If you train with me you quickly learn that I am religious about lifting with proper technique. As a matter of fact, Brute Force Strength Rule #1 is: Perfect your technique on every lift; regardless how long you have lifting, continuously look for ways to improve your form. When you lift with proper form, you will generally lift more weight and reduce your chance of injury.
The barbell row, however, is an example of an exercise that you can effectively use some cheating to increase your strength and size. When done correctly you can lift more weight and complete more reps than you can with strict form without significantly increasing the risk of the exercise.
When should you use the cheat technique?
- At the end of your sets to complete additional reps that you could not otherwise complete
- To finish off your workout with a set at a weight that you cannot complete with strict form
- Should be a slight, incrementally higher weight increase used to prepare you for heavier lifts
When should you avoid using ‘cheat’ techniques?
- If you’re new to the barbell row, first learn and perfect proper technique without using any cheating
- If you have issues with your lower back or similar physical limitations, I’d recommend against cheating on barbell rows
Barbell Row ‘Cheat’ Technique:
- Set up for the lift just as you do for your proper barbell row
- Perform as many reps without cheating as you can – keep your upper body stable, minimize use of momentum
- When you need to employ the cheat technique, just as you start to bring the bar up, bring your upper body upwards slightly to start the bar moving (rotation is at your hips)
- Once the bar is moving, use the bar’s momentum to help complete the lift as you simultaneously lower your upper body back down to the starting position
Using cheat for additional reps:
Using cheat for additional weight:
If the end of your set starts to resemble a combination of a shrug and an upright row (a ‘shrow’), it’s time to set the bar down and step away.
- Do not use a weight you are unable to safely support in the rowing position
- Make sure you are able to maintain a flat back and straight spine throughout your set
I introduced the Brute Force Back Workout of the Week (BWOW) a while back (Brute Force BWOW 1). I had bombed out of the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals in 2010 because I couldn’t successfully hit any of my bench press attempts. What does that have to do with back training you ask? That entire training cycle I didn’t work my back or biceps at all, two huge stabilizers for your bench press. I was unable to control the bar as it got to my chest, and couldn’t complete a single bench press.
After that I went on a rampage for a year and a half, punishing my back and biceps with a different high intensity workout every week. My back size and strength exploded. So did my bench press, earning me the bench press gold medal at the International Powerlifting Federation Masters World Championships in 2011 and 2012. BWOW grew out of this training success.
I’m resurrecting BWOW with the idea of applying a periodization scheme to my back training, just as you would for your other core lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift). Week 1 will be a very high volume back workout.
Week 1: Volume Training
Warm-ups: Warm up your upper body to prep for your back session
- Light shoulder internal and external rotation – 3×15
- If you need more warm-ups, do a few light sets of lat pull downs
Pull-ups: One of our goals this training cycle will be to increase your pull-up strength.
- If you cannot get at least 5 pull-ups on your own, use assistance
- Assisted pull-up station
- Resistance bands, set up for reverse resistance
- Use the minimum assistance required to get at least 5 reps
- If you can get at least 5 reps on your own, add weight to your first set
- Use double overhand, wide grip
- Perform 4 sets to failure
Barbell Rows: This will be a very high volume set of lifts!
