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F.I.S.T Part 3: Pulling Movements

In Part 3 of the Functional Integrated Strength Training series we will focus on pulling exercises. These exercises will demonstrate a non-traditional approach to rowing and pull down movements.

Pulling exercises are often under utilized in weight training programs compared to anterior dominant movements. Chest pressing, shoulder pressing and anterior deltoid isolation exercises often times far out number pulling movements. Anterior dominant programs when coupled with a poor postural set (forward head, rounded shoulders, excessive kyphosis) increase the likelihood of incurring an injury. The most common injuries occur in the shoulder joint, shoulder girdle and neck. Impingement syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome and cervical sprain/strains are top on the list. Programs that have an equal or greater number of pulling versus pushing exercises significantly reduce the risk of these injuries.

Secondary injuries occur within the low back area, particularly sprain/strains and disc injuries. These injuries do not develop solely because of poor muscular balance. More often than not, people do not appropriately stabilize the spine, pelvis and lower extremities when performing a ground based pull. Functional pulling activities usually take place in a standing or bent over posture with the use of one or both arms. The incidence of back injuries could be lower if exercisers were properly instructed and trained using functional pulling movements that integrate the core and legs. I think we are aware of the need for a well balanced pulling routine, but it is equally important to examine the type of pulling exercises which are prescribed for our clients.

Let’s take a look at exercise selection for the row under the microscope. Rowing exercises are traditionally performed on a variety of machines where the torso is supported by a chest pad in the seated position. There is no question that these exercises target the large back muscles and will help people look better in a tank top or low cut dress from the back, but do nothing as far as integrating the core and legs. A step in the right direction is performing the traditional seated cable rowing exercise. At least with this exercise, the spinal erectors and the supporting cast of core musculature is activated. The problem still exists that individuals are sitting on their buttocks when training the pulling movement. If these are the only type of rowing exercise they perform, they are more likely to suffer a back injury when having to perform a functional pulling motion on their feet. We must remember that most real life pulling movements take place on your feet and integrate the core and lower extremities.

We often have to perform the pulling motion in a modified lunge position such as when lifting a piece of luggage off the conveyer belt, on the job for someone like a fireman, or in sport for an athlete like a wrestler. The squat position is also utilized when performing a pulling motion such as when moving furniture. The bent over position is often incorporated such as when picking up a small child from the floor or pulling weeds out of the garden. Lastly, the seated position must be addressed as it may be functional for some, most commonly for a competitive rower, kayaker or crew member. We have to look at our clients with eyes that see what they do in their every day life and prescribe appropriate exercises that will help them function optimally and avoid injury.

It is crucial that we teach our clients to stabilize the spine effectively prior to and during pulling exercises to avoid injury to the spine. We must stress the importance of activating the internal corset "inner unit" and assume ideal posture prior to and during the pulling motion. To review the key points; draw the belly button up and in toward the spine "inner unit activation", lift the ribcage, expand the chest, drive the upper arm(s)/elbow(s) back, squeeze the shoulder blade(s) into the spine, keep the head/neck and lumbar spine in neutral alignment. Often times, individuals will breakdown in many of these key areas. Due to poor stabilization ability or too much weight load being used, exercisers often suffer postural breakdown which is counterproductive and potentially harmful to the spine. The most common breakdown occurs first within the core. Exercisers collapse the ribcage and flex the spine, which sets off a flexion response within the body, followed by rounding the shoulders (increased kyphosis) and a forward head posture. This is the opposite training effect that we want to promote. Pulling exercises are to promote good posture while targeting the back muscles effectively. Our goal is to promote extension, which is set off by drawing the belly button inward (getting skinny) and lifting the ribcage. Expanding the chest and squeezing the shoulder blade(s) toward the spine promotes biased recruitment of the rhomboids, lats, and trapezius.

Losing ideal posture encourages bicep recruitment and significantly decreases recruitment of the large back muscles while placing undue stress upon the spine. Individuals who naturally respond in this manner often exhibit poor hunched over posture when standing. When performing a pulling motion, it is more natural for them to migrate to their comfortable faulty posture. These individuals need to address their poor postural set and strengthen their postural extension muscles with an exercise called the prone cobra. They should hold the end position for 10 seconds and complete six to 10 repetitions with a 10 second pause in between repetitions. Two to three sets of this exercise should be performed every other day for at least 4 weeks initially. Continue as needed to promote correction of their faulty posture. It’s also suggested to test the length of the pectorals and internal rotators as they are often times shortened. These tight muscles encourage poor pulling mechanics and may stress the spine and shoulder joint as optimal posture and joint alignment is lost. Make sure to stretch these areas prior to the weight training session. It is especially important to address this issue in the early stages of a strength program or the exerciser will continue to perform pulling exercises with faulty posture. If left unchecked over a prolonged period of time the exerciser may encourage degeneration of the cervical and lumbar spine and predispose themselves to a disc injury and potentially a shoulder injury.

