Exercise Essentials, Part 5: Row

In this series of posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.

See also – Part 1: SquatPart 2: DeadliftPart 3: Chin-Up, Part 4: Overhead Press

What is a row?

Picture rowing a boat.  It’s like that.  The weight is in your hands, away from your chest.  You pull it to your torso.  This can be done in a near-infinite number of ways.

bent over barbell row

Why row?

The row is an excellent upper-body muscle builder.  Similar to the chin-up, the row is a “pull” exercise which primarily recruits the back muscles, rear deltoids, and biceps, as well as many stabilizers and accessory muscles.  The row, however, is what we call a horizontal pull (motion is perpendicular to the plane of the body), whereas the chin-up is a vertical pull (motion is parallel to the plane of the body).  Because of the different plane of motion, muscle activation is a bit different.  The row much more directly targets the muscles of the middle and upper back (trapezius, rhomboids), while the chin-up focuses more on the latissimus dorsi.  See picture!

back muscles

Back muscles, lots of them.

Anatomy lesson aside, the row is a great back builder (and biceps too), just like the chin-up.  No program is complete without both of these complementary back exercises.

Types of rows

The types of rows out there are nearly infinite.  Even the variations have variations.  For that reason, I will list some of the adjustable variables with rowing, rather than discrete exercises, which would take a long time.

  • Loading Type – Rows can be loaded with barbells, dumbbells, cables, bands, and more elaborate items like T- Bars.  All of these are good choices.  Rotate them for variety.

    bent over barbell row

    Bent barbell row (bilateral, unsupported, pronated grip)

  • Bilateral vs Unilateral – Some rows can be performed either with both arms (bilaterally) or with one arm at a time (unilaterally).  Again, either choice is fine.  Usually more loading is possible with bilateral exercises, but unilateral ones require more stabilizer support.

    One arm dumbbell row

    One arm dumbbell row (unilateral, hand-supported, neutral grip)

  • Support Type – Rows can be supported or unsupported.  A supported row gives you something to brace your body against: usually a pad for your chest (chest supported) or one hand braced on a bench (in the case of some one-arm rows).  Unsupported rows (like most bent-over rows) require more accessory and stabilizing muscles, but supported ones may focus on the prime movers more (back, biceps).

    chest-supported t-bar row

    Chest-supported t-bar row (bilateral, chest supported, pronated grip)

  • Grip - Grip can be pronated (palms down), supinated (palms up), neutral (palms facing each other), or anywhere in between.  Mix it up.  Supinated versions may recruit more bicep activity.

    Supinated bent over barbell rows (bilateral, unsupported, supinated grip)

    rope cable row

    Cable row (bilateral, semi-supported, pronated rope grip)

  • Elbow Angle – Most variations can be performed with various angles between the side of the torso and the upper arm.  You may row with the elbows tucked close to the body, or with the elbows out at right angles to the body, or anywhere in between.  Keeping the elbows out wider may increase your ability to recruit the back musculature, but decrease the amount of weight you can use.

What about vertical rows?  I’m not a big fan.  Many people like them, and some smart coaches still use them from time to time, but they are rough on your shoulders and are outlawed by many a learned strength coach.  In my opinion, they don’t offer anything that I cannot get via another exercise, so I avoid them just to be safe.

Performing a row correctly

With any overhead press variation, there are several important things to remember about form.

  • Use a full range of motion – Each repetition should begin with weight at arm’s length and shoulder blades protracted (separated, not pulled together).  A full rep should come to chest level, or get very close, depending on the grip used.  At full contraction, shoulder blades should be fully retracted (pulled together) and depressed (pulled down toward your back pockets).
  • Begin each rep with the scapulae – Before your arms even begin to move, initiate each pull by retracting and depressing your shoulder blades (squeezing them together and pulling them down towards your butt).  Only after beginning with the shoulder blades do you continue the movement.
  • Pull through the elbows – Focus on pulling through the elbows rather than the hands.  This helps people recruit more back musculature.
  • Brace your core – No excessive lower back arching or rounding.  Bent rows in particular make you want to round that back.
  • Tuck your chin – At higher difficulty levels, lifters tend to want to stick their head and neck forward like a turtle.  Keep your head back and neck in neutral position.
  • Don’t shrug - Some lifters struggle to avoid “shrugging” during a row (the shoulders drift up towards the ears).  Avoid this by following point number two (retract and depress your shoulder blades to start each rep).

Here’s a great video from “the smartest man in fitness,” Bill Hartman, on perfect form for rows:  (46 seconds, highly recommended)


Take home points on rowing

  • The row is a great upper body muscle builder and complements the chin-up for full back development
  • There a ton of adjustable variables to play with when rowing, each with subtly different action.  Mix and match for best results.