Since 1857 libraries have been using mobile libraries to promote their services. Their original purpose was to “diffuse good literature among the rural population,” by means of books loaded onto wagons pulled by mules. The wagons eventually evolved into bookmobiles, large vans fitted with shelves of books. The bookmobile was a great idea, and one that was not lost on Nautilus founder Arthur Jones.
Whereas most manufacturers of exercise equipment in the ’70s would settle for advertising in fitness magazine and perhaps a few trade shows, Jones decided to develop a fleet of “Nautilus Mobiles.” These were large vans that contained a collection of his most popular machines, and Jones provided serious buyers the opportunity to have the vans come to the front door of gym owners or strength coaches so they could try them out. Innovative thinking such as this enabled Nautilus to become a dominant brand in the industry.
I bring this up because in the world of strength and conditioning, coaches often get caught up with clever marketing and thus allow emotion to overrule logic. For example, some believe that the only upper back exercise needed to develop the lats and other major upper back muscles are chin-ups. Now I’m a big believer in chin-ups, but if you look at basic anatomy, this fixation on chin-ups doesn’t make sense.
First, one of the major postural problems with athletes (and the general population as well) is round shoulders. One common cause among athletes who lift weights is an overemphasis on the bench press. These exercises work the pectorals and anterior deltoids, which pull the shoulders forward. But chinning will not correct this problem; it can even make it worse, as one of the primary functions of the latissimus dorsi is to internally rotate the upper arm bones. As a practical example, attend a local gymnastics meet or swimming competition and you might think you were watching a reenactment of a scene from Planet of the Apes
. This is because these sports develop the lats strongly – it’s not unusual to go to a gymnastics training center and watch 10-year-olds easily climb 10-meter ropes without using their legs. The result is that the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles are chronically stretched and placed under continual tension, making these athletes more susceptible to shoulder impingement syndromes and even shoulder dislocations – especially as they reach higher levels of development.
For these athletes, one type of row that is especially effective is the face pull. What I like about it is that in addition to working the rhomboids and middle trapezius (which help adduct the shoulder), at the finish of the movement an external rotation of the shoulder occurs that works the infraspinatus and teres minor.
Face pulls would also be good for those involved in the popular “boot camp” workouts. Even though these programs often include such exercises as power snatches, which work the muscles that externally rotate the shoulder, there is so much emphasis on push-up and pull-up movements that these programs often create a structural imbalance that causes round shoulders. As a general rule for trainees, I would say that for every set of chin-ups, they should also perform one set of rows.
Regarding other forms of rows, I don’t generally recommend bent-over barbell rows from a standing position because there is too much neural drive expended in firing the erector spinae, glues and hamstrings trying to maintain good posture in this exercise. As such, the lats and other upper body pulling muscles don’t get much of a training effect. If you doubt this, I would refer you to the March 2009 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
, which includes a study on the effects of three types of rows: inverted row, standing bent-over row, and standing one-arm cable row.
My favorite rowing exercise is the one-arm dumbbell row, performed with the Watson thick-handled dumbbells. I like the one-arm rows because you can brace your upper body with your other arm, thus allowing you to devote more effort to the upper body muscles. Also, using a dumbbell enables the trainee to perform rowing exercises through a greater range of motion that a barbell.
Coach Charles Poliquin teaching Face Pulls.
One seated rowing machine I purchased for the Poliquin Strength Institute is the Atlantis Diverging Row. One desirable feature is its adjustable, sternum pad that reduces the work of the back and legs in maintaining posture – again, allowing the user to focus on working the muscles they want to train. Other pluses are that the lever arms are independent (great for working around injuries!) and the handles rotate, allowing for pronated, supinated, and neutral grip positions. As I like to change exercises about every six workouts, having such versatile equipment is a must.
Getting back to Jones, one issue I had with him is that he was always looking for the single “best” exercise to work a specific muscle. For example, he believed the only way to achieve full contraction of the biceps was with the hand supinated (palm up) and with the forearm “bent back as far as possible against the upper-arm” and with the upper arm “raised in relation to the torso.” As such, he designed a machine that enabled the user to do just that, a complex contraption he called the Compound Position Curl Machine. Sorry, but this single-best-exercise theory doesn’t fly, especially when training the upper back.
For starters, the lats are a large, powerful muscle group. To work all the motor unit pools of this muscle you need to train the muscles from a variety of different angles. For example, when performing seated rows, I recommend using a variety of different apparatus. I might attach a straight bar to the cable and do wide-grip, pronated rows; and I might use a V-handle grip. Sure, the closer grip enables you to use more weight, and how much weight you use determines the intensity of an exercise, but it’s not true that one type of row is superior to another. Especially when hypertrophy and long-term joint health are the goals, your muscles need variety.
In this industry, information overload and clever marketing make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. But if you take a step back and consider the functions of muscles, you’ll see that the most effective workouts rely on a variety of exercises. As such, to develop the upper back and promote structural balance, be sure to include a selection of rows in your training.