Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Row, Row, Row Your Bar, Part Two -- Greg Zulak (1997)

In search of the elusive lats, Trainer Ahab made his way to the gym.

Getting back to why bodybuilders cheat, there are usually two main reasons: 

1) Their egos need admiration from the other members of the gym, perhaps due to a lack of confidence or an inferiority complex. They compensate by proving to themselves and other how strong they are. Consequently, they train to build their egos, not their muscles.

2) They share the mistaken popular belief that the stronger a muscle gets, the bigger and better developed it becomes.

The first reason is self-explanatory. They're training with the wrong goals and mindset. Those things have to change.

Item 2, however, is the key problem. Hardly an issue of an of the six major bodybuilding magazines comes out without at least some reference to the need to become strong in order to increase your muscle size. That sets novice and intermediate bodybuilders on the wrong course, using increasingly heavier weights with no regard for exercise form or whether the target muscle is getting any work at all. While it's true that a muscle will become larger as it gets stronger, that happens only if the stress and overload are placed squarely on the target muscle group. If you cheat heavily on lat exercises, your lats will not become bigger or stronger, although your arms sure as hell will.

So don't think cheating wildly with a very heavy weight and doing bentover barbell cleans, standup deadlift-style T-bar rows or one-arm dumbbell yank-and-heaves have the same musclebuilding value as bentover barbell rows and one-arm dumbbell rows. They don't.

In terms of changing your goal, you will have to start thinking about lat training in a new light. Instead of thinking, How much weight am I going to use on this set and how many reps am I going to do . . . think about the best way to isolate your lats, stimulate the nerves and get your lats to contract, ache, burn and pump. You already know that feel is more important than sheer weight. It's an archaic practice to think in terms of number of exercises, kind of exercises, routines, sets and reps, poundages, rest between sets and workouts per week unless you're a beginner and in need of such strict guidelines. Stick with feel and you can't go wrong. 

Champions are feel masters. They never use so much weight that they lose control of it or that important mind-muscle connection. (An exception might be the last set or two of a heavy basic movement, on which they use heavier weights and loose form a couple of times a month to shock the muscles.) I've seen a top-four Mr. Olympia contestant using as little as 30 pounds for 10 reps on leg extensions  month out from the contest. He did each rep in a slow, controlled manner, with a long pause at the top in the fully contracted position and a very slow negative. That was the weight that felt the best in his quads.

During the same workout that Mr. O contender did 45 degree leg presses and never went over 405 pounds, or four plates per side, for 13 reps. Again, however, each rep was performed slowly, smoothly and full range, with a hard contraction at the top. You could tell his entire focus was on working his quads. Outwardly, it might not have appeared as if he was working that hard. He made no screams of effort or pain or other sounds, but I could see that his concentration was somewhere inside his thigh muscles.

There were actually two leg press machines side by side in that gym, connected by three thick bracing rods made of an alloy of onion skins, melted down bodybuilding trophies and the dental fillings filed off a few corpses provided by an opportunistic undertaker with a strong deadlift. Some guy had put 16 plates on each side on the other machine, and with the aid of knee wraps and help from his hands pushing on his knees, he managed to do six half-reps. Talk about a contrast in styles. The pro was trying to work his quads, while the dude with the double-wrapped knees was totally trying to lift a heavy weight. Naturally, the latter groaned and moaned and screamed on each rep while the veins on his neck and temples looked as if they'd explode and his eyes appeared ready to pop out of his head. 

Later, when the two men stood next to each other to exchange a few words, it was a joke. Mr. 16 Plates a side had stork legs, with zero sweep and no obvious muscle mass or muscularity; the Mr. Olympia contender had great thigh sweep and muscle mass, deep muscle separation, beautiful shape and lots of cross striations. The irony is, Mr. 16 Plates would have gotten much more size by using eight plates per side and doing full range, 10-20 rep sets -- or even 40-50 rep leg press sets with five or six plates a side. 

Do You Practice Being Perfect, of Do You Just Practice? 

There's a saying these days that's used a lot by golf and tennis instructors, baseball batting coaches and gymnastics and track and field coaches, but it applies to any athletic endeavor that requires precise physical skills; Perfect practice makes perfect; practice does not. Basically, it means that if you practice a movement incorrectly, you teach your muscles, nerves and neural units to do it the wrong way and you'll never learn how to do it properly. Practicing incorrectly just ingrains bad habits. 

Substitute the work train for practice and you can understand the significance for aspiring bodybuilders. In terms of lat training, you'll learn to do it incorrectly and never make the progress you seek. Consider Zulak's Law of Training: Those who train their muscles without using their minds are sure to fail. 

So let me ask you: Are you practicing perfectly or just practicing? 

