The Pendlay row is a true full-body exercise.” – Brett Hoebel (NBC’s The Biggest Loser)
The body is a complex machine, which means that both complex and simple motions are what should be your choice weapons when building it. And while today’s man often prefers to rely on technology and complexity to achieve more… when it comes to building muscle, it is sometimes the simplest motions that can do the most—especially when you are talking size, power, and strength.
Take, for instance – the humble (yet incredibly effective) Pendlay Row.
Pendlay Versus Conventional
What’s so different about the Pendlay row form versus the conventional row? Well, we asked Brett Hoebel, the celebrity trainer on NBC’s The Biggest Loser-11 and the creator of the 20 Minute Body. “The Pendlay Row, created by Glenn Pendlay, is actually a very strict version of the conventional bent-over row using a barbell and performed with a more explosive concentric lifting motion and slower eccentric lowering motion,” explains Hoebel. “A conventional row is usually performed with one-arm using a dumbbell, where the body is supported with either a leg and/or hand on a bench.”
We like to think that Glenn designed this move to work the upper back with such focus and concentration, that it ‘tricks’ the body into using better form. Let’s think about that for a moment: One of the biggest problems with the conventional row is that it is just too darn easy to cheat (i.e. what is often referred to as air-humping). The Pendlay row does not allow the use of momentum to make the movement easier.
Air humping your rows is when you hang the weight in front at a 120-degree bend at the waist and proceeds to use momentum to jerk the barbell up and down. When you do this, you are only using a portion of your muscles to do, let’s say 30 to 40 percent of the movement—and quite frankly you’re not getting as much out of the motion as you could be. Most muscles respond best when they are being stressed through their entire range of motion, and that is exactly what the Pendlay Row was designed to do.
The Pendlay Edge
But beyond the strict form, there is one other thing that the Pendlay Row does better that a conventional row—it works more muscles. “Because the Pendlay Row is performed unsupported and you are bent-over closer toward the floor, you activate more secondary and stabilizing muscles,” describes Hoebel. “Where the conventional row focuses primarily on your lats, the Pendlay row is a true full-body exercise that focuses not only on your Lats, but also strengthens your Low back, Rhomboids, Shoulders, Traps, Forearms, Biceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Adductors and Spinal Erectors.”
It is difficult enough to say all eleven of those body parts in one breath, much less trying to find a back exercise that can work all those in the same rep. The other unique aspect of the Pendlay Row is it is treated much like an Olympic lift. In other words, it contains a strict explosive movement, and that is the key to boosting ‘explosive’ strength (and size). It does this by preparing you for each explosive movement by allowing you to rest briefly in between each rep.
Resting in between reps is what we will refer to as ‘de-loading’ the weight. This is accomplished by placing the bar to the ground momentarily for a quick rest before continuing with your next rep. The conventional row is typically completed with the weight in the air the entire time, which leaves your muscles too tired to accomplish a fully explosive movement for each rep.
HOW TO: The Pendlay Row
Begin this exercise with your torso parallel to the floor (never arch your back). The Pendlay Row is classified as a power movement—but don’t let that phrase trick you into thinking it is okay to use momentum to help you lift more weight. The entire motion is accomplished with a 90-degree bend at the waist. You should never fudge your form by swinging the weight up and down using your legs and lower back (Yates Row style). This exercise both begins at ends at a 90-degree angle – there is never any allowance for cheating.
This can be one of the safest ‘power moves’ you can do for your upper back, so long as you are always in control of the weight. Next, grab the bar at shoulders width, and in a controlled (but explosive) motion – pull the bar up to your lower chest/upper stomach.
Pull your shoulder blades together as you pull up. Imagine yourself trying to pull the barbell through your torso, as that is approximately the type of explosive motion this exercise calls for. As you return the barbell back to the ground – do so in a slow and controlled manner. Let the plates drop all the way to the ground, relax your grip for a brief moment, take in a deep breath, reassess that your stance is correct, and do it all over again.
You should use as heavy weight as you can use while engaging in perfect form. With that being said, it is always best to use larger plates (45-pounds), as the smaller weights may leave your back compromised when you bend to set the barbell down. If you are not quite ready for the 45’s, you can also set the plates on a platform on each side, so that when you extend your arms, your torso remains parallel to the floor.
If done properly, this exercise will build strength and size to your upper and lower back, in particular, the lats (Latissimus Dorsi), giving you that nice v-shape. The secondary muscles that are also worked in conjunction with this exercise include the lower back, hamstrings, core, and that long list of secondary muscles that Brett Hoebel explained earlier. But hey, keep in mind that while this exercise may be considered one of the ‘kings’ of back builders, it is certainly not the only game in town.
A row by any other name would still work your back…
But the Pendlay Row just does it better!” -URBASM
If you want a complete back workout, it is best to mix in some conventional rows, including dumbell rows, inverted rows, underhand rows, t-bar rows, and cable rows with your weekly back workouts. These movements will hit your lats at slightly different angles, which will also help promote size, quality, and strength. The Yates Row is actually a pretty good example of how to work the lower lats effectively, so we’re not counting it out completely – just not recommending it as a staple movement for your complete upper back development.
The key to any program is to always keep your body guessing so that it never gets the chance to get bored with any movement. The moment your body becomes too comfortable with any exercise – is also the moment you’ll stop making gains.