I hate the bench pull for rowing strength training. I can see a justification for most other exercises, but the bench pull is one of the few exercises I’ll do everything I can to avoid using in my strength training for rowers. This is a controversial opinion in rowing, especially among more “old school” coaches and rowers who remember the lift with mythical status of the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. I’ll use this article to state my case for why the bench pull should be left behind in the modern era of rowing, what exercises I use instead of the bench pull, as well as how to modify the bench pull to be a more effective, safer exercise for those who must bench pull.
Key Points: Bench pull rowing enthusiasts usually tout the exercise’s specificity to the rowing stroke, but I see it as anything but specific. Rowers rowing on the water or on ergs do not lie facedown on a solid object and pull with their arms in a straight line against a static object. Rowers execute a refined movement to place the blade in the water (a dynamic target), initiate force with the lower body, transfer it through a torso in the hinge position, and complete the stroke in a dynamic, smooth motion with the upper body muscles. My biggest problem with the bench pull is the direct pressure on the ribcage as a known risk factor for the common and costly rib stress injury. Rowers should use other horizontal pull exercises like bodyweight rows, single-arm rows, and a few more variations rather than take on such risk for such little benefit as the bench pull for rowing performance.
Table of Contents:
- Why the Bench Pull is Even a Thing
- The Problem of Specificity
- The Problem of Redundant Muscular Development
- The Problem of Rib Stress Injuries
- Other Coaches Who Ditched the Bench Pull
- If You Must Bench Pull…
- The Solution of Better Exercises
Why The Bench Pull Is Even A Thing
The bench pull was a popular strength training method in the pre-1990s era of rowing for two main reasons, both of which have been invalidated for the modern rowing training era thanks to Concept2.
First, Concept2 hadn’t yet made the affordable and widely available rowing ergometers that we know and love today (Model A 1981, Model B 1986). Most rowing programs couldn’t achieve a decent training load, especially in the off-seasons, due to lack of access to rowable water, enough seats available in rowing tanks, or enough pre-Concept2 ergometers.
The main rowing ergometer before Concept2 was the Gjessing or Gjessing-Nilson ergometer. This was a bulky, heavily weighted machine using fixed mechanical resistance and a leather strap friction braking system. There are a few significant differences between the Gjessing ergometer and the Concept2 ergometer, explored in this short 1993 study. In incremental step tests of increasing intensity, rowers used higher stroke rates on the Gjessing erg (33spm) than the Concept2 (29spm). The rowers also had lower blood lactate concentrations on the Concept2 erg, indicating greater anaerobic effort required to achieve the same output on a Gjessing erg.
Here’s the only video I’ve been able to find of the Gjessing erg in action. In addition to total effort, the fixed mechanical resistance looks to me like it increases the upper body contribution versus the Concept2 air-braked flywheel that accelerates through the stroke. This is all important to understand the origin of the bench pull for rowing and its lack of applicability in the modern era.
Cross-training for rowing, at least through at least the winter months of frozen water, was much more the norm for most rowers who lacked better, more specific training options. We can get a pretty good lower body training load and cardiovascular stimulus from running, biking, skiing, and other forms of aerobic cross-training, but what about the upper body? The bench pull offered a way to gain or maintain upper body strength and endurance when the athletes were not able to do much of anything else for the upper body.
Second, Concept2 (again) hadn’t yet invented (1991) or popularized (1992 Olympics) the hatchet-shaped “Big Blade.” Rowers of the 60s, 70s, and 80s were still rowing with the spoon-shaped Macon blades. Spoon blades are lower load and reward a longer, more full-body stroke style. Hatchet blades are higher load, due to the greater surface area, and reward more early drive force from the lower body due to the bigger bottom edge of the asymmetrical shape.
Rowers used the bench pull for rowing training because it was the best available cross-training option at the time. The training landscape has totally changed since the 1990s with ergometers in every boathouse (and even many rowers’ living rooms or garages) for more specific, higher volume, year-round rowing training. The landscape changed again thanks to hatchet blades for a higher load, faster power development, and more lower body focused stroke technique. Our strength training must change with the equipment and sport training.
