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The 5-Step Ultimate Guide to Rows for a Bigger and Stronger Back

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

When it comes to back training in the gym, horizontal pulling exercises (commonly known as rows) are an extremely effective exercise choice that can be used to develop both strength, thickness and width in the back.

Whether you do them with a barbell, a dumbbell, on a machine or with your own bodyweight, the row is a classic movement pattern that should be a staple in your training program if you're looking to build a big back.

While these exercises are certainly very effective at building overall pulling strength and muscle, many people do not know even the basics of rowing, and have a hard time incorporating it into their training.

That's why in this post, we'll go over ome general tips when performing the row, the muscles worked, some of the popular variations, common mistakes and how you can incorporate the row into your training. If that sounds good, keep on reading!

Fit and muscular man doing single arm dumbbell rows in a gym to build strength and muscle in his back and biceps

General Tips When Rowing

One thing to know is that the row by itself is not an exercise. It's more like a movement pattern. It's like the word 'press'. When you hear someone say that in the gym, you immediately think of exercises such as the bench press and the military press. But the press itself is not any specific exercise.

That's why it's impossible for us to give you a step-by-step plan onw hot to perform the row. There are far too many variations, each with their own setup and execution. It's impossible to create a one size fits all method of performing the row.

However, we can give you several general tips that you can use in your rowing, that will apply to all the variations out there, no matter which one you choose to go with. Don't worry, we'll help you out with learning the form of the popular row variations when we get to that section. For now, you should look to understand these general tips and apply them into your own training to maximize the results of the hard work you're putting in.

Keep Your Spine Strong

The first general tip that we can give you is to keep your spine strong throughout the entire range of motion. B this, we mean, consciously and actively working to keep your spine in a stable position. Don't let the weight cause your spine to round and put you in a bad position. You're in control of this. But you should also look to keep any natural curves in your back. Your spinal is not naturally straight. It'll take time to get used to, but you'll find it eventually.

If you find that your spine is unable to resist the weight and keep itself strong, you're likely using too much weight. Drop the weight and focus on learning proper form first. No use lifting that heavy if you're not able to train efficiently after suffering an injury.

Doing this will engage the spinal erectors, which will help with posture and everyday activities such as picking things up. Plus, it'll have direct roll over into your deadlifting and squatting as well.

Keeping the spine strong will put you in a favorable position to move as much weight as possible, which will lead to more muscle growth over time.

Squeeze the Shoulder Blades Together

The next general tip for your rowing is to squeeze the shoulder blades together hard once you're in the fully contracted state. For a row, this is where you've just brought the weight into your torso, and you elbows have tracked behind the body.

Doing this will maximize the contraction that you can in the muscles of your back, and help you get more out of each rep that you do. A simple tweak like this can lead to a significant increase in gains over time.

Spread the Shoulder Blades Apart

You pinch them together hard at the end of the concentric portion of each rep. You should also allow them to separate and stretch at the end of the eccentric portion of each rep, so that you get a good stretch on the lats, mid and upper back muscles. The stretch is just as important as the squeeze when it comes to rowing, and you should not neglect it.

Simply allow the weight to slowly drag your shoulder blades apart and feel the tension in your stretched back muscles. This will once again lead to more gains over time, allowing you to reach a larger range of motion and get more out of each rep that you do.

Think About Pulling the Shoulders Back

In a row, it's important that you don't let the shoulders round forwards at the end of the concentric portion of the lift. By this, we mean that when your elbows have tracked back behind your torso, your shoulders need to be drawn back as well. If you can, you could try and feel the difference right now.

Bring the elbows back behind the body like they would be in a row. Then allow your shoulders to roll forwards, keeping your elbows behind the body. Now, roll and push the shoulders backwards, almost like you're trying to puff your chest out. You should feel a difference. During a row, it's easy to let the weight drag your shoulders forwards. You need to actively resist this to make the most out of your hard work.

Check out the video below by Jeremy Ethier to see the difference!

Lift With Control

Whatever you do, always keep the weight under control. Don't use momentum ot bring it up, and don't let the weight dictate the movement of your body either. You need to be in control of the weight that you're lifting. Otherwise, you'll risk injury and limit your gains.

Muscles Worked During a Row

Regardless of the row variation that you choose to go with, the muscles worked will all be the same. Some variations will bias and target specific areas more, but all the muscles engaged will be the same.

The primary drivers during any row movement are the lats, mid and upper back, and the rear delts. In any rowing movement, these are the muscles that will be doing the brunt of the work. In any rowing movement, the biceps and forearms will also be working quite hard to help bring the weight into your torso.

The bicep is responsible for elbow flexion, which happens when your elbow bends to get past the body. And your forearms will be working to grip onto the weight.

However, certain variations will also bring in more demands for other muscle groups too. For example, most of the free weight rowing variations such as the bent over barbell row, single arm dumbbell row and Pendlay row will engage the spinal erectors to a large degree as they work to keep your spine straight, actively resisting the weight.

