Are you a powerlifter? Increase your row and you’ll bench more. Do you fight? A stronger row means harder strikes and a tighter defense. Just training for life? A stronger row will improve shoulder health, posture, and general performance.
Done correctly, the row variations below are probably all you’ll ever need in this exercise category. So whether you need to build a foundation, work around a low back or shoulder injury, or simply have forgotten the basics, one or all of these exercises will literally get your back on track.
1 – T-Bar Row
The T-bar row is a true classic and one of the best overall row exercises. Yes, it’s the one you saw Arnold perform in Pumping Iron.
It requires you to use your lower back and hips to stabilize the trunk while you perform rows using your upper back muscles. So, in addition to building pulling strength and your upper back, the T-bar row also develops lower back strength and stability.
Start with a light load and place your body in a tight and stable position. Focus on generating force from the ground (by pressing the heels out to the sides to activate the hips) and keeping the abs engaged (pull the ribs down and hold what’s in effect a plank position).
That’ll force you to pull with the right muscles instead of just compensating with your lower back.
2 – Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row
Besides being more low-back friendly, the chest support makes it hard to cheat and use momentum. This annoying fact will damage a lot of egos and is probably the reason why some lifters often prefer seated cable rows – they make it easy to use a lot of body English.
To do the chest-supported row, you need to actually support yourself with your chest and not just lie flat down on the bench. Take a look at how I place my hips in the video and you’ll notice that I adopt a solid stance, thus creating tension from the feet, through the hips, through a stable spine (ribs down, abs engaged to not hyperextend and “leak force”), all the way to the chest.
You need a tight body position to get the most out of the exercise and pull with the muscles that are supposed to be doing all the pulling. Too many people mess this up and wobble all around.
3 – One-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is probably the best overall barbell/dumbbell row exercise. Sure, it builds your ability to lift things from the ground, but it also improves your defensive abilities against an opponent who’s trying to pull you down or knock you off balance.
It does all that by enhancing thoracic spine rotation and extension while building stability in the rest of the body. You really have to use all your core muscles to fight the body’s inclination to rotate and side-shift, meaning you’ll create actual, real-life, functional core strength.
Even though this is a classic, many butcher it by failing to achieve full body tension, which leads to energy leaks. Aside from keeping a solid stance, the most important technical aspect is to push the supporting hand hard into the bench while you pull. This “diagonal” tension makes the lift stronger and safer.
4 – Inverted Row
Most people struggle to perform this correctly because it requires being able to activate the right muscles. If you can’t pull yourself all the way up to touch the bar, you simply lack upper back strength, period. If this applies to you, no wonder your shoulders hurt when you do bench press, push-ups, or pull-ups.
Another great aspect of the inverted row is the need for posterior chain involvement. The entire backside needs to be activated at the same time, which is different from a lot of movements where you just focus on the plank and the “front core.”
Getting used to stabilizing your backside in this way will improve your performance in other lifts and activities as well. Oh, and it’s one of the safest pulling exercises you can do when your low back is messed up.
5 – Standing One-Arm Cable Row
The ability to perform resisted diagonal and rotational movements is crucial to human functions like walking, running, climbing, and throwing.
The trouble is, regular/classical strength training lives primarily in the land of bilateral and symmetrical loaded exercises, with little thought given to rotation. Obviously, some exercises include anti-rotation tendencies, but few traditional exercises involve actual rotation qualities.
The standing cable row is a great introduction to rotational training. While the main focus is on the row, it will improve and train thoracic/upper body mobility and core/hip stability. This makes the body more fluid and integrated.