It was cold as hell.
Another early March morning at crew practice.
Rowing is an excellent path to building muscle mass after 50 years old
I am on autopilot and barely notice the sharp, broken clam shells under my bare feet as I walk towards the icy water.
With my sweats pulled up over my knees and socks stuffed into my waistband, I carry the shell into the frigid water with the rest of the guys. Since I’m in the stroke seat this morning, I’ll stand in the water holding the boat off the shoreline until oars are retrieved and locked into place.
We shove off quickly, paddle far enough from shore to ensure we don’t drift back, and put our socks on.
Another day on the water.
I loved this time in my life.
It was crazy what we endured, rowing 6 days a week including twice on Saturday from early March to June. After an hour on the water we’d do grueling land workouts.
Distance running, sprinting, circuit training, leg presses, squats, pull ups, jumps and power cleans. Everything was either timed, counted or done in teams (you go, I go).
We weren’t focused on building muscle mass but rather a combination of strength and cardiovascular fitness.
Rest was a time waster. We did HIIT (high intensity interval training) before it was even invented.
I remember a leg press workout we used to do. One set, max reps, no rest.
You did as many reps as possible without stopping. Not even a slight pause was allowed. We’d do 80 to 90 reps. Talk about a burn.
You hated the workouts but loved the results. We won a lot of races in those days and a big part of it was our extreme level of fitness.
Two equally talented crews can be bow-ball to bow-ball in the last 500 meters but it is the guys that can dig in and gut out those last 20 strokes that will stand on the podium.
Rowing is Pulling
Actually it’s legs first and then a pulling exercise. And?building muscle mass after 50?requires a lot of pulling.
- The rowing stroke initiates the drive with your legs while your core locks down to transfer the energy through your oar into the water. This is essentially the squat movement.
- About mid-stroke you start to swing your shoulders into the bow, continuing to accelerate your oar handle and keeping the shell riding high out of the water. This is the classic hip-hinge movement.
- And finally your stroke is finished with a long, steady squeeze of the oar into your sternum and then quickly away. The upper body pull completes your stroke and you move seamlessly into the next stroke.
And then the next one. And another.
Squat, hip-hinge and pull. Over and over. That’s rowing.
Fitness for life
I rowed like this for 8 seasons, four in high school and another 4 in college.
Looking back, I see how lucky I was. ?This really set me up for a life of continued fitness.
If you want to get the extreme benefit of rowing in the comfort of your home, here is the best rowing ergo meter on the market.
I have one at home.
Most guys don’t pull
No I’m not talking about in the shell, I mean in the gym.
How much can you bench??That’s all we ever asked one another.
No one wants to know “How much can you bent over row?”
I don’t know but I see the result:
- Bad Posture
- Weak Back
- Easily Injured
Does this sound like you?
If you’ve never done a lot of pulling work like rowing exercises or pull ups or climbing, you almost certainly have an imbalance in your upper body strength.
You’ve done the pushing exercises and built your chest, shoulders and triceps. But you’ve forgotten about the pulling; the back, biceps and forearms. OK you’ve probably done some curls so your arms may have decent balance. But the bulk of your upper body is not in balance.
And this can lead to problems down the road. Like sloped shoulders, a rounded back?and mobility issues. And your strength imbalances may even be a cause for some of your injuries.
The Second Human Movement, The Pull
You gotta learn?to?pull. It’s one of the five human movements; push, pull, hinge, squat and carry.
The upper body pulling movement, in particular how to progressively build your skill,??is the subject of this post.
The last post was the Push. You can read it here if you missed it.
Pulling can be done vertically, horizontally or any angle in between. Upper body pulling is primarily a lat or upper back exercise but?your biceps contribute as well.
Additionally,?your midsection has to stabilize?your body against the force being applied so?pulling exercises build your core strength. And your grip and forearm strength are also developed as all the pulling exercises apply force through?your hands.
Why building muscle is important
No matter what your focus, getting stronger is going to help you.
- Cross training for running, biking or swimming? Yea being stronger will help you.
- Trying to lose weight, especially fat? Bigger muscles burn more energy because your BMR is higher.
- Want to drive your gold ball farther? Get stronger.
- Interested in slowing down aging and even turning back the clock? Yes, having more muscle is your ticket to looking and feeling younger.
The upper body pull is critical to building muscle mass after 50 years old.
Upper Body Pull Progression
The key to successful pulling workouts is emphasizing your lats when starting the pull. You will instinctively pull with your arms. Here are a few tips to perfect your pulling technique:
- Consciously think about flaring your lats before pulling. Another way to imagine this is to stick your chest out and be proud. Don’t round your back prior to pulling. This stretches your lats and you need them to contract with the pulling motion. They can’t do both at once (stretch and contract).
- Don’t think about pulling with your hands even though this sounds stupid and impossible being that everything is linked through your grip. Get it in your head that your hands simply are hooks connecting you to the bar or cable or whatever you are pulling. The desired motion is to pull with your elbows. Consciously think about the first thing to move is your elbows moving back. Not your hands being moved by your biceps but rather your elbows moving from lat contraction. It is a subtle difference but once?you feel it, your back workouts will become a lot more productive.
Hand position is a variable you can use to modify the feel of the exercise and which muscle groups are stimulated.