Poor pulling posture Prone cobra (extension position)

We will now take a look at several pulling exercises that challenge the body in an integrated fashion. It’s important to start beginners in a position that will encourage them to focus on proper pulling mechanics while teaching the key points of stabilization, posture and pulling. I like to start people off seated on a stability ball while performing the low cable row with two arms, then one arm.

Stability Ball seated 2 arm low row (pull phase) Stability Ball seated 1 arm low row with punch-out (pull phase)

As the exerciser proves competency with these movements, they need to progress to their feet. The ¼ squat and ¼ lunge positions are the perfect start for teaching the integration of the legs and core. The positions are used to train the low row, high row, and diagonal pull down. Stabilizing the spine, pelvis, and lower extremities are crucial when performing these movements so as not to beat up the spine, SI joint and knees. The teaching cues previously mentioned must once again be adhered to. When using the ¼ squat or ¼ lunge position, exercisers should focus on keeping this position solid during the pulling motion. The ¼ squat position if often deviated from as people often shift the pelvis or tuck the tail (posterior tilt) on the pulling side. Remember that the ignition switch to promoting stability occurs by first activating the inner unit. They need to again be reminded to draw the belly button toward the spine, lift the ribcage, and expand the chest. I like to use the analogy of getting skinnier and taller during the pull phase. Another cue to give is to keep the sit mechanics in tact while emphasizing glute medius activation especially on the non-pulling side. They need to be reminded to keep the knee-cap aligned over the mid-foot and imagine pressing outward against some ones fingers along the lateral thigh.

The ¼ lunge position is the most foreign to people and the most challenging to perform correctly as you will discover. It’s a great position that requires a tremendous amount of stabilization. Paul Chek’s article The Outer Unit (see "related articles" at right or below) does a great job of describing how stabilization is enhanced through recruiting the sling systems that make up the outer unit.

¼ squat 2 arm low row (pull phase) ¼ lunge 1 arm low row with punch-out (pull phase)
¼ lunge 1 arm high row with punch-out (pull phase) ¼ lunge 1 arm diagonal pull down with punch-out (pull phase)

A progression to these movements can incorporate a parallel squat or lunge prior to the pulling movement. The pulling arm(s) should be extended in the bottom position of the squat. The lunge may be performed eccentrically and concentrically with an extended arm also with the pull phase performed after the ascent. The lunge position (descent) may also be held statically while performing multiple reps of the rowing movement as seen. These options increase the demand for greater dynamic stabilization, coordination, balance, and work capacity.

Parallel squat with 1 arm low row (descent Parallel squat with 1 arm low row (ascent with pull phase) Lunge position (descent) 1 arm low row with punch-out (pull phase)

You may be wondering what’s up with all the one arm pulling exercises with opposite arm punch-out. The rotators of the spine, (obliques and multifidus particularly), must stabilize on the non-pulling side and assist in rotation on the pulling side. Many life, work or sport situation may require this type of response. The inner unit and outer unit musculature must remain activated to protect the spine. Another benefit is that the thoracic spine receives much needed mobility as it must rotate on the pulling side. This has a high functional carryover for those involved in throwing and striking sports including golf. We can also train at higher speeds if needed, as the sport or activity may demand. One-arm training will also allow us to note and correct imbalances or weaknesses that are commonly seen on one side of the body.

Lastly, we need to cover the bent over position. This position is often sets people up for an injury if they do not stabilize effectively. It’s important to train proficiency in this movement, especially if it is a common position that the exerciser uses in everyday life. Below you will see a modified cable bent over row and a traditional barbell bent over row. This is a very tough position to maintain and to stabilize effectively, as you know. One thing that I have started teaching with this exercise is to break down the repetitions into more manageable smaller sets within a set. Usually in life we don’t have to maintain this position and perform many pulling repetitions, especially if the load is high. I typically instruct my clients to perform two to four repetitions, stand up, breathe normally for a couple seconds, reactivate the inner unit and perform two to four more repetitions. They will normally complete 10 to 12 total repetitions to complete a set.

Cable modified bent over row
(pull phase)
Barbell bent over row
(pull phase)

I hope to have challenged your thinking in regards to prescribing pulling exercises. For those individuals who won’t abandon their favorite torso supported rowing exercise, have them perform at least one of the functional pulling movements first, then go for that machine fix. I also want to make it clear that I’m not bashing traditional exercises like the lat pull down, pull ups, and pull overs. They are all great exercises and will prove to be beneficial in creating muscular balance and hypertrophy. Let’s just remember that it’s not all about muscle training. There is a strong case to be made for training movements that matter. These exercises help create a healthier spine and solid foundation from the ground up.