I was interviewing a kettlebell trainer friend of mine last Thursday (Chris Lopez).
He and I both agree that what’s lacking with a lot of common kettlebell training programs these days is the absence of a true “upper body pulling” exercise. An exercise that focuses on using the muscles of your upper back that is essential for posture, upper body power and girth.
I’m not a big fan of isolation exercises and I don’t know many kettlebell trainers that are, but in a world where we do everything in front of us – drive, write, type, surf the internet, bench – we need a balance of anterior and posterior.
Also, I am prone to back and shoulder pain from a serious car accident about 15 years ago, which get aggravated when I do chin ups, pull ups etc.
We thought about chin-ups being that main upper body pulling exercise for several reasons:
1) It’s very minimal in terms of it’s equipment requirement – all you need is an overhead bar, a set of monkey bars or a tree branch.
2) It’s Primal. When our ancestors were being chased by predators, they used a chin-up or pull-up like movement to climb up trees to avoid the predators.
3) You have to be in shape to do a chin-up. It’s very difficult for someone who is carrying excess bodyweight to pull themselves up.
4) It’s recognized by the RKC, our governing School of Strength, as one of our core testing drills.
OK, so here’s the issue that I have with Chin-Ups…
With all the points that I stated above there are still 2 glaring issues that I have…
1) Not everyone can do chin-ups. And so what do we do or how do we program those of us who can’t pull ourselves up yet? Do we leave those individuals out in the cold? ”No chin-up for you!”
2) Chin ups – if done properly – will involve your chest muscles and will internally rotate your shoulders therefore making it an anterior exercise. Why is this a big deal? Well, because we do everything in front of our bodies already, so to internally rotate our shoulders when we do chin-ups means that we’re forcing our shoulders forward. Doesn’t make much sense when we’re trying to pull them back and combat all the sitting, typing & driving we do all day.
Hold on, now before you get your pecs all tied up in knots by what I said, let me assure you that I’m not saying to avoid doing chin-ups at all costs. (Unless they cause you pain or aggravate an old injury – the same as any exercise that does that – just ask me for an alternative)
What I am saying is that there could be a better exercise that allows you to improve your posture and that is accessible to those in the group that is “not yet able to do a chin-up”.
So what exercise is that?
The Bodyweight Row.
With the bodyweight row, we are grooving a pattern that allows us to fully open up our tight chests allowing us to retract our shoulder blades and use our neglected postural muscles.
I’ve tried these, they do work, they are harder they look – but don’t aggravate my back injury – Bonus !
To perform a bodyweight row, set a bar in a squat rack about waist height.
Now bring yourself underneath the bar and grab it with both hands using an overhand grip. Line yourself up so that chest is directly underneath the bar.
Now straighten your legs and contract your glutes so that the only part of your body that’s in contact with the floor is your heels. You should be a completely straight line, stiff as a board.
Pull your chest to the bar by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pull all the way up until your chest touches the bar. Then slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
A few pointers on the Bodyweight Row…
1) Always squeeze your shoulder blades. It’s really easy to just pull with your elbows and let your biceps do the work forgetting about using the muscles in your upper back. DON’T LET THAT HAPPEN. Image you’ve got a pencil running parallel to your spine on your upper back and think about grabbing that pencil with your shoulder blades.
2) Don’t release your glutes for the entire set. It’s equally as easy to use momentum from a hip extension to get your body up to the bar. Squeeze your glutes tight and stay stiff as a board throughout the entire set.
3) If you’re having problems getting your chest to the bar, try bending your knees and putting your feet flat on the floor (so it looks like you’re doing a glute bridge when you’re hanging off the bar). This decreases the length of the lever arm and will allow you to pull a little less than your bodyweight until you get strong enough to pull it all up from a straight body position.
That, in a nutshell, is the Bodyweight Row. You should start doing them today EVEN IF YOU CAN DO CHIN UPS. I’d aim for 3 sets of however many reps that you can comfortably handle. Don’t train to failure. If you can get 15-20 in a set, you’ll be in pretty good shape.
P.S. To be able to do ANY bodyweight exercise effectively, you need to lose any excess fat AND hold on to your muscle. Here’s Chris’ Kettlebell program that will do both (burn fat & build/maintain muscle)….
Chris Lopez, RKC
Certified Turbulence Trainer
Author, The TT Kettlebell Revolution
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