In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to build a bigger, stronger back with Kroc rows. The Kroc row is a special type of 1-arm dumbbell row performed with heavy weights, high reps and plenty of momentum or “body English.”
Here is a perfect video demonstration:
The Kroc row was invented by the world-class powerlifter Matt Kroc in the early 2000’s. Matt had a huge weakness in his deadlift that prevented him from deadlifting more than 700 pounds.
Unlike most powerlifters Matt was weak at the top part of the deadlift. He could deadlift any amount of weight off the ground. However, he had a very hard time locking the weight out and finishing the deadlift once it crossed his knees.
Matt tried every exercise he could think of to attack his lockout weakness in the deadlift. He tried rack pulls, reverse band pulls, even deficit deadlifts. All of these exercises made his deadlift stronger overall but they did nothing to help his lockout weakness in the deadlift. Eventually Matt started experimenting with heavy 1-arm dumbbell rows.
Some of his all-time records included rowing a 140 pound dumbbell for 40 reps and a 225 pound dumbbell for 25 reps.
The results were shocking: Matt’s lockout weakness in the deadlift completely disappeared! From that point on Matt made Kroc rows his primary upper back assistance exercise. With Kroc rows in his program Matt went on to deadlift over 800 pounds and break the all-time powerlifting world record total in the 220 pound weight class.
The bottom line is Kroc rows are easily one of the best upper back assistance exercises you can perform. Here are some of the biggest benefits of Kroc rows:
- Improved grip strength
- Improved upper back size and strength
- Improved deadlift lockout strength
- Improved bicep strength
- Improved cardiovascular conditioning
- Improved mental toughness
Talk about a most bang-for-your-buck exercise! In order to get the most out of the Kroc row you need to really understand the technique that Matt uses on this exercise.
Let’s take another look at Matt performing the Kroc row:
In my opinion this is the best Kroc row video available anywhere in the world. Matt’s technique in this video is absolutely perfect. There are three things you need to focus on when performing Kroc rows:
- Get a full stretch on every rep!
- Get a full contraction on every rep!
- Perform 1 all-out set of 15-40 reps!
- How To Program Kroc Rows For Size And Strength!
That’s it! OK, things are a little more complicated than that. Let’s take a closer look at each of these points.
Tip #1: Matt Kroc Says Get A Full Stretch On Every Rep!
The most important part of the Kroc row is the deep stretch you get in the bottom position of the exercise. On every rep Matt focuses on getting a huge stretch in his lats and traps by letting his shoulder drop as low as possible. There is a ton of research showing that loaded stretches are an incredibly powerful way to stimulate strength and size gains.
There are a few other things you can do to get the most out of the deep stretch on Kroc rows. The first thing you can do is play with the position of your hips. If you are rowing with your left arm then you want your left hip to be as high as possible.
I want you to imagine that your left hip is tied to a string coming from the ceiling!
When you lower your left arm the string is pulling your left hip up towards the ceiling! This will increase the stretch on your lats in the bottom position. You also want to focus on using a slow, controlled negative phase on each rep. I want you to imagine your upper back muscles are giant braking mechanisms that are slowing the dumbbell down!
Going slower on the way down does 2 things. First of all it helps you to get a bigger stretch on your upper back muscles. This is because you can go deeper into the stretch if you are going at a slow, controlled pace. Using controlled negatives will also help you to eccentrically overload your upper back muscles.
There is a ton of research showing that slow eccentric contractions are unbelievably effective for building size and strength. I suggest you take advantage of this research and control the lowering phase of your reps on Kroc rows!
Tip #2: Matt Kroc Says Get A Full Contraction On Every Rep!
A lot of people believe that Matt is using sloppy form when he performs an all-out set of Kroc rows. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact Matt works very hard to get a full contraction in his upper back muscles on every rep.
Just take a look at the following video:
On every rep Matt is getting a full contraction in his back. He pulls his elbow back into his body and the dumbbell practically hits his torso on every rep. You can’t get more range of motion than that! If you want to get a full contraction on every rep then you need to understand how Matt uses momentum or “body English” on this exercise.
When Matt starts the lifting or concentric phase of the exercise his arm is completely straight. He starts the movement by pulling his torso up and back. It is almost like he is doing a deadlifting motion to build up some momentum with the dumbbell.
