For most trainees, “back day” typically includes at least one variation of the row. This pleases the strength coach in me as it shows at least some consideration of balanced programming. However, the meathead in me is often dismayed by the gross lack of effort put forth into these rows.
Doesn’t anyone watch Pumping Iron anymore? That scene of Arnold and Franco banging out heavy-ass sets of T-bar rows just weeks before the Mr. Olympia? When it comes to back training those guys absolutely brought it, and there’s a lot to be learned from that.
But what about lighter, controlled rowing variations? Are they even worth doing?
Good question. To that end, there are really two main reasons to do rows:
- To build a big back. This not only looks badass, it also helps provide a stable foundation for other compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and presses, thereby allowing you to lift more weight and in turn build more muscle all over.
- To counteract the vast amounts of bench pressing and slouching we do on a regular basis. This part isn’t nearly as sexy, but it’s still extremely important in terms of improving posture and warding off shoulder problems so that we can continue to train hard and remain injury-free.
So even if all you care about is point number 1, point number 2 should still be important to you because you can’t build serious muscle if you’re laid up with a shoulder injury. On the bright side, improving your posture will also go a long way towards making your chest appear bigger, so it’s not entirely unsexy.
While rows can certainly help with both these goals, training for size and training for optimal shoulder health and function aren’t the same. They aren’t mutually exclusive either, and there’s definitely some overlap, but different goals require different strategies.
The prescription for building a thick upper back via rows is pretty straightforward:
- Row big weights
- Eat big
- Row slightly bigger weights
- Rinse and repeat
Going back to point number 1, from a size perspective, good technique doesn’t appear to matter much. Often guys with the biggest backs, like the aforementioned Arnold and Franco, will sling massive weights with technique that would make the form police pull out their ticket books and have the YouTube warriors coming out of their parents’ basements in droves to cast stones.
That being said, it’s one thing if you’re trying to build elite level size and strength, in which case you may need to take some chances and push the limits. But for those who lead normal lives and want to balance getting bigger and stronger with staying healthy and pain-free, I strongly advocate using controlled form.
Bear in mind that I’m not coming at this from some holier-than-thou pedestal. I’ve conjured up my inner Franco and done more than my fair share of fugly rowing – if you even want to call it that – with heavy weights, and while I definitely packed on some muscle doing that, I’ve also hurt myself too.
The thing is, I’m hoping you can avoid my mistakes.
Look, you still need to focus on building strength and handling progressively heavier weights over time to pack on any appreciable amount of muscle, but your rows should always look like, well, rows – not a monkey humping a football.
For point number two, when the goal is improving posture and balancing out the shoulder girdle, form becomes of paramount importance. Bench pressing (and its variations) promotes scapular protraction and shoulder internal rotation, so to offset that we need to employ exercises that focus on scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation.
Rowing helps promote scapular retraction in theory, but you have to be meticulous with the form, and that can be hard to do when the weight gets really heavy.
Bottom line is some rowing variations lend themselves better to heavier loading while others are more “feel” movements. Both are important, and both have value. If all you did was heavy rowing all the time, you’d probably be pretty muscular, but you’d also be more susceptible to injury.
Conversely, if all you did was lighter “feel” exercises, you might be more injury-resistant, but you probably wouldn’t have much meat on your upper back.
The key, like with most things in life, is to strike a balance to give you the best of both worlds.
You’re likely familiar with the mass-building rowing staples – barbell rows, T-bar rows, heavy dumbbell rows, etc. – so I’ll use this article to share some more feel-type rowing movements that don’t necessarily lend themselves to crazy poundages, but will still pay big dividends in your training program. None of these exercises require any specialized machines either, so they should be doable for most of you.
Don’t get me wrong, these exercises will still undoubtedly build muscle, so don’t think of it as boring prehabby-type stuff and just half-ass it and go through the motions. You should still be pushing hard and looking to add weight and/or reps over time, but only as long as it still looks good and you feel the right muscles – namely the lower traps, middle traps, and rhomboids – doing the work.
On that note, think about keeping your shoulders “down and back” and pulling with your elbows, not your hands, and avoid shrugging your shoulders up as you row. It also really helps to pause each rep at the point of contraction and really focus on squeezing the mid-back to ensure that you’re using the intended muscles and not just relying on momentum.
Without further ado, here are the exercises.
1 – Batwing Rows
I first learned about batwings from Dan John. It’s essentially an isometric chest-supported dumbbell row where you focus on retracting your scapula and pulling your elbows back as hard as you can.
Batwing rows are similar, except one arm does an isometric hold while the other rows. It also helps to do them on an incline bench to allow your arms to extend fully during the rows without touching the floor.
Do each rep slowly and deliberately with a full range of motion and an exaggerated contraction. If you’re doing them correctly, you should feel a huge burn in your upper back.
Remember that you have to do both sides, so err on the light side at first as far as weight is concerned and make sure you’re nowhere near failure after the first arm because it catches up to you quickly. As a point of reference, if you’re using 40-50 pound dumbbells, you’re doing very well for yourself. Start around 20-30 pounders and go from there.
As an added bonus, this also functions as a nice core exercise too, as you have to brace to keep from rotating on the bench.
2 – Chest Supported Row/Reverse Fly Combo
Lame name, I know. I’m not good with thinking up cool names for exercises, so if you’ve got something better, I’m open to suggestions.
This is a great exercise though, so frankly, I don’t care what it’s called.
Lie face down on an incline bench with dumbbells in each hand, just like with the batwing row. From there, row up, straighten your arms out to the sides and slowly lower down to the starting position in a reverse fly motion.
Here’s what it looks like in action.
From a muscle-building standpoint, this exercise gives you the benefits of rowing for the upper back while also allowing you to overload the rear delts with more weight than you’d otherwise be able to use if you just did reverse flies on their own.
