10 Unique Rowing Movements To Fix Your Body Mechanics

By Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

This article is exclusive to AHP.  It represents the uncut, fully extended version of a more abbreviated article originally featured on T-Nation (10/06/16)

When it comes to improving upper back strength, size, and postural alignment, nothing beats rowing exercises.  Unfortunately, many lifters perform rows with various aberrations in technique and body mechanics thereby eliminating many of the potential benefits of these movements.  Here are 10 unique rowing variations that not only provide a strong stimulus for crushing your back, but also help to eliminate form issues by forcing the lifter to use proper mechanics.

Variation #1: Quadruped Row

The quadruped bench row is my go-to rowing variation for teaching an athlete how to dial in their horizontal pulling technique.  The reason for this is that any faulty mechanics, movement dysfunction, or flawed activation patterns result in the lifter immediately losing his or her balance.  To successfully complete the movement, the lifter will literally have to make continuous adjustments and technique corrections until every component of body mechanics from head to toe are perfectly honed in. 

Anything less will result in loss of body control and inability to perform the movement.  Even without external coaching, this movement does wonders for providing lifters with enough sensory feedback and internal cuing to gradually self-correct and auto-regulate their body positioning.  As a result the quadruped row addresses numerous form issues including the following 15 key prevalent problems:

  1. Eliminates over-rowing and excessive range of motion in the contracted position
  2. Eliminates overstretching and excessive protraction in the bottom position
  3. Reduces excessive momentum and “top rock”
  4. Eliminates low back compensation and excessive lumbar extension
  5. Improves 3D glenohumeral joint mechanics by promoting optimal depression, retraction, and medial rotation of the scapula.
  6. Reinforces proper elbow tuck and optimal arm mechanics
  7. Increases core activation
  8. Eliminates cervical compensation patterns in the neck and head
  9. Improves Full body tension and spinal rigidity
  10. Eliminates excessive body rotation common with single arm rows
  11. Prevents and eliminates spinal flexion
  12. Promotes proper grip mechanics by producing optimal stacking of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand
  13. Teaches strong muscle mind connection with lats.
  14. Produces larger range of motion than most free weight rows due to the rigid parallel torso position.
  15. Improves low back health and back pain

VARIATION #2: Table Top Row

The table top row is simple yet highly effective movement. While performing any row that involves a bent over position such as barbell rows or single arm dumbbell rows, have a training partner place a plate or two on your middle upper back then perform the movement. 

This exercise may look and sound sadistic and masochistic but there are truly multiple key benefits.

  1. Improves form because the back including the t-spine and lumbar must maintain a natural arch for the plate to sit on.  Spinal flexion is impossible.
  2. Eliminates top rock and excessive momentum or else the plates will literally fall off the back.
  3. Increases proprioceptive feedback from lats, middle and upper back as the plates against your body provide sensory palpation giving you better kinesthetic awareness of your back activation and postural alignment.  
  4. Maintains a steep near-parallel, bent over position as an overly upright torso will cause the weights to slide off.
  5. Provides greater direct overload to the entire posterior chain including upper back, low back, glutes, and hamstrings, without further fatigue to the arms and grip.  As a result your back muscles are more likely to fail before your arms.
  6. Keeps the individual from over-rowing with excessive range of motion as the elbows and shoulder blades will run into the plates causing them to move around on the back.
  7. Improves low back strength immensely as the movement represents a combination RDL and good-morning in terms of weight distribution with direct tension to the erector muscles.

VARIATION #3: Single Arm Seated Cable Rows with a Pause

The seated cable row is a staple of many bodybuilding and strength training routines and rightly so.  This movement while simple allows significant overload and stimulation to the entire upper back and lats not to mention notable lower back activation to keep the torso locked in.  Unfortunately many individuals lack the core and low back strength to handle the type of weight they need to fully tax the lats.  Even if they do, then end up cheating by rocking and using momentum. 

A simple solution for this is the single arm cable row with a pause.  There are several benefits of this.  First the load will be less than half of what you would use for 2 arms making it much easier and safer on the low back and spine.  As a result the lifter will able to keep a neutral spinal position much more easily, which is critical for promoting proper rowing mechanics and postural alignment. 

The single arm variation also involves significant anti-rotation thereby simulating the core musculature.  As a result the movement tends to be smoother and less jerky due to enhanced spinal rigidity from having the core working overtime.

