TABLE TOP ROW FOR CORRECTING ROWING TECHNIQUE
Dr. Joel Seedman, PhD
This article is exclusive to AHP. It represents the uncut, fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured in STACK.
Fix Your Rowing Technique, Posture, and Shoulder Mechanics with the Tabletop Protocol
The tabletop row is a simple yet highly effective training tool for improving rowing technique, posture, and shoulder mechanics. While performing any row that involves a bent over position such as barbell rows or single arm dumbbell rows, have a training partner place a plate or two on your middle upper back then perform the movement.
It sounds sadistic and masochistic but there are 7 benefits of the tabletop protocol.
Improves form because the back including the t-spine and lumbar must maintain a natural arch for the plate to sit on. Spinal flexion is impossible.
Eliminates top rock and excessive momentum or else the plates will literally fall off the back.
Increases proprioceptive feedback from lats, middle and upper back as the plates pressed against your body provides sensory palpation giving you better kinesthetic awareness of your back activation and postural alignment.
Helps maintain a steep near-parallel, bent over position as an overly upright torso will cause the weights to slide off.
Provides greater direct overload to the entire posterior chain including upper back, low back, glutes, and hamstrings, without further fatigue to the arms and grip. As a result your back muscles are more likely to fail before your arms.
Keeps the individual from over-rowing with excessive range of motion (i.e. elbows and humerus going past the plan of the torso) as the elbows and shoulder blades will run into the plates causing them to shift on the back.
Improves low back strength immensely as the movement represents a combination RDL and good-morning in terms of weight distribution with direct tension to the erector muscles.
The tabletop protocol can be effectively applied to a number of different movements, particularly anything that involves a position where the torso is roughly parallel to the floor. Here are 7 of my favorite tabletop variations not only for improving mechanics and posture but for crushing your upper back, lats, glutes, and hamstrings.
1. Bent Over Barbell Row
The bent over barbell row is a staple mass building movement for bodybuilders and athletes alike. Unfortunately many lifters butcher the movement by using excessive momentum, spinal flexion, and other forms of cheating.
The tabletop technique not only eliminates these issues but also helps provide greater simulation and overload to the entire posterior chain by reinforcing correct bent over rowing mechanics.
2. RENEGADE ROW WITH TABLETOP PROTOCOL
The renegade row is one of the most effective combination back and core stabilization movements there is. Unfortunately many lifters allow their torso to twist and rotate excessively as a means of cheating their way through the movement and taking tension off the core. To fully exploit all the benefits of renegade rows it’s imperative that the torso and spine stay as square and parallel to the floor as possible while resisting rotational forces.
Besides placing even greater tension on the core musculature, incorporating the tabletop technique into renegade rows forces the lifter to use precise form and proper execution, as even the slightest bit of rotation and twisting will cause the weights to slip off the back. This is one of the most physically demanding variations you’ll ever perform however the stimulation to your core and lats will be well worth the effort as the transfer to other heavy compound lifts will be significant.
3. Single Leg RDL and Bent Over Row
This single leg RDL and row combined with the tabletop protocol is one of the most brutal exercises for crushing the entire posterior chain particularly the glutes and hamstrings. It also requires stricter mechanics than nearly any bent over rowing variation you can think of as it combines two advanced techniques namely the single leg stance and the tabletop technique. In fact it's impossible to cheat on this.
In addition over-rowing (trying to row too high) or excessive protraction (shoulder rounding) at the bottom position are immediately punished as you'll lose control of the movement. Here's Leslie Petch one of my female figure athletes demonstrating it. On a side note Leslie doesn't complain much but she was pretty emphatic after this exercise that her backside was absolutely annihilated.
4. T-Bar Row with Tabletop Protocol
The T-bar row is one of the most effective movements for crushing the upper back and lats. Unfortunately it's also one of the most butchered movements you'll see in the gym these days as it quickly becomes an ego contest to see how many plates you can throw on the bar and heave with jerky mechanics. As a byproduct form typically goes out the window as most lifters either end up getting too upright as a result of using excessive top rock and low back recruitment or they end up using significant momentum. This also has a tendency to pull the spine out of optimal alignment as the shoulders and upper back begin to round.
This is exactly why I love the tabletop protocol as it eliminates all of these issues and forces the lifter to use proper mechanics including a more bent over torso and smooth rowing motions. Anything less will result in the weight flying off their back. The next time you see someone in the gym stroking their ego on the T-bar row with aberrant mechanics tell them to throw a few plates on their back. They’ll either thank you for the newfound growth and strength gains they'll acquire or they'll hate you for life for hurting their ego and calling them out for using lousy form. Here’s one of my bodybuilders Ben Lai showing how it’s done the proper way.
5. Single Arm Dumbbell Row
The single arm dumbbell row has been a staple of many fitness and bodybuilding programs for decades. Unfortunately most individuals butcher this movement by (1) using excessive rotation (lawn mower style), (2) over-rowing by allowing the arm to drift too high past the torso, or (3) allowing their backs to round due to lack of proper spinal mechanics and postural positioning.
By applying the tabletop technique, you essentially eliminate all of those issues as the lifter is forced to perform the single arm row with nothing short of textbook mechanics. Any twisting, over-rowing, cheating, use of momentum, or excessive top rock will result in the weight falling off the back. Here's one of my awesome female figure clients Erin English showing how it's done as we crush her upper back and lats while simultaneously reinforcing proper horizontal pulling mechanics into her CNS.
6. Glute Ham Raise Tabletop Row
If you're looking for a rowing variation that absolutely annihilates the entire posterior chain especially the low back, glutes, and hamstrings, look no further than rows on the glute ham raise station using the tabletop protocol. Here's one of my figure athletes Leslie Petch demonstrating it as we prep her for her next NPC show. Besides crushing the glutes and hamstrings the stimulus to the back and lats is quite intense with this variation as it eliminates any and all ability to cheat or use momentum. In fact the combination of the GHR position combined with the tabletop technique makes this one the most physically demanding rowing variations there is yet also one that requires and promotes unbelievably strict form.
If you're rowing technique needs work or you're in need of an exercise to crush your entire backside from your upper back down to your hamstrings this one's for you. As an added bonus this exercise does wonders for postural restoration and spinal alignment as it forces the lifter to keep a very rigid spine throughout.
7. Quadruped Row with Tabletop Technique
The quadruped bird dog row is one of my favorite rowing and horizontal pulling variations for teaching lifters how to use proper body mechanics. Combining this with the tabletop protocol represents the epitome of movement mastery that literally forces the lifter to use the most precise mechanics as anything less will be punished with a failed attempt. Just be prepared to focus your mind and your body like a ninja as the level of mental concentration required to successfully perform this is on par with that of a Kung fu grandmaster.
Bonus: Olympic lifts
The table top method can also be applied to hang cleans and hang snatch versions of Olympic lifts as I have NFL athlete Marcelis Branch performing a table-top potentiation eccentric isometric RDL hang clean here.
Marcelis is handling 205 on the bar with an additional 90 lbs of weight on his back on the eccentric. I typically incorporate the table top technique for bent over rows however I’ve found that applying this method to power hang versions of Olympic lifts provides great benefit for both cleans & snatches. Here’s why.
1. Provides a form of immediate post activation potentiation and increased neural drive as the eccentric position is overloaded with heavier weight than the concentric. As a result the concentric or hip drive phase feels inordinately light & explosive as the posterior chain is hyper-activated from the heavier eccentric. In fact, I’ve actually seen this produce immediate improvements in power output when compared to eccentric isometric versions of hang cleans and snatches without the table top method.
2. Improves hip hinge form because the back including the t-spine & lumbar must maintain a natural arch for the plate to sit on. In other words spinal flexion & rounding of the back are impossible.
3. Increases proprioceptive feedback from lats, middle & upper back as the plates pressed against your body provides sensory palpation giving you better kinesthetic awareness of your back activation & postural alignment. Similar to #1 this also enhances hip hinge mechanics thereby having a direct impact on hip drive during the clean or snatch.
4. Helps maintain a steep near-parallel hip hinge position as an overly upright torso will cause the weights to slide off. Again this produces greater stretch on the glutes & hamstrings which has a direct impact on hip drive & posterior chain recruitment on the clean or snatch.
5. Provides greater direct overload to the entire posterior chain including the glutes, hamstrings, upper back, & low back without further fatigue to the arms & grip.
6. Improves low back strength immensely as the movement represents a combination RDL and good-morning in terms of weight distribution with direct tension to the erector muscles.
7. This method forces the lifter to slow the eccentric phase down and pause in order to accommodate the tabletop method thereby providing greater stimulus to the posterior chain.
Note on Low Back Fatigue
At first glance it’s easy to assume the tabletop protocol will cause excessive fatigue around the low back muscles and erectors thereby defeating the purpose of rowing movements. Although the muscles around the low back definitely get taxed to a greater extent than normal, I’ve actually found that individuals including intermediate level lifters feel their upper backs fatigue more so on the tabletop variations with less general fatigue around the low back.
The reason for this is the tabletop protocol forces the lifter to assume incredibly rigid spinal mechanics with a neutrally arched spine throughout. This position is very biomechanically efficient and the nervous system can maintain these strict mechanics for quite some time provided spinal alignment is on cue. Fortunately the tabletop position forces this optimal postural alignment in order to complete the lift.
Excessive fatigue around the low back occurs predominately when the muscles around the spine are not set properly or the spine begins to go into flexion. This is more likely to occur in standard variations than in the tabletop versions simply because the lifter can get away with lousy mechanics and spinal flexion. With this in mind, coaches and lifters alike should not be overly concerned about low back fatigue as the tabletop protocol can actually help prevent it while simultaneously stimulating the muscles around the low back. However, before throwing a heavy load onto your back it's advisable to start with lighter loads and smaller plates (10's or 25's). In fact you may want to start off by having a partner place an Airex pad on your middle back then gradually progressing to weight plates as you continue to dial in your mechanics.