The main problems with the bench pull in the modern training landscape are:
- Low specificity to the rowing stroke (because it was originally for general cross-training only)
- It just develops the same muscles that are already strong from rowing training (which athletes do more of now thanks to ergs)
- It is itself an injury risk due to the direct loading of the chest wall
- There are just too many other better strength training exercises that rowers can do
The Problem of Specificity
The picture below shows me in the bench pull position (left) and then at the finish of the stroke (right). The only similarity between the two is that my arms are bent to roughly the same degree. In the bench pull, the entire body is supported, the torso is relaxed, we aren’t transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and we’re pulling from a dead-stop position. At the finish of a rowing stroke, the body is supported only by the seat and foot stretchers, the torso muscles are working hard to keep you upright, we are transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and we’re pulling with momentum. Even though the bench pull develops some of the same muscles used in the rowing stroke, it does so in a way far too non-specific to carry over to the rowing stroke.
There are coaches who omit the arms-only part of the pick drill because it doesn’t sufficiently apply to the stroke and teaches athletes to break their arms when catching the water. Apply this same logic to the bench pull and other strength training exercises. Most coaches spend a lot of time coaching athletes away from the shoulders-up position and using early arm bend. I don’t want athletes to ingrain these errors further with strength training reps, plus getting stronger from those bad positions.
At best, the bench pull has low specificity for rowing as a very general cross-training exercise. At worst, it is ingraining bad habits that will just have to be undone with more coaching. It is a poor exercise for rowing training at a technical level because it conflicts with the technical demands of rowing training.
The Problem of Redundant Muscular Development
Two main things that strength training should achieve are building rowing performance through loading sport-specific movement patterns and building muscular balance to reduce injury risk by developing the muscles that rowing neglects. Without strength training to balance it, rowing will overdevelop the quadriceps, latissimus dorsi (lats), upper trapezius (traps), and biceps muscles. The bench pull emphasizes the same muscles of the lats, upper traps, and biceps, doing little to build other muscles important for long-term muscular health. Rowers who invest great amounts of training time and energy on the bench pull at the expense of other, more well-rounded strength training exercises will further overdevelop these muscles and underdevelop others. This is a lose-lose training proposition.
The Problem of Rib Stress Injuries
The upside of higher volume training (ergs) and higher load rowing (hatchet blades) is faster times (all contested world records in rowing have been set in the last 20 years). The downside is overuse injuries from all that training, particularly to the low back (most common injury) and rib cage (greatest cost in recovery time). Modern rowing strength training needs to protect rowers against risk of injury, and definitely not increase risk of injury further than the sport training is already doing.
In the bench pull, even if the athlete does correctly brace their torso through the lift, they are still putting the entire weight of the barbell as well as their bodyweight directly onto their rib cage.
Athletes often fail to brace their torso adequately to distribute force across their whole body, putting even more force directly onto the ribcage. It’s hard to breathe when cranking out bench pull reps, and supporting the weight while inhaling puts yet more pressure on the ribcage. This compression, coming from both sides of the rib cage, can directly cause and exacerbate rib stress injuries, as well as weaken the ribs for a future rib stress injury on the water or on the erg.
To make this worse, you often see programs scrimp on equipment with a sorry do-it-yourself job using wood and some weak foam padding or a yoga mat (at right). High weight or very high repetitions on unsafe equipment through a dysfunctional movement pattern is a recipe for injury.
Every lift has some injury risk, and it’s our job as coaches to find the ones that have the lowest risk for the highest reward so our athletes can benefit from the training for a long, healthy, productive career in the sport. The bench pull does not offer enough benefit to the rowing stroke and is itself too great of an injury risk to justify its place in rowing strength training programs.
Other Coaches Who Ditched the Bench Pull
It’s not just me! Here are the words of some other rowers and coaches whose opinions I trust and respect on why they don’t use the bench pull for rowing, and what they use instead.
Blake Gourley, TrainOar.com
“The bench pull is outdated, dysfunctional, and unsafe. When choosing exercises it’s always important to choose exercises that can be done well with good technique, challenge the athlete, and improve their movement skills. The bench pull doesn’t fit into anyone of these categories. There are far better options that I would suggest including DB rows, TRX Rows, Landmine Rows, Renegade Rows, etc.”
