QUADRUPED BIRD DOG ROWS
- Fix Your Body Alignment, Posture, & Back Pain -

By Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
This article is exclusive to AHP.  It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured on STACK.

OVERVIEW
- QUADRUPED BENCH ROW -

The quadruped bird dog bench row is one of my go-to rowing variations for teaching an athlete how to dial in their horizontal pulling technique.  The reason for this is that any faulty mechanics, movement dysfunction, or flawed activation patterns result in the lifter immediately losing his or her balance.  To successfully complete the movement, the lifter will literally have to make continuous adjustments and technique corrections until every component of body mechanics from head to toe is perfectly honed in.  Anything less will result in loss of body control and inability to perform the movement. 

Even without external coaching, this movement does wonders for lifters by providing them with enough sensory feedback and internal cuing to gradually self-correct and auto-regulate their body positioning. As a result the quadruped row addresses numerous form issues and bestows the following 16 key benefits.

1. Eliminates Over-Rowing and Excessive Range of Motion

Many lifters tend to over pull on rowing movements particularly at the end of the concentric phase.  As a result their elbows drift far beyond the plane of their torso which places undue stress on the shoulder joint and also eliminates tension from the back and lats. Instead the elbow and tricep should be approximately lined up with the torso.  On the quadruped row if you over-row or use an exaggerated pulling motion, you’ll actually lose your balance as your t-spine will not longer be perfectly stacked with the rest of your vertebral column.


2. Eliminates Over-stretching at the Bottom Position

A common trend amongst strength coaches is to teach exaggerated stretching and protraction during the eccentric portion of a row.  Besides placing stress on the glenohumeral joint it also promotes faulty postural mechanics.  The quadruped row teaches optimal protraction which happens to be much more subtle than most coaches realize. It does this by reinforcing optimal end range of motion in the eccentric position as over-stretching will cause the core musculature to relax and disrupt neutral spinal alignment both of which will cause the lifter to lose their balance.  


3. Reduces Excessive Momentum and “Top Rock”

Although a mild amount of body English is acceptable on rows, using excessive momentum and “top rock” to pull the weight up is a very common problem amongst lifter of all levels.  Whether the issue stems from handling more weight than your body is capable of or simply relying on momentum to help make the movement easier, the end result is reduced muscle activation of the targeted musculature. The quadruped row eliminates any and all tendencies to use excessive rocking motions as the strict body position forces the lifter to keep their torso completely parallel to the floor with little if any room for deviations.   


4. Eliminates Low Back Compensation

A common compensation pattern on rows is to rely on excessive lumbar extension to help pull the weight rather than extending the t-spine and pulling with the upper back.  The quadruped row aggressively activates the core and places the body into a position that literally eliminates any tendency to compensate with faulty low back mechanics.


5. Improves 3D Shoulder Positioning and Scapula Mechanics

Proper shoulder positioning is something many individuals struggle with on rows.  Ideally the shoulders need to retract, depress, and medially rotate towards the spine as you row.  If these don’t occur, the shoulder and elbow will move out of proper alignment.  This causes the center of mass to move far away from the midline of the body resulting in extreme instability and difficulty maintaining body control.


6. Improves Elbow Tuck

The proper shoulder mechanics facilitated by the quadruped row does wonders for tucking the elbow and keeping it close to the body.  Excessive elbow flare will produce poor body alignment and inability to maintain control of the movement.


7. Increases Core Activation

Besides being an effective movement for the upper back, the quadruped row is one of the most challenging core exercises there is as it forces the lifter to maintain a neutral spine while resisting extension and anti-rotation. 


8. Eliminates Cervical Compensation Patterns

Cervical compensation patterns during rowing movements are quite common yet often times subtle.  The most common being cervical hyperextension (head cocked up) and cervical flexion (head tilted down) both of which are a result of poor postural control, weak core, and impaired lat activation.   Ironically the altered head position has an immediate negative impact on equilibrium and balance.  This literally requires the lifter to adjust and correct the issues almost immediately in order to successfully perform the movement.


9. Improves Full Body Tension and Spinal Rigidity

The quadruped row requires full body tension from head to toe.  Any energy leaks or lack of innervation anywhere in the kinetic chain particularly in the core and spine will disrupt balance and body alignment.  Besides reinforcing optimal activation patterns this does wonders for potentiating the nervous system and prepping it for subsequent heavy lifts.


10. Eliminates Excessive Body Rotation Common with Single Arm Rows

Most lifters have a tendency to use excessive body rotation during one arm dumbbell row variations.  The quadruped row eliminates this issue as the movement requires the lifter to resist rotation and twisting as a means of stabilizing the body.


