This is a part of the StrongLift 5*5 Program, where one workout is Squats, Bench Press, Pendlay Row and the other is Squats, OHP and Deadlift.The weight increases by 5 pounds on every workout.

While doing the pendlay row I noticed that I am basically rowing with my arms and as the weight was a bit heavier for me, I felt a twitch in the lower back too. had to leave it after 4 reps in the last two sets. Another problem is, no one at my gym knows about these rows so no one can check my form, all they say is this is bad for your lower back, stop doing it.

How can I improve my row technique myself so it connects better? Or is there any alternative that I can fit into this program from my back development?

  • Probably difficult to tell you how to improve your technique when we can't see what you're actually doing. Jul 29, 2014 at 13:22

4 Answers 4


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.

  • Just a comment about the assistance aspect. In some ways I agree. I think in the original Bill Starr 5x5 the bb row was added simply because it was easier to teach than power cleans. But unless you're working up to something else, like cleans, the bb row could be the biggest upper body pulling activity you're doing (through a ROM anyway, if you want to get into deadlifts). BB rows are great, I just did some yesterday. But ultimately I think folks are better suited working towards the original lift the BB row replaced: cleans.
    – Eric
    Sep 20, 2014 at 23:07
  • Practice is an important aspect of performing lifts, however assistance work can help fill in areas where you are weak. There are variations of rows that hit the muscles slightly differently, so they all have their place. Sep 20, 2014 at 23:55
  • I followed the Staying with 5*5 approach, started over with 65 lbs and moved up to 80 lbs, at this weight I definitely felt that my lower back and hips were used, had a weird sensation when stood up after 12 reps. I dont know if I should row further and injure my back. Also I don't feel any DOMS in lats as I used to with lat pull downs and pull ups, so still I think its not connecting lats as it should. Sep 22, 2014 at 10:15
  • Without seeing any video, it's hard to diagnose. You might be cheating by using the rest of the back to explode the bar up. You might be rounding at the low back or just be in a bad position. Sep 22, 2014 at 11:16
  • Also, and this is very important, DOMS is a poor indicator of what was actually worked. All DOMS tells you is that you hit your muscles in a way they weren't used to. If you built up the volume every time you wouldn't see the DOMS. However, you said you started at 65 and went to 80 lbs since July this year. The way I wrote the progression was to build up the volume each time. You shouldn't be able to increase 15 lbs in 8 weeks time. There was a reason we started at 3x8 and added a rep each time to 3x12 with every weight increase. Sep 22, 2014 at 11:23

Some tips for Rowing Exercises

Have your back fully arced and shoulder blades pinned back as far as you can. There should not be any flexion in your back when you lift whether it is Rows, Squats, or Deadlift

Limit your Bicep involvement in back exercises. Hold the weight with just your fingers and NOT in your palms. Do not fully extend your arms to the bottom. Biceps should not be tired or pumped when you are done rowing

If you are deadlifting and squatting heavy in the same week do chest supported rows.

Do not bend over so far and just do bent rows. Pull up and chin up are great for back development also


What helps for a lot of guys to take arms out of the equation a bit is by using straps.

I know this helps me tremendously.


I don't recommend holding the bar with just your fingers in any excercise EVER.

All that will do is severely pull the tendons connected to your fingers up through your forearm and through your elbow.

With any barbell exercise, a strong firm grip is key, for forearm development and bar control.

  • 1
    I don't see any indication in the OP that he was holding the bar with his fingers... if doing that can cause the OP's problem, say so to show how the answer relates to the question.
    – Noumenon
    Mar 11, 2015 at 18:00

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