“Why should I train stupid rows? I do pull-ups, they’re way harder.”
“I don’t have any equipment to do this exercise.”
“Rows are boring.”
If you can identify with any of the statements above, this article is for you. Hopefully, at the end of the article, you’ll be like:
“Rows are awesome. How can I do more of these?”
What are rows?
Fair question, captain. I refer to rowing as any type of weight bearing horizontal pulling.
Identifying a row is easy: Reach your arms out straight in front of you. Do a thumbs-up sign with both hands 👍. Now pull your elbows back. Your arms stay close to your rib cage and your elbows travel past your hips (so close that they can say “hi”).
Any movement that feels kinda like this is a row.
Why should I do them?
If you did the little exercise above, you might have noticed that, all of a sudden, you had beautiful posture. Posture might may be an intagible concept for you … until you experience back, shoulder and neck pain.
We as modern humans have the tendency to sit a lot, which inevitably leads to a decline of tonicity in the muscles that give you an upright posture (mostly upper back musculature) and stiffens the muscles that give you a hunched-over posture (most promintently the pectorals/chest).
We could turn this into an anatomy lesson, which I find boring. The main message is: You should do more upper body pulling than pushing.
Other good reasons to train rows are:
- BICEPS (I knew this would get your attention)
- Bulletproof shoulders. Shoulders love, love, love rows.
- Better upper back tension during deadlifts and kettlebell swings (i.e. this may help you lift more weight)
- Nicely defined, thick upper back
And, if you have never experienced shoulder issues:
- You lucky bastard.
- If strength training is part of your life and you neglect rowing, you’ll soon get a warm welcome to the club.
Can I do pull-ups instead?
Even if you do lots of pull-ups, this doesn’t solve the problem. It makes things a little worse. Pull-ups are a vertical pulling movement with an emphasis on the lats. The lats internally rotate the shoulder. Internal shoulder rotation is what you probably do right now while reading this article. External rotation is what Clark Kent does when he rips his shirt off to reveal his Superman logo (keeping the elbows close to the ribcage while pulling to the sides with both arms).
We need to train the little stabilizers of the rotator cuff, the rear deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids so that external rotation becomes the default mode instead of internal rotation.
Pull-ups are not an advanced version of rows, they are a completely different thing.
I recommend doing twice as many rows as you do pull-ups.
And if you absolutely love pull-ups, here is a good way to do them that’s also a bit easier on the shoulders:
The Basics of Horizontal Rows
The most user-friendly variation with the most bang-for-your-row are inverted rows on rings or a suspension trainer (like the TRX).
Adjust the length of the suspension straps so that your body and the floor form a 45 degree angle (roughly). You can play with this to make it harder or easier. The closer your head is to the ground, the harder it gets.
Just as with push-ups, keep the body in a straight line from head to toe.
Pull your elbows back and try to get them close to your hips. Rather than swinging back and forth, stay in the flexed position for about half second and then lower yourself down slowly with control.
Try to keep your ribcage down. Many people tend to overdo it with the hip-extension and overarch their backs. We want to pull from the upper back, not the lower back. So during rowing, the distance between your ribs and your hips should stay the same.
Internalizing the cue “get the elbows to the hips” seems to solve this problem like magic!
I prefer suspension trainers and gymnastic rings, because your arms can rotate freely. You are not locked into one grip (overhand or underhand) but you can rotate the grip while rowing. I like an alternating grip, starting with an overhand grip (you see the back of your hands) when the arms are extended and underhand (you see your fingernails) when arms are flexed. Expect a thank-you-notice from your elbows soon.
If you have a doorframe pull-up bar that can be mounted between the inner doorframe, mount it at hip height to do rows. Or find a bar with the appropriate height at a playground. Vary the grip often (overhand, underhand, mixed, wide, close, offset).
You can also use a table like I did here.
Side note about equipment: Keeping your equipment needs to a minimm is wise. However, having a versatile tool for rowing is the best investment you can make for your fitness. Forget gym memberships, ShakeWeights, dumbbells and even kettlebells and other shenanigans. Suspension trainers are cheap, easily mounted, transportable and durable. I think they have way too many advantages for you to not have one. Get a cheap version of the TRX, or use gymnastic rings or build them yourself.
I use the Same But Different Approach in my training. This means, I probably plan something like “Do rows on Tuesday”, but when Tuesday comes around, I decide what kind of row I fancy.
Here are some options to chose from.
This is a popular shoulder rehab/prehab exercise. As the name implies, you simply pull your face between your hands. The backs of your hands are facing behind you (see video above).
This is a bit harder, so adjust the straps.