Finally the lifter will be able to focus all of the neural drive to one side of their body rather than both sides making it more conducive for establishing a strong muscle mind connection.   This is critical for maximizing muscle growth in the lats and upper back as most lifters fail to establish a strong neural connection with the back muscles. Making it difficult to induce hypertrophy.

Here are a few of my NFL combine athletes performing the single arm row.  On this particular workout we added fat grips to the handles to force the athletes to work their forearms, hands, and grip strength.  It also helps clean up technique as the fat grip forces the athletes to use more controlled form.  The pause also helps eliminate momentum and promote smooth mechanics.

VARIATION #4: Bent Over Rows with Horizontal Band Resistance

Bent over barbell rows are one of the single most effective movements for crushing the entire upper back.  Unfortunately many lifters perform them incorrectly thereby negating many of the potential benefits.  One of the most common issues is lack of scapular depression throughout the movement.  If the shoulders are not depressed then the lats will not receive thorough activation regardless of how much retraction you create. 

In addition, lack of scapular depression on barbell rows causes the elbow to flare which eventually causes shoulder inflammation and faulty glenohumeral joint mechanics.  Ironically rows are meant to improve shoulder mechanics not degrade them.  The associated benefits are purely contingent on mechanics and form.  Performing rows with horizontal band resistance addresses this and provides several unique benefits. 

First it forces the lifter to retract and fully depress the scapula in order to resist the force vectors created from the band as well as to maintain balance.  Second, it requires greater postural control and spinal positioning.  Any spinal flexion will result in the weight pulling your body out of position and losing balance.  Finally, the lats are forced to work overtime as there are two force vectors working against your lat muscles, one that wants to protract them (the barbell load), and one that wants to elevate them (the band resistance).  Essentially you’ll feel like you’re performing a combination row and pulldown motion – a potent combo for upper back growth.

VARIATION #5: Glute Ham Raise and Back Extension Rows

Performing rows on a back extension or glute ham raise station are extremely effective for crushing the entire posterior chain from head to toe.  Besides promoting incredible growth and strength gains particularly in the mid and upper back musculature, it does wonders for improving form, posture, and spinal alignment.  Because the lifter is forced to resist significant spinal flexion forces throughout, this helps to promote optimal extension throughout the t-spine which helps retract and depress the shoulders.

In addition it’s nearly impossible to use excessive range of motion on the pulling mechanics as the steep angle keeps the elbows from drifting too high at the top thereby avoiding faulty shoulder mechanics.  If you want to make the movement even more taxing, try using a GHR unit with a slight decline by having the feet elevated several inches above the hips.

This makes the movement more taxing on the lats and to eliminates the ability to cheat.  This forces the lifter to use very strict form as the upper torso cannot move beyond parallel to the floor.  In addition the decline allows for a greater stretch of the lats at the bottoms of the movement which helps produce greater force output and lat activation once you begin each subsequent concentric phase.

If you’re looking to add in a rotary stability component you can also perform single arm versions or alternate arm variations as shown in the following video.  Just make sure you don’t twist or rotate your body to compensate for lat activation. 

VARIATION #6: Single Leg Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

A common problem with bent over rows is that the weight is loaded to the front of the body which places greater stress on the low back and also promotes shoulder elevation.  Trying to eliminate this by using dumbbells and pulling them to the sides of the body causes the weights to run into the legs. 

A simple solution that allows the weight to sit freely to the sides of the body while simultaneously promoting incredibly strict form are single leg bent over dumbbell rows.   Once you learn to balance on one leg, the movement feels more natural than most bent over rows as the weight can fall to the side of the support leg without feeling encumbered or crowded. 

You’ll also be forced to eliminate any momentum, cheating, or technique issues as any aberrations in form will immediately disrupt balance.  Ideally you should be able to handle at least 70% of the weight you use for standard bent over rows.  If you’re unable to do this then you most likely need to work on your single leg balance, hip function, and rowing mechanics.

VARIATION #7. Supine Floor Row

As previously mentioned over-rowing by using excessive range of motion in the contracted position is a one of the more common mistakes lifters make on horizontal pulling movements.  Unfortunately it can be difficult to correct even with proper cuing.  The supine floor row is the perfect exercise for eliminating this issue as the individually will be forced to terminate the pulling motion at the optimal end range of motion as the tricep and upper arm will literally run into the floor.  In addition the lifter will be forced to retract and depress their shoulder blades as well as pull their entire body into the floor which does wonders for improving postural alignment and shoulder mechanics.

