Back-Friendly Rows for Big Gains
Torch your lats and spare your spine while forging a beastly back.
By Ben Bruno
When it comes to building the upper back, inverted rows are one of the best-kept secrets around, especially for those with lower-back issues. Many lifters will be quick to discount them, relegating them to the “sissy” category, but when done properly, they’re a great way to build strength and muscle and they offer benefits beyond weight and machine rows.
Barbell and dumbbell rows are excellent movements that have long been used to build strength and mass, but they can also be problematic on the lower back because there’s a strong tendency to cheat and use loose form, especially as fatigue sets in. Machines may be a safer alternative for the lower back, but they remove core stability from the movement. Inverted rows, on the other hand, give you the best of best worlds: you get the total-body effect of free weight rows while still protecting your lower back. They also provide a tremendous core workout since you’re essentially holding a plank while you row, giving you more bang for your buck than you’d get on a machine. At the same time, they don’t lend themselves to cheating like free weight rows do. During a barbell row, for example, you can use leg drive and round your lower back to handle more weight, but you’ll be putting your back at risk in the process. Such is not the case with inverted rows. In fact, the tighter you keep your torso, the stronger you’ll be. That means less risk and more reward: a win-win.
Inverted rows are also an effective way to improve posture and shoulder health, which is a common problem among lifters. By and large, most guys spend too much time bench pressing and working the “mirror muscles” (which internally rotates the humerus) and not enough time working their back. Combine that with long hours slouched forward watching TV and surfing the Internet, and you have a recipe for postural imbalances, which in turn predispose you to injury. Not cool. Rows help to offset all of this and restore postural balance, and inverted rows are particularly useful in this regard because the body position mimics that of the bench press, meaning you’re working the antagonist muscles most closely.
If you’re still worried it’s a sissy exercise, don’t be. One great thing about the inverted row is that it’s easily adaptable to all levels and abilities, from easy to downright brutal. Let’s first go through some basic progressions before moving on to more advanced variations.
If you plan on doing this exercise regularly (and you should), you’d be well advised to invest in some suspension straps, such as the TRX, blast straps or rings. They’re not essential, but they really do improve the exercise quite a bit by creating an element of instability that forces you to stabilize your torso, and they allow your shoulders to move through a more comfortable range of motion. But don’t worry if you don’t have access to straps — most of the exercises in this article can be performed just fine with a bar.
This exercise will be progressed a little differently depending on whether you’re using a bar or straps, but the basics remain the same. Make sure to extend your arms fully at the bottom of each rep and retract your shoulder blades fully at the top. Keep your elbows in tight to your body and maintain a neutral neck position. Row to mid chest level, the same place you’d touch the bar during the bench press.
If you’re using a bar (which should be set to a height that allows you to fully extend your arms while lying on the floor), you’ll move from having the legs bent to rowing with straight legs and eventually elevating your feet on a bench.
With straps, you’ll start with shorter straps and increase the length until you’re at a place similar to the bar variation with your feet elevated. Most experienced lifters will reach this point without too much of a problem.
Then the real fun begins.
Once you’ve reached a point where you can do six to eight reps with your feet elevated, you’re faced with two choices: add weight or progress to a more difficult variation. If you choose to add weight, which is probably a good place to start, you can do so with weight vests, plates, chains, weighted backpacks — really whatever you can think of. Don’t be afraid to go heavy, provided your form stays tight. Remember, cheating won’t help here like it would with a barbell row. You’ll be strongest when your core is braced and your glutes are clenched like you’re trying to hold in a fart.
But there are other ways to add difficulty beyond just adding weight. Here are five of my favorites.
1) Iso Holds
Iso holds can be done with either a bar or straps. Simply row up and hold the top position, pulling your elbows back and squeezing your shoulder blades together as hard as you can. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Once you can hold the contraction for 30 seconds, add weight.
This is a great initial progression because it strengthens the rhomboids, teaches you how to retract your scapula properly, and helps groove proper rowing form. Don’t let the simplicity of this one fool you; these are harder than they look.
Eccentrics are similar to the isometric holds, and they can also be done with either a bar or straps. Row up, pause for a second at the top, and lower yourself back slowly under control, keeping your scapula retracted along the way. Try these only after you can successfully hold a 30-second isometric. Shoot for 5 to 8 seconds for each eccentric and keep the reps on the low side (six or fewer). Eccentrics are another great way to teach proper form, and they’re also valuable for packing on muscle mass.
3) One-Arm Inverted Rows
One-arm rows add a unique core component in addition to the obvious difficulty that comes from pulling with one arm as opposed to two. This variation works best with straps, though you can still improvise if you only have a bar. Grab a single strap with one hand and set your feet on the floor or bench (depending on your current ability) a little outside shoulder width apart. The non-working arm should be extended straight up. Pull yourself up, reaching the non-working arm straight to the ceiling and rotating your torso to the side of the working arm. Lower yourself under control, and don’t allow your body to rotate or swing at the bottom.
This variation will smoke your glutes and core in addition to frying your upper back and lats and testing your grip. If you’re looking for a challenge to give you the biggest bang for your buck, this is it.
4) Row-Reverse Flye Combo
This one’s another doozy. Most people will find it slightly easier than the one-arm inverted row, but not by much. It will only work with straps, so if you don’t any, sorry.
Set up as you would for a normal inverted row, but make sure one strap is about six inches shorter than the other. The arm holding the short strap will perform a row while the arm holding the long strap performs a reverse flye, essentially reaching straight out to the side. After you’ve completed your set, switch sides and repeat. It’s a good idea to rest 60 to 90 seconds between arms here because both arms are working hard during the set. This is another great one for the core, which has to function as an anti-rotator to keep you from twisting toward the side of the rowing arm.
Since the exercise above can only be done with straps, it’s only fair to include something similar that can be done with a bar. Enter inverted row slides. Set up with a wider grip than normal and pull yourself up to the right side. Keeping your shoulder blades retracted, slide your body across to the left side and lower yourself. Repeat on the other side and alternate sides every rep. This variation should really be classified as a unilateral exercise even though both hands are in contact with the bar.
No matter where you currently sit on the strength spectrum, you should now have an inverted row variation that fits your equipment and abilities. Give them a try, and your back will thank you with new growth and less pain.
Ben Bruno graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University. He currently trains athletes at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in North Andover, Massachusetts and publishes a blog at www.benbruno.com.