Master The Inverted Row with A Foam Roller
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
When it comes to building upper back strength and improving postural alignment, inverted rows are tough to beat. While there are numerous variations you can perform many of which I’ve highlighted in past articles and posts, one that I’ve recently found to be incredibly effective is the foam roller version. Simply place the back of your ankles/heels on the foam roller and perform inverted rows.
It may look a bit unusual but allow me to explain with 4 key points why this is perhaps the single most natural feeling inverted row variation I’ve ever used.
1. Optimizes Shoulder Mechanics
When it comes to maximizing the effectiveness of any row including inverted rows, one of the keys is optimizing natural scapulohumeral rhythm and glenohumeral joint positioning. During a row, the stretched position, when the arms are fully extended, should involve a slight amount of shoulder elevation and protraction to allow full eccentric elongation of the upper back as well as natural movement of the scapula and shoulder blades. Keep in mind this is very subtle as most coaches and lifters overdo this shoulder protraction and elevation to the point that the shoulders round up and over which is never ideal.
During the concentric phase the opposite should occur, as the shoulders should move into retraction and depression. Again this represents the opposite phase of the movement for maximizing natural scapulohumeral rhythm. However, during many rows including inverted rows the arms and shoulder can have a tendency to feel stuck into position particularly if the individual does not have a solid muscle mind connection and understand how to adjust and position their body on each phase of the movement.
This is where the foam roller comes in. Placing the feet on the foam roller allows the body to roll back and forth during each phase of the row thereby optimizing scapulohumeral rhythm and glenohumeral joint positioning. That’s because as you pull into the contracted/concentric phase of the row your body will gradually roll up towards the shoulders allowing more natural and automatic retraction and shoulder depression. In contrast when the lifter returns into the eccentric phase, the body rolls down slightly towards the feet thereby promoting natural levels of shoulder elevation and protraction ultimately producing the perfect amount of stretch and elongation in the upper back without over-stretching (i.e. shoulder rounding) or losing optimal spinal alignment. All of this occurs very naturally without the lifter having to force either phase or position.
2. Allows More Natural Body Positioning
The foam roller also provides another unique feature when performing inverted rows. It actually allows the lifter to more easily lock their elbows and shoulders into the proper position. Here’s why.
When performing standard barbell inverted rows with the feet on the ground or on the bench, the feet are very fixed into their position and won’t move significantly unless the lifter deliberately makes an adjustment. This may seem like it would make the movement more conducive for locking into the appropriate position however the opposite is true.
When the lifter performs a row or any upper body pull or pushing motion, the arms and hands need to move to a very precise position relative to the rest of their torso. Positioning the feet too far away from the bar, resulting in the hands and the bar being positioned too high (closer to the person's neck), can cause the elbows to flare and shoulders to elevate. In contrast, positioning the feet too close to the bar, resulting in the arms being positioned too low (closer to their stomach), can cause the shoulders to internally rotate as the shoulder joint will be crowded.
In essence, if the lifter is not in a perfect position he or she will have to continually adjust his or her feet until the hands and bar lock into the precise position that allows optimal and natural scapulohumeral rhythm and optimal osteokinematics of the glenohumeral joint. And yes this perfectly locked-in position is very precise for each lifter and deviating even slightly can result in greater strain to the surrounding joints and significantly less tension to the targeted musculature. So what are the implications here?
The foam roller allows the lifter’s feet to roll and move with each repetition adjusting perfectly to the precise location needed to dial in the upper body joint segments for optimal pulling mechanics. Although the foam roller does in fact make the lift more strenuous and challenging in terms of stress to the targeted musculature, core, and stabilizers, most lifters will find it significantly easier on their joints due to the continually adjusting nature of the roller that allows them to lock in their ideal body mechanics.
3. Produces Greater Tension In the Contracted Position
Another unique feature of using the foam roller for the inverted row is the increased tension in the contracted position due to the significant anti-shoulder elevation forces involved. In other words, when you row and pull into the top portion of the movement, the body rolls back/up towards the shoulders. As previously mentioned this helps depress and retract the shoulders. However, as you hold this contracted position there are significant forces attempting to elevate your shoulders and roll you forward to the starting/stretched position all of which you must resist. Simply put, if you pause in the top contracted position of the row (as you should) not only are you resisting protraction and flexion forces (pulling you towards the floor and away from the bar) but there are significant forces attempting to elevate your shoulders and roll your body forward/down towards your feet. As a result this top contracted position feels very similar to both a row and a pullup/lat pulldown. In turn, the upper back and lats get absolutely pummeled.
