Tip: Fix Your Row, Fix Your Shoulders

Here are the most common mistakes made with the horizontal row (and how to fix them).

The horizontal row is one of the best movements to restore your posture, build your upper back, and fix nagging shoulder pain. It takes many forms:

  • One-Arm Dumbbell Row
  • Chest-Supported Row
  • Barbell Bent-Over Row
  • Cable Row
  • Suspension Row
  • Face-Pull with Band

All of these exercises help retract the shoulders which helps relieve excessive compression on the supraspinatus muscle of the rotator cuff. This will not only lead to less pain, but greater strength gains on your big lifts.

Unfortunately, most people don't quite grasp how to do this movement effectively. Here are the common mistakes and how to fix them:

Mistake 1: Not Retracting the Shoulder Blades

When you initiate the row, the first thing you should do is squeeze your shoulder blades (scapulae) together to create tension in the upper back.

Forgetting to retract the shoulder blades results in little-to-no upper back engagement during the movement. That means you're doing all the pulling with your biceps, which should only be a secondary muscle worked in during the row.

Not sure whether or not you're retracting your shoulder blades? Have someone video you performing a suspension row and compare it to the following:

Proper Shoulder Retraction

Proper Shoulder Retraction

Improper Shoulder Retraction

Improper Shoulder Retraction

If you look more like the second picture you need to work on your shoulder retraction.

One way to practice getting your upper back involved in the row is by doing "scap rows." This involves keeping the arm straight and focusing on solely retracting the shoulders. You can do these with any variation of the row, but here are three favorites:

Suspension Scap Row

ne-Arm Dumbbell Scap Row

Chest-Supported Scap Row

Mistake 2: Overactive Traps, Underactive Lats

Another common mistake is forgetting to depress the shoulder blades. When you're going very heavy on a row, your shoulders will tend to ride up. Your upper traps will become over-activated and could get excessively tight or develop trigger points over time.

Although there's nothing wrong with going heavy on a row from time to time, if your goal is to develop the upper back then a lighter weight with a full range of motion is the best option. Pulling your shoulder down from your ear (scapular depression) will help you target the lats.

One-Arm Dumbbell Row – Good Lat Activation

One-Arm Dumbbell Row – Poor Lat Activation

One of my favorite ways to get athletes to understand how to effectively row is to create kinesthetic awareness by assisting them with the movement. I do this by pushing down on their shoulders and helping them to retract their shoulder blades. This trains the lifter how to properly depress and retract the scapula, leading to a more effective row.

Assisted Chest-Supported Row

Mistake 3: Humping the Weight

This is solely a result from ego lifting. If your only goal is to see how much weight you can row, you're eventually going to look like you're trying to have sex with the barbell.

Yeah, don't do that.

TJ Kuster is a certified athletic trainer (ATC) and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), specializing in mobility and injury prevention. He coaches at Method Sports Performance in Bloomington, IL.