Sara Hendershot-Lombardi, Olympian
“My #1 complaint on the bench pull is its lack of functionality. Having a bench between yourself and the object you’re trying to create power through doesn’t happen in any sort of real life movement, and definitely not in rowing. Rather than needing to brace your core to stabilize, most people leave their core off and just yank at the weight. My other biggest problem is that scapular control is usually forgotten here. Instead of keeping the shoulder blades retracted throughout the entire movement, there is usually some internal rotation of the shoulder and the shoulder comes out of the socket at the bottom of each pull. Often because the weight is too heavy and/or the rower has to reach to pick up the weight off the ground.”
Marlene Royle, RoyleRow.com
“Bench pulls have been a traditional rowing exercises for years, but with strength training and injury prevention developed to much higher levels, it is important to re-evaluate whether it’s really benefiting our athletes in light of the risk factors. Or, we can spend time performing more productive, safer exercises that are more beneficial for our rowers.”
Karen Calara, Aligned and Balanced Rowing
“The bench pull is f***ing stupid.”
When pressed, Karen added: “Not only is the exercise not specific and potentially injurious, as the athletes fatigue and lose form, they sequence their muscles in a pattern detrimental to the rowing stroke, bypassing the hamstrings and glutes. These muscles are important in the body swing for power and stabilization of the trunk for the arms to work in the finish, and training without them doesn’t make sense.”
If You Must Bench Pull for Rowing…
The decision to bench pull for rowing is out of the hands of many rowers and coaches, and up to those who design rowers’ training and determine what exercises matter to them for performance and selection criteria. Whatever the reason, if you must bench pull for rowing, I believe there are a few ways that we can modify the exercise to improve benefit and reduce injury risks.
Many of these modifications will result in decreasing how much weight rowers can use in this exercise, or how many reps they can achieve at the same weights as before. I see this as beneficial, because less weight means less stress on the ribcage. Rowers can train this way to get more from the exercise with less risk of injury, and then switch to a different technique that allows them to get more weight or reps if necessary for testing or selection. In my experience, rowers are more successful making the technique change in this direction than always training with the technique for maximum output.
First, use a padded bench to cushion the ribcage from some of the impact and pressure. No wood planks and yoga mats.
Second, use blocks to adjust the starting height for each rower based on arm length. The rower should be able to hang the arms down and grasp the bar without reaching or rolling the shoulders forward into a compromised position.
Third, treat the bench pull like an actual good strength training exercise. Use good technique, initiating the pull with the lats and keeping the shoulders down with no arching of the back and neck or kicking with the lower body to complete additional reps. Use a 2-to-1 lowering-to-lifting tempo that emphasizes control of the exercise and a good muscular stimulus when lowering and lifting each rep. Use full range-of-motion, contacting the plates to the blocks at the bottom of each rep and the bar to the bench at the top of each rep. For a bonus, use a pad or pool noodle around the middle of the bar. This is a great tactile cue for the athlete to squeeze the pad into the bench at the top position of maximum contraction on each rep.
Don’t sacrifice technique, tempo, or range-of-motion just to get more weight or more reps. Terminate the set at or before the point of technical failure, or the point at which the rower can’t achieve any more reps with good technique, rather than training past this point to muscular failure.
Watch my video in the next section below for demonstration of these key technique points and common errors.
Better Options than the Bench Pull for Rowing
There are so many other horizontal pulling exercises that rowers can do with greater benefits and less risk of injury than the bench pull. In my video below, I demonstrate several of these and explain their advantages over the bench pull for rowing performance and reduced risk of injury. In general, my preferences come down to two main factors. I want rowers to be challenged at the level of athletic coordination by the strength training exercises we choose.
Exercises like the bodyweight row (and the chin-up in the vertical plane) have the rower move their body through space, coordinating movement at the hips, trunk, and shoulders for greater athletic development than lying prone. There are a dozen bodyweight row exercise variations we can use to keep this exercise challenging and engaging for rowers of all levels. Single-arm exercises like the dumbbell row and landmine row encourage even development of the left and right sides of the body. These exercises do not load the ribcage and therefore reduce the risk of rib stress injury. If the rower can tolerate some ribcage loading, I prefer to use variations of the dumbbell batwing row to increase challenge of the shoulder stabilizer muscles with greater effective range-of-motion and better muscular development.
Watch my video below for demonstrations of these exercises and their uses in a rowing strength training program.
Last updated March 2023.