4. Reinforces Ankle Dorsiflexion
Another unique feature of the roam roller is that it forces the lifter to incorporate ankle dorsiflexion during inverted rows. This may seem like a subtle and semi-unimportant component however it’s actually quite critical. In fact the dorsiflexed foot position is perhaps the most subtle but also the most important cue for locking in the inverted row. Here’s why
The ability to dorsiflex the feet and ankles during upper body movements that involve a straight leg position promotes enhanced spinal rigidity and improved shoulder mechanics. There are several reasons for this. First, aggressive dorsiflexion of the ankles and feet helps to produce greater concurrent activation potentiation and irradiation and ultimately increased neural drive up the kinetic chain. Simply put it produces greater activation to all muscles including the working extremities.
The dorsiflexed ankle position also helps place a slight stretch (while simultaneously keeping tension) on the hamstrings, glutes, and calves, thereby promoting improved spinal rigidity, which contributes to better thoracic positioning. That’s because a lengthened posterior chain is more conducive for maintaining a neutral arch and t-spine extension. Simply put it facilitates a more lengthened spinal position, improved postural alignment, and greater upper back activation. This helps to reinforce proper shoulder mechanics as the lifter will find it more natural to fire the lats and centrate the glenohumeral joint. So yes, dorsiflexing the ankles actually translates to improved shoulder function and upper body mechanics. To ensure excessive lumbar extension does not occur focus on keeping your stomach pulled in as you contract your posterior chain and extend your hips.
For athletes, dorsiflexion also does wonders for improving sprinting and running mechanics as it plays a key role not only in gait and postural control but also in sprinting speed and foot and ankle positioning/shock absorption.
Two Additional Cues
There are two other additional cues that are critical not only for inverted rows but for rows in general.
1. The range of motion should be natural without over-pulling at the top or overstretching at the bottom. When the shoulders and spine have to lose position you know you've moved too far. Over-stretching will result in excessive protraction and lateral rotation of the scapula away from the spine. Over-pulling at the top contracted position (with the humerus traveling significantly past the plan of the torso), will cause the shoulders to elevate and also fall into internal rotation resulting in faulty positioning of the glenohumeral joint.
As you’ll notice in the video, my body stops 1-2 inches away from touching the barbell, which is optimal not only for this row but any row including bent over rows, cable rows, and machine rows. This is something I’ve discussed quite extensively in previous writings highlighting how important it is to use optimal range of motion not maximal or exaggerated range of motion. To move further and touch the bar to the chest would result in faulty shoulder mechanics with reduced tension to the upper back and lats not to mention pressure on the glenohumeral joint, cervical spine, and elbows. Incorporating a pause in both the bottom and top position by using an eccentric isometric protocol allows the lifter to find his or her optimal mechanics as each repetition can be precisely executed with proper technique and body alignment.
2. Besides producing an optimal range of motion, there needs to be a significant degree of t-spine extension just like there would be on any row. As I tell my athletes and clients try to tilt the chest up to the point where it feels like your body and head are about to lean back into the floor while simultaneously keeping the core tight and stomach in. In other words focus on military style posture with an elongated and tall spine including a big chest and tall head. Technically you should be able to take a snap shot of your inverted row and tilt it up 90 degrees and it should resemble perfect standing military-like posture.
Try performing several sets of 5-8 reps of the foam roller inverted row while super-setting it with a horizontal pressing exercise. I’ve found weighted pushup variations pair up very nicely with inverted rows. In addition, if the movement feels too easy you can add weight to your body in the form of weight plates, chains, or a weighted vest. Lastly, the closer you place the roller towards your feet the more challenging the movement is.
If you’re looking for a training program and instructional guide that teaches you how to incorporate different movements such as these into your training routine, check out my Complete Templates Series.