Kroc Rows- What They Are and How to do Them Properly for Massive Strength Gains
I started performing heavy dumbbell rows back in college but never realized how important they were until I stopped doing them.
In 2002 I graduated from college, bought my first home, moved halfway across the state, started a new job, and we had Maxx, the third of our three sons. Due to the move, I had to begin training in a commercial gym for the first time in years, and I inadvertently stopped doing heavy dumbbell rows in favor of some new equipment I now had available to me.
I was a little over a month out of the 2002 USAPL Nationals and had some heavy deadlift singles programmed in my training. I was anxious to see where my strength was and I was expecting good things. Unfortunately, for the first time in my competitive career, I had the bar slip out of my hands on all of my heavy singles.
I was pulling around 700 pounds at the time and had never run into grip issues before, so it befuddled me that I was losing my grip at lockout once the weights got heavy. I was ripping the bar off the floor only to have it peel its way from my hands right at the top.
After the training session I went home and tried to figure what had changed in my training that could account for such a dramatic loss in grip strength. I poured over my training logs from the previous several months and realized the only significant change was the deletion of dumbbell rows from my training.
I quickly added them back in, and at Nationals a little over a month later I went 9 for 9 and pulled all three deads without any grip issues whatsoever.
From that point on I was committed to keeping dumbbell rows as a core element of my back training. The commercial gym I was training at, however, only had dumbbells that went up to 150 pounds, so since I couldn't increase the weight, I began going for rep PRs (personal records). The led me to performing sets of 20-30 reps without straps.
Shortly after this I started putting together my own garage gym, so I went looking for the biggest dumbbells I could find. I found a pair of handles from Iron Mind Inc. that I could squeeze 225 pounds onto by using vice grips on the ends instead of collars. I was knocking out the 225s for sets of 25 reps and my upper back size and strength increased significantly. I also noticed my grip strength had grown by leaps and bounds and I could hang onto any deadlift no matter how heavy or how long it took me to pull it.
How They Became "Kroc Rows"
Around this time I became part of the EliteFTS team and traveled to London, Ohio to train at the infamous compound with Dave Tate and Jim Wendler. During my first training session there, I performed a set of dumbbell rows for 225x25, and afterward Wendler asked me why I was doing them so heavy and for such high reps.
I explained to Jim how when performed this way they vastly improved my grip strength and how the extra upper back strength and size had carried over to strengthen my deadlift lockout. He added them to his training, noticed the same gains I had, and started recommending them to other powerlifters-and all of them reported the same increases in upper back strength and size with improved grip strength as well. In fact nearly all of them saw their deadlift maxes go up as well.
At this point Jim began referring to them as "Kroc Rows" and I continued to push the boundaries of how much weight could be used on them. The exercise caught people's attention and I began getting requests to perform them at expos and strength seminars. This culminated in me doing an exhibition with them in the MuscleTech booth at the Arnold Classic in 2010 where I rowed a 300 pound specially made dumbbell for 13 repetitions.
My brother Kurt who is an iron worker and 800 plus deadlifter himself found a pair of 36" long double threaded bolts that were actually used for anchoring large buildings. They were made from hardened steel and were long enough and strong enough to hold the amount of weight I needed. He welded inside collars onto them and I began working toward the 300 pound plus rows I am now known for.
It is no coincidence that this was the same period of time that my deadlift climbed from around 700 pounds to well over 800, all the while remaining in the 220 pound class. My upper back width and thickness increased dramatically as did my forearm and grip strength. This exercise can be beneficial to powerlifters, bodybuilders, strongman/woman competitors, and anyone else looking for strength that carries over well to moving heavy objects in everyday life. I have used my back and grip strength to carry engine blocks, furniture, washers, and even a fully loaded refrigerator all by myself. This is strength that will not only make you much more powerful on the platform but also in the real world as well.
Anyone that has ever watched me perform these rows or tried them themselves knows that this isn't the dumbbell row that your golf shirt wearing, buck-o-five weighing, certified personal trainer at the local purple and yellow gym has taught you how to do.
Proper technique on these rows isn't "pulling back in an arc" or "squeezing for a two-count at the top" while holding a shiny chrome or rubber coated 15 pound dumbbell. No, Kroc Rows are all about heavy weight, high reps, plenty of sweat, and maybe sometimes even a bit of blood.