11. Prevents and Eliminates Spinal Flexion

Besides the obvious risks associated with spinal flexion during rowing movements, it also significantly reduces the ability to contract the lats and upper back.  Quadruped rows prevent excessive spinal flexion as you’ll literally find it impossible to stabilize your body.


12. Promotes Proper Grip and Hand Mechanics

Many lifters allow the dumbbell or weight to tilt in their hands by subconsciously allowing their grip to relax.  This promotes faulty shoulder mechanics as lethargic grip and forearm activation decreases stability in the glenohumeral joint.    With the quadruped row, any tilt in the dumbbell will cause deviations in balance and stability.  This forces the lifter to activate the hand and forearm muscles aggressively to ensure optimal joint stacking of the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand. This keeps the weight completely parallel to the floor optimizing stability from the base up.


13. Teaches a Strong Muscle Mind-Connection with the Lats.

One of the most common things you’ll hear people say once they lock their mechanics in on a quadruped bird dog row is how much they feel their lats working.  This is due to the smooth and proper rowing motions required to successfully perform the movement as well as the steep parallel torso angle involved.


14. Produces Larger Range of Motion than Most Free Weight Rows

The larger range of motion is primarily because the back is completely parallel to the floor rather than angled somewhat upright.  The more upright the torso is and the farther it moves away from parallel to the floor, the shorter the movement becomes.  Because of the added range of motion this also makes it effective for hypertrophy once you’ve learned the movement and can handle substantial loads.


15. Teaches Mental Focus and Concentration

Few exercises require the level of concentration, focus, and mental engagement needed to master the quadruped bird dog row.  Any momentary lapse in focus will cause the lifter to lose his or her balance.  Besides teaching the lifter how to dial in their body mechanics, if you’re in need of a mental tune-up the quadruped row will teach you to focus your mind like a master Jedi.


16. Improves Low Back Health and Posture

The quadruped bird dog row is one of the most effective drills I’ve ever used to eliminate low back issues, back pain, and postural deficiencies in my clients and athletes.  Learn to master this movement and watch your low back issues disappear.

Additional Options For The Quadruped Bird Dog Bench Row

Quadruped rows can be performed using a variety of methods including the variations highlighted below.
 

Regression: Quadruped Bird Dog Row with Iron Grip Plate

Because of the level of difficulty of the movement, my go-to variation for initially teaching someone how to properly perform the quadruped row is to use a standard iron grip weight plate.  Essentially this represent a slight regression compared to other loading modalities. When using a dumbbell or kettlebell the lifter must laterally pull the weight away from the bench just slightly as a means of avoiding the weight hitting the bench.  This produces even greater anti-rotation forces against the core and spine making it more difficult (although more challenging for the core). The plate variation on the other hand allows the weight to fit perfectly alongside the edge of the bench without having to pull it away.  Here's one of my awesome female figure clients Erin English showing how it done as we train her for her next figure show


Dumbbell Variation

A standard bench with a kettlebell is the most common variation.  Dumbbells also provide a similar effect however they tend to feel slightly less natural than kettlebells on quadruped bird dog rows. 

Here’s one of my athletes Kyle Daniels demonstrating a very difficult narrow based dumbbell version which requires incredible core strength as well as back and lat activation. It also forces the lifter to use textbook mechanics to remain stable. 

Finger Pinching Variation

Finger pinching variations using hex dumbbells or bumper plates are also very effective for increasing full body tension which can enhance spinal rigidity and body alignment. 

Here’s one of my NFL athletes Fernando Velasco using this quadruped bird dog rowing variation as a preparatory movement to enhance neural drive and body mechanics before targeting heavier compound movements.


Narrow Base Progression

As shown in the dumbbell variation above, you can perform the quadruped bird dog row using a narrow base where you kneel widthwise on the bench rather than lengthwise.  This is significantly more challenging and requires even greater body control and stricter mechanics.  If you’re really looking to maximize the effectiveness try performing the single arm barbell variation.  Even the slightest deviations in form causes the bar to tip and tilt making it incredibly challenging yet highly effective for mastering your mechanics.


Hanging Band Tecnique

The hanging band technique is one of the single most effective methods for improving stability, motor control, balance, proprioception and joint centration due to the oscillating kinetic energy factor. Simply put the unpredictable oscillations produced from the hanging weight requires precise execution of movement patterns in order to avoid the weight becoming uncontrollable. Applying this to the quadruped bird-dog row is one of the most difficult yet also one of the most effective variations of the drill as the margin for error is even smaller than normal.

