Row to Grow

A Closer Look at the Seated Row


So, how often do you train the other side of your chest, you know, that large group of muscles known as the back? Unfortunately, the muscles of the back are like the fat girl at the Playboy mansion – ignored. It's the mighty pecs that get all the attention. Of course, those of us who have been in the business for any length of time know that if you ignore the back – or the fat girl – she'll strike back with a vengeance.

In the case of the back, you'll create an imbalance between the back and chest that might come back and bite you in the form of multiple injuries. In the case of the fat girl... well, at worst, she'll spit in your food, but you get the picture.

Most of us probably made this mistake in the beginning and seldom balanced our pushing movements (benching) with our pulling exercises (rowing). In this article, Ian examines the seated row, one of the best exercises to correct this problem.

There are many traditions passed down in strength training and most of them are based on sound intuition. But in recent history, many of these traditions have been rudely discarded.

In fact, when scientists got involved with strength training and bodybuilding, it seemed their sole purpose was to search out and destroy all traditions! Their motto seemed to be, "We know better, and until we can prove it, everyone else must be wrong!" This is epitomized by certain holders of advanced degrees who believe that every accepted tradition in strength training is a fallacy unless they invented it or confirmed its worth.

Think about the mighty post-workout drink, an iron-game institution that was one of the targets for academics. Bodybuilders and athletes knew this was a sound practice long before science "proved" it to be so. Now, of course, science is confirming the benefits of a protein/carb post-training drink. Good thing we didn't listen to them two decades ago when they started throwing bombs at this practice!

You can see I have a great respect for the intuition and tradition that's been developed, refined, and passed on through the generations of participants in the iron game. However, when I see one that I don't feel is on track, I have no fear of calling it as I see it. Now, I don't come from an academic background when I make this call. Instead I'm just applying my intuition and experience as many have done before, and if I'm on track, then history will confirm my contribution to moving the steel.

The Cheated Row

One of those traditions not yet accepted by science is the use of cheating in weight training. One such movement, which I see with incredible consistency, including during my international travels, is the execution of the seated row in the cheat form. Now when I use the word "cheat," I'm recognizing a genuine category of technique, not denigrating it. Cheating techniques are legitimate techniques that have their time and place.

My definition of a cheat movement is simple: to use joints outside the target muscle groups to overcome the load. The rationale for this is to overload the strongest joint angle or to get through a weaker joint angle. This technique has a long history in strength training and may not be as "dangerous" as some would have you believe.

A cheat movement in a seated row would be done something like this: The knees are slightly bent and may not change angle during the movement. The trunk is flexed fully and then extended beyond the vertical as the bar/pulley is pulled toward the body using the arms and upper back. The bar/pulley is pulled to the chest or abdomen before being lowered back down to the fully flexed trunk, fully extended arm position, and fully protracted scapula position.

But does all this mean I think you should do cheated seated rows all the time? Literally interpreted, it would infer all movements should be done in a cheat form, all the time, but they rarely are done so. So why the seated row? The rationale often given for why the seated row is always done this way is, "The lats go down all the way to near the waist, so in order to train all the fibers and to get a full stretch you need to cheat."

Now, this is correct in part, and I can see where that line of thinking has come from, but I ask this in return: do you need to cover all fibers in the one exercise every time? In using this technique, do you miss out on anything? Let's address these questions:

Do you need to cover all fibers in the one exercise every time?

This would be akin to doing a bench press where the bench pivoted during the movement so you did a decline, flat, and incline all in the one exercise. (Now that could set off a few minds on designing such a machine!) No, I don't believe you need to cover all fibers in the one exercise. You can, but you don't need to. Later, I'll discuss the times I recommend you use the exercise in the cheat form and when to use it otherwise.

In using this cheat technique do you miss out on anything?

I believe you do miss out on other training benefits if you use this method all the time. You miss out on developing the following strength qualities, all of which should be included somewhere in your training career:

Overload and isolation of the upper back muscles, those that contribute to bringing the shoulder blades together (scapula retraction) in particular.

Strength development at the joint angles at the start of the concentric phase.

Poor control of a variable when load is increased.

The muscular work required towards the end of the concentric phase is potentially reduced by the use of momentum and other muscles (e.g. lower back) in a cheat form of the seated row. In many people, it isn't desirable to have this reduced load and training effect in the upper back muscles. They need to be strengthened to counter muscle imbalance potential associated with the more popular horizontal pushing movements such as the bench press. This is a major concern for me.

The second point is arguably more relevant to those who require strength (especially starting strength or the ability to initiate movement and overcome inertia) at certain joint angles. For the same reasons discussed above – the use of momentum and other muscle groups – this quality of strength isn't developed at this joint angle.