- Select your 10RM for barbell rows
- You should be somewhat warm after pull-ups, but if you need a couple of warm-up sets, take them
- If you are training with a partner with a similar 10RM, use the lower of the two 10RMs
- Set a timer for 15 minutes
- Alternate sets, performing barbell rows to failure
- If you have a training partner, you will alternate with no rest, as soon as your partner finishes you will begin rowing; your total rest should be 30 seconds or less
- If you do not have a training partner, take no more than 30 seconds rest between sets
- I recommend using wrist straps for this exercise; you will likely not be able to hold the bar without them to effectively work your back
Dumbbell Rows, Supported:
- Select your 10RM weight dumbbell
- Perform 3 sets to failure
- Use wrist straps if necessary (again, for dumbbell rows I recommend using straps to effectively work your back)
- Rest until you are fully recovered between sets (3-5 minutes)
Hammer Curl/Lat Pull-down Superset: We’re going to pre-exhaust your biceps so that your lats have to do more of the work
- If you’ve done the rest of your workout correctly, your rep maxes on these exercises will be relatively meaningless; select a weight you can get the sets and reps in the appropriate ranges
- Start with hammer curls, select a weight you can (still) get 8-12 reps with proper form
- Take 1-2 minutes rest and continue the set with lat pull-downs, using a weight you can get 10-12 reps
- Take 2-3 minutes rest between each superset
- Complete a total of 3 supersets
Hammer Curl/Cable Row Superset: We’re continuing with the bicep pre-exhaust, and performing high rep cable rows; this allows us to engage more of your back muscles in the rows (rhomboids and lower/mid traps)
- Continue the superset with the same weight for hammer curls
- As with previous superset, take 1-2 minutes rest between hammer curls and cable rows
- Select a weight you can get 20 reps with on the cable rows
- Squeeze each rep on the cable row tightly at the top, pinching your shoulder blades together
- Take 2-3 minutes rest between each superset
- Complete a total of 3 supersets
- Coffee: Rated the workout at about an ‘8’ on our Smokdedness Scale. It was a challenging workout, but we have gone through tougher sessions. That being said, he did text me ‘Curse you Ken Gack!! My back and biceps are destroyed’ the morning after, and biceps were burning for a few days.
- Gack: Rated the workout at about a ‘7’ on our Smokdedness Scale. It was a challenging workout, but the conditioning component of the core lift (barbell rows) eclipsed the strength and hypertrophy component.
Workout Plan: 2013 Winter – BWOW Week 1 v1 – Web
BWOW plans for this cycle:
“It doesn’t matter how heavy it feels!” If you’ve trained with me long, you have undoubtedly heard me say that (as well as ‘Stop shaking your head, if you can argue, you can finish the **** lift’, but that’s for another article).
I once (inadvertently) went from 490 lb to 650 lbs, 60 lbs over my max at that time, on consecutive squat attempts in a competition. Even walking it out 650 lbs felt impossibly heavy. Oh, wait, yeah that squat attempt crushed me, bad example.
More to the point, I recently had a trainee fail on a deadlift in training. It was obviously far too heavy, and wouldn’t even budge off the floor. So with the utmost concern for the success of her training, I removed a 10 lb plate from each side of the bar…and replaced each of them with two 5 lb plates. Encouraged by my ‘lightening’ of the weight, she easily completed the pull.
Right? Not necessarily.
To maximize the effectiveness of the exercise sometimes you just have to set your ego aside and use assistance. In this case that assistance is the wrist strap. For example:
- The target muscle group is much larger and stronger than your forearms. Your upper back (lats, traps, rhomboids) is one of the largest muscle groups in your upper body. Without assistance, your grip will give out long before you are able to properly tax your back in either volume or weight.
- You are unable to use an alternating grip to prevent the bar from rolling. Unlike the deadlift, where you can alternate your grip (one pronated hand, one supinated hand), when performing exercises with both hands either pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand), or when performing heavy dumbbell lifts such as the dumbbell row, without grip assistance the barbell or dumbbell will simply roll away from you when the weight starts to get heavy.
As simple as the wrist strap appears, they can be tricky to get the hang of and use properly. Let me show you how:
For a quick recap:
- The mouth of the strap’s loop faces your hand
- When laying across your palm, the strap points in the same direction as your thumb
- Plant your hand on the bar and start wrapping the strap under and around the bar from the base of your pinkie finger towards your thumb
- Hold the strap to the bar so it will roll with the bar and roll it towards you to tighten your straps
The deadlift is a simple exercise, right? Just grab a heavy bar and stand up. To advance from a good deadlifter, to a great deadlifter, you really have to understand all the mechanics of the lift, which actually are somewhat complex. I’ve broken the deadlift into 21 separate steps to help you master every nuance of the lift.
There is no reason your setup should not be perfect every single rep of every single step. You are able to stop and think about every step in the setup as you are doing it. Setting up properly can make a significant difference in how much iron you can pull.
- Select the right bar
- Pick a bar that is not bent; if you cannot find a bar in your gym that is not bent (uh, terribly sorry about that…) make sure the bend is positioned upward so the bar does not roll as you lift it
- Choose a bar with most pronounced knurling, it should be somewhat sharp; yes, this will tear your hands up, but you will hold onto the bar.
