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Inverted Row Ignorance

Written on January 19, 2009 at 5:00 am, by Eric Cressey

In this week’s “The Biggest Loser made me want to stab my eye out with a hot poker” moment, I watched what appeared to be a 1,742-pound woman attempt to do an inverted row.  It was an admirable attempt, for sure, but I’m sorry to say that in all my years of coaching and writing strength and conditioning programs, I’ve can think of fewer than 20 females who have ever been able to perform a single good inverted row.

This isn’t a knock on women; it’s just that they, on average, have markedly less strength than men in the upper body.  And, more importantly, the inverted row is a more advanced strength exercise than people realize – so that strength discrepancy will be more readily apparent.

As a frame of reference, here is what a good inverted row looks like:

As you can see, the chin stays tucked to keep the cervical spine (neck) in line with the rest of the body.  Without that forward head posture, you’re getting just the kind of scapular retraction you want.  Speaking of scapular retraction, you’ll also notice that the chest is going ALL THE WAY up to the bar.

There are three compensation patterns that you’ll come across.  To protect the innocent, I won’t post videos, but rest assured that if you did a quick YouTube search for “inverted row,” you’d quickly come across example of the following:

1. The Ceiling Humper: This individual will give a little tug of elbow flexion and scapular retraction to get about halfway up, and then he/she will violently thrust the crotch to the heavens.  In some circles, this individual is known as “The Fish.”  Regardless, it isn’t pretty.

2. The Scared Cat: This individual basically does a curl – including curling the wrists in – so that there is essentially everything occurring except scapular retraction.  In the process, they get to the top – but in that top position, they are rounded up in a ball like – you guessed it – a scared cat.  There is, however, a delightful chin protrusion/forward head posture that makes that individual believe that the movement actually took place.  Unfortunately, it didn’t – and this effort, too, isn’t pretty.

3. The Half-Asser: This individual is the lazy cousin of the Ceiling Humper and Scared Cat.  He can be found around dudes who do half pull-ups, pop their collars, and live in their parents’ basements.  Very simply, he (or she, for that mattter) only goes halfway up – but usually still insists on using the feet-on-the-box set-up (the most advanced progression).

Sadly, the acronym IRA was already taken, so Inverted Rows Anonymous could never get off the ground – and these issues persist.  I suspect that we’re looking at a $47 million government stimulus package to remedy the issue.  And, as our new commander-in-chief has stated, “things are going to get worse before they get better,” be prepared to observe this inverted row ignorance for quite some time before it’s addressed.

For a host of better scapular stabilization exercises, check out Optimal Shoulder Performance.

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12 Responses to “Inverted Row Ignorance”

  1. Eponymous Says:

    It’s a shame more people don’t try to get this right because as the virtual inverse of the commonly over-trained bench press, I see it along with face pulls to be one of the most accurate and useful exercises for preventing muscular imbalances and impingements. My shoulder girdle has felt great since I made these a priority 8 months ago, and I used to suffer frequent impingements in both shoulders.

  2. Paul M Says:

    can this exercise be performed effectively with putting your feet up on a box? i mean by leaving the feet on the ground? thanks!

  3. Vin Says:

    Thanks for adding some humor to my day. The “Ceiling Humper” is hilarious!

  4. Jess Says:

    Hey i’m a girl & I have awesome consecutive inverted rows! But I do agree that very few people complete these with good form, along with many other bodyweight exercises.
    PS thank-you for creating the “Magnificent Mobility” DVD -fantastic resource.

  5. Ugly Kid Joe Says:

    Perhaps another reason why women have a hard time with the inverted rows, is because their breasts add extra weight?

  6. Mary McGough Says:

    Seriously Ugly Kid Joe? Lame.

    Not a single trainer or coach has put inverted rows into my program. I don’t know why – it just is what it is I guess. At least I now know a good use for the Smith machine. I’ll give them a try to learn whether I can perform even one good rep.

  7. deb roby Says:

    I used to do inverted rows regularly -and believe I did them with good and proper form. I kept my chin tucked, moved my body as one line, kept the shoulder blades tight and low. Pulled until my chest touched the bar and often emphasized the negative with a 1/1/5 tempo.

    Regularly shamed and shocked the men in the gym with my technique. (so cool when a 58 year old woman can school the 20-something guys in the gym).

    God I miss them. When I heal from my shoulder surgery (simple labrum tear repair and acromioplasty) they are one of the exercises I can’t wait to get back into my routine.

  8. Tyciol Says:

    Hey Eric I have a problem with using my perfect pull up for rows because the swinging arm isn’t bolted down, I don’t have a problem with it moving away from the door but it seems to swing past it and I have wood that juts out and it hits that and scratches it up and is noisy, but I don’t want to cut it away cause it stops the door…

  9. Rollins Says:

    Tried out inverted rows for the first time this week – they have fried my traps and rear delts more than any seated row, one-arm row or bent-over row has ever done. Best to start off with your feet on the ground (having your feet up on a bench/box on the first attempt isn’t advisable!). It felt really good after doing dumbbell bench presses, working the exact opposite muscles.

    The funny looks from the bench press & bicep curl crowd made it even more satisfying. And I finally got some use out of the Smith machine!

  10. Eric Says:

    Sorry, I do not see how this is an inverted row. It is my understanding that the feet must be elevated (I use a bench). IF the feet are not up this is a pretty lame exercise.

  11. Weight Lifting Complete Says:

    I love inverted rows and adding weight to them with a hip belt. Really have to watch the form, though. Also use the hip belt, barbell, and some platforms to do weighted push ups. Exercises that have you move your body instead of the body being stationary have always worked better for building muscle and always will (squats, deadlifts, pull ups, push ups, inverted rows, dips, etc).

  12. David Says:

    My old Crossfit trainer had us doing them and told us to thrust our hips when we couldn’t do them strict any longer so as to complete the set.

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