When you increase the load in a movement, you can only conclude you're getting stronger if all other variables in the prior movement are kept constant. A challenge with all cheat movements is the ability and likelihood that as the load is increased, so does the degree of cheating. Are you getter stronger or simply cheating more? I'm a strong believer in keeping most variables constant to allow an accurate cause-effect conclusion to be drawn. In other words, if the load is up, therefore strength is up.

Whilst some may be able to control the degree of cheating, for most it would be like saying, "But I'm only going to have three beers!" or "Can we just kiss and I'll stop there?" See what I mean? If you don't control the degree of cheating, then the lower back extensors may be the only muscles getting stronger from week to week!

I do believe the cheated seated row has benefits. It allows you to move a heavy load through a sticking point or weaker joint angle when the load being lifted is the criteria for success in that particular training phase (as in a max strength phase). A cheated row also allows you to cover all lat movements in one exercise, sort of a chin-up and a seated row all in one. This may come in handy when you're pressed for time or you want to keep the volume low.

As such, I'd support the cheated seated row in a variety of phases including maximal strength phases and in some hypertrophy phases such as those that included strip sets, at least on occasion. Keep in mind that I'd use the cheat technique more in pulling (flexion) movements that extension (pushing) movements as I suspect, based on the typical force curves of pulling and pushing movements, it's more needed in the pulling movement.

So would I recommend the cheated seated row be used? Of course! When would I use it and for how much of the total training time? Good questions. I don't recommend using the cheat form of seated rowing 100% of the time. I believe you miss out on other valuable training benefits if you do this. But rather than shoot it down and walk away, I'll give you my solutions. Not only will I give you the variations that I do use, but also the generalized percentages of time I'd use them. I'll also go a step further and factor in the impact of training age and provide a generalized multi-year model for allocation of training time to the different forms.

Keep in mind that when injury occurs, or when you're rehabilitating an injury that includes alteration of rowing style, frequency, or volume, you may need to ignore your overall training age and go back to an early year approach, even if only temporarily.


The following are the variations of the seated row I use. If you're familiar with my training philosophy, you'll realize that I believe your training career should include phases of all or at least most of these:

SRV1 (Seated RowVariation 1)– No scapula movement
SRV2 – 1/3 seated row
SRV3 – 2/3 seated row
SRV4 – Full arm extension/no significant protraction
SRV5 – Full arm extension/full protraction
SRV6 – Full arm extension and trunk flexion

Here's the rationale behind each:

SRV1 – No scapula movement

I like to use this variation early in the year or career, and definitely in situations where improvement or rehab of scapula retraction is required. The arms can extend but absolutely no movement outwards (protraction) of the shoulder blades (scapula) is allowed. This usually means restricting the movement of the bar/cable in the eccentric phase to inches or fractions of inches. This movement can only be effectively performed by those who understand how to monitor scapula movement – not difficult to do, but it can be difficult to learn.

SRV2 – 1/3 seated row

This movement is a bit more adventurous but ideally is performed with full focus and attempts to minimize the outward movement of the shoulder blades. It's the next progression of the above. A 1/3 seated row is essentially a partial row where the bar/handle isn't allowed to move far away from the body.

SRV3 – 2/3 seated row

This movement is another step in pushing the ability of the shoulder blades to be kept still whilst extending the arms in the horizontal plane. Like the 1/3 seated row above, the 2/3 seated row is always done in the range closer to body.

SRV4 – Full arm extension/no significant protraction

This involves allowing the arms to go out or extend fully, but not allowing the shoulder blades any gross movements outwards at the end. Ideally the shoulder blades will be kept as retracted (pulled inwards) and as still as possible.

SRV5 – Full arm extension/full protraction

This is an obvious progression on the above. In addition to allowing the arms to fully extend, this variation has you relaxing the shoulder blades such that they travel outwards (horizontally) as far as they can without the trunk angle changing.

SRV6 – Full arm extension and trunk flexion

This is the way most do the row and historically the most popular version of the movement. In addition to allowing the arms to extend fully, the shoulder blades travel outwards as much as they can and the trunk is allowed to flex forward as far as is comfortable.

So when would you use each of the above? Generally speaking, I start a phase, year, and career with versions higher up this list of variation and work downwards over time. But this doesn't mean I'd start every phase or year at the first variation. The more advanced you get, the further along the continuum you'd commence.

