Bent over rows are not bad for your back when you are used to handling the weight. However, when your bent over row (AKA Pendlay Row) is pretty close to your deadlift weight, as happens on SL5x5, then it's hard to balance it all out. For example, I'm an over 500 lbs deadlifter and can comfortably row 200 lbs for reps. Get too much over that and and I'm prone to hurt my lats as the bar comes down too fast.
There's a couple ways to address the row, but first it's important to know that it is truly an assistance exercise. That means a few things:
- Assistance work is there to build strength for the primary work (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press)
- Assistance work does better with higher reps and moderate weight.
- It's perfectly fine to swap out assistance work for something else that's equivalent.
Staying "Strict" with SL5x5
With this choice, we're going to change the progression on rows, and adjust the technique a bit. This means you are going to have to drop the weight to get used to it. The following technique points are for the Pendlay row (which is simply a strict bent over row):
- Bend your knees a little to allow your hips to act as a cantilever (this is for better balance)
- Bring the bar up to your chest, and hold for a second. NOTE: the bar should be touching your sternum.
- Control the bar all the way to the floor.
If you are off balance with the bar at that position on your chest, you are too far forward and need to bring your hips back. The hold is the main modification we are making, and should help you feel it more in your lats.
As to programming this, I would make the following changes:
- Start with a weight you can do 3x8 strict reps with the above technique.
- Every time you do the row, increase the reps on each set by one. (3x9, 3x10, etc.)
- After you do 3x12, increase 5lbs and start over with 3x8
That slows the progression on the rows, but gives you more volume with it. That will build some back muscle, and help with your body's ability to endure back work. This is also the rep ranges that seem to work better for assistance exercises in my opinion.
Alternative to Pendlay Rows
If I were to pick my personal favorite row variation, it would be the dumbbell row. More specifically, it's the kneeling single arm dumbbell row also known as Kroc rows. They help build your grip for deadlifts, hit the lats better, harder to cheat at, and are just better supported.
- Kneel on the bench so that one arm and one knee are in contact (same side), the other leg is on the ground, and the other arm is holding the dumbbell.
- Bring the dumbbell up to your chest, hold for a quick pause
- Lower the dumbbell under control and repeat
- When the set is over, repeat with the other arm.
- If you can't match the reps on one arm, set the dumbbell down and when you are ready finish the set with 1 more rep than the stronger arm.
NOTE: your torso should remain in a neutral position, if you feel like you need to twist it to get the weight up then you started too heavy.
For programming this, I would use the "350" style of progression:
- You have 3 sets to try and get 50 reps (each arm).
- Only give yourself 1 minute rest between sets. One set is done with left arm and right arm done consecutively.
- If you fall short, just repeat the weight and try to add reps
- If you hit 50 or more reps after the 3rd set, next time you increase 5lbs
- Don't expect all three sets to be the same number
One advantage of the one armed dumbbell row is that it is unilateral work and it's easier to correct left/right imbalances with them. Start with a weight you are pretty confident you can get 12-15 reps in the first set. If you start "too light", you'll catch up pretty quickly. As a rough guide I would pick a weight that is roughly 30% of your bench press to start with.