Go heavy or go home

My approach to doing the bent-over barbell row

The key to train and make progress is to see what works for you, use it and discard what doesn’t. The barbell row is a good example of e putting this advice into practice as the conventional way never worked with me.

Go heavy or go home

How you do it

The conventional way of doing the bent-over barbell row is to grap a loaded barbell with a very wide grip, palms facing down. Then bend over deeply at the hips until your torso is parallel to the floor. Pull the bar up to your stomach while looking forward, keeping your back flat at all times. You will have to bend your knees to be able to bend so deeply and comfortably.

What I didn’t like

That didn’t work with me. I found the wide grip uncomfortable and lacked much strength in that position. The straight bar was also putting a lot of stress on my wrists. The deep bending position was too much for me and very tiring. I was ready to quit barbell rows until I read about how Dorian Yates did it. So I adapted the exercise to suit me.

How I do it

Now I bend at the hips just slightly, take a shoulder-width supinated grip of an EZ-bar and can pile up the weight. Am I doing it correctly? All I know is that I keep my back straight, feel no pain and my back is sore the next day, so that convinces me that despite bending just slightly, I am still targeting my back effectively. You’ll think that the upper traps will get involved but I never feel them; I probably bend over sufficiently far to involve the back more.

Why it works better for me

I wanted to develop my lats more and taking a narrow grip while keeping elbows close to the body allowed just that.

By bending over less, I am able to keep the bar very close to me and go very heavy.

By using a supinated grip, I involve the biceps less, so they don’t become the weakest link in the chain and get tired first. Again, that allows me to go heavier.

I use an EZ-bar because the supinated grip feels more comfortable on it. There is just too much rotational stress on my wrists when using a straight bar.

I don’t use straps for my wrists in any exercise because I don’t work out my forearm muscles separately. Any pulling exercise is therefore training for my forearms. If my body can’t grip it, there’s no point having muscles that can pull it!

So don’t be scared to try new exercises but don’t give up too soon if they don’t work. Try to adapt them to what feels right to you. If something works for someone, it doesn’t mean it’ll work for you too.

Go heavy or go home

Mind your lower back

Lower back pain is a common occurrence among many people. While physical exercises can help sooth or get rid of this pain in some situations, they can also be the cause or aggravate it. Here are the most popular exercises that can place undue stress on the lower back if not performed properly.

The correct way of doing bent-over barbell rows with your back not rounded

The Squat

An excellent all-round exercise, the squat can also be a killer for the lower back if done incorrectly. Ensure you keep your back flat at all times throughout the exercise and not rounded, making you crouch excessively forward.

The back’s function during the squat is to transmit the power from the legs to the bar. If your back is rounded, it’s not going to do that efficiently. Imagine a twig breaking under a load and imagine a rigid rod not bending. Hopefully, you get the picture.

More on how to do the squats.

Leg press

Another lower back killer if you don’t know how to do it. Many people assume the leg press is safer than the squat to do because it is a machine exercise. You need to keep your back flat against the backrest at all times during the exercise. Don’t round your lower back, especially at the bottom of the exercise. If you feel your lower back lifting off the backrest, you shouldn’t lower the platform any lower. If your range of motion becomes limited as a result, try some stretching exercises to become more supple, especially with regards to your hamstrings.

More on how to do the leg press.

Hack squats

The same can be said for the hack squat – keep your back flat against the back rest as you lower yourself and especially at the bottom of the exercise.

Read more about the benefits of doing the hack squat exercise.

The Deadlift

This is an exercise that actually targets the back, with particular emphasis on the lower back. When straightening up, don’t bend backwards excessively, thus putting excessive stress on the spine. Only pull up until you are vertically straight. If fact, you want to stop just short of that because you reduce the involvement of the back if you are standing up straight.

Barbell curls

What do the biceps have to do with the back? It’s the posture of the exercise that involves the back, at least if you do it incorrectly. Never bend over backwards just to cheat and curl a weight that’s too heavy for you. The spine is not designed to take bend backwards with this sort of load. Sometimes though, the temptation to bend back just to finish that last curl is just too great. What I do is perform this exercise with my back against a pillar so I have no room to bend back.

Cheating in this way is also counterproductive as your powerful hips do all the lifting, followed by gravity once your lower arms go past the vertical; your biceps do little work.

See how you can benefit from barbell curls.

The Benchpress

It’s hard to damage your back during the benchpress. You’ll have to be in all sort of positions to do that. But some people do that and do end up with an injured back. The most likely position is when you raise your hips off the bench. This in itself is not too dangerous but when your body is under tension, when your back is acting as stabilisers to the pectorals and when you are pushing a heavy load tryingto just complete that very last rep, you are asking for trouble. So again, keep your back flat on the bench at all times.

Here’s a summary of the correct benchpress technique, something many of us get wrong from time to time.

What about back exercises?

