One of the beautiful things about CrossFit is all the variety of movements that go into this sport. From back squats and muscle-ups to handstand walks and box jumps. We get to see movements from many different disciplines every day, which has many benefits. However, there is one movement that seems to be absent from many training regiments and it is a movement that can increase our strength in nearly every other lift we perform. This movement is the row. No, I am not talking about being on a rowing machine (we spend an uncomfortable amount of time on those) I am talking about movements such as bent over rows, Pendlay Rows, chest supported rows, ring rows and dumbbell rows. (We will dive into the specifics behind the different rows in part 2)
These movements are unfortunately absent from most CrossFit programs which has never made much sense to me. When I look at nearly any other strength sport such as powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, and strong man, they all do some form of row, because the carryover is substantial and the benefits of the row are so numerous.
- Rows build a strong back.
If you talk to nearly any experienced strength coach they will tell you that a strong back is key to being a strong person. If you don’t have a strong back you will not be able to support a heavy load nor be able to effectively apply force through your extremities. There is virtually no compound movement the back is not involved in at some capacity: any type of pull from the floor, all squats, many gymnastic type movements, any form of press, snatch and clean and jerk. All these movements require a strong back. When it comes to lifting weights we really are only as strong as our weakest link. If my legs can squat 500lbs, but back can only support 400lbs I will only be able to squat 400lbs. By not specifically targeting and strengthening my back I am leave a lot of pounds on the floor.
- Rows build stabilization.
Muscles function in multiple ways and we can train our muscles to become better and more efficient in different ways. Let’s take the overhead squat for example. The overhead squat is one of the most demanding stabilization exercises out there. It doesn’t matter if I can back squat the world if I don’t have good overhead stability I am going to have a really tough time even holding my bodyweight overhead and squatting. Rows are great at building stabilization in the muscles of the upper and mid back as well as the shoulders.
- Rows help reduce injuries.
Louie Simmons, one of the most innovative and important strength coaches the U.S. has ever produced has advocated at least 2 rows for every 1 press. So, if I do 10 bench presses I should do 20 rows of some sort. There are several reasons behind this. Since there is virtually no compound movement that the back is not involved in if it is not properly strengthened and reinforced the chance for injury is increased. Secondly, most of the movements we do occur in the same plane of movement. This can lead to the development of muscular imbalances which can lead to many problems for us later down the road. Rows are a great assistance exercise to avoid building up these imbalances and avoid injury.
- Rows build a big back.
For those of us worried about aesthetics rows are one of the best exercises to build up a bigger, well defined, muscular back and who doesn’t want that? From a functional stand point there are benefits too. All the above points are a result of a thicker back, but also another nice benefit is having a better shelf to rest the barbell on for movement that require the barbell to be on our back, such as a back squat or any type of behind the head pressing. A little more cushion is nice to have when you have several hundred pounds on your back.
Try integrating in some rows as some assistance work at the end of your training session two to three times a week. Give it a month or two of solid work and I am confident you will see improvements in other aspects of your fitness. Look for part 2 on the row to go over the specifics; the set/reps, the differences between the variations of rows and how to better integrate them into your training.