mass gaining and have nothing to do with strength. I know all about this as I encounter it again and again. I still remember when some particularly incensed person repeated "TUT" about a thousand times in his comments about the SDT article, thinking, perhaps, if he just used the jargon enough I would start to agree with him.

But when you see the majority of trainees doing "regular" rows but doing them super slow, you can see why someone might want to invent a dynamic row. When it comes to training for strength there are few instances where you would intentionally move the bar (at least the positive) very slowly and even with "regular" rows we do them very powerfully, we simply do not use momentum from lower body movement, back movement, or upper back flexion.

Doing Rows Correctly

Although I've already directed you to an article on correct row technique, I will go ahead and provide some instruction here, to add to it. It will be pretty much the same as the link I gave you but I may say a few additional things.

One of the common ways of instructing rows is simply to get in the row position and "pull the bar up". Then "pinch the shoulder blades together" at the end. So what this amounts to is a glorified barbell curl followed by a scapular pinch. Instead of inventing new rows it may be useful to teach a basic row technique correctly in the first place.

Here is my take on it and this is the premise by which I work whether it be barbell, dumbbell, cable or whatever. Starting with the actual performance and not getting into positioning.

1. Start with the implement fully extended allowing the scapula to "protract" or track forward allowing a little, but not a greatly exaggerated, stretch. You should not allow such a stretch that the shoulders are allowed to be pulled forward out of their sockets. They should be maintained under tight control. This is scapular protraction only.

The lower back is maintained in a neutral, natural and tight, arch at all times. Likewise the thoracic area is maintained and you do not flex forward at the thoracic spine (do not "bend" at the upper or mid-back).

2. Initiate the movement with a powerful retraction of the scapular muscles, spreading of the chest, and bringing the shoulders back. The action of bringing the scapula together, spreading the chest and bringing the shoulders back are simultaneous. At the full extent of the motion the scapula should be pinched together as much as possible, and the upper back tightly arched. There is very little bicep in this when done correctly and it is a very powerful and quick pull.

3. Go back to the starting position under control.

Every once in a while you may be bringing in a bit of lower back to get a hard rep done and in the more advanced stages of training you'll probably have more of this. This is an example of natural, and sometimes necessary, 'cheating' in strength training, as such a small cheat can help you in various ways, albeit not predictably and consistently..which is one reason, among many, we don't do it all the time! Most of the time, concentrate on doing it strictly.

Rows As Posterior Chain Training

Here is another reason people have given me for doing the dynamic row. Actually it's a couple different reasons which are related. When you do strict barbell rows, one of the main limiting factors is the endurance of the lower back. The lower back, especially with higher volume, must support the load isometrically for long periods of time, while you're performing the rows. Since rows are usually done with moderate to high volume, not only do we easily reach the end of the lumbar's endurance, but we can easily reach the end of its supportive capacity, especially given acute or chronic "fatigue" from the rowing that came before or all the other work the back is doing.

Now, I know I said that this exercise uses flexion/extension of the thoracic, not the lumbar. But that is only one version of it. I am describing to you what I have seen and the reasoning I've been given.

So, what happens is people figure the way to fix the back is make it do more work. Therefore, they bring the back into the movement. They want to increase the strength of the lower back using barbell rows! There are some problems with that. Static endurance that was the limiting factor, not extension strength, which tends to be very great in the erector for the most part. So they are barking up the wrong tree with that idea.

Also, ironically, when your lower back gives out during barbell rows, and starts to round into flexion, in order to feel like you are getting a complete rep, you might tend to hitch up with the lower back, creating much the same type of movement that is recommended/used with dynamic rows. So, it's all connected.

Rows to train your lower back, then? Silly. Rows are a silly and inefficient way to train the lower back, not to mention requiring you to repeatedly flex and extend it under load. Fact is you may be able to take a lot more of that then you've been told, but I wouldn't test fate.

Since as much as 70% of your training should be posterior chain, I see absolutely no reason to use rows to train the PC or the 'lower back' in any way. Likewise, as I pointed out, if your back is healthy, then the reason "regular" rows become hard on the back is a lack of local muscular endurance. I might also point out that when it comes to most of the big lower body stuff you do, local muscular endurance in the lower back is what you NEED. Your back helps to keep you in a stable position during those things which is a function of endurance, not to move you up and down.

But How do You Prepare Your Back for Barbell Rows

Ah, now we get into some real controversy! You see, there are some yahoos out there who shout about how real men only do barbell rows. Everything else is an easy row and is for sissies. Except they use another word, starts with a P.

You want to know how I would help you deal with your back not being able to handle all the barbell rows? I'd tell you to switch to another row where your back wasn't a limiting factor. Because from my perspective, the purpose of rows are to train the mid/upper back as a supportive exercise to the big, primary lifts. Nothing more. I don't see the "row" as a means in itself. What is a row, exactly? I don't care. I really, really don't. I don't care about whether the lower back can handle a bunch of barbell rows. I care about whether it can handle a bunch of squats. Am I repeating myself?

Since so much of our training is posterior chain oriented in some fashion including strength and endurance work for the lower back when necessary, it is really a loss of focus to worry about your lower back, your hips, your hams, or any of that in regards to rows since all that is well covered.

1. Marcus, Alon. Foundations for Integrative Musculoskeletal Medicine: An East-west Approach. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2004
2. Bogduk, N. "The Morphology and Biomechanics of Latissimus Dorsi." Clinical Biomechanics 13.6 (1998): 377-85.

This page created 16 Aug 2012 19:58
Last updated 21 Mar 2018 03:48

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