HELP! I Only Feel My Biceps During Back Exercises!

I’ll see a client performing a row and I’ll say to them…

“Only feel your arms working, huh?”

They sometimes look at me like “YES! How did you know!?”

While rows are a MUST-DO move if we want to improve our posture and prevent shoulder and neck pain and injury, they can also PERPETUATE our pain if not done correctly!

I say this all the time but it isn’t simply just about doing the right moves.

All too often we are including the “right” moves but not conscious of our RECRUITMENT PATTERNS so we don’t get the results we’re looking for!

Because of our daily hunched posture, often our back muscles don’t want to engage and work as they should and our scapular mobility is a bit restricted.

We stay in a protracted state and don’t actually recruit our back to pull.

Instead we use our arms or we irritate those smaller muscles of our neck and shoulders.

We may shrug our shoulders or do a bicep curl, flexing or bending at the elbow. We feel our arms working and sometimes end up with a sore neck.

We don’t use our back to power the row because we aren’t able, or conscious that we need to, draw our shoulder blades back and together, aka retract them, to pull with our back.

(See this picture below is turning the row into a curl. The weights are coming up and forward as I more flex my elbow instead of really pulling from my back.)

This is why the cue “drive your elbows down and back” can help you to engage your back to initiate the pull. You want to think wide shoulders, or press your chest out, to row the weight up.

And then you want to FEEL your shoulder blades moving so your back is working as you row the weight up.

I say FEEL because you can’t just go through the motions when learning to do a move. You’ve got to think about the muscles that are working/

Because we struggle to engage our backs during rows, starting the row without tension, aka protracted, which is technically a full row, can backfire. Our tendency will be to compensate and shrug.

So if you struggle to engage your back, start with tension in your back before you begin the row instead of relaxing the weight toward the ground.

To do this pre-loaded row, your arm will be straight and you will feel tension in your upper back before you pull. You can get this engagement by thinking about setting with your chest pressed out and shoulder down and back.

A good way to learn this engagement is to grab the weight, set up for your row and then think about moving your shoulder blade slightly toward your spine WITHOUT actually pulling the weight up or bending your arm.

This can help you learn what it feels like to have your back engaged and truly pull with your back because you’ve established that mind-body connection and loaded the muscle BEFORE you begin the movement.

Also, often we try to get a bigger range of motion from our rows by rounding over at the top.

We feel like the weight should go up higher, and we aren’t mobile enough, so we round over. Our shoulder blades tip anteriorly and our shoulders round forward.

This range of motion is useless as we are no longer using our backs and can actually cause compensations and overuse of smaller muscles.

So to prevent this, keep your chest pressed out the entire time and stop when the weight reaches your side or your shoulder starts to round forward.

So if you’ve been using rows in your workouts, but only really feeling your neck or arms during the exercise (or maybe they’re the only thing achy after!), try these tweaks to your row form!

Looking for more great form tweaks for upper body exercises? Want some killer upper body workouts?

Check out my Arm Burners!