I’ve mentioned several times on the Strength Coach Roundtable as well as in a few different articles my disdain–no, my hatred–of the bench pull (also referred to as the “seal row”) exercise, but I’ve never fully written out the case against it. The bench pull is the single most overrated and dangerous lift in rowing. It has low specificity to rowing, is a known cause and risk of rib stress fractures, and there are too many other exercises superior to the bench pull to make it worth doing.
#1. The bench pull has low specificity to the rowing stroke
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. In the bench pull, your entire body is supported, your torso is relaxed, you aren’t transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’re pulling from a dead-stop position. At the finish of a rowing stroke, your body is supported only by the seat and foot stretchers, your torso muscles are working hard to keep you upright, you are transmitting force from your feet to the implement, and you’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. We spend too much time at practice trying to get rowers to stop doing exactly that to want to have them practice catching with their arms, plus to get stronger at doing it.
At best, the bench pull has low specificity, at worst, it is ingraining bad habits that will just have to be undone with more coaching.
#2. The bench pull just develops the same muscles that are already strong from rowing
The two things that strength training should do are build rowing performance through loading sport-specific movement patterns and build 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.
#3. The bench pull itself is an injury risk
I’ve just established in point #1 that the bench pull does not improve rowing performance, now we’ve learned that it also doesn’t build muscular balance to reduce injury risk. The nail in the coffin of the bench pull is that it is, itself, an injury risk for rib stress fractures.
Rib stress fractures cause the most lost practice time of any rowing injury. Low back pain is more prevalent of an injury, but recovers faster and thus results in less lost practice time. 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.
Most often, they are not bracing their torso, putting even more force directly onto the skeleton. This compression, coming from both sides of the rib cage, can directly cause rib stress fractures or weaken the ribs for a future rib stress fracture on the water or on the erg.
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 enjoy a healthy and productive career.
To make this worse, you often see programs scrimp on equipment by doing a sorry do-it-yourself job using wood and some weak foam padding, or in this case a duct taped yoga mat. Maximum weight or insanely high repetitions on unsafe equipment through a dysfunctional movement pattern is a recipe for injury.
#4. More coaches who have also ditched the bench pull
Blake Gourley, RowingStrength.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, Rowfficient
“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 its 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.”
#5. There are far too many other exercises that are better than the bench pull for rowing
The argument for the bench pull becomes even more absurd when you consider how many other superior exercises there are to strengthen the mid-back and arms of the athlete in a way that is both safer and specific to the rowing stroke. Here are the main back exercises I use instead of bench pulls.
- Batwing row: Yes, at first glance this does look just like a bench pull with dumbbells. However, the dumbbells make the load lower, the range-of-motion longer, and the emphasis on the postural muscles of the mid-back higher, and we do it for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps, often with a 1-second hold at the top, not for max weight or max reps.
- X-band row: These start off lighter and get heavier toward the lockout due to the tension of the bands, making them a fantastic strengthener of the back and arms. The bands emphasize the squeeze of the back muscles rather than the jerking motion of the bench pull, plus the athlete has to support their torso in the kneeling or half-kneeling position. These can also be done on a cable machine if you do not have bands.
- Inverted bodyweight row: Another of my favorites, this is an excellent exercise to strengthen the back and arms with zero load on the ribcage, plus the athlete has to support their torso in the reverse plank position and learn how to keep their torso tight and heels connected to transmit force. The torso stability requirement makes it much more applicable to rowing, and the much lower spinal load makes it a much safer exercise.
- The TRX suspension trainer or gymnastics ring version is even better.
- Strict/Pendlay row: This is the one I use the least, but if you need a heavy pulling exercise in your program, the Pendlay row is what you want. Just look at it and you can see the similarity to the rowing stroke. It won’t teach athletes to catch with the arms, does teach transmitting force from feet through torso to the implement, and you can lift heavier weights far more safely than a bench pull.
- Renegade row: I busted out the camera to film this one as well as the landmine row after Blake mentioned them. The Renegade row is a great lift because it teaches bracing of the whole body while generating force from the back. Unilateral exercises are also great for preventing left-right imbalances, common in sweeping.
- Landmine row and dumbbell row: Two more great lifts for unilateral training. To even out imbalances, make sure to do your weaker arm first and then only match that effort with your stronger arm. If you got 10 reps with your weaker arm, stop at 10 reps with your stronger arm. Even though you can do more, this would be just making the imbalance worse.