- Foot placement
- Feet should be at hip-width (inside shoulder width)
- Point your toes forward
- Bend at the waist, rotating at your hips, to grab the bar
- Hand Placement
- Grip the bar at shoulder width
- Hands should be outside your thighs so they don’t slide across your legs during the pull, as this can cause your grip to loosen
- Arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, close to the thighs
- Get a good grip on the bar
- Use an over/under grip to prevent the bar from rolling during the pull
- Try to keep both hands on the knurling
- For heavier sets, chalk up your hands to prevent the bar from sliding away from you
- Pull the bar close to your body
- Bar should be within an inch of your shins before you start the pull
- Center the bar over the arches of your feet
Basic Deadlift Technique
Try and master the basic deadlift technique before starting to add more advanced techniques to your pulls. This will give you a great foundation, and very solid deadlifts.
- Pull the ‘slack’ out between your body and the bar
- Pull upward slightly on the bar so there is no slack between your arms and the bar, or between the bar and the plates
- Rock backwards dropping your hips down, and bringing your chest up
- Rotate around your knees bringing your hips downward
- Keep your arms straight and your back tight, and maintain upward tension on the bar as you rock back
- Drive through your heels as you start your pull; use your legs to break the bar from the floor
- Continue pulling until you are standing fully erect with your knees locked, your hips forward, and your shoulders back
- Lower the bar back to the floor and reset for your next repetition
Advanced Deadlift Technique
Once you have the basic deadlift technique mastered, and the steps are automatic, begin working on the advanced techniques that will take your pulls to the next level.
- Once you are set up for your pull, and have removed the slack from the bar, tighten your back
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down to keep your back tight
- Activate your lats to keep the bar tight against your shins
- Take a deep breath into your lungs and tighten your abs to create intra-abdominal pressure and a solid core just before dropping your hips to the starting position
- Hold the air in your lungs until the bar passes your knees
- Exhale slowly as you lock the bar out
- As you rock backward, continue bringing your hips down until your knees and shoulders are behind the bar
- Concentrate on tightening your glutes and hamstrings as you bring your hips down
- Begin pulling as soon as your hips drop to the starting position
- Remaining too long at the bottom of the lift will allow your glutes and hamstrings to loosen, and let your head talk your body out of the lift
- Keep the bar close to your body, the bar should ride up your shins as you pull
- Concentrate on completing your pull with one smooth motion
- Your shoulders, hips and the bar should rise at the same rate
- Your hips should not come up first, leading to your knees to lock out before your upper body is fully erect
- As the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes
- Do not shrug the bar or lean back excessively at the end of the lift, instead complete the lift by popping your chest up
- Do not let the bar rest on your thighs (hitching) at any point during the lift, continue pulling steadily even if the bar slows and stops; if you cannot complete the lift without hitching, set it down and try again another time!
Although a seemingly simple lift, there are many nuances to the deadlift that may be difficult to learn all at once. By breaking the deadlift down into separate phases, you can master each portion of the technique and build solid foundational skills before attempting more difficult and complex steps. Just as Brute Force Rule #4: Expect Steady Progression – following this approach, you may apply this rule to your deadlift as well.
You may download a deadlift technique checklist and take it with you to the gym: Lifting Checklist – Deadlift
Last week in my Deadlift Setup article I touched on two deadlift setup approaches, the two count deadlift and the three count deadlift. In watching a new lifter last night, I captured one of the difficulties with the two count deadlift.
Notice in the picture to the right that the lifter’s left hand is at least a half an inch wider than his right hand. This is a problem I see frequently with novice lifters. When squatting down to the bar to set up, it’s difficult to watch your hands to ensure proper hand position. Improper hand position will lead to inferior pulls:
- When your hands are off-center like this, the bar will be off-balance, making the pull more difficult
- If your hands are too wide, it shortens your reach, forcing you to squat down farther to get to the bar; you then have to start lower and pull the bar farther
- If your hands are too close, they will drag across your legs, increasing friction, and impacting your grip on the bar
Quick pointers on hand and foot position for the deadlift:
- Feet should be ‘inside the shoulders’, this is a relatively close stance
- Hands should be right on the outside of your hips and legs; your arms should hang straight down from your shoulders, but not drag across your legs
- I like to keep my hands right on the edge of the knurling, so that I have a very easy time finding the correct placement; this is dependent, of course, on the width of your build and the bar that you use
Have you ever noticed how your second repetition in a heavy set of deadlifts is often easier than your first? How you set up and grab the bar can make a huge difference in powerful your first repetition is as well.