One half of your body looks like a regular intverted row, while the arm of the other side is fully locked out at the elbow and reaching to the side (also see video above).
What this does is putting more emphasis on the “short” arm. The “long” arm is just there for support. You may have to stand with a wider stance in the beginning.
This is a good variation to make rows more challening and at the same time get a great core workout because you have to resist the rotation at your torso.
Door knob Row
You might know this one from my pull-up alternatives article. You can now see I included mostly horizontal rowing variations in this article. That was my secret plan all along. People who google “pull-up alternatives” are getting tricked into doing rows. Muahaha 😉
T + Y + I
These are variations you can do with a suspension trainer. They are a bit harder, so step out further or shorten the length of the straps.
Form a T by keeping the arms straight and pulling your torso upwards. Arms are reached out to the side in the end position. For the I, arms are reached out straight overhead. For the Y, choose an angle anywhere in between.
The T + Y + I are not exactly rowing movements, but I found the T and the Y to be excellent accessory movements to train the shoulders.
I stole this one from Tony Gentilcore. This is golden because it’s like auto-correct for your shoulder blades.
Read Tony’s article for details, but the gist of it is this: If your shoulder blades can glide all around your rib cage, you’ll have better overhead mobility and happier shoulders.
Bent-over Kettlebell Row
Most of you might have seen the classic dumbbell row. You put one knee and one hand on a bench and row a dumbbell with the other hand.
I prefer a standing bent-over row. It gives you the additional benefit of working your posterior chain (mainly hamstrings) and the core stabilizers. Plus it has an anti-rotational component, which is money in your abs account.
Stand in front of a kettlebell. I like Dragon Door Kettlebells, but you could also use dumbbells for this. Feet are a little more than shoulder width apart. Say you want to row with the left hand. Take a step back with your left foot. Kettlebell, front foot and rear foot form a triangle in which all sides are roughly equal. Bent over at the hip. Your back should be kept straight (i.e. spine is neutral).
Your torso and the ground form a 20-30 degree angle (depending on your flexibility and preference). The secret is to bend over just a little more than you think you should.
Your stance now resembles something like a sprinter who got hit by a freeze ray.
You should now be able to comfortably reach the kettlebell. Pull into your hip. As with all rows, don’t swing the weight. Pull it up with control. When the kettlebell at your hip, hold the position for a second, then start a controlled downward motion of the kettlebell.
As with the hinge row, we like to give the shoulder blade some room to breathe. So lower the bell so far that you feel a gentle stretch in your upper back (still with control, don’t just let it hang there passively).
Nothing else beside your rowing arm should move. Especially be wary of any rotational movement in your upper body. If this is too challenging, scale it down by either using less weight or putting the passive arm on your front thigh for support.
Bent-over Backpack Rows
If you are hardcore about using no equipment whatsoever, you can load a backpack with lots of books or bottles of water and do bent-over rows. Do everything as I described for the kettlebell rows, but use the backpack instead.
You will need two kettlebells or dumbbells for this. Put the bells side by side on the ground. Handles are parallel and shoulder width apart.
Put your hands on them and get into push-up position. Put your feet a bit further apart, more than shoulder width.
While keeping one arm straight, lift the bell with the other arm until your elbow is close to your hip. Lower down with control. There should be almost no sound when the bell touches the ground again. Repeat on the other side.
I like to do this with alternating sides. So one rep is left+right. This movement works your core pretty hard (anti-rotational work again). In my books, it’s more of a core exercise than a row. But, if you use lighter weights, you can get lots of volume in for rows while simultaneously getting rock-hard abs.
As I said, it’s wise to put an emphasis on pulling and horizontal pulling in particular. This is even more true if you’ve had shoulder issues in the past.
My recommendation is a 2 or even 3 to 1 ratio of pulling / pushing.
And the rowing doesn’t have to be super heavy. I actually prefer more of a bodybuilding approach in this case. 3 to 4 sets of 8-12 or 15-20 reps is good. It keeps the joints happy and upper back hypertrophy leads to better posture.
The specifics do not matter as much as the consistency of your rowing practice. The important thing is to just get in the work with the methods / exercises you prefer.
And to all of you who worry about the look of their chest by maybe doing less pushing work in favor of pulling: Perceived attractiveness of your upper body is mostly influenced by the size of your shoulders and your posture. Your chest looks broader by simply having bigger shoulders and better posture.
More tonicity (meaning, more baseline tension from greater muscle mass) in the upper back pulls your shoulders back and makes your chest look broader. This is good for women (hint: boobs) and men (broader chest –> V-shape) alike.
So whatever training setup you prefer, make sure rowing is a priority. Your shoulders, elbows, upper back and the bathroom mirror will thank you.