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January 12, 2022
The Pendlay row is a variation of the bent over row that requires a lot of power, as each rep starts from the ground. It is named after Glenn Pendlay, an American weightlifting coach who is credited as being among the most influential coaches in the country. Unfortunately, Pendlay passed away in 2019 from stage 4 metastatic cancer but he left behind an enduring legacy in the lifting community and a great deal of ideation around his version of the row.
The Pendlay row will help you improve your posture and build a stronger back. It specifically targets back strength and muscular development for pulling movements, likes deadlifts and the Olympic lifts. It is an advanced back exercise that can take your upper body training to the next level.
Pendlay never claimed to have invented his eponymous row but always said that it was his impression of how a bent over row should be done to maximize results. Unlike the way most people perform the bent over row - from a hanging position with the weight never touching the ground during a set, each rep of the Pendlay row starts with the weight on the ground. This enforces strict form, encourages the correct posture, and minimizes momentum. The strict form not only reinforces better form, but improves its carry over to weightlifting-specific movements and pulls.
The original intent of the Pendlay row was to create a stronger torso for powerlifting squats. The emphasis on heavy weights and explosive power was ideally suited for power movements, eventually ending up in the repertoire of Olympic weightlifters. Moving heavy weight explosively is always going to be a power movement and if you can maintain correct form, you will be able to create a powerful strength building stimulus.
The Pendlay row can enhance other lifts. It is particularly powerful for developing your deadlift, squats, and pulls. When doing a Pendlay row properly you are going to experience the kind of full body tension that you get in a squat or deadlift as you brace for the loads involved. You will be exerting a lot of force and lifting heavy will tax the nervous system. All these factors can be beneficial because you are taxing your neuromuscular system under stress.
Being able to brace and contract your back is vital for supporting good posture when deadlifting, squatting, and benching. Because you'll be performing the row from a complete stop on the floor each rep, you must brace every time you lift the barbell. If increasing your numbers on these lifts is a high priority for you then I highly encourage you to include the Pendlay row in your program.
Unlike traditional bent over barbell rows, which maintain tension throughout the movement and initiate hypertrophy, the dead-stop on each rep of the Pendlay row requires force development to be a primary factor in its use. That is not to say that you will not see lat growth from Pendlay rows. The lats are subject to great moments of tension doing the Pendlay row and will, assuming proper technique, be activated to a significant degree in the pre-pull and pull stages of the lift, and of course because of the greater weights involved compared to some more traditional bodybuilding back movements. The Pendlay row allows you to load the bar with relatively heavy weight compared to other back-specific bodybuilding movements, yet it still requires full ranges of motion (when done correctly) and high levels of muscular tension to maximize back hypertrophy.
The Pendlay row works a huge amount of muscle mass. It will tax your legs, particularly the hamstrings and glutes because of the intensity of the lifts and the positioning of the body. It also challenges the lats, spinal erectors, and scapular area of the back. Furthermore, it will help build a strong grip and you will find that doing the Pendlay row transfers to better performance in deadlifts and bench presses hence the notion that it is fundamentally a supplementary powerlifting exercise.
A couple of things to keep in mind when doing the Pendlay row are, keep your legs and back safe. This means you don’t want to your ego to get the better of you. Lifting heavier than you can handle with locked knees, jerking the weight off the ground, and using body English will place a lot of stress on your lower back. So, you keep your knees slightly bent like you would with a Romanian Deadlift, and you can kind of sit back a little so that the load is not on your lower back but distributed across your hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors and core.
You can perform the Pendlay row with different grip widths, and experiment to see what works for you. If trying Pendlay rows for the first time, I suggest you go with your normal bent-over row grip.
Here are the step by step instruction to perform the Pendlay row:
Getting Upright: It's common for lifters to start standing more upright as they do multiple reps of the Pendlay row. Typically this is because the load is too heavy, which causes them to use momentum. It is worth remembering that the Pendlay row is a fantastic back exercise because it relies upon strict form. Instead of using too heavy of a load and thus momentum to lift upwards, select an appropriate weight and remember to keep your back flat (basically parallel with the floor). Not only is this how you maximize gains, but it will also lower your risk of injury.