From a shoulder health standpoint, it kills two birds with one stone, allowing you to work the scapular retractors and shoulder external rotators in one movement.
That’s a win-win.
3 – Decline Inverted Rows
Inverted rows with suspension straps are not only an awesome back builder, they’re also great from a shoulder health standpoint because they target both scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation at once.
The shoulders are free to move through a natural range of motion as the hands move from pronated (palms down) to supinated (palms up), which introduces an external rotation component while you perform a closed-chain row.
If that wasn’t enough bang for your buck, it’s also one hell of a core exercise.
A typical progression would be to start with your feet on the floor, move to elevating your feet on a standard weight bench, and then start adding external load.
If you’re to the point of adding weight though, you might also want to try elevating your feet on a higher box to make it harder and change the angle of the pull.
When you elevate your feet on a standard weight bench, your body starts parallel to the floor when the arms are full extended, but as you row up, the head comes up higher than the feet.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I often do them that way myself, but one potential drawback is that there’s a strong tendency to cheat, especially when you’re trying to push yourself. The main problems I see are trying to create momentum by attempting to hump the ceiling, excessive shoulder shrugging, and poking the head way forward, which makes it nearly impossible to achieve full scapular retraction.
Elevating the feet higher seems to help take care of these issues and makes it easier to keep good form – provided you’re strong enough to do them, of course. You’ll end up pulling a little lower into your body than a typical inverted row too, which encourages keeping the shoulders down and does a better job of hitting the mid back.
Elevate the feet high enough so that your torso is parallel to the floor (or even at a slight decline) at the top of the rep as opposed to the bottom. Obviously the higher the box, the harder it is. Don’t go too high, though, as it will reduce the range of motion. A typical bench is usually between 16-18 inches, and even going to a 24-inch box makes a huge difference, as you can see in this video.
If you’re currently at a stage where you’re adding weight to inverted rows but still don’t feel that you’re getting much out them, or if you’re ignoring inverted rows altogether because you think you’re beyond them, give these a shot.
4 – Dumbbell Rows (1.5 Reps)
Dumbbell rows are a great exercise, but stronger lifters will often find that their gyms don’t have big enough dumbbells to accommodate them. If that’s the case, you’ve got a few options.
- Do a shitload of reps with the heaviest dumbbell available, a’la Kroc Rows.
- MacGyver a barbell and do one-arm T-bar rows to get a similar training effect with more loading potential. (See left.)
- Make a lighter weight harder by using “1.5 reps”.
All three of these choices could work in the right scenario, but since this article is focusing on lower weight “feel” type movements, I’ll focus on the “1.5” rep technique.
Row up, pause, come halfway down, row back up, pause again, and come all the way down. That’s one rep.
Confused? This video should help.
It won’t take much weight for these to be extremely challenging – especially if you refrain from using body English – and the “1.5” rep technique means more work for the scapular retractors. Try pulling lower into your body (just to the side of your belly button) to help reinforce the idea of keeping the shoulders down and back.
If you’re strict and don’t allow your torso to rotate, it’s also a great core exercise.
5 – Seated Barbell Band Rows
I actually came across this one almost by accident. One of my online personal training clients was looking for an exercise to mimic seated cable rows, but he didn’t have a cable machine or a specialized rowing handle in his home gym. With that in mind, I thought about it and went to the gym to mess around a little bit and try to figure something out, and this is what I came up with: seated barbell band rows.
I’m glad that happened because I really like this exercise, and even though I have a cable station, I’ve been doing them this way.
I like them for a couple of reasons:
- The bands offer accommodating resistance, so it’s harder at the point of contraction. While this doesn’t mimic the strength curve very well, it makes for one heck of a contraction and really forces you to accelerate through the row.
- Using a barbell forces you to keep your lats contracted throughout the set to keep the bar from tipping. You’ll have to try it to see what I mean, but the bar wants to wiggle around on you, so to keep that from happening, you have to brace your lats and core. It’s hard to describe, but the feeling is very different from using a specialized rowing handle.
- With a regular seated cable row, your feet are usually placed in front of you. This isn’t a problem necessarily, but it often leads to rounding at the lumbar spine on the eccentric phase if you aren’t careful or don’t have good hamstring flexibility. With this version, it’s much easier to keep a neutral spine.
- Because the barbell is heavier than a normal seated row handle, it works the shoulders quite a bit too. Think of doing an isometric front raise while you row.
- When you use a traditional close-grip “V” handle like most people when doing cable rows, it usually leads to internal rotation of the shoulder as you row into your stomach. With a wider grip, you can keep that from happening as much.
As far as the form goes, it’s almost identical to a regular seated cable row. I like to hold the barbell using a thumbless “false” grip because that helps me engage my back more and reinforces pulling through my elbows by literally making the hands function merely as hooks, but that’s just personal preference.
I realize this looks like a pretty wussy exercise, but I urge you to try it before rushing to judgment. It’s actually much tougher than you might think. To progress it, you can use a thicker band and/or move farther away from the anchor point. You can also add small weights to the end of the barbell, but don’t crazy as it’s not meant to be a shoulder exercise.
Pulling It All Together
Certainly, don’t abandon your basic heavy rows – and if you’re not doing them already, please start – but try adding some of these exercises into the mix to balance things out.
You could do them at the end of your workouts after your heavier upper body work to pull everything together (pun totally intended) or on separate days when you’re looking to build additional volume to correct imbalances you’ve already developed without stressing your body too much.
How you choose to implement them is up to you and will depend on the type of program you’re following, but just make sure you do some of this stuff to give you the optimal blend of upper back size and shoulder health to ensure you keep crushing it for the long haul.