The Stretch Reflex: If a muscle is stretched rapidly, a contraction is triggered within that muscle. You use this reflex when you perform many of your exercises. During the eccentric, or lowering of the bar during the bench press for example, the pecs are stretched. This stretch, and the corresponding Stretch Reflex, assists you in driving the bar powerfully off your chest.
When deadlifting, there is no eccentric component to the first repetition. Just grab the bar and pick it up, right? On your second repetition as you lower the bar to the floor, your glutes and hamstrings are stretched, creating a stretch reflex that assists with the second and subsequent repetitions. How can you create a Stretch Reflex on your first repetition? Let’s start by walking through a typical deadlift. I refer to this as the Two Count Deadlift.
The Two Count Deadlift
- Squat down to the bar
- Grip the bar and pull
In trying to figure out why my own second repetitions were easier that the first, I came across a method of setting up for your deadlift that creates a pseudo eccentric component to your first repetition. I try to create the Stretch Reflex using a Three Count Deadlift.
The Three Count Deadlift
- Rotate forward at the hips, bending to grab the bar
- Rock back quickly, rotating at the knee to bring the hips down and chest up
- As soon as your hips hit the bottom of the lift drive up explosively, bringing the bar, your hips and shoulders up at the same rate
For both approaches, the concentric motion of the lift should be completed in one smooth motion.
As a competitive powerlifter, I focus on resetting after every rep using the Three Count Deadlift for all repetitions. In a competition, there is only one repetition, so I train for a powerful single repetition. However, although using the Three Count Deadlift may make your first repetition more powerful, you may find that using the Two Count Deadlift for the eccentric portion at the end of your first rep can make the rest of your reps easier. If you’re not training for competition, a hybrid approach (Three Count first rep, Two Count for subsequent reps) may allow you to pull greater weight and volume.
In the video demonstration, notice the transition to the Two Count Deadlift on the third repetition.
Try taking advantage of your body’s own reflexes for stronger pulls!
If you follow the strength training forums you’ll find frequent discussions on bar placement on your back: High Bar or Low Bar. Little attention is spent, however, on getting the bar centered on your back. Watching a team mate set up off center, and having to reset twice because the bar was off balance in tonight’s squat session drove the point home.
The setup is the most crucial part of your squat. Do it correctly and you are likely to nail your lift. Mess it up and you burn energy unnecessarily, give your head the chance to tell your body ”damn this is heavy!’, and give your spotter a chance to earn his keep. Getting the bar centered on your back can be done in three simple steps:
- Make sure your hands are evenly placed on the bar; use the edges of the knurling and the rings on the bar to make sure they are perfectly even.
- Make eye contact with the knurling in the middle of the bar, and make sure you are directly centered on it.
- Keep your eyes on the knurling as you duck under the bar, remain square to the bar and make sure you duck straight under it.
Once you’re under the bar, be careful not to change your hand or back position on the bar as you settle in for your lift.
This step is often (nearly always?) overlooked, and quite often getting the bar set up evenly is either through sheer luck, or spotter assistance. Follow these three simple steps, and improve your setup.
For a full description of squat setup, check out Squat Technique in our Brute Force Book of Techniques!
This week we continue my drive to the 2012 USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships. It’s still early in the training cycle, so intensity remains high. This week had my muttering “what the … was I thinking” between sets, so it should rank pretty well on the smokededness scale.
