If you’re looking for an exercise that
works your upper body, the row has got your back. (Literally.) Depending on the row variation you choose, you can effectively work your arms, shoulders, chest, and back simply by rowing with a weight, resistance band, or cable.
The row exercise gets its name from the
rowing motion that happens when you pull your arms towards you, says Alexander Joseph, NASM-PES, a trainer and client experience specialist with OnPoint Nutrition. Whether you work one arm or both at the same time, “the primary muscles targeted when performing rows are the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and/or rhomboids,” he tells Bustle. Rows zero in on these posterior muscles of the upper body, he says, as well as the biceps and triceps.
According to Joseph, there are countless benefits that come with working these particular muscles. For one,
strong back and shoulder muscles help support your postural alignment so that you can sit up and stand straight without it feeling like your shoulders are rounding inwards.
A stronger upper body can also help
prevent potential pain from muscle weakness, he says. And, to top it all off, Joseph says that rows aid in the health of your “accessory muscles” that assist in the rowing motion, like your shoulders and forearms, which are helpful for things like your overall posture and stability. Here, trainers share their favorite row variations that’ll work the muscles of your upper body. 1 Single-Arm Cable Row
“This exercise, when done properly, fully targets the lats, posterior deltoid, teres major, and rhomboids,” says
Lalitha McSorley, BSc.PT, MCPA, CAFCI, GTT, a physical therapist with Brentwood Physio.
- Approach a lat pulldown machine with a “D” handle.
- Reach up and grab the handle with your body erect and your arm extended above you.
- With your extended arm, lean back a little and drop your shoulder back into the socket.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your hand down towards your upper chest.
- Slowly release.
- Do 3 sets of 12 reps.
2 Barbell Row
“This is an amazing exercise for anyone looking to build explosive power, as you can move an incredible amount of weight in this position,” McSorley says. “It targets the lats, rhomboids, middle and lower traps, and your posterior deltoids.”
- Stand with your feet under a barbell, shoulder-width apart.
- Bend over and firmly grasp the barbell with both hands.
- Unlock your knees, keeping them slightly bent.
- Make sure your back is straight.
- Pull the bar towards your lower chest, leading with your elbows and pointing them towards the sky.
- Slowly lower the bar back to the start position.
- Do 5 sets of 5 reps.
3 Seated Cable Row Emily Higgins, CTP, CNC, a trainer and owner of Girl Let’s Glow, recommends this row variation, which you can do seated or while standing. “This exercise will work your traps, rhomboids, lats, and biceps,” she tells Bustle. One tