These Rowing Exercise Hacks Develop Superior Back Strength

These row variations using the tabletop protocol will do wonders for your back strength.

The Tabletop Row is a simple but highly effective training tool for improving rowing form, posture, and shoulder mechanics. When performing any Row exercises that involves a bent-over position, such as Barbell Rows or Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows, have a training partner place a plate or two on your middle upper back, then perform the movement.

It sounds cruel, but there are 7 benefits of the tabletop protocol.

  1. Improves form because the back, including the t-spine and lumbar spine, must maintain a natural arch for the plate to sit on. Spinal flexion is impossible.
  2. Eliminate top rock and excessive momentum, or else the plates will fall off the back.
  3. Increase proprioceptive feedback from lats, middle and upper back, as the plates against your body provide sensory palpation, giving you better kinesthetic awareness of your back activation and postural alignment.
  4. Helps maintain a steep near-parallel, bent-over position; an overly upright torso can cause the weights to slide off.
  5. Provides greater direct overload to the entire posterior chain, including upper back, low back, glutes and hamstrings, without further fatiguing the arms and grip. As a result, your back muscles are more likely to fail before your arms.
  6. Keeps you from over-rowing with excessive range of motion (i.e., elbows and humerus going past the plane of the torso), since the elbows and shoulder blades will run into the plates, causing them to move around on the back.
  7. Improves low-back strength immensely; the movement represents a combination of an RDL and a Good Morning in terms of weight distribution, applying direct tension to the erector muscles.

The tabletop protocol can be effectively applied to a number of different movements—anything that involves a position where the torso is roughly parallel to the floor. Here are six of my favorite tabletop variations for improving mechanics and posture and for crushing your upper back, lats, glutes and hamstrings.

1. Bent-Over Barbell Row

This is a staple mass building movement for bodybuilders and athletes alike. Unfortunately, many lifters butcher the movement by using excessive momentum, spinal flexion and other forms of cheating. The tabletop technique not only eliminates these issues but also provides greater stimulation and overload to the entire posterior chain by reinforcing correct bent-over rowing mechanics.

2. Single-Leg RDL and Bent-Over Row with Tabletop Technique

The Single-Leg RDL and Row with the tabletop protocol is one of the most brutal exercises for crushing the entire posterior chain, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. It also requires stricter mechanics than nearly any bent-over rowing variation you can think of, because it combines two advanced techniques—namely the single leg stance and the tabletop technique. In fact, it's impossible to cheat on this.

In addition, over-rowing (trying to row too high) or excessive protraction (shoulder rounding) at the bottom position are immediately punished as you lose control of the movement.

3. T-Bar Row with Tabletop Protocol

The T-Bar Row is one of the most effective movements for crushing the upper back and lats. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most butchered movements you see in the gym these days, as it quickly becomes an ego contest of how many plates you can throw on the bar and heave with jerky mechanics. As a byproduct, form typically goes out the window and most lifters either end up getting too upright as a result of using excessive top rock and low-back recruitment or they end up using significant momentum. This also has a tendency to pull the spine out of optimal alignment as the shoulders and upper back begin to round.

This is exactly why I love the tabletop protocol: It eliminates all of these issues and forces you to use proper mechanics, including a more bent-over torso and smooth rowing motions. Anything less results in the weight flying off your back. The next time you see someone in the gym stroking their ego on the T-Bar Row with aberrant mechanics, tell them to throw a few plates on their back. They'll either thank you for the newfound growth and strength gains they'll acquire or they'll hate you for life since you hurt their ego and called them out for using lousy form.

4. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row with Tabletop Technique

The Single-Arm Dumbbell Row has been a staple of many fitness and bodybuilding programs for decades. Unfortunately most individuals butcher this movement by (1) using excessive rotation (lawn mower style); (2) over-rowing by allowing the arm to drift too high past the torso; or (3) allowing their back to round due to lack of proper spinal mechanics and postural positioning.

By applying the tabletop technique, you essentially eliminate all of those issues. You are forced to perform the Single-Arm Row with nothing short of textbook mechanics. Any twisting, over-rowing, cheating, use of momentum, or excessive top rock results in the weight falling off your back.

5. Glute Ham Raise Tabletop Row

If you're looking for a rowing variation that absolutely annihilates the entire posterior chain—especially the low back, glutes and hamstring—look no further than Rows on the glute ham raise station using the tabletop protocol. Above, you can watch one of my athletes, Leslie Petch, demonstrating it. Besides crushing the glutes and hamstrings, the stimulus to the back and lats is quite intense, eliminating any and all ability to cheat or use momentum. In fact, the combination of GHR positioning and the tabletop technique makes this one the most physically demanding rowing variations, while also requiring and promoting unbelievably strict form.

If your rowing technique needs work or you need an exercise to crush your entire backside, from your upper back down to your hamstrings, this one's for you. Bonus: it does wonders for postural restoration and spinal alignment, since it forces you to keep a very rigid spine throughout.

6. Quadruped Row with Tabletop Technique

The Quadruped Bird Dog Row is one of my favorite rowing and horizontal pulling variations for teaching lifters how to use proper body mechanics. Combining it with the tabletop protocol represents the epitome of movement mastery. It literally forces you to use the most precise mechanics; anything less will be punished with a failed attempt. Just be prepared to focus your mind and your body like a ninja, because the level of mental concentration required to successfully perform this is on par with that of a kung fu grandmaster.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock