I am excited to have an excellent contribution today from my friend Conor Nordengren. Conor, is a former CP intern and current strength coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, NH. Additionally, he is one strong dude, and my summer hill sprint buddy. I hope you can take a little time and read what he has written as it will surely help you as a coach and trainer!
If you know anything about Greg, you know that he loves horizontal pulling exercises. He’s put in the time and built a massive back by doing his fair share of rowing movements. Greg’s back development has a great deal of utility in his participation in powerlifting, as it has bolstered his squat, bench press, and deadlift numbers. Placing a priority on pulling (how’s that for alliteration?) goes well beyond the confines of powerlifting, though. Pulling is a fundamental human movement and also an essential movement in many sports. The major muscles involved in pulling are important to posture and the development of these muscles (think traps, rhomboids, lats) is a good indicator of strength.
When it comes to young athletes, it’s important that we teach and continually reinforce proper pulling mechanics. As coaches, we have the responsibility to set a solid foundation for our youth athletes in the weight room and set them up for long-term success. When approaching pulling exercises, it’s appropriate to start young athletes pulling horizontally and gradually progress them to vertical pulling variations. As the saying goes, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” so there’s not merely one correct way to progress an athlete in terms of exercise selection.
Where you choose to start an athlete will depend on factors like the athlete’s ability level, any prior experience with legitimate strength training, and whether or not they’ve had exposure to some solid coaching. There’s also no precise timetable for progressing an athlete through a series of exercises. This, again, is dependent on the athlete and how proficient they become at a given movement. It’s better to be patient and give the athlete time to achieve a certain level of mastery of an exercise than it is to move them along too quickly.
Let’s briefly touch on a few components of good horizontal pulling technique that you should cement within your youth athletes. As you coach them on how to pull correctly, be sure to look for and reinforce:
• Chin tucked
• Scapulae down and back (chest “out”)
• Very little (if any) shoulder extension
• No anterior humeral glide (keep the “ball” centrated in the “socket”)
• Roughly 30 degrees of arm space between the side of the body and arm
• Neutral spine (no lumbar hyperextension)
Now let’s say you have an untrained athlete with no prior strength training experience walk into your facility. What would be a good horizontal pulling progression for this athlete?
Here’s a sample progression (each exercise is performed for 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps):
1. Seated Cable Row – neutral grip
I like to begin with the seated cable row. By taking the athlete’s legs completely out of the picture, it allows them to solely concentrate on their upper body where the movement is taking place. This variation really lets the athlete focus on and get a feel for proper positioning and is a good place to start.
2. Half-kneeling One-arm Cable Row
Once the athlete has become proficient in the seated cable row, the half-kneeling one-arm cable row is a great next step. This exercise will increase the stability challenge on the athlete and force them to activate their core and glutes. It also prevents them from going into lumbar hyperextension.
3. Standing One-arm Cable Row (with excellent commentary from Eric Cressey)
The next logical progression is to get the athlete off the floor and into a standing position. The athlete must now display adequate control in the upright position while still demonstrating proper rowing technique.
4. TRX Inverted Row
The TRX inverted row is going to provide a greater demand on the athlete to keep their core and glutes engaged. I love the TRX because the athlete can easily adjust the resistance; the more horizontal their body is to the ground, the tougher it will be. I like to tell our athletes to think of their body as a 2×4 and stay rigid from head to toe.
At this point I think it’s appropriate to begin including some chest-supported rowing variations. I like to start with batwings because it allows the athlete to get more accustomed to the challenge of gravity within a shorter range of motion. I make them hold the top position for a one count and reset at the bottom to make sure they’re maintaining proper form.
6. Chest-supported Row – neutral grip
Once the athlete has gotten good at batwings, it’s time to increase the range of motion of the exercise. If you don’t have access to a chest-supported row apparatus, these can also be done on an incline bench with dumbbells.
After an athlete has gone through this progression, you can begin programming things like one-arm dumbbell rows, split-stance low cable rows, and landmine rows. Remember to let the athlete dictate the timetable for their progression. They may need more than a month to nail down a certain exercise and that’s fine. It will serve them better if you give them the time to master an exercise and progress them when they show you they’re ready instead of rushing them along. It’s all about laying that foundation and setting them up for success.
Bio: Conor Nordengren is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is a graduate of Stonehill College, where he majored in Health Sciences with a minor in Business Administration. At Stonehill, Conor was a two-year member of the men’s basketball team. He completed internships in physical therapy and also worked as a physical therapist aide. Upon graduation, Conor interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts, under widely recognized strength coaches Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore. During his time at Cressey Performance, he had the opportunity to work with a variety of clients including athletes at the professional, college, high school, and junior high school levels. Conor is now a strength and conditioning coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, New Hampshire where he is dedicated to helping people of all ages and ability levels achieve their fitness goals. You can read Conor’s blog at www.conornordengren.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.