Coastal Athletic Connection

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"Bro, How much do you Row?": Adding Some Rowing and Pulling in the Gym to Improve Athletic Performance

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“Yo, how much do you bench?”

            This phrase can be heard uttered by athletes and regular gym-goers alike. While it may be predominantly spoken by males, it is not uncommon to hear it coming from a female these days either, which is kind of impressive actually. The fact that many males take their identity in how much weight they can lower down to their chest and raise back up again is kind of strange, but due to the popularity that sports such as Powerlifting, Strongman, Crossfit, and Bodybuilding have gained in recent years has everyone trying to test their mettle in the gym. Hence, “National Chest Day”, or as the common folk refer to it: Monday. Now, I’m not going to bash the bench press in this post. In fact, I bench (not a large sum of weight mind you, but I give it a go and I’ve made some progress). I get lots of my athletes to bench in some form. Why? Because it is a great upper body strength exercise! Some coaches swear against doing the bench press as all it does is promote poor posture, increase shoulder injury, limit scapulothoracic rhythm (the limited movement of your shoulder blade due to it being squeezed against a bench), and stroke egos. Like I said, I’m not here to bash the bench, or even promote it. The main reason that benching is so idolized is mainly due to the NFL Combine and their Bench Press test. I understand that being strong is important for a football player, but if you can’t run, jump, or throw, who cares how much you can bench? I guarantee that if the NFL takes that test out of the combine, bench press’s stock will drop…drastically.  Now, enough about the bench, as that is not what this post is about. What I am going to do in this post is state the case for a new phrase with a slick rhyming flow: “Bro, how much do you row?”

            Awe, rowing! How underutilized you are! For those who do not have a basic understanding of exercise physiology or exercise programming, there are 6 major movement patterns that every human performs in everyday life that can be trained in the gym. They are:

  • Squatting- ie. Front Squat
  • Hinging- ie. Deadlift
  • Vertical Pressing- ie. DB Overhead Press
  • Vertical Pulling- ie. Pull-up
  • Horizontal Pressing- ie. Bench Press
  • Horizontal Pulling- ie. Bent Over Row

            Now, there are many ways to program this into a workout, especially for athletes. Each of these movements should find their way into your weekly training AT LEAST once, but hopefully more. These basic movement patterns need to be trained in order to become stronger and more proficient in them. Now, some people will look at their sport and think, “Well, I am a lineman in football who pushes all the time, so I need to train that”. So, they spend all their time benching. Or, “I am a defenseman in hockey who needs to clear out the front of the net, so I need to be strong in my pushing motions.” Enter the bench press again. Or lastly, “I am a basketball player who shoots overhead and needs to be strong in front of the basket to grab rebounds”. So, they bench and overhead press. So, what you may gather from looking at the motions of your sport is that you need to do lots of pressing in the gym to be a stronger and better athlete. Well, I’m going to shake your reality for a second here: You would be a better athlete if you did less pressing and more pulling. WHAT!?!?! That’s insane! Less Bench press?!? No way man!

Hold on a second and let me explain…

            Many of us run into the trap of training motions we do in our sports all the time to get stronger during those actions. It’s called Functional Training, which is literally defined as “exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life”. Here’s the catch and issue with such training: these motions are already being trained in your sport! By going to practice and throwing, shooting, spiking and tackling, you are performing pushing actions for 2-3 hours everyday! Therefore, by going into the gym and doing more pushing can lead to overuse of your pushing muscles, which increases your risk of injuries and fatigue when game-time comes around. So, what I am an advocate for, and what I learned from Matt Wenning is this: do twice the amount of pulling as you do pushing in the gym. The reason for this is simple in that it will keep you balanced. During your day-to-day life, you are pushing during your sport, you are sitting hunched over in class or at the office, and then you go benching with the boys in the evening. In order to maintain your overall strength levels and prevent injuries, you need to develop the backside of your body. This can be done by Bent-Over Rows, 1-Arm Rows, Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Cable Rows, Face-pulls, the list goes on! By being weak in the upper back side of your upper body, your shoulder blade and throwing muscles do not have a good base from which to move and push off of since your back muscles stabilize them, which leads to injuries or simply poor performance when performing your sporting actions. Same thing with neck pain or injuries. You know those bumps on either side of your neck? Yeah, those are called your Traps and they help hold your neck in place when your being tackled or checked. Try training them once in a while to reduce your chance of neck injury or even concussions!

