We are in the midst of an epidemic. This condition is rampant in every weight room, fitness center, night club, Ed Hardy t-shirt distributor, and Nickelback concert. This enabling condition is called:
Imaginary Lat Syndrome or “ILS.”
Symptoms include tapered shirts that are two sizes too small, constant bilateral funny bone trauma from banging both elbows on either side of doorways that you should physically be able to fit comfortably through, an inflated sense of… well… lat muscles, and a general malaise/worsening of symptoms when you see someone with actual big strong lats. Lucky, there is a “Reverse-Pinocchio” like cure here. Like the opposite how his nose grew every time he lied, ILS will make your wings smaller the longer you fairytale them to the world. So, how can we turn those theoretical trap trousers into actual strong, functional musculature?
The Cure: Horizontal Pulling Exercises
Simply put, horizontal pulling exercises involve a weight (either a fixed machine, dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, etc) where the major forceful, concentric muscle action occurs when the weighted implement starts out in front of your torso and is being pulled towards the chest and the eccentric action involves the arms straightening until the elbows are locked back to the starting position. Basically, this exercise is the opposite of a bench press
Going a little deeper, there are several key muscle groups at work here. The largest ones in play are your lats. These are the largest muscles in your body, connecting to your thoracic spine in an almost “wing-like” configuration and then inserting across the shoulder connecting directly to the medial aspect of the humorous. During a horizontal pull, the lats are responsible for the adduction of the shoulder as well as the entire process of taking the arm from completely extended to a flexed position. This has to do with the lats involvement in shoulder extension. Other muscles that have major synergistic functions here (mainly via scapular movement involved with rowing) are the traps, rhomboids, and the teres major. The arm movement of the lift involves an all-out effort for all of the musculature responsible for elbow flexion (brachioradialus, biceps brachii, and the brachialis).
There are several differences between a horizontal pull and a vertical pull (like a pull-up). Typically, with the horizontal pull, more relative weight can be utilized due to a much higher mechanical advantage we have for the movement itself. Also, horizontal pulls seem to be much easier on people with any kind of shoulder pain/issues. The shoulder goes through a much smaller range of motion and the joint capsule stays in much more stable position when compared the “arms overhead position” of a vertical pull. Basically all labral and rotator cuff injuries happen in a position of flexion and external rotation (which is the bottom position of a vertical pull). No, this does not mean vertical pulling is inherently dangerous, it just means horizontal pulling might be a better option for anyone with shoulder instability issues.
Why Do I Need To Row?
If the pull-up is the deadlift of the upper body, then the row is the Romanian Deadlift. Being efficient at horizontal pulling movements (and just having a big strong back in general) has some serious carryover to other lifts. Take the bench press for example. No, the lats and other pulling muscles are not directly responsible for moving the bar. But, your ability to keep all of those tertiary stabilizing muscles as tight as possible under the weight of the bar, the more weight you will be able to confidently handle. Think of your back in terms of a surface that you want to bounce a tennis ball off of. Will the ball bounce more off of a soft, memory foam mattress? Or, will it bounce more off of a slab of concrete? Also, the lats and aspects of scapular musculature play a huge role in stabilizing overhead pressing movements. Another reason to have adequate upper body pulling strength is that the lockout of a heavy deadlift requires strong extension of the shoulders and retraction of the scapulae. Having trouble with your deadlift lockouts? Start hammering heavy rows for a few weeks then re try that deadlift.
Horizontal Pull Exercise You Can Do At Home and How to Perform Them
Most of these will require some equipment. At the very least, you will need some sturdy to hold on to. Since there are several different variations of exercise bands, I will break down some exercises based on the one piece 42in diameter band (full bands) and the normal tubing with handles attached.
1. Band Rows- You have a lot of options for variations with this exercise. Let’s just define the standard band row as having the band looped around something sturdy with both arms completely extended, holding on to the handles. Standing with a rigid posture, bring the hands towards the body by slightly tucking the elbows and pulling them towards your abdomen. Once the elbows/forearms are in line with the body, return to starting position. A big issue with band rows is that people tend to almost push their hands down near the end range, allowing their shoulders to internally rotate forward. This is not a stable position and not what we want to work with for this movement. Keep the hand aligned with the elbow and keep the forearm parallel with the floor.
2. Wide Elbow Band Row- With the same starting as above, instead of tucking the elbows, drive the elbows apart and bring the hands a little bit higher. Focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together. This variation will allow much greater focus on the rhomboids, teres major, traps, and many other of the smaller muscles responsible for scapular movement.
3. High Row with Scapular Retraction- Set the band up slightly higher than the previous two exercises. Once you have the handles in your hands, actively pull your shoulder blades together. Maintain this tension for the entire set. To perform the movement, drive the elbows hard out the sides while moving your hands into your chest. This is a variation that involves minimal lat activation but allows for compound movement of basically every other muscle responsible for horizontal pulling.