This can be performed using bands or cables as well as single and double arm variations.  For stronger lifters you may have to use a weight plate or vest to keep your body anchored into the floor.  However, the single arm version will allow even the most advanced lifter to use ample load without issues of being elevated off the floor.  The unilateral variation is also one of the most effective combination horizontal pulling and anti-rotation movements you can perform as it crushes the upper back and rotary stability muscles of the core.

VARIATION #8: Bent Over Rows with Hanging Band Technique

Few if any training strategies are as effective for improving body mechanics and proprioceptive feedback as the Hanging Band Technique (HBT).  Although it’s most commonly incorporated on squats and upper body presses, the protocol is equally as effective when applied to rowing movements. 

You’ll be forced to use a lighter loads however the smooth repetitions, combined with constant tension, reduced momentum, and incredible intramuscular tension results in an enormous pump to the lats and upper back.  If you’re in need of a tune-up to your rowing mechanics, bent over rows performed with the HBT protocol are an ideal combo.

VARIATION #9: Bent Over Row with Plates

If you’re looking for an excellent back finisher that allows natural and optimal mechanics for crushing the lats, look no further than the bent over row with plates.  Because the plates fit to the side of the hips rather than in front, this promotes a very retracted and depressed scapula position.  Besides reinforcing optima mechanics this does wonders for stimulating the lat muscles due to the proper shoulder centration facilitated from the side loading. 

This movement is also much easier on the low back than bent over barbell rows as the weight is not loaded to the front of the body (this can facilitate shoulder rounding and spinal flexion.  The only downside is you can’t go past the weight of 45 pound plates making it difficult to overload.  For this reason I highly recommend the bent over plate row as an effective upper back finisher using high rep ranges and controlled tempos.  

You an also use it as a drop set/superset combination.  In other words perform a standard set of bent over barbell rows then once you hit failure immediately pick up weight plates and perform additional rows until reaching failure once more.  The growth in the back and lats from this combination will be incredible not to mention the excellent stretch you’ll achieve in the glutes and hamstrings.

VARIATION #10: Finger-Pinching Rows

Grip activation and forearm mechanics have an incredible impact on scapular stability and shoulder centration.  Intensely activating the muscles around the fingers, hands, and forearms, automatically helps centrate and lock the glenohumeral joint into its ideal position.  One method I’ve found particularly useful over the years for quickly cleaning up horizontal pulling mechanics is finger-pinching rowing movements. 

Although you can produce a similar response from fat grips, using bumper plates and hex style dumbbells are the most effective methods as even the slightest deviation in shoulder positioning will result in failed grip mechanics causing the weight to slide out of the hands.  It also reinforces the idea of performing smooth rowing motions with reduced momentum and optimal range of motion.  In addition overstretching with over-protraction in the stretched position is immediately punished as the weights will slip out of your fingers. 

Although you won’t necessarily be able to overload the lats, the neuromuscular efficiency produced from this protocol accompanied with the extreme improvements in grip and hand strength are noteworthy.  When you go back to basic rowing movements you’ll be able to handle heavier weight with stricter form which pays dividends for functional size and strength.

Bonus: RDL and Row Combo Technique

On bent over rows it’s quite common that as the set progresses, the low back and spinal stabilizers can slowly begin to fatigue.  As a result you’ll often see form and postural alignment gradually deteriorate throughout the set.  Rather than holding a single bent over position and completing all repetitions of the rowing movement, a better solution is to reset after several repetitions by performing an additional RDL and repeating this several times per set.  For instance rather than perform 1 hinge then holding that for an entire set of 8-10 repetitions, try performing an RDL, then 2-3 Rows, then repeat that sequence until you’ve accumulated 8-10 total rows.

Each time you stand up and perform an RDL motion you’re able to re-set the spine and allow the low back musculature to have momentary rest before repeating the sequence several times for the set.  Not only will your form be significantly more dialed in but your low back will be less likely to fatigue and give out before your upper back.  As an added bonus the modified rest pause or cluster set protocol allows the lifter to handle heavier loads ultimately leading to greater strength and mass gains.