Exercise: You're probably doing this wrong

I am a firm believer that there is usually no single ‘right’ way to do things in the world of fitness. As I showed in a recent post, there are definitely some things that just aren’t worth the risk, however, usually there is some grey area.
I want to tackle the one arm back row.
It is a staple exercise in gyms everywhere and I really feel like it is not done right!
Here is a clip going over everything! If you prefer text then keep reading!

Typically, the one arm back row is held to very strict form. You will hear trainers and fitness pros everywhere tell people to stop twisting their back and to keep their body still while they row.
This is crazy talk. I think this exercise is totally butchered.

Why the hell would you keep your body still and not moving? Do people even understand how physiology works? This is basic muscle science 101.
Muscles work by lengthening and shortening. When they do this they move bones via attachments of tendons and ligaments. Basic as it gets. The key point here is that muscles work by lengthening and shortening. They have to MOVE to do what they are supposed to do.
When we hold a muscle under tension without moving it is called isolation training. Essentially this is simply flexing the muscle. And there can be a time and place for this. The one arm back row is not a time or place.
The goal of the exercise is to strengthen and work the back muscles. Lats, rhomboids, and a little trapezius all work in conjunction with serratus and other secondary movers to accomplish this task. In order to work a muscle it has to move.
When we do a one arm back row and do not allow the body to twist and move we take away the ability of the back muscles to work. They instead hold an isometric contraction. This can be ok in certain times and places, however, it isn’t right for the vast majority of people.
If the body stays still and just the arm moves this is a bicep exercise with very limited back work. If you want to work your biceps go for it, if the goal is to train your back, then you need to add some rotation and let those big back muscles do what they are built for!
I am also a huge advocate for full body exercises. The human body was built to work as a functional unit and not in little bits and pieces. Isolating the arm during a row seems crazy to me. In real life when you pick up groceries, your kids, or a case of beer you twist, rotate, stretch, and use multiple groups of muscles. That is how real life works. That is how you should train your body.
Most people also use far too little weight with this exercise. This is often mediated by the fact that they aren’t really using their back. We START most people with 25 to 30lbs for this exercise. It is not uncommon for our female members to be rowing 50 to 90lbs after a fairly short period of time. Why? Because that is what your body is capable of!
So take a little time to review the video and do an analysis of how you currently train this exercise.
Questions or comments? Drop a line!
-Coach Taylor

  1. Stephen Ames says:

    Coach Taylor – I agree 1000% with your assessment of the 1 arm back row. We come from the same school of thought in terms of how the body works together as a unit and should be trained as such. Your posts are refreshing, and I enjoy reading them. Thank you! – Steve

  2. Peter Dobos says:

    Nice work, Asshole … errrr … Coach Taylor.
    In the post immediately preceding this, you waxed poetic about how abs are meant to be anti-rotation stabilizers. In this one you are saying that using them as such in the 1-arm row is doing it all wrong. In order to get the most wide-ranging and functional training, wouldn’t it be best to do this exercise both ways?
    There are also a couple of confusing statements in here that I hope you can explain.
    “The key point here is that muscles work by lengthening and shortening. They have to MOVE to do what they are supposed to do.” – however, your previous post about abs said that they work best when maintaining posture isometrically, with no lengthening or shortening. In fact, all muscles can and do work this way. The function of a muscle is to generate force via tension. That’s it. The movement part is optional and is due to how they are attached and which joints they cross at what angles. As you know, all muscles can generate heaps of force isometrically – people are almost always stronger isometrically than they are concentrically.
    “When we hold a muscle under tension without moving it is called isolation training”. I think you mis-typed here and meant to say “isometric”, not “isolation”. Isolation is when you support the body externally in such a way as to remove the load from synergist and stabilizing muscles as much as possible and try to isolate one in particular. This is often the way bodybuilders do things, as it allows them to bypass muscles that may be limiting factors in certain lifts or movements and target and work to failure one specific muscle.
    “In order to work a muscle it has to move.”. No they don’t, as we saw with isometric contractions above, and as you explained in your previous post about abs.
    “If the body stays still and just the arm moves this is a bicep exercise with very limited back work. ” Absolutely not. Even if you have the spine and scapula stabilized (isometrically engaging all those stabilizer muscles, btw) you are still looking at shoulder extension against resistance. The prime movers for this are the lats, teres major, and rear deltoid. The biceps are elbow flexors and weak shoulder flexors. No shoulder flexion is happening here, and elbow flexion is happening passively as the upper arm is extended and the lower arm hangs down from the elbow. If done properly, the biceps should be fairly relaxed.
    Taking it one step further, you can keep the spine stabilized with isometric abdominal contraction and allow the scapula to protract passively at the bottom of the movement. Then you do a compound movement of shoulder extension and scapular retraction to get to the top. In addition to the muscles mentioned above, this will now bring in rhomboids and traps as concentrically contracting muscles.
    I look forward to your answers.
    A fellow asshole,

    • Taylor says:

      The quick and short answer is that most of my blogging and video information is to people who are not trainers or coaches or biomechanists – so I keep it as simple as possible. I really believe that the fitness industry’s number one problem at the moment is over complexifying things for the general exerciser.
      Yes – muscles work isometrically as well as via contraction (shortening and lengthening). Different muscles are best suited to different types of work. Abdominal muscles are better suited to small movements and isometric work, while glutes, quads, and lats, are all better suited to contractile work. We also have to look at the fact that when muscles work they affect articulations (joints for anyone who is not familiar with anatomy terminology). When the abdominal muscles stretch and shorten (crunches) it has a very negative effect on the lumbar vertebrae (check Dr. Stuart McGill’s research for details), whereas stretch/shortening of lats, glutes, and quads has a more beneficial relationship with surrounding joints.
      Yes – all muscles can work with isometric training. Is that the best way for the majority of people to train. Absolutely not – most peoples primary focus should be on movement. The abs and shoulder stabilizers being an exception as they tend to respond well to isometric training and over repping those muscles can lead to joint issues.
      The primary focus of my training is movement and getting the body through natural movement patterns that are similar to real life activities and sport. In those situations abs tend to work isometrically and as anti extension/rotation, but most other muscles work as accelerators and decelerators.
      Hope that clears up some stuff – and yes – meant isometric, not isolation.

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