In addition this requires the lifter to use very smooth and controlled motions as excessive momentum will cause the weight to bounce in a chaotic fashion thereby disrupting the lifter's balance and stability. In essence the hanging band technique rewards rigid mechanics and proper form. Here's one of my awesome clients and national figure competitor Leslie Petch showing how it's done as we used this drill as a preparatory movement before crushing some heavy compound barbell exercises
 

Reverse Protocol: Hip Alignment

This is a very unique variation of the bird dog quadruped row performed by my client and bodybuilder Ben Lai as it involves an opposite loading protocol.  During the standard bird dog quadruped row the rowing arm is the same side as the the leg and knee on the bench.  This is the standard position and while difficult is the most natural position and easiest to dial in.  In this variation,  the opposite leg/knee are in contact with the bench thereby increasing rotational forces exponentially.  

Anyone who's every performed the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) knows exactly how difficult this basic quadruped position is on the floor let alone on the bench while performing a rowing movement.  Although the core is worked intensely, this variation is particularly useful for addressing hip and leg alignment as anything but perfect alignment in the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and pelvis will result in a loss of balance.  Although you won't be able to use as heavy a load as you would during the standard quadruped bird dog row, if you suffer from instability in the hips and lack of proper lower body alignment you'll want to give this a try.  

Because you won't be able to handle the same heavier loads, I like to have my athletes perform these with grip pinching variations using bumper plates, hex dumbbells, or bottoms down kettlebells (as recently discussed by Kelvin King Jr.).  This increase in grip activation creates greater irradiation and concurrent activation potentiation (enhanced neural drive throughout the kinetic chain).  As a result you'll noticed increased core activation, spinal rigidity, and crisp, controlled movements.  On a side note you won't be able to use as parallel of a torso position on this movement so expect a slightly more upright angle due to the unique stabilization components.
 

Tabletop Protocol: The Ultimate Technique Enhancer

Another cool trick you can incorporate into the quadruped bird dog row to improve your mechanics is the tabletop technique.  Essentially you’re placing a plate on top of your back (I recommend having a partner help assist with this at first).  This helps to dial in form even further as any momentum, twisting, or deviations in mechanics will cause the weight to slide off the body. 

There are several benefits to the tabletop technique that are particularly useful when applied to the quadruped row.

  1. Improves form because the back including the t-spine and lumbar spine must maintain a natural arch for the plate to sit on.  Spinal flexion is impossible.
  2. Eliminates top rock and excessive momentum or else the plates will literally fall off the back.
  3. Increases proprioceptive feedback from lats, middle and upper back as the plates against your body provide sensory palpation giving you better kinesthetic awareness of your back activation and postural alignment.  
  4. Maintains a steep near-parallel, bent over position as an overly upright torso (that’s related to lumbar hyperextension) will cause the weights to slide off.
  5. Provides greater direct overload to the upper back and lat musculature without further fatigue to the arms and grip.  As a result your back muscles are more likely to fail before your arms.
  6. Keeps the individual from over-rowing with excessive range of motion as the elbows and shoulder blades will run into the plates causing them to move around on the back.


Fix your TOrso Angle: Decline Position

The single biggest mistake I see people making on the quadruped bird dog row is tilting their torso up by extending their back and staying overly upright. Instead the goal should be to keep the entire body completely parallel to the floor including the torso and back leg. Allowing the torso to lift up and the back leg to drop down not only significantly reduces the tension and activation to the core musculature but it also places undue strain on the lumbar spine - the very thing the quadruped bird dog is designed to eliminate.

To remedy this issue I have my clients and athletes perform these on a decline by elevating one side of the bench approximately 10-12 inches. Not only does this force the torso downward and keep the body more parallel to the floor but the strain to the core is markedly increased.  That's because the decline position is continuously pushing the body down and over forcing the core and hip stabilizers to work over-time to avoid any loss of balance. This parallel position also places more tension on the lats and upper back during the row.

Although these can be performed with a variety of loading tools I had my awesome client Graham Chrietzberg perform these using the suitcase barbell method to further enhance both the difficulty and effectiveness of the movement. It should also be noted that this is not something I typically use as the primary overload back exercise for the day but instead I use it as a lighter assistance movement either for dialing technique and mechanics in at the beginning of the session or as a secondary exercise after heavier traditional compound movements.


