By the looks of it, cycling focuses primarily on the lower body, which means many riders don’t give much thought to upper-body strength-training.
“As cyclists, we all focus more on legs,” says Katie Pierson, a Denver-based certified spinning instructor and certified personal trainer. But intentionally targeting the back, arm, and shoulder muscles can lead to big gains–both on and off the bike. That’s because a strong and stable upper body (and core) will offer you more stability as you pedal, allowing you to focus on generating power and helping you sidestep aches and pains.
One example of a great upper-body move for cyclists? The bent-over row. This classic pulling exercise engages tons of important muscles that play a role in good posture and well-balanced, total-body strength.
Here, everything you need to know about how to do a bent-over row correctly, plus why you should consider adding it to your routine.
How to Do a Bent-Over Row, The Right Way
You’ll need a set of dumbbells or kettlebells. You can also use a cable machine, resistance band with handles, or a barbell. Mallory Creveling, deputy health and fitness editor at Bicycling and certified personal trainer, demonstrates the exercise so you can follow proper form.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand.
- With a soft bend in knees, hinge at hips, sending butt straight back, and lowering torso toward the floor, so it’s almost parallel to the ground. (If you have tight hamstrings, you may not be able to lean that far forward; just go as far as your mobility allows.)
- Make sure back is straight, core engaged, shoulders pulled down away from ears, and neck neutral. (Keep gaze down and out to do so.) Arms should hang straight down with palms facing each other. This is the starting position.
- Now slowly pull elbows up and back and squeeze shoulder blades together, keeping elbows hugged into sides. Pause when the weights are just below chest, close to ribcage.
- Then slowly lower the weights to return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
Are there any common mistakes people make when doing the bent-over row?
The most crucial component of a proper bent-over row is maintaining a straight back throughout, says Pierson. “It’s very, very dangerous to have unsupported spinal flexion,” she explains, or rounding through the spine and shoulders (while also lifting a weight). To make sure this happens, keep that core engaged.
It’s also important to keep your shoulders pulled down and back throughout the movement. Many people tend to pull the shoulders up by the ears as they draw the weights back, which can make the upper traps take on more of the work (and these already tend to get tight from computer posture), rather than targeting the mid-back muscles that can help correct posture.
Also, while keeping the shoulders packed, think more about pulling the weights up and back, rather that straight up. Sometimes people tend to bend the elbows as they row, creating more of a curl motion, which also cuts back on the activation of the mid-back muscles.
If possible, do your reps in front of a mirror so you can keep tabs on your body positioning and make adjustments as needed, suggests Pierson.
If you’re having trouble activating your upper-body muscles in the bent-over row, imagine there is an object on your mid-back–like a soda can or walnut–that you’re trying to crush with your shoulder blades. It can also help to perform reps while someone places their hand in the center of your back right between your shoulder blades, suggests Darci Revier, DHSc, C.S.C.S., director of education at the National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA) and NETA-certified cycling instructor in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Both of these tips can help you fire up the right muscles.
What are the benefits of the bent-over row?
The bent-over row targets your rhomboids, traps, lats, and biceps, says Pierson. These upper-body muscles help stabilize your body when you’re riding, which is why it’s important to strengthen them.
Moreover, the forward-leaning position that cyclists hold while riding can lead to a number of problems–think: tight chest, weak back, and a curved posture that persists off the bike, explains Revier. Doing upper-body exercises like the bent-over row can help combat these issues by strengthening the rhomboids as well as the mid and lower traps, which helps keep the shoulder blades in a better position when on the bike and off of it.
Another reason to strengthen these backside muscles? It can help you hold a more ideal position on the bike so that you don’t lean too far forward or put undue stress on your hands and wrists, Revier explains.
Finally, the bent-over row can also help correct muscular imbalances between your abs and back, which can help reduce back pain while riding, says Pierson. It also develops well-rounded, total-body strength, which is especially important for cyclists since their primary activity emphasizes their lower half only. “You want to make sure that you’re working all your muscles evenly,” says Pierson, as this promotes good body alignment.
How do you modify or progress the bent-over row?
For more stability, do a single-arm bent-over row from a split stance: Hold a weight in one hand, step forward with the opposite leg, hinge at the hips, and then perform reps from this position.
You can also incorporate a weight bench for support: Hold a weight in one hand, place that same knee on the bench, and keep the opposite foot firmly planted on the ground. Hinge at the hips, and then perform reps from this position.
To make it even easier, drop the weights entirely and perform the move with just your bodyweight, suggests Pierson. Focus on really squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep. When you’re comfortable with that, add light weights.
If you already have this move down, an easy way to progress the bent-over row is to simply use heavier weights. You can also increase the strength and stabilization challenge by using a barbell instead of dumbbells or kettlebells, says Pierson.
How often should you do the bent-over row?
Pierson recommends cyclists do two to three days of total-body strength-training per week, and the bent-over row can be a great move to incorporate into those sessions. Just make sure you’re not training the same muscle groups on back-to-back days. As a general rule of thumb, Revier recommends giving your muscles at least a 48-hour break in between strength sessions.
In terms of reps and sets: If you’re new to strength training, start with one to two sets of 10 to 12 reps using lighter weights. If you’re experienced, do two to three sets of 6 to 10 reps with heavier weights, says Revier. You’ll know you have the right weight if you are fatigued enough by the end of each set, in that you feel like you couldn’t do another rep without resting.
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