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How to use your bodyweight to strengthen your back

The pull up row is a challenging but extremely cool exercise that will give you back muscles as strong as a gymnast's

Master the pull up row.
Master the pull up row. (Istockphoto)

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One of the most popular exercises to strengthen and build the back muscles are rows. This means kinds of rows, including barbell rows, single-arm dumbbell rows and cable rows are effective moves. They can be done with palms facing towards the body or away from them, and they can be done using a host of gym equipment and different kinds of grips to hit the back in different ways. In short, rows, when done right, are great, and allow one to increase the load quickly over a short period of time.

But mastering weights is one thing, and using just your bodyweight to perform variations of the same exercise is another. One might be tuned towards size and muscle, but it is important to pair it with bodyweight exercises to add functionality, endurance, control, and core strength. An article in Harvard Health Publishing titled The Advantages Of Body-weight Exercisecites a research which found that bodyweight training over ten weeks provided gains “in aerobic capacity, with a 33% improvement. Muscle endurance, particularly in the core, increased by 11%, while lower-body power posted a 6% gain. Even flex­ibility was better after the training.”

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This isn’t about pull-ups and chin-ups which also mimic an overhead row, but more about adding a different dimension to rows where the hands are placed closer to the chest and core. This is about bodyweight rows which go beyond the conventional inverted row with your heels planted on the floor. This is about bodyweight rows of a higher difficulty rating, but with exceptional results. Belonging to the family of callisthenics, the bodyweight row will over a period of time train you to suspend your feet in the air and perform a row on a pull-up bar while parallel to the floor. It’s supremely cool, but also incredibly tough, which is why there is a progression to achieving the bodyweight row.

Step 1: The inverted row The first step is to build strength and trust, and that means going back to basics. Attempt inverted rows on a smith machine bar or rings or TRX bands with feet on the ground, so that the body gets used to being in a prone pulling position.

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Step 2: One hand inverted row Once adept at doing this with two arms, move to single-arm inverted rows. Here, it is important to keep the unoccupied arm connected to the exercise even though it’s not working. “Straighten the arm, squeeze the fist and also push it in towards the body. This creates more full body stability through your kinetic chain and stronger rows,” says the FitnessFAQs video (above) on the progression to bodyweight rows. They also explain how the abs, the hamstrings, and the glutes must be activated during a row, to stop the lower back from flopping around while rowing.

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Step 3: Full bodyweight row Once the single arm bodyweight row is mastered, comes the big step towards the full bodyweight row. Every hanging exercise makes a pit-stop at the tuck version of it. Tucking is when you pull your knees to the chest and perform an exercise. It is easier to perform since the body turns into a ball and the force of gravity is more concentrated than spread out, compared to a straight legged hanging exercise. Remember, this is also the step where you might want to not progress from, and that is okay. Tucked bodyweight rows are tough enough when paired with more conventional weighted rows. The rules are the same, but better demonstrated in the video above.

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Step 4: Pull up row While the final version of this row would be a front lever bodyweight pull-up, it is something only advanced callisthenics athletes can achieve. But there is a step before that which people at intermediate fitness levels can do, and it also involves assistance from that dreaded line of metal, the pull-up bar. For this, imagine doing a conventional barbell row but flip that image. That would mean getting on to a pull-up bar, keeping your arms bent at 90 degrees while pulling your legs up until the bar is almost within contact with your shins (or entirely in contact if you need assistance).

While pulling up, one could straighten the arms to increase the distance between the bar and the torso. Then, pull-up and row. If it is not possible to achieve a full arm extension, it is okay. Even a partial rep in this position, especially if the bar and your shins are only minimally touching, is an amazing goal to set. This is your bodyweight pull-up row. Attempt this on a smith machine initially so that the fear of falling is not playing on the mind. Slowly, as you get better, the distance between the bar and the shins can increase. This is a brilliant back building exercise which will also affect your mind-muscle connection and the results will show instantly. 

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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