The difference between feeling a muscle properly, isolating it from surrounding muscle groups and stimulating it for maximum overload and not experiencing those sensations is often just a small, subtle shift in body position, a little different plane of motion for the bar to travel or just a tiny change in the way you place your hands on the bar. [Ain't free weights great!] Doing exercises incorrectly -- or not knowing how to do them correctly -- is not only a sure path to failure, it's also a lot of wasted time, money and effort. At best you'll gain maybe 25% of what you'd gain if you did everything properly. Many bodybuilders make the same mistake year after year and always look the same. Keep doing things wrong, and 10 years hence your lats may be no better than they are now, Ahab. 

Take bentover barbell rows, for example . . . 

Picture an F-16 fighter jet coming in to land. The nose is high, the back end is low, and flaps are down. The angle of the plane is tilted from nose to tail as it floats in on a cushion of air before the wheels touch down. Keep that image in your mind because it's almost the ideal body position to maintain as you perform a bentover rowing motion like barbell rows, reverse grip barbell rows or T-bar rows.

You want your butt lower than your torso at all times, your torso bent at the waist but slightly above parallel and your knees flexed with your head up. Your lower back is arched -- and must remain arched throughout the entire set because the lats cannot contract when the back is rounded. Your back is flat but inclined slightly and in line with your neck and head. Just keep picturing that jet. Your nose is the nose of the jet, your flexed knees are the wheels, your butt is the tail, and your elbows, forearms and upper arms are the wings with the flaps down. The incline angle formed by your back, neck and head is the same as the tail, top and nose of the jet. Got it? Now you're ready to row with your lats.

If your head is high, your butt is low, your knees are flexed, your lower back is arched, and your torso maybe 15 to 20 degrees above parallel to the floor, then your lats are in an ideal position to be isolated and overloaded -- as long as you row the bar smoothly into your lower abs and pull your elbows up and back rather than yanking. As you arch your lower back, arch your chest as well and hold your shoulders down and back.

If the above suggestions are confusing, try to get into position and do a few reps with a light weight, focusing on maintaining the position of your glutes, lower back, knees, head and arms. Can you feel the difference between rowing with an arched back and a rounded back? What about rowing with your glutes lower than your torso vs. higher than your torso. After a little trial and error the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place for you.

Don't expect to master the art of doing lat exercises properly overnight. It takes time to find the groove for each exercise and establish the proper neural network in your brain and nervous system.

Get your satisfaction from developing a wide, thick pair of wings. Check your ego when you walk in the gym door and row yourself to some fantastic growth. 


1) Start with a false grip, with your thumb and fingers on the same side of the bar. Use straps to reinforce your grip.

2) It's absolutely essential to maintain the low-butt, arched-back position throughout the set. If your lower back rounds over, it's virtually impossible to contract your lats. 

3) Keep your torso down and over the bar as you row the bar into your lower abdomen. Don't let your butt or upper body come up as if your were doing a deadlift or squat. If you find yourself doing that, it means the weight is too heavy for proper form. Other giveaways that the weight is too heavy include dropping your chest to meet the bar, heaving the bar too much or yanking it off the floor and bouncing out of the bottom to build up momentum.

What often happens is that people stand up with the bar as they try in vain to pull it into their gut. The butt comes up, the head goes down, the lower back rounds over, and the chest drops to meet the bar, all of which shortens the distance between the bar and the body but prevents muscular contraction of the lats.

4) Remember, the bar travels on a tilted plane, like the roof of a house or that angle of a jet when landing. As you lower the bar it should move down and away from your body, and you should feel the stretch all the way. Then pull the bar back up and into your lower ab area as you pull your elbows up and back as far as you can.

The angle will vary for different exercises; for example, it might be 50 degrees on one arm DB rows, and 75-80 degrees on barbell rows. Try a few sets using different angles on each exercise until your find the one that feels best. A straight up-and-down plane moves the stress too much to the traps, rhomboids and upper back, with not enough stimulation on the lats and lat bellies.

5) Make the movement feel as though you're pulling with your elbows, not with your hands. Pull your elbows up and back behind your body as far as possible. Hold for a brief pause and tense your lats to give them a good contraction. Lower all the way down and out to give your lats a good stretch. [Kids! It's Squeeze and Stretch, the new game everyone's playing!]. 

6) Make your reps full. A lot of people want to start bringing up the bar before they've finished taking it all the way down and out. The more stretch you get at the bottom, the harder your contractions will potentially be at the top.

7) Use a weight that maximizes lat feeling, isolation and stimulation, not one that gives your arms and lower back a good workout. Save any cheating for the end of a set. Try to get at least 6 good reps on a moderately heavy set before you start cheating, and when you do cheat, do it only as much as necessary to complete the rep. Don't cheat to make the rep easier, cheat to extend the set. 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 

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