Note that my definition of "advanced" isn't just a simple measurement of training age (how many years you've been training), but should also consider ability to control the scapula and ones muscle balance around the humerus. However, using simply the training age as a guide, generalized progressions may look like this:

Beginner: Start to finish of phase/year





Intermediate: Start to finish of phase/year




Advanced: Start to finish of phase/year





Again, generally speaking, I'd spend the following approximations in each of the seated row variations throughout a year or career:

SRV1 – 2.5%
SRV2 – 2.5%
SRV3 – 2.5%
SRV4 – 50%
SRV5 – 40%
SRV6 – 2.5%

Of course the variables discussed above (training age, scapula control and shoulder muscle balance) would influence this. Using the general guide of training age, an approximate allocation of rowing training volume might look like this:

SRV1 – 5%

SRV2 – 5%

SRV3 – 5%

SRV4 – 70%

SRV5 – 15%

SRV6 – 0%

SRV1 – 0%

SRV2 – 2.5%

SRV3 – 2.5%

SRV4 – 50%

SRV5 – 30%

SRV6 – 15%

SRV1 – 0%

SRV2 – 0%

SRV3 – 2.5%

SRV4 – 30%

SRV5 – 45%

SRV6 – 22.5%

Remember the above is just a rough guideline; don't get too caught up with the numbers!

Now, what impact will these seated row variations have on recommended reps and movement speeds? Generally speaking, I use higher reps in the earlier variations and lower reps in the latter variations. The following table outlines this:

SRV1: 15-30 reps, 422/421 SOM (speed of movement or tempo)*

SRV2: 10-20 reps, 421/312 SOM

SRV3: 8-20 reps, 312/311 SOM

SRV4: 6-20 reps, 311/211 SOM

SRV5: 4-20 reps, 211/201 SOM

SRV6: 1-20 reps, 201/20* SOM


Note that these variations don't necessarily have to be performed in exclusion. More than one variation can be used in one training stage. Here are a few examples:

Combination 1A – Stability/control

This is ideal in the stability/control phase (early on in the year or program) of a person with lower training age or muscle imbalance/rehab needs. It focuses on the isolated ability to control the shoulder blades and then progresses to variations with (slightly) lower quality of control requirements.

SRV1 x 10 reps @ 422

SRV2 x 10 reps @ 421

SRV3 x 10 reps @ 321

Combination 1B – Stability/control

This is a subtle variation on the above and may be the combination of choice for the next level of advancement upon return to this type of phase, i.e. a general preparatory phase in an intermediate person. As the person becomes more fatigued through the strip set, the expectations of shoulder control actually increase.

SRV3 x 10 reps @ 422

SRV2 x 10 reps @ 421
SRV1 x 10 reps @ 321

Combination 2A – Hypertrophy/general strength

This is a strip set that goes from strict to cheat variations, which also suits the fatigue pattern. This is an ideal hypertrophy/general strength combination for someone who responds to higher reps/longer time under tension/greater degree of metabolic focused strength training.

SRV3 x 6-8 reps @ 321

SRV4 x 8-12 reps @ 311

SRV5 x 10-12 reps @ 211

Combination 2B – Hypertrophy/general strength

This is a standard set approach with similar progression to above (from strict to cheat variations) but as it's performed in more traditional standard set fashion with greater recovery (it allows more metabolic and neural recovery). This is more suited to someone whose training response is more optimal with a mixture of metabolic and neural focus.

SRV1: 2 x 6-8 reps @ 321; resting 2-3 minutes between sets

SRV2: 2 x 10-12 reps @ 311; resting 2 minutes between sets

SRV3: 2 x 15-20 reps @ 211; resting 1 minute between sets

Combination 2C – Hypertrophy/general strength

This is again a standard set approach. Unlike the two variations above, this variation begins with "end of continuum" variations (shorter duration rep cycles) and progresses to longer duration reps with greater strictness. This may be more suited to a more advanced trainee whose training response is more optimal with a prioritization of neural training.

SRV6: 2 x 5-6 reps @ 321; resting 3-4 minutes between sets

SRV5: 2 x 8-10 reps @ 311; resting 2-3 minutes between sets

SRV4: 2 x 10-12 reps @ 211; resting 1-2 minutes between sets

Note: As for body position, I recommend you start all seated rows with the knees slightly bent (this angle never changes) and the trunk angle slightly behind the vertical. In SRV1-5, this trunk angle never changes.


The most important focus in all the rows is to aim to squeeze the shoulder blades together as much as you can. Without this finishing focus, I feel you're missing the most important aspect of the row.

And, when executing the finish, the most common flaw I see is an extension of the spine at the thoracic (chest) level. The spine at this level shouldn't change position, and doing so may reduce the role of the upper back muscles responsible for bringing the shoulder blades together. The only trunk position change should be the flexion extension in the lumbar (lower back) during SRV6, and a degree of flexion in the thoracic spine in SRV5. Don't allow trunk extension beyond the neutral spine position, even in SRV5, as you perform the concentric phase of the row.

So go forth and row to grow! And if you want to get all the fibers, do chins along with your rows!