You might also find that your hamstrings are a little involved in some of your rowing movements as you hinge down at the hips to get into your position. You'd likely feel this the most in the bent over barbell row and the Pendlay row.

Choosing to lift and do your rowing on machines also reduces the activation of stabilizing muscles, which will allow you to lift more weight and isolate the target muscles of your back better.

This increases the mechanical tension placed solely on the back, and means that if your goal is muscular hypertrophy, and you don't care about building function strength with ta specific exercise, doing it on a machine is going to be your best bet.

However, this does come at the cost of lower overall engagement throughout the body, and less overall bang for your buck. It's up to you to decide whether you row with free weights or on a machine.

Lean and fit woman doing seated cable rows to build strength and muscle in her back and biceps

Please note that in any row where you take an underhand or supinated grip, you'll be engaging the biceps a little more by putting them in their optimal position to move weight. For example, many like to take underhand grips when they do bent over barbell rows and seated cable rows. This engages the biceps more and helps keep the elbows tucked in.

Lastly, altering your elbow position when rowing will also bias different parts of the back. During any row, taking a slightly wider (just over shoulder width) grip and flaring your elbows out to a larger degree (over 45 degrees) will bias the muscles of the upper back more. It will put your lats into a less optimal position for pulling, and cause the upper back to do more of the work.

Taking a narrower grip closer to shoulder width (supinating the hand can help with this) will put the lats in their strongest position, and allow them to do most of the work, and reduce the engagement of the upper back.

And it also makes sense that going somewhere in between (around 40-45 degree elbow angle) will hit the overall back the best, and give you the least biased row towards either section of the back.

Whichever grip style and elbow angle you lift with is completely up t you. You could possible make the decision based around the parts of your back that are weaker, and need more attention.

Perhaps one just feels more comfortable and you like it more. Do that one more often than the other. And if you're unsure, you can't really go wrong with doing a couple sets with each grip width and grip style to get overall back development and the best of both.

Popular Row Variations

Like we said, a row itself is not any specific exercise. Here are some of the most popular rowing variations:

Bent Over Barbell Row

The bent over barbell row is the classic free-weight back exercise. It's great for building both strength and muscle in the back, biceps and forearms. According to this 2018 EMG Analysis, if a person was to pick just one back exercise to use to development both strength and muscle, the bent over barbell row would be the best option. This is due to its high muscular activation compared to the other variations, giving lifters the most bang for their buck.

To perform the bent over barbell row:

  1. Take an approximately shoulder width and overhand grip.

  2. Keeping your spine neutral, deadlift the weight up and stay in the lockout position.

  3. Bend the knees slightly and push your hips back until your hamstrings feel a stretch.

  4. Keep the spine neutral and allow the weight to drop down.

  5. Drive the weight up into your sternum area, keeping your elbows flared at a 45 degree angle.

  6. Squeeze the shoulder blades hard for a second.

  7. Lower the weight with control.

  8. Repeat.

Check out the awesome video by STACK below to see a demonstration!

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

The single arm dumbbell row is a great variation of the row that allows for a huge overloading potential on one side of the back at a time. Great for both strength and size development.

To perform it:

  1. Grab a moderate to heavy dumbbell.

  2. Place one arm on a bench, place the same side knee on the bench, and place the other leg on the ground next to the bench for a 3-point stance.

  3. Keep the spine straight, and row the dumbbell up with the arm not in contact with the bench.

  4. Squeeze the muscles of the back hard and drive the elbows past the body.

  5. Lower the weight back down with control.

  6. Repeat for reps.

  7. Repeat for other side.

Video by Rugby Renegade Strength & Conditioning

Inverted Row

The inverted row is the bodyweight version of the row. It has you pulling yourself up against gravity, whilst you're in a horizontal position. Pretty much the opposite of a push up. It's great for beginners, and those who lift with limited equipment.

To perform it:

  1. Set a bar (smith machine or in a rack) to about waist height.

  2. Lie down under the bar and grab onto it with a shoulder width grip.

  3. Straighten your body and bring your feet back or forth, adjusting until you can pull yourself up and finish with the bar at your sternum.

  4. Pull yourself up, and squeeze your shoulder blades together.

  5. Hold for a second, before lowering yourself back down with control.

  6. Repeat.

Check out the video below by Scott Herman to see what this looks like!

Chest Supported Row

The Chest Supported row is another popular row variation that's great for targeting the muscles of the back and gaining size. It works almost like a machine (and often is done on machines), and reduces the need for stabilization, allowing you to lift more weight and isolate better.

To perform the chest supported row:

  1. If doing this with free weights: place the dumbbells or barbell under your bench, and lie down face first on it.

  2. Grab onto the dumbbells or barbell and hold it in the stretched position.

  3. Drive the weight up until it hits the bench, and hold the weight there for a second.

  4. Lower the weight back down with control.

  5. Repeat.

See the video below by Dimitrios Tsiakoulas for a demonstration!