It goes without saying that all back exercises could pose a greater risk of injury to the lower back due to the posture of the exercises and the load the back muscles are under. Always keep the proper posture, in particular a natural arch in the back and never round it up. I see way too many beginners doing the bent-over barbell row like a hunchback. Even the front lat pulldown, what could be the safest of all exercises, becomes a health hazard when people lean far back to pull down the load with momentum. I just avert my eyes in this case and mutter a short prayer for the fool doing this.

If you want to strengthen your lower back a little, you should read about these 2 great exercises I recommend.


Picture credit from Flickr.

2 lower back exercises

For success in your training, you need to target the big muscles of the body. They are the foundation of a good body structure and extra muscles that will be added on later. You cannot be in great shape if you target just your abs and biceps. The big muscles of the body are the legs and the back which act as the main structure. This post focuses on developing the back muscles.

A good back workout will develop the lower back muscles, the latissimus dorsi and the lower and middle traps. There are other smaller muscles such as the teres major that will also get developed during back exercises as it is impossible to isolate one muscle completely from another. A highly developed lower back looks like a Christmas tree – a triangular shape at the base of the back with powerful thick lats hanging down on either side of it.


It is not possible to talk about strengthening the lower back without mentioning the deadlift. This is a fundamental exercise that allows you to lift heavy and pack on muscle. This mass-builder also recruits plenty of other secondary muscles but it does need a certain amount of technique and practice to get right and as a result, many people steer away from it.

So a simpler exercise that anyone can do is the hyperextension. it’s a very simple exercise to do where you keep your lower body fixed and bend at your hips to lower your torso, keeping your back straight and flat all the time. Then raise your torso again by using your lower back muscles to get back to the starting position. You can keep your arms to the side in the beginning to make it easy, then move them to your chest, behind your neck or even straight ahead to make the exercise increasingly difficult. You can also hold weight plates or dumbells.

In order to keep your lower body fixed, you will need to use a hyperextension bench to do the exercise. Alternatively, you can try to devise a set-up to block your feet, maybe with someone holding or sitting on them, and a bar or bench at the top of your legs to lean against. The specialised hyperextension bench is much easier and comfortable to use.

The straight-leg deadlift

Another good exercise is the straight-leg deadlift. This exercise is also used to develop the hamstring but to target the lower back, you will have to perform it slightly differently. Keep your legs straight and instead of pulling from your legs, pull with your lower back and bend from it as well.

Many people complain of lower back pain. In many cases this is due to weak muscles in this location, especially due to the sedentary lifestyle that they live. Many jobs today are office jobs which involves sitting all day in a chair staring at a computer. The lower back becomes lazy and the muscle atrophies. To stop this process, train your lower back in the gym.

Picture attributions: mostmuscular.com and Paula Quinene

Pullover technique

The pullover is an excellent exercise to make your wings pop out. In other words, it places a lot of emphasis on the external parts of the latissimus dorsi, the biggest muscle of the back. When this muscle is over developed, it hangs out under either side of the arms and gives the impression of having wings, especially when coupled with a narrow waist and large shoulders. This shape is most sought after among professional or advanced weight-lifters. Here is the technique for performing the pullover and getting the most out of it.

Expands the chest

There are many ways to perform the pullover. One of the advantages of this exercise is that is stretches the thoracic cage and gives you a larger chest at the fundamental level. Even if you could pile on muscles on your chest easily, you can only carry as much muscle as there is space. But if your chest is larger and wider, then there is more space to pile on the meat. If you are a teenager and are still growing up, then doing the pullover at this time in your life may help you expand your chest irrespective of the amount of muscle you are trying to pack on.

Make the most of the stretch

To benefit from this aspect of the pullover, you need maximum stretch. Lean back across a flat bench and throw your arms back. Your shoulders will be supported by the bench under it. On one side of the bench, your legs bent at the knees are supporting you. At the other side of the bench, you grasp a dumbbell or plates on the flat side to make it comfortable. Your head should also be hanging over the bench. Pull the weight, dumbbell or plate, over your face towards your sternum. In doing so, try using your back muscles to pull your arms. Keep them slightly bent at all times and do not straighten them too much or bend them too much otherwise you will recruit your triceps and place less emphasis on the back muscles. Also, when you bend your arms, you shorten the distance between the muscle and the weight, making the load lighter for the muscle.

Make sure you get a full stretch during this exercise. Don’t move your lower body too much otherwise you will be using it as a lever to make the exercise easier. Because the pullover also works the chest in the way explained above and also recruits the pectoral muscles towards the second half of the exercise when the weight is over the head and the arms are bringing it closer to the chest, many people do this exercise during their chest routine. It all depends what you use this exercise for and where you place the emphasis when doing it.

Variations to the pullover

Other variations of the exercise involves doing it whilst lying flat along a bench with just the head and the arms hanging over the top of the bench. In this way, you are not able to use your lower body to cheat. You can also simply hold discs in your hands or use a barbell as weight, especially if you are doing the pullover whilst lying along the bench. Yet other people use an incline or decline bench to shift the emphasis slightly on different parts of the muscles.

Try out this fantastic exercise like no other and see what it does for you.