His arm stays straight while he is deadlifting the dumbbell up.
Once the dumbbell is moving fast enough Matt rapidly rows his elbow back into his body. The Kroc row is really a hybrid between a deadlift and a 1-arm dumbbell row!
The benefit of performing your rows this way is you get a peak contraction with a very, very heavy weight. This places an extreme overload on all of your upper back muscles including your lats, traps and rhomboids. You also get a ton of carryover to the lockout portion of your deadlift.
Tip #3: Matt Kroc Says Perform 1 all-out set of 15-40 reps!
Kroc rows are one of the most difficult exercises you can perform in the gym. After just 1 set you will be completely exhausted and gasping for air. You are a crazy man if you think you can perform multiple sets per arm!
Instead I recommend you perform 1 all-out set of 15-40 reps per arm. This matches what Matt Kroc did during his competitive powerlifting career.
Don’t worry, you will still gain strength extremely fast with the higher rep ranges because you are lifting an extremely heavy weight. I think you will be shocked at how sore your entire upper back gets the day after your first Kroc row workout.
Tip #4: How To Program Kroc Rows For Size And Strength!
It’s very important that you understand how to incorporate Kroc rows into your long-term training program. In my opinion Matt Kroc figured out the best way to train this exercise.
As a powerlifter Matt trained using a 4 days per week upper body / lower body split. Each week he performed 1 all-out set of Kroc rows on one of his upper body training days.
Matt would perform his Kroc rows with lifting straps one week and then without lifting straps the next week. For example:
- Week 1: Straps
- Week 2: No Straps
- Week 3: Straps
- Week 4: No Straps
You can think of Kroc rows with straps and without straps as two different exercises. When you perform Kroc rows without straps you are primarily training your grip strength. Yes, your upper back will still get one hell of a workout. However, your grip strength is going to be the limiting factor.
Performing Kroc rows without straps is a great way to train your grip strength for the deadlift so you don’t drop the bar on your heaviest attempts. The Kroc row without straps is also less taxing on your body and much easier to recover from.
Performing Kroc rows with lifting straps is a completely different animal. The straps let you use extremely heavy weights and place a tremendous overload on your upper back muscles. This variation is much more effective for overall size and strength gains but it is also much harder to recover from.
I recommend you use extremely high reps for your Kroc rows without straps and more moderate reps for your Kroc rows with straps. Here are some general guidelines:
- Kroc row with straps: 1 set of 15-30 reps
- Kroc row without straps: 1 set of 20-40 reps
Every time you perform a workout with Kroc rows you should write down how much weight you lifted in your training logbook. If you lifted 150 pounds for 25 reps with straps then you have to try and beat that performance next time. You can do this by increasing the weight or shooting for more reps.
I recommend you keep Kroc rows in your program as long as you continue to beat the logbook. Don’t worry, you are only repeating each variation (with or without straps) once every 2 weeks so you probably won’t plateau for a long time.
Once you hit a wall and stop making progress I recommend you take a break from Kroc rows for a few weeks. When you are feeling ready throw Kroc rows back into your program and aim for a new record.
It’s OK if you start a little below your previous PR. That is perfectly normal. Within a month or two you should be matching your old PRs and surpassing your previous weights.
Kroc rows are easily one of the best upper back accessory exercises of all time. They were a key exercise in Matt Kroc’s training program when he broke the all-time powerlifting world record in the 220 pound weight class. Eventually Matt worked up to an Earth-shattering 310 pounds x 13 reps on this exercise at the Arnold Sports Festival!
Here is Matt rowing 300 x 7 in his home gym. Check it out:
Talk about incredible!
If you want to increase the size and strength of your upper back or improve your deadlift lockout strength then you have to give the Kroc row a shot.
Just remember: the Kroc row is an advanced exercise. You need to have at least 2 years of training experience before you attempt this exercise. If that describes you then I highly recommend you give it a shot.
Let’s finish with one of my favourite quotes from Matt Kroc:
“Hard work is a choice that anyone can make. But many would rather make excuses. Their lives are substandard because they’ve chosen the path of least resistance.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your strength training journey!
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