  1. If doing this on a machine, sit comfortably on the machine, with the support pad comfortably on your chest.

  2. Grab onto the handles/bar with a strong grip.

  3. Drive your elbows back behind your body, keeping your chest on the support pad.

  4. Squeeze the shoulder blades together.

  5. Lower the weight with control.

  6. Repeat.

Check out the video by The Gym at Milford & Norton to see what this looks like!

Seated Cable Row

Lastly, we have the seated cable row. This is another great exercise for more isolation of the back muscles, and more targeted growth without having to worry about stabilizing the weight and have other muscles take over.

To perform the seated cable row:

  1. Sit on the cable row machine and grab onto the handle(s) with a strong grip.

  2. Keeping a neutral spine, lean forward a little to allow the lats to stretch, before driving your torso back and your elbows behind the torso at the same time. Try not to use too much momentum from torso movement.

  3. Squeeze the shoulder blades hard.

  4. Lower the weight with control by leaning forward again and allowing the elbows to come forward.

  5. Stretch the muscles of the back by leaning forward and allowing arms to go in front of you.

  6. Repeat.

Check out the awesome video by Renaissance Periodization below to see a demonstration!

Common Mistakes When Rowing

Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make when it comes to rowing for a bigger back. Please note that not following the general tips at the beginning of this post will also be considered mistakes, and you should look over them again.

Not Using Proper Time Under Tension

When you lift weights, it's important to know that you need to resist the weight during the eccentric portion of the lift (most of the time), and not let gravity do all the work for you. This is going to allow you to get the most out of each rep that you do and build muscle more muscle over time.

Generally, your eccentric portion of the movement should span at least 2-3 seconds.

However for your concentric portion of the lift (contracting phase), you should look to drive the weight with as much force as possible, so long as you're keeping it under control, This is going to allow you to recruit the most motor units and build the most muscle, without wasting energy and effort for no extra gains.

Trying to Curl the Weight

Lots of people also try to lift the weight by curling it and using the biceps too much. Rows are meant to target the back primarily, with some assistance from the biceps. Not the other way around.

May people struggle to feel their back muscles working, because they're allowing their biceps to do too much of the work. Instead of thinking about driving the weight by curling your arm, think about drawing your elbows back. Don't think specifically about flexing at the elbow. It'll happen naturally. Just think about driving the elbows back, and you should start to feel your back doing more of the work.

Using Too Much Weight

The next mistake that too many people make is using far too much weight for what their bodies can handle. Beginners will try to row a plate on each side, or try to do three quarters of the stack on a machine. This will lead to cheating and poor quality reps, drawing much of the attention away from the muscles that we're actually trying to hit. If you use enough weight or cheat enough, the row can actually become a total body exercise.

Instead, start with a modest weight, and find one that works for you. This means a weight that you're able to control on the lengthening portion of the exercise for at least 2 seconds on each rep, and a weight that you can drive forcefully back towards your torso.

It'll help you actually target the muscles you're wanting to work, instead of simply letting every other muscle in the body pitch in. Trust us, you might think that you're doing more, but your back certainly is not.

Incorporating Rows Into Your Training

When you come to incorporate rows into your training, you need to remember that there are actually two types of back movements. There are vertical pulls (pull ups and lat pulldowns), and horizontal pulls, or rows. Both of these movement types should be included in your program for well rounded back development. However, we're focusing on rows in this article.

For rows, you can either choose to do them at the beginning of your back workouts, or closer to the middle/end of them, depending on the variations that you choose. If you choose to go with free weight rowing, it makes sense to do that closer to the beginning of your workout as it engages more total musculature across the body, and gives you the most bang for your buck. It may also make sense to lift heavier in these exercises.

If you choose to row on a machine instead, it makes sense to put this closer to the middle/end of your workout session, when you've done all your heavy lifting, and are ready to really isolate the muscles of the back for that extra targeted growth. Machine rows will usually be done with lighter loads, somewhere in the 8-15 rep range. All of these exercises should be done with 3-5 sets, taken close to failure (within 3 reps) to maximize your gains.

Regardless of whether you're lifting free weights or on a machine, you need to be training hard to see the results you want.

Look to train your back (with vertical and horizontal pulls) at least twice a week, to ensure that you get the optimal training frequency. And try to hit it with somewhere between 10 and 20 working sets per week. That goes for all of your muscle groups, not just the back.

So to recap: if you're lifting with free weights, row towards the beginning of the session and lift heavy, 3-5 sets of 4-10 reps.

If you're lifting with machines, do it closer to the middle/end of your workout, with 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps. Row at least twice a week and train hard in every set to get the most out of your time spent in the gym (but not to failure).

Wrapping It Up

Overall, the row is a great movement pattern for building both strength and muscle in the back and arms. How you choose to do them will depend on your goals and preferences, but at least some type of row should be a staple in your training program. They're not a complicated movement type, but it's important that you do understand what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Hopefully you've enjoyed reading through this, and as always, share it with a friend if you found it useful! We're trying to reach as many people as we can and help them reach their fitness goals!


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