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Mastering the Basic Fitness Moves - Part Three - Rows

Hello all! It has been quite a while since the last post. Lifetime Fitness Solutions has been developing a new website and it has been taking all my time. Fear not however, I haven't forgot our recent post about the basic fitness moves. In part 3 we will discuss rows. First let me say that there many different types of rows that can be performed that target different areas of the back, posterior shoulder, traps, and rhomboids. In this post I will cover some of the more common variations to give you a foundation for this exercise.

Rows are an upper body exercise that work multiple muscles including the lats, rhomboids, traps, posterior deltoids, biceps, erector spinae, teres major, and infraspinatus. Depending on what version of rows you do you can target some of these more specifically. Rows are a vital movement to learn as they are the go-to exercise for building size and strength in the back muscles. In addition to building the back musculature, rows also help strengthen the back which can have a positive effect on other lifts such as the bench press, deadlifts, and cleans.

Picture courtesy of

Depending on your specific situation you may want to vary the type of rows you do. For example if you have a history of herniated disks or other low back conditions, bent over rows may not be appropriate for you due to the positioning of the exercise and the resultant stresses on the lumbar spine, but you can still perform cable rows as well as seated rows on machine to get a similar effect. Lets look at the different types of rows more in depth.

Bent Over Barbell Rows

Start with your feet about hip width apart. Your butt should be back, and your back should be flat with the head and chest slightly up. The knees are bent slightly to assist a flat back posture. If you have tight hamstrings, attaining a fully flat back posture will be difficult. If you feel your back start to round, do not bend as deeply at the hips. You can utilize an overhand grip where the palms are facing back, or underhand grip where the palms face forward. Both grips are about shoulder width apart. It has long been believed that an underhand grip utilizes and works the biceps more, however the evidence based research does not seem to support this. A wider than shoulder width overhand grip involves overall back musculature while slightly emphasizing rear deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor involvement.

A common theme among rows is that you should pull with your elbows, and not your hands. When pulling with the hands you will utilize too much bicep and end up in a more than normal elbow flexed position. By pulling with the elbows you ensure that the back muscles are the ones doing the majority of the work. Pull the bar up to the ribs and squeeze the contraction at the end range of motion. With bent-over rows be sure to maintain a good posture throughout the movement. If your back starts to round discontinue the exercise as you will increase your risk of a low back injury.

One-Arm Rows

One-arm rows are performed one side at a time. These are a great tool to use for normalizing strength on one side if you notice a weakness. To start a one-arm row take a bent posture with the non-working hand resting on a bench or other firm object. I see people perform these with no hand support and feel that this increases the pressure on the lumbar spine so I do not recommend doing them this way. As with a standing barbell row you want your back to be in a flat posture with the head/neck held in neutral or slightly upright. Your stance should be staggered slightly with the back leg being on the same side as the working hand. Knees should be slightly bent to help maintain a flat back posture. If this set up is still too stressful on your low back, you can try this alternate posture.

Drive the weight up by focusing on pulling with the elbow, not the hand. When pulling with the elbow, the weight will end up on next to the lower part of your ribs. If you pull with the hand there is too much bicep incorporated and the weight will end up more towards your chest or shoulder. Once the upper arm is about parallel to the ground, give a squeeze of the shoulder blade to increase the contraction. DO NOT let the trunk rotate during this movement. It should maintain a neutral position throughout the exercise.

Cable Rows

Cable rows are a good option for people with low back pain issues. Because you are standing there is less pressure on the lumbar spine, but you still get the benefit of core activation by having to keep yourself in a stable and upright stance.

Cable rows can be performed in a countless number of ways with various attachments and grips to influence certain muscles. The pictured example for instance, a cable low row with a v-attachment, will focus more of the exercise on the middle trapezius and rhomboids.

To perform a cable row in standing, place the feet about hip width apart. Bend the knees slightly and keep the head and chest up with the core pulled in. Again, as with all row movements, pull with the elbows vs. the hands and bring the attachment to the rib cage/stomach area. Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the end range of the movement.

Machine Rows

Machine rows are another good exercise for people with back issues. Machine rows are done in sitting and the chest is usually supported by a pad. This feature will keep pressure off of the lumbar spine. It's important to note that while the seated variation of the row is good for people without low back pathology, its use among healthy adults should be limited to being a supplemental training exercise, and not one of the main exercises used. People without low back pathology should instead focus on performing the bent over versions with good form in order to improve the stresses on the body and increase the functionality of the movement.

The pictured exercise is just one type of seated row machine, but many versions exist. The setups of each machine will be similar however and this tutorial should be used as a loose guide when setting up your machine.

Seat yourself firmly on the machine with the height of the seat such that the handles of the machine are slightly below shoulder level. The chest pad should contact you mid sternum. Notice in the pictures you can utilize a close grip (Pic 1) or a wide grip (Pic 2). The close grip variation will stimulate the lower lats to a greater degree and utilizes more bicep where as the wide grip will incorporate more trapezius, rhomboid, and posterior shoulder activation. There is not a better or worse than variation, and I often advise client to switch up their grips to develop the entire back overall. Your feet should be placed firmly on the floor and you should maintain a fully upright position. While the seat pads are there for support, DO NOT simply let your body slump into them. Hold yourself as upright as you can throughout the movement.

Just like with all of the row movements we have covered here, the movement will be done with a pulling of the elbows, not the hands, and again we want to squeeze the shoulder blades at the end range of the motion. With the close grip version, keep the elbows tight to your side, whereas with the wide version the elbows will be flared out, ideally being parallel with the floor and perpendicular to your body.

Narrow Grip Variation

Wide Grip Variation

Lat Pulldown

Lat pulldowns are not a type of row per se, however since we covered most of the back muscles here I would be remiss if I didn't cover them. The lat pulldown is used to focus primarily on the latissimus dorsi, the muscle that gives the back a V-shape. Lat pulldowns can be performed on machines or, if you do not have one available, you can perform them as pictured using a bench, lat bar, and cable machine.

Grasp the bar with a wider than shoulder width grip. Sit fully upright, feet firmly on the floor. As with the back row movements, you want to pull the bar with the elbows, not the hands. Pull the bar to the top of the chest and squeeze the shoulder blades down and in at the bottom.

​We have covered many varieties of row in this installment, however this is NOT a comprehensive guide. Row are extremly versatile and there are countless ways to modify them for specifics goals. If you are new to weight training, the variations covered here should be your primary focus until you can perform them with proper form and cadence. Remember that you will get waht you put in when it comes to weight training. Keep checking back for part 4 of this series where we will cover bench presses. - Aaron

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