Category Archives: Perfect Pulling Exercises

A-List Exercises: Upper Body Pulling


Strength training is just like building a house. In that, you need a good foundation to build up from. That said, with the endless variety of exercises coming at us daily, it can be confusing for the personal trainer and fitness enthusiast to decide which strength exercises to use as the foundational (cornerstone) lifts for their training programs.
The purpose of this A-List Exercise series is to share with you the strength training exercises we place at the top of our priority list, regardless of the training goal, because we feel they offer the most bang for our strength training buck.
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In other words, the exercises I’ll provided in each installment of this A-List Exercises series are our “go-to” moves for otherwise healthy clients (i.e. with no major medical limitations), which we apply for all training purposes from fat loss to sports performance to physique development.
Note: Although the exercises applications below are generally prescribed, we’ll manipulate the acute variable (sets, reps, rest, etc.) of these exercises to create the specific adaption we’re looking to create based on each individual’s goal (i.e. higher reps w/ lower loads for hypertrophy, lower reps w/ higher loads for strength, etc.).

Our A-List Vertical Pulling Exercises

Rope Climbing
We consider Rope Climbing w/o using your legs to be the king of all upper-body pulling exercises.
Pull Ups w/ Free Floating Handles
We’re certainly not opposed to using a straight bar to perform chin ups and pull ups. However, our A-list pull up option involves using free floating handles.
In the video below my good friend, former intern and up and coming super-star strength coach Dan Blewett explains why we favor using free floating handles for performing pull ups.
 If we don’t have access to free floating handles, we’ll perform chin-ups using the strategy provided in this video (below) to help each person find their optimal grip width.
Pull Downs w/ Neutral Grip Wide Handle
Another one of our “go-to” vertical pulling options is the lat pull down exercise using a neutral grip wide handle attachment (pictured below).
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We’ve found this handle to 1) be the most shoulder friendly and 2) feel the most natural and comfortable for clients and athletes. Plus, this handle allows for a greater ROM than the close grip handle.
Note: This does NOT mean we don’t use other attachments like the lat bar. It’s just to say this particular handle is at the top of our (A-) list if we were to pick one attachment.

Our A-List Horizontal Pulling Exercises

 One Arm Dumbbell Free Standing Rows
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This rowing variation is at the top of our list because it combines a heavy element of core and lower-body integration to maintain a stable (and athletic) body position while you perform the pull.
One Arm Anti-Rotation Suspension Rows
Another single arm variation we use with almost everyone is the single arm anti rotation suspension row because…
1) It gives us great core activation (to resist the rotary force in order to maintain your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor) while we strengthen the back.
2) It’s super easy to teach and learn.
3) It’s easily adjustable for any fitness level. In that, the further you walk your feet toward the anchor point, the harder you make it. And, the further you walk your feet under the anchor point, the easier you make it.
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The video below demonstrates an advanced (and really cool) progression to the One Arm Anti-Rotation Suspension Row from my great friend and personal trainer extraordinaire Rob Simonelli.
 Wide grip Barbell Rows – Performance U style
Most folks could use some improved strength and muscular development in their mid-back muscles. That’s why Wide Grip Barbell Rows (done in the manner we display in the video below) is one of our go-to moves.
Put simply, its one of the best methods we’ve found for targeting the mid-back area while virtually eliminating cheating.

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

People who understand strength respect a big back. Dave Tate said when he used to powerlift competitively, he never worried about the lifters with big chests or quads – it was the guys with thick lats and spinal erectors that concerned him.
A thick, strong back is a sign of a strong lifter. The erectors, lats, rhomboids, and traps are of paramount importance for both weekend warriors and competitive lifters. We all know guys at the gym that look impressive from the front but resemble middle school kids from the rear. Don’t copy them.

Why a Big Back is Important

Training the back is crucial for strength sports as well as overall health and performance. A strong, thick back will bolster your bench, squat, and deadlift as well as support other lifts that help you get big and strong.
A thick upper back creates a nice shelf for the bar to rest when squatting, while strong lats allow a lifter to “lock in” their position on a deadlift and power through to lockout.
Your lats are also the foundation for all pressing movements. The wider and thicker your back is, the bigger the base of support you’ll have to press big weights.
Furthermore, the strength in your upper back is crucial for shoulder health. Many people focus too much on pushing movements and neglect their pulling strength. At the very least, you should perform a pulling exercise every time you perform a pushing one to balance out the body.
Shoulder specialists like T NATION’s Eric Cressey recommend as much as a 3:1 pull to push ratio when trying to bring up an athlete’s strength and correct imbalances.

Enter the Barbell Row

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

The barbell row (and its variations) is one of the best movements for both back size and strength. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most butchered lifts you’ll see performed in the gym, which is a shame, as too much body English completely diminishes the barbell row’s potential benefits.
This isn’t to say that sometimes you can’t work up a little heavier and use looser form, but many take this to an extreme, performing “rows” that resemble a penguin having a seizure. The key is to keep tension on the muscles you’re trying to work, namely the upper back. Leave your ego at the door.
Finally, lifters often have horrible shoulder positioning when performing rows. Below is a great method to correct this pattern.

Pack the Shoulders

Safe and effective barbell rowing requires packing the shoulders, or actively depressing and retracting the shoulder blades. First, think of sticking your chest out and pinching a ball in between your shoulder blades. Next, try to pull your left scap to your right hip and your right scap to your left hip.
A very good way to learn this is by performing bat wings, either with your body weight or with dumbbells.
Set up a barbell in a power rack about waist height. Elevate your feet on a bench and perform an isometric inverted row. Keep your chest “proud,” while keeping your hips level. Squeeze your glutes, drive your heels into the bench, and keep your neck packed. You’re essentially in an upside down plank; learning to keep a neutral spine and packed shoulders.