- The traditional pull up is done with a palms away grip and tends to emphasize the lats and forearms during the pull.
- A neutral grip with your thumbs pointing back at you is good to try if you experience elbow or shoulder pain with the traditional pull up.
- A chin up is done with an underhand grip (palms facing you). The chin up tends to focus the pulling force on the biceps.
- The best option may be hanging from rings where your hand position is not fixed. This allows you to rotate your hands to their most comfortable (and low stress) position during the pull.
- The simplest pulling ?moves are done using machines or elastic bands. Pull downs on the lat machine or seated rows using a cable rowing machine can be done by anyone. Select your weight and pull.
- You can perform similar exercises using elastic bands. Secure the bands over the top of a door for a pull down exercise. Secure the band between the door and wall for a seated rowing movement. This is a good place to start when you cannot lift your own body weight (like for a pull up).
- The dumbbell row is next in?your progression. Select the weight to match your strength (where you can get 5 to 8 reps comfortably) and good technique will support your low back. Two great ways to do dumb bell rows safely are:
- Put your left knee and left hand on a bench for support and row with the right hand while standing on your right foot. This position supports the low back through 3 points of contact; your right foot firmly on the ground and your left knee and hand firmly on a bench. Switch and work the other side.
- Another set up is to stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and stagger your right foot back so that the ball of your right foot lines up with your left heel. Bend over and support your weight through your left elbow on your left knee. Both your knees are flexed so the load is absorbed through your legs. Do right-handed rows and then switch.
- The horizontal or inverted row is a good pulling exercise for the intermediate level. Get under an approximate waist-high horizontal bar (find one at your local playground) and pull yourself up to touch your chest to the bar. The farther you get under the bar (the more horizontal your body becomes), the more difficult the exercise.
- Advance your technique by placing your feet on a bench so your body becomes horizontal to the ground. Squeeze your reps all the way up so your chest touches the bar.
- Vary your hand position to change the feel of the exercise. Wider hands tend to stress your lats more and narrow hands pull more with your arms. Remember to initiate the pull by moving your elbows back along your body.
- Another great way to perform the inverted row is with a suspension training system. ?If you don’t have access to a horizontal bar for support or if you prefer to train at home, a suspension trainer may be the perfect tool for you.
- Bench rows are an effective and safe pulling technique. Lie face down on a bench. You may need to incline the bench a bit so your hands don’t reach to the ground. Pick up a set of dumb bells and pull them up to your body. A quick pause at the top ensures you get a good squeeze. See a demo here.
- Pull overs are a nice move to stretch your lats. Lay across a bench (horizontally beneath your upper back) with a curl bar. Keep your feet firmly on the ground while pushing the bar out over your head and then down behind you. Stretch down as far as it will go and then pull the bar back up over to the center of your chest. That’s the pull over. See it here.
Balance your muscles from front to back to ensure good posture and pain free living
- By now you are gaining strength and assisted pull ups are possible. There are machines that provide counter-weighting to start pull ups before you can actually lift your own weight. If your gym has one, this is a good place to begin pull up workouts. You can also set up an elastic band on a pull up bar to provide help with your pull ups. Connect the ends of the band to the bar and put the middle of the band under your knee or foot. This provides upward force and lightens the effective load of your body weight. The elastic band set up is easier said than done. It is hard to get in and out of the band without a spotter. If you don’t like this option, stick with machine pull downs or get a spotter for assisted pull ups. Another great option is the negative pull. See below.
- The negative pull up is a great addition to your routine when you can only do one or two unassisted pull ups. Do your positive reps first and then immediately add some negatives. The negative pull up is done by climbing into the top position using a stool and then holding yourself with chin over the bar for as long as you can. Then you slowly lower your body down to the starting position. Resist gravity and slow your descent as much as possible. This will build your pull up strength quickly.
- The standard pull up?may be the best overall back exercise once you can do it. When you can do 5 or more at a time, you are on your way to building upper body pulling strength. This is a great exercise for building a V-shaped back. Try the different hand position as outlined in the Basics (above) and also vary the width of the hands. A closer grip tends to emphasize your arms and a wider grip focuses the stress on your lats.
- The bent over row is last on the upper body pulling progression due to the possible low back stress that comes along with it. You need a strong core for the bent over row. This is done by lifting a bar bell off the ground with a fairly wide grip to a standing position (a dead lift). Now flex your knees while you bend the upper body forward to about a 60 degree angle with your legs. Lock the core tight and row the bar up to your chest. Keep your knees flexed just a bit during the exercise. This is a great back builder and a fantastic exercise to super set with pull ups.
- Another way to do this is the T bar row. Some gyms have a set up for this. A bar is hinged on one end and you load plates on the other end. Stand over the bar, flex your knees and row the bar up towards you chest. See it here.
- Another option is to place the end of an Olympic bar into a corner of a wall. Load plates on the other end. Grip the bar jump below the collar and row it towards your chest. Use smaller plates so you can pull the bar farther before it touches your chest.
Pull your way to upper body balance
Building muscle after 50 years old takes work, commitment and knowledge.
Don’t make rookie mistakes by forgetting to build all your muscle groups evenly.
Look better. Feel younger. And minimize your chance for injury by training the Pull as much as the Push.