            Now, on to how pulling can help posture. Before you think that only overworking your pressing movements in the gym or texting incessantly is the only way to get rounded shoulders and have bad posture, I want you to read this great point I got from Matt Wenning. He explained it like this: look at an old woman in the grocery store. She is hunched over with a rounded back. If you talked to her about what sport she played, she might say she jogged back in her younger days, but hasn’t been active in years. She has not had a life of texting or watching TV like we do, so why is she so hunched over? The answer: Gravity! The force of gravity on our body does not force it backwards; it causes you to bend forward and hunch over. Therefore, as Coach Wenning explained, you need to perform pulling movements in the gym simply to counter the work gravity is doing on your body, yet alone what your sports or texting habits pile on!

            Many people do not perform pulling movements in the gym for a few reasons. The first one being that they are hard. Don’t believe me? Try doing a set of pull-ups to failure. Yeah, it sucks. The most common phrase I hear in the gym from athletes is, “Ugh, I hate pull-ups!” It is not easy pulling your own bodyweight up and down once, yet alone for a set of 8-10 with added weight! Rowing movements are done more frequently in the gym, as they are less hard since you can control the weight you use as there are many non-bodyweight rowing exercises. However, your one “Back Day” won’t cut it for posture or performance, just like your one “Leg Day” you did back in June won’t get rid of those chicken legs! You should be performing more rowing or pulling exercises than you are pressing. As many as twice as much as Coach Wenning recommends, and that’s just to break even in the fight against gravity, texting, and your bench obsession!

            The second reason why many people do not performing pulling actions in the gym is that they are not “mirror-muscles”. What I mean by that is when you stand and flex in the mirror, you don’t see your pathetically underdeveloped backside. That’s why there is a huge market for “8-miunte Abs”, “Beastlike Biceps”, and “Champion-like Chest” workouts. These are all muscles that can been seen on full display from any mirror or reflection in a car window (yeah we all do it). What is left out is how to get a great upper back and Lats. Now, any coach worth their salt will be able to help you find the best rowing or pulling variations that will help improve your performance, gain some mass (if that’s your goal) and become a super strong AND well-rounded athlete that has a lower risk of shoulder or neck injury! Here at Coastal, I like to think we are worth our salt. That is why when we program our sets and reps, we like to have 1-2 sets of pushing and 2-3 sets of pulling for each pair of upper body exercises. This allows us to get more pulling exercises in, or at the very least to match the pushing exercises. Another way to get more pulling is to do more reps. If you do 3 sets of 5 presses, do 3 sets of 8-10 pulls. That will give you more volume and allow you to start combating the damage you’ve done from texting your crush so much! It has also been shown that the back gets more out of higher reps anyway, which is why nobody ever does a 1-Repetition Max (1-RM) Pull-up or Row. The back likes to get a “pump”, so go get one!

            So, vertical and horizontal pulling exercises should be a huge part of your training program. Their benefits include:

  • Stabilize shoulder blade for better pushing/athletic performance
  • Help hold neck in place to reduce injury risk (aka Concussions)
  • Improve Posture
  • Have a great looking back!

So feel free to go around asking your teammates, “Bro, how much do you row?”

Peace.Gains.

Cole Hergott

Reference:

1. Matt Wenning, “Powerlifitng Training for Sports”, 2015 NSCA Coaches Conference. https://www.nsca.com/videos/powerlifting_training_for_sports/

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