Dumbbell Chest Supported Row

You can do these with dumbbells or kettlebells. What’s great about performing this movement on an incline bench is that it’s very hard to screw up. Keep your belly and head glued to the bench and stick out your chest while keeping your shoulders down and back. If your head, chest, or belly come off the bench you’re cheating, so it’s a self-correcting exercise.

A good idea is adding an isometric hold. These will teach proper shoulder positioning when performing more advanced rowing variations. To accomplish this, simply hold each rep for a one-count and notice the change in muscle recruitment in your back. The difference is quite humbling.

Bent Over Row

When performing bent over row variations, many lifters are too upright and don’t sit back enough. You want to try to get your body parallel to the floor so you’re completely bent over. This way the resistance directly opposes gravity and allows for much more efficient conditioning of the lats and upper back.
Focus on keeping your core braced to help maintain a neutral spine. Also, keep a “soft bend” in the knee, as too much knee bend will result in the bar crashing into your kneecaps.
You can perform this exercise with a pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand) grip. With all rowing variations, it’s important to stick the chest out while pulling the shoulders down and back.
I like to perform rows with a supinated grip as it allows for more external rotation. Think of performing the movement as the opposite of a bench press and tuck the elbows in towards the body as you raise the weight.

Yates Row

This is similar to how I see most barbell rows being performed, although most times I think it’s unintentional. This is a good variation for when you want to hit the back a little differently than a traditional bent over row. Your body will be more upright and you’ll pull the bar to the lower part of the stomach. This is a very good variation when you want to move a lot of weight for high reps; just don’t use it all the time.

Dead Stop Variations

Perfect Pulling Exercises for a Bigger Back

Rack Row

Many lifters don’t have enough hip mobility to keep proper position for true bent over rows. A way to work around this is by performing bent over rows in a power rack using a very low pin setting.
This variation allows the lifter to reset his back every rep to ensure his form and positioning is optimal. I also like this exercise for improving deadlift starting strength since the lifter has to lift the weight from a dead stop every rep. You can play with different heights, but usually around the lower part of the shin works well.

Pendlay Row

This is a dead stop row variation performed from the floor. It requires more hip mobility than the rack row but has the same benefits. You won’t be able to use as much weight as a regular bent over row since there’s no stretch reflex, and you must lift the weight from a dead stop every rep.
This is another great exercise for improving starting strength. I like to initiate this exercise with my quads as in a deadlift, and then row to my lower stomach. This is a great exercise to perform heavy for pure back strength.

Increase your Grip Strength

Towel Bent Rows

This is a great bang for your buck exercise to work your upper back and grip at the same time. Simply grab two towels and wrap them around the barbell where you’d normally place your hands.
This is also a great variation for people with shoulder issues. The towel allows for a neutral grip, which is a very easy position for the shoulders. It also forces the lifter to grip with more force, thereby activating more stabilizer muscles in the shoulder girdle. Lastly, it will force the lifter to use a lighter weight, which again will be a little easier on the shoulder joint.

Towel T-Bar Rows

This is a great way to perform T-bar rows when D-handles and other T-bar machines aren’t available. The towel also allows for a more natural range of motion.
Stick a barbell in the corner of two walls or inside a power rack and wrap a towel over the barbell. This movement can be performed very heavy and is a great exercise for size and strength.
Like the last variation, this will also work the grip and allow for a shoulder-friendly neutral grip.

Unilateral Movements

One-Arm Barbell Row – Staggered Stance

If your gym doesn’t have heavy dumbbells, you can perform one-arm barbell rows. This is also going to work the grip since you need to balance the barbell by gripping it in the middle. Perform them on a bench or in a staggered stance. One-arm rows are great for developing each side of the back independently and can help prevent asymmetries from developing.

One-Arm Barbell Row – Neutral Stance

One-arm barbell rows can also be performed from a neutral stance, which will work the core more since you need to resist the side from bending due to the asymmetrical load. This variation can also be performed inside a power rack with dead stop reps to increase starting strength.

Rowing Wrap Up

As you can see, there are many effective rowing variations you can add to your training. Each of these exercises can be used as a supplemental or assistance movement on your strength building days, or as a main back exercise if you’re following a body part split.
But to reap all the benefits of rowing, you must be mindful to keep your technique as clean as possible. Start by performing barbell rows with a lighter weight and master your technique before piling on the weight. You’ll be surprised how much weight you really need when you perform rows with strict form.

Here’s a summary:

  • Make sure to perform a proper hip hinge.
  • Sit back to get the body parallel to the floor.
  • Only bend the knees slightly.
  • Keep the core braced to ensure a neutral spine and to help eliminate unnecessary body English.
  • Keep the chest proud and the shoulders packed to ensure shoulder health and optimal muscle recruitment.
  • When in doubt, lighten the weight and really focus on the muscle being worked. If you feel it in your legs, lower back, and neck, you’re using too heavy a weight.
  • Holding each rep for a one-count at the top eliminates most bad technique.
  • Work the lats isometrically from time to time.

These exercises will help you set new PRs in your bench, squat, and deadlift, while making your physique an impressive sight when seen from behind. Start performing these exercises regularly – and properly – and build some wide, thick lats that would make Dorian proud!

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