1. Face Pulls- Set the band up so that is out in front of you but higher than the top of your head. Place your hands, palms facing the floor, inside the ring of the band and step back until there is some tension in the band. Your arms should now be extended and slightly over the top of your head. Pull your elbows a part and pull your hands to your face. The movement ends when your hands are in front of your face, above your elbows, and your shoulder blades are maximally retracted. This is an excellent exercise for the upper back and all muscles responsible for shoulder external rotation as well. The height of the band completely inhibits the lats from firing and allows maximum focus on the shoulder and scapular girdle.
2. All of the above Exercises, Just with One Arm- Hard training and life can create imbalanced muscle groups. One of the best ways to work on a bilateral deficit (either weakness or difference in mobility from one side to the other) is to utilize unilateral movements. All of the above mentioned exercises can be used with one arm while utilizing a full band. For all single arm rowing, take your time and your goal is to achieve maximal tension in all of the working muscles throughout the lift.
Horizontal Pull Exercises You Can Do At the Gym and How to Perform Them
Personally, pulling exercises are some of my favorite things to do when I train. There is just something almost primally satisfying about having a big strong back. With this list, I am going to go over some lifts I am sure you have seen or done, some you probably haven’t, and then plead my case for shifting the paradigm in terms of ways to train horizontal pulling movements.
1. Bent Over Row- this is the iconic horizontal row exercise. Load a bar on the floor, hinge your hips back over your heels keeping a neutral but rigid posture, pick up the bar with extended arms, pull the bar to your chest almost like a reverse bench press, return it too hanging, and repeat for the number of reps you with to do. A little bit of “English” here by using your hips to pull the weight up is ok. Just don’t let it turn into something that looks like someone repeatedly trying to cast a limp fishing pole with no line in it. For a different twist on the execution of this lift, instead of pushing the sets and the reps, try pushing the time. For example, pick a set weight (I suggest starting very conservatively here), and pick a time for your set. So, say you try 135 for 45 seconds. While executing slow and controlled reps, just try to keep moving for the whole time. This is a brutally humbling protocol to follow. Another great variation is to go back to your normal sets and reps but try to pause the lift once it hits your chest. Just count “one one-thousand” then let it come back down. Especially if you have issues staying tight on your bench press, this is an excellent exercises for scapular control and isometric lat strength.
2. Pendlay Row- Similar to the bent over row except for two little differences. Firstly, the bar returns to the floor after every rep. The break in the eccentric/concentric action allows for tremendous development of brute strength. The second change to this exercise is the extent to which you need to hinge your hips to ensure you keep proper posture. You need a pretty decent base of hip and hamstring mobility to perform this lift correctly. If pulling from the floor is tough, try doing it off of low safety pins in a rack or with the weights elevated on blocks. Also, this is a great exercise to really load up the weights on. I suggest finding and working with weights in a 6-10 rep max area here. Building up absolute strength in these muscles with this lift will help you accumulate volume faster (because of more strength and higher weights) on other pulling lifts.
3. One Arm Land Mine Row- This is a great variation. If you don’t have access to a landmine, you can always wedge a bar into an open corner of a rack and it works just as well. To set this one up, load the weight on the bar, assume a hinged position similar to the bent over row, and line your foot up to that your toes are pointing the same direction the loaded end of the bar is facing (i.e. facing away from the fixed end of the bar) and set your feet so that the arch of your foot is lined up the with bulk of the loaded weight. Let say the bar is on your right side, reach down and grab the collar (yes, the thicker part of the end of the bar) and simply tuck your elbow towards the right side of your abdomen, and then return to wither a hanging start or perform this lift in a Pendlay fashion from the floor. Keep the weight lower and the reps higher here. Not only is this a great targeted lat exercise, the thickness of the collar will absolutely light up all the aspects of elbow flexion and grip strength.
4. One Arm Row- This is exactly the same as the bent over row with a couple little changes. Firstly, you’ll be using one arm and a dumbbell instead of a barbell. Secondly, you can use your non-working hand to brace yourself on a bench or an unoccupied rack. For this lift, I like to take the loading of it in a pretty abstract direction. You can still absolutely do normal sets and reps or even the time signatures I suggested above. For this lift in particular, I love finding new rep maxes and then performing “back off sets” based on those sets. For example, my favorite protocol is to establish a 50 rep max (yes, that’s a five and a zero) on the initial set, then do 2-3 sets of 30 with that same weight. This accomplishes a couple of things. Most importantly, it will ignite your lats like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Just don’t plan on starting any lawn mowers for the next couple days because you won’t be able to. Also, these are excellent for working on conditioning in all of your pulling muscles. For most humans, the majority of injuries occur because of a lack of strength in the posterior musculature (thing lower back, hamstrings, rotator cuff, etc.). Improving the conditioning of these areas is always a good tool for possibly injury reduction.