However, what most people get wrong with Kroc Rows is that they interpret this to mean that just getting the dumbbell moving up and down in any fashion is okay and cheating the weight up is acceptable. This misconception even led one misinformed self proclaimed fitness guru to refer to Kroc Rows as the "Kipping Pull up" of the strength training world. The reality is while the form is very different from a conventional dumbbell row the technique itself is actually quite important to reaping maximum gains.
Kroc Rows can be performed with one knee and hand on a flat bench or by bracing one hand on a stable roughly waist high object like the end of a dumbbell rack, other piece of sturdy gym equipment, or any other solid structure that helps you stabilize your body. However, I have found once you're strong enough to start using over 200 pound dumbbells for this you will need to find equipment or turn the dumbbell in a manner which allows you to achieve full range of motion without coming in contact with whatever you're using to brace yourself.
Your shoulders should be kept slightly higher than your hips and your upper back should be at approximately a 15 degree angle to the floor. Think of an adjustable incline bench on its lowest setting-that's the angle you're shooting for-which will focus the movement primarily on your upper back, right where we want it. Instead of pulling in an arc the dumbbell is pulled straight up and back until in contacts the lower part of the rib cage. The shoulder is pulled up and rearward until the shoulder blades are squeezed together at the top of the movement to ensure the upper back is making a full contraction. At the bottom of the movement the shoulder is stretched downward allowing a full extension of the lats and maximum range of motion.
Contrary to popular belief the weight is moved smoothly throughout the range of motion and never jerked up from the bottom. Another common mistake is dipping the upper body down at the top of the movement in order to get the dumbbell to contact the lower part of the rib cage. Both jerking the weight up and dipping down at the top take away from the actual work being performed and as such significantly reduce the benefit of the exercise.
Is it Okay to Use Straps?
I have actually found that it is most beneficial to perform Kroc Rows both with and without straps and typically rotate between the two methods weekly. One week I perform them without straps to really hit my grip strength hard and the next week I use straps to maximize the amount of weight I can use to really push my upper back musculature to its limit. If you're strictly a bodybuilder and don't care about building grip or real world strength then you can still reap the size building benefits while using straps. While I have hit 175x40 and 205x30 sans straps there is no way I could have rowed my PR of 300x13 without using them. Using both styles has allowed me to maximize both my upper back and grip strength.
Sets and Reps
Regarding sets and reps I have found the greatest benefit by working up to one all out AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set with each arm after a couple of warm up sets. Personally, I typically do a light set of 80x10, and then a second medium set of 150x10 before hitting my AMRAP set. I keep a record in my training log and always go for rep PRs. I recommend using a weight that allows you to get 20 reps but increasing the weight once you hit 30 reps. You can of course change things up occasionally and go for a heavy set of 10 reps or do something crazy like the 100 rep set I once performed.
Performed with maximum weights for high reps to complete exhaustion will leave you gasping like a long drop set of squats but this is where the physical and psychological benefits of really digging down and pushing yourself come to fruition. Be warned these aren't for the faint of heart but for those of you willing to take it to that next level these can be a game changer that are well worth the extra effort. Kroc Rows have long been a cornerstone of my back training that played a significant role in me having the biggest deadlift in my class at powerlifting worlds as well as the biggest back on the bodybuilding stage and if you're willing to suffer they can do the same for you.
-Ensure a full range of motion by fully extending the shoulder at the bottom of the movement and really pulling it up and back at the top.
-Your shoulders should be kept higher than your waist and your upper back should be at approximately a 15 degree angle to the floor.
-Row the dumbbell in a straight line from directly below your chest up to the lower portion of your rib cage.
-You can perform Kroc Rows with one hand and knee on a bench or standing with your non-rowing hand braced on something sturdy.
-Rotate between performing Kroc Rows with and without straps to benefit both your grip and upper back strength as much as possible.
-After two to three warm up sets, go all out for one max set attempting to hit either a weight or rep PR shooting for at least 20 reps per set.
-Perform Kroc Rows with as much weight as possible striving to go to absolute muscular failure on the final set to reap the most benefit possible.