The Ultimate extreme Challenge

If all of these previous variations were too easy for you then this next one should spice things up. In fact this may be the single most challenging exercise you've never tried. Or if you actually have tried it you know how incredibly difficult this is. This renegade quadruped bird dog row, as the name implies, combines two of my favorite and most brutally difficult exercises, the quadruped bird dog row and the renegade row. The degree of core stability, anti-rotation, balance, motor control, shoulder stability, spinal rigidity, hip alignment, and overall core activation produced from this one is some of the most intense you'll ever experience. 

To reap the benefits of this there are several key factors you'll want to implement into your technique. First, don't allow the weight to touch the floor throughout the exercise. In other words there will be continuous constant tension not to mention it will be exponentially more challenging to balance. Second try to perform all phases of the movements slowly and with a pause in an eccentric isometric fashion. Third, make sure the entire body from head to heel of the elevated leg maintains a straight line that's parallel to the floor. Fourth, focus on getting as tall on the toes and ball of the foot as possible on the loaded leg rather than sitting back on the heel. When the heel drops close to the ground this subtle but common compensation patterns eliminates much of the tension to the core making it much easier to hold the position.

If you follow each of the steps and don't cheat the drill, this movement will be unbelievably challenging. However it will also serve as one of the better diagnostic tools and indicators letting you know immediately if you have any imbalances, weakness, asymmetries, or movement deficiencies anywhere from head to toe as anything but proper activation and alignment throughout the entire body will result in a loss of balance.  Once you master this movement it's safe to say you've eliminated nearly all movement dysfunction throughout your body.
 

10 Notes and Considerations About Quadruped Bench Rows

  1. Before you attempt these, make sure you can perform the basic quadruped bird dog position on a bench. Read   http://www.advancedhumanperformance.com/benefits-of-the-quadruped-bird-dog-exercise-challenging-variations Master that before performing the row as the row is much more challenging.
     
  2. I typically recommend performing each row as an eccentric isometric as this allows the lifter to most easily fine-tune and master the movement.  In other words once you lift the weight, lower it slowly (2-4 second count), pause in the stretched position for several seconds, then smoothly but powerfully row the weight up.  In addition I recommend holding each row for 2 seconds at the top contracted position as this helps to eliminate momentum and further allows the lifter to lock in their mechanics.
     
  3. I have most of my athletes place their mid-shin on the edge of the bench. The further back you slide your knee toward the end of the bench, the more challenging the movement becomes. Start with the edge of the bench near the top of your ankle, then gradually progress until most of the shin on your support leg is off the bench.
     
  4. Dumbbells are generally more challenging than kettlebells due to the fact that they are thicker and tend to run into the bench and the body.
     
  5. Many gyms have benches with different widths. This may seem obvious, but thinner benches force you to maintain a narrower base, making the drill significantly more challenging. When first attempting these quadruped bird dog rows, use the widest bench you can find. In addition, benches that have a slight concave shape (as opposed to completely flat) are far more challenging due to the added instability and rotational forces.
     
  6. You should be able to handle 70% of your typical 1 arm dumbbell row.  If you can’t then you’re lacking proper rowing mechanics and core stability.
     
  7. Keep the support arm slightly bent at the elbow joint (soft elbow).  This allows the upper torso to tilt over to a slightly steeper angle (which is ideal) thereby allowing a straight line to occur throughout the body that’s also parallel to the floor.  Without this slight elbow bend, the torso will be angled up too high (roughly 10-15 degrees) and the tendency to over arch the lumbar spine and over-extend through the low back will be more pronounced.   The soft elbow position eliminates this.
     
  8. The Bird Dog is all about technique and postural alignment. What most people forget is that posture and body alignment includes everything from head to foot. With this in mind, both feet should be dorsiflexed and straight. The body (from the extended head to foot) should form a relatively straight line. The head should be kept in a neutral position, not hyperextended. This means your gaze should be straight down, toward the bench.
     
  9. Closing your eyes makes all the variations more difficult. However, it can be the key to helping you find your ideal position, because of your increased reliance on sensory feedback from muscles spindles and other proprioceptive mechanisms. When your eyes are closed and you finally reach a point where you feel locked in, chances are your form is spot on.
     
  10. The quadruped bird dog row can be used as a preparatory movement or dynamic warm-up at the beginning of the workout to help prime the nervous system and prepare the body for the heavier movements.  It can also be used as the primary back and lat exercise however the individual needs to be fairly efficient at the movement first otherwise the weight will be too light to fully stimulate the upper back.  Finally, the quadruped bird dog row is an excellent finisher for the back and core (near the end of the workout) as the constant tension and strict mechanics can promote hypertrophy and metabolic stress in the targeted musculature.