If you’ve been following each sequence in this series, you should be seeing a common trend. We’ve already covered squatting, deadlifting, and overhead pressing, so now it’s time to get into different rowing variations.

Each program we write, we ensure that there’s balance between pushing and pulling. Many traditional routines of the past were heavy anterior side dominant.

What’s that mean?

Basically, a lot of the programs I’ve seen in the past, and still see A LOT today, were heavy on the front side muscles. The programs work on building up our “mirror muscles”, or muscles we can actually see in the mirror on a daily basis. These include chest, arms, abs, shoulders, quads, and calves. I’ve seen countless programs online, in magazines, and plenty of other places you can pull free workouts from, and a majority of them don’t work on the non-mirror muscles; your back, glutes, and hamstrings.

Working one-sided will eventually create major dysfunction in the body. You may get some progress with these programs initially, but you’ll soon find out that your shoulder hurts, your back hurts, or something just doesn’t feel the way it should. That’s probably because your program isn’t balanced, or you’re doing the wrong exercises for your current ability.

Also, notice how we’ve talked about creating balance by discussing movement versus specific muscle groups. Pushing hits more of the front side muscles, or “mirror muscles”. Pulling trains more of the back and posterior (rear) delts and shoulders. Each of these movements are needed, but within balance. If you’re going to create a program favoring one movement over another, please make sure you favor pulling and hip dominant (deadlifting) exercises.

In the last series, we covered overhead pressing, or vertical pressing. Today, we’re going to cover horizontal pulling. Horizontal pulling is great if you have limited shoulder mobility and have a difficult time getting your arms overhead without compensation. Horizontal pulling exercises like we’ll be showing you here should be a HEAVY part of your training regimen. Before we get to training though, let’s cover some of the common faults, corrective strategies, and different progressions we use to train the horizontal pulling pattern.

What NOT to do:

1. Forward Head Posture – Pushing or pulling, it doesn’t really matter that much. Forward head posture is one of the biggest faults we’ll see in ALL upper body patterns. This was one of the common faults with overhead pressing, and you’ll be seeing this common fault in just about every upper body pattern we cover. When you’re training, we like to tell people to “pack their necks”, “make a double chin”, or “tuck your chin.” Moving your head forward is one of the first compensations we see for a core that doesn’t want to do its job. If the core shuts off, the head is going to move forward to create stability from your neck and shoulders. Since the abs don’t want to do their job and we NEED stability, your head will start to move forward to give your body stability by using your neck and upper shoulders. Keep your neck packed and head in proper alignment while performing every exercise in the gym.

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2. Shoulder Blades Don’t Move – While coaching rowing and pulling patterns, we’ll see a lot of shoulder blades that are practically frozen in place. There’s zero movement within the shoulder blades as the pull is happening. If the shoulder blades aren’t moving, this is going to pretty much be exclusively an arm exercise. Most people want to row or pull to train their back. Sure you’ll hit the arms while rowing, but if the shoulder blades are stuck in place, that’s all you’ll be hitting. Engage the lats, low traps, and rear delts by moving the shoulder blades while pulling. The shoulder blades should glide on the rib cage throughout this movement. They will retract, or squeeze together, on the pull, and then do the exact opposite on the return. On the return, we still want to see shoulder blade movement. This portion, we’re looking to see if the shoulder blades can wrap the sides of the rib cage. If you’re pulling properly, the shoulder blades should have substantial movement and glide on the rib cage effectively.

3. Putting Stress on the Front Shoulder Capsule – This common fault has a lot to do with the above fault; not moving the shoulder blades. If the shoulder blades are frozen and we’re not getting adequate gliding of the shoulder blades on the rib cage, we’re going to see a lot more stress on the front side of the shoulder capsule. Notice the picture below and look at the position of the shoulder. Notice how the humorous, the big upper arm bone, is pretty much jamming into the front shoulder capsule. If you’re rowing properly, the shoulders should glide back as the shoulder blades retract and pull together. Pulling properly will keep the shoulders healthy and put little to no stress on the joint capsule itself. Don’t jam up your joint capsules while training. This is a great way to sustain an injury and keep you away from training. Check out the position of the two pictures below and notice how one side looks jammed up and the other side looks more natural. Strive to get the shoulders into proper position while training. If you can’t, ensure you drop down to a less challenging version until you can control the shoulders and keep your joint capsules happy.

Good anterior slide, shoulders down and back

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Bad anterior slide, shoulders round forward

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4. Rib Flare – If you’ve ever trained with us before, we can almost guarantee that you’ve heard us yelling, “ribs down.” This is one of the most popular coaching cues we use around the gym. Just like forward head posture with upper body training, rib flare is all too common in multiple patterns…pulling is one of those patterns we see rib flare in all the time. Most people usually get the cue of “ribs down”; however, if that cue doesn’t stick w/ you, pay attention to the arch in your low back. You see…our ribs are pretty much connected to our low back and pelvis. If you start to arch your low back, notice what the ribs and pelvis do. It’s very hard to separate the connection between low back, ribs, and pelvis. If the cue of ribs down isn’t working for you, simple try to keep your low back flat throughout the pull. This little cue will automatically make this exercise a little harder and you’ll notice a huge difference in the way your core is firing too. Arching the back and flaring the ribs will shut down the core. Keep the ribs down and your core will thank you.

Tough to see but the ribs flare and the major sign is the large lordosis (low back arching)

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5. Shrugging – The infamous shrug. We see it all the time in the gym. Just about every time we begin to coach someone through upper body exercises, they begin to shrug their shoulders into their ears. “Ears are shoulder poison!” This cue is great to help you think about keeping your shoulders out of your ears. Pushing, pulling, it doesn’t matter. Keep your shoulders out of your ears while training. If you begin to shrug, you’re compensating for a weak core. Keep the shoulders out of the ears; keep your head in a neutral position, and work only to the level you can maintain good posture. Breaking posture, shrugging, and other compensatory patterns listed here will only set you back. Find the right level and train hard!

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What if I have trouble doing these type of movements?

Horizontal pulling exercises are great for just about everyone. The only time I really restrict this motion is for pain. If pain isn’t present, you should be doing a good amount of horizontal pulling. This pattern is much easier to do than the vertical pulling exercises, and as stated earlier, we need to really put an emphasis on using our backside muscles; so horizontal pulling is a staple of our programming.

The correctives shown here are great to add to your warm-up and to rehearse shoulder blade motion and stability before we start to train. Here are some of our favorite exercises that will help open up your T-Spine and shoulders to enhance these pulling exercises:

Overhead Lifting Progressions

The progressions shown here will start to take you from a stable base of support, to a more unsupported position placing more demand on the core. We recommend starting with the first version and progressing from there. Even if you’ve been doing these for awhile, go back and ensure you’re not compensating and doing one of the common faults listed above.

If you spend your time to dial in the specifics of these exercises, you’re going to notice a HUGE difference in the way you feel. We’re stuck in a rounded position all day long, so the more we can open up our chest and shoulders, the better. Start with the most stable of the three, the supported row, and eventually progress into the next three as you begin to gain neuromuscular control over the body and can perform multiple reps without cheating.

We’re only one more pattern away from being able to put together a well-rounded program. After we cover the next pattern, carries, we’ll be giving you a full routine to try at home, at the gym, or on the road, so stay tuned 🙂

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