Turning a Great Back Exercise into a Crappy Biceps One: As with the last mistake, this usually happens when a lifter is using too much weight. They begin to use their arms to gain momentum and “bounce” toward the top of the rep. This shifts tension away from the target muscles, doesn’t really stimulate the biceps, and increase injury risk.
Making Your Spine a Question Mark: When people round their back they can start to look like a human question mark. Your spine will not thank you for loading it heavy in this flexed forward position. This issue usually occurs for one of two reasons:
All in all, if you want to get the most out of Pendlay rows and do them as they are meant to be done, use an appropriate load, focus on keeping your chest up, back engaged, neutral and flat, and perform strict, controlled reps.
Because the Pendlay row is a multi-joint, multi-muscle group exercise that requires you to create high levels of internal stability and has a significant coordination element it is best done relatively early in your session. Given it is normally done using lower reps and heavy weight you definitely don’t want to do this exercise at the end of a session.
In terms of training frequency, you can treat the Pendlay row more like a deadlift set and not like a bent over row or dumbbell row set which means that it is going to be done less often. Performing Pendlay rows once a week and training your back with less demanding (e.g., Seal rows, seated rows etc.) exercises later in the week had proven extremely effective for many people.
When it comes to programming sets and reps for the Pendlay row it is important to consider that this exercise is a tool to do a specific job (just like any exercise). The Pendlay row can be a great strength builder and a decent muscle builder, but it is not such a good choice for muscular endurance or Met-Con style workouts.
The Pendlay row is a great accessory move to build strength. It is better used to develop strength than to display it. Rather than chasing one-rep maxes on the Pendlay row it is superior to accumulate multiple sets in 5 to 8 rep range. Four sets of 6 reps is a great option for the Pendlay row. This will provide a good combination of heavy weight, high muscular tension, and training volume to drive strength gains that will improve your other lifts. If you plan on using the Pendlay row primarily for muscle gain I suggest you try 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps.
While the Pendlay row is mostly done from the floor using a barbell, there are some variations which maintain the key benefits of the lift but offer a slightly different stimulus. Depending upon your goals, training experience, and equipment availability, the following could be useful options for you.
1. Deficit Pendlay Row:
Doing Pendlay rows from a deficit provides you all the other benefits, but with the bonus of an increased range of motion. Performing the lift from a deficit can be achieved by positioning yourself so you are standing on a low step while the bar sits on the floor as normal. Assuming you have the flexibility and control to maintain form, this can increase muscle growth. The increased range of motion, stretch under load, and longer time under tension can all contribute to increased size gains.
2. Pendlay Row from Blocks:
Counter to the Deficit version, raising the bar off the ground reduces the range of motion that the barbell needs to travel. This can have benefits. Firstly, if your mobility is limited it will allow you to set-up with a better starting position and maintain this position easier. Secondly, you can handle more weight over a shorter range. Finally, you can strategically use this version to target a specific point in the lift which is sticking points of your pulls. For example, if you are weaker at the top of your rows, you can use a heavier load to strengthen this particular range of motion. Make note that this is more of an advanced version geared towards experienced lifters who know how to identify weak points in their lift that need attention.
3. Double Kettlebell Pendlay Row:
The double kettlebell Pendlay row offers a bit more individualization in terms of foot position and allows for each arm to work unilaterally. This allows you to combine the best elements of the Pendlay row with the benefits of unilateral training. As such, you can iron out left to right strength asymmetries, improve positional awareness and get all the aforementioned benefits of the Pendlay row.
There are numerous ways to build a stronger back other than a Pendlay row. You can try a traditional bent over barbell row using strict form, with a controlled lifting tempo and get really powerful strength improvements as well as hypertrophic benefits. Seated rows on a machine are also a viable alternative that allow more of an emphasis on the eccentric phase which has hypertrophic benefits. Seal rows are a fantastic back exercise that require strict form, but don not require you to hold yourself in position. Thus, they place minimal load through the lower back and don’t really challenge the spinal erectors. This can be beneficial if these muscles are pre-fatigued from other exercises like squats or deadlifts, or still fatigued from lower back intensive training sessions earlier in the week.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
The Pendlay row isn't the only great bent over row variation - Check out these 7 other effective bent over row variations.
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