BWOW – Week 5:
Goal: Medium Intensity and Volume/Horizontal Pulling
- Warm up to your working set with barbell rows
- 4 sets/6 repetitions
- With the medium rep range, barbell weight should be relatively high
- Select a weight that you can complete the sets with minimal cheating (ie swinging upper body to use momentum to complete the repletion); you should be within 1 rep of failure at the end of the set – some cheating in the later sets is acceptable
- You should be using a weight that you will need wrist wraps to hold the bar
- Rest 3-5 minutes between sets so that you are fully recovered
- 3 sets to failure each set
- For round one of the drop set, select a weight you will fail at 6-8 reps
- For round two of the drop set:
- If round 1 is over 100lbs, select a weight 20lbs lighter
- If round 1 is under 100lbs, select a weight 10lbs lighter
- Complete each round of the sets to failure
- Minimize cheating, use little or upper body momentum to complete your reps
- Feel free to mutter between sets
- Use wrist wraps if necessary to hold the dumbbells
- Rest around 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered
Pull-up/Lat Pulldown Supersets
- 3 sets/6 reps (Pull-ups), 12 reps (Lat Pulldowns)
- Perform each set to failure; use spotter assistance or an assisted pull-up machine if you cannot complete 6 reps
- Complete your lat pulldowns immediately after pull-ups without resting
- Rest about 3 minutes between sets so that you are mostly recovered
Seated Hammer Curls:
- 3 sets/10 reps per set
- Select a weight that you are within 2-3 reps of failure at the end of each set
Coming Attraction: Next week we begin drawing down training intensity and volume, and increasing weight in preparation for the USA Powerlifting Masters National Championships.
If you want to start at the beginning, you can check out Back Workout of the Week #1 – BWOW1
While training the other day I was distracted by a guy attempting to give birth…or so it appeared from the sounds he was making. I paused to check out how much weight he was squatting, it surely must have been impressive, right? Alas, the squat rack was empty! On further investigation I found that instead of Lamaze, he was bicep curling mighty 25lb dumbbells.
A week later I encountered him again, and he commented that you can’t get strong if you’re not making a lot of noise. I really didn’t have the energy to correct him – that it’s the faces you make that are important, but it does bring me to my subject. Beyond annoying the lifter’s in the gym, and drawing attention to lifts that should remain hidden in obscurity, the only thing all that noise is doing for you is reducing the amount of weight you can lift. Breathing correctly during your sets will make a significant difference in the weight you lift, and quite frankly a loaded down bar speaks for itself.
Although proper breathing technique has a positive impact on most, if not all of your lifts, I’m going to discuss the squat. Proper breathing technique helps increase your core stability which:
- Transitions power from your legs doing the work to your upper body supporting the weight (see the figure below)
- Reduces your chances of injury, by stabilizing your spine
- Take a deep breath into your lungs, allow your diaphragm to press down into your abdomen
- Brace your core, as you would if you were about to get punched in the stomach, by simultaneously tightening your abdominals and obliques
- Continue holding your breath through the eccentric portion of the lift (descent), and begin exhaling slowly as you pass the mid-point in the concentric (ascent) portion, complete exhaling as you lock the lift out
How Does this Add Weight to Your Bar
The bar rests on the supporting structure of your shoulder girdle, rib cage and back musculature. Your power is driven up from the floor through your legs, which consist of over 50% of the muscle mass in your body. The transition point between these stable structures is your core (abdominals, obliques, and erector spinae). The most well defined six-pack will likely not be as stable as these two opposing forces.
- Filling your lungs with air, and bracing your abdomen creates intra-abdominal pressure which stabilizes your spine
- A solid, stable core allows you to keep your chest up throughout the lift, preventing excessive leaning
- Screaming for attention at the bottom of your squat releases the air from your lungs in an uncontrolled manner, loosening your core, and allowing your mid-section to crumple (no, your belt does not prevent this from happening)
There are safety considerations you need to take into account when squatting heavy.
- As my spotters can tell you, holding your breath for an extended period of time deprives your body of oxygen (during a period of extreme exertion) and creates a risk of blacking out
- This technique can create a significant increase in your blood pressure
Squatting effectively is much more than stepping under the bar, bending your knees and straightening them again. Proper breathing, for example, stabilizes your core, reducing your tendency to lean or crumple at the bottom of the lift. Screaming loudly during the lift reduces your core stability.
Try lifting with good breathing technique. The plates will stack on more quickly and you will find your lifts much more stable.
Jesse Irizarry. “Freakish Strength With Proper Core Training.” Testosterone Nation. 3/2/12. 4/7/12 <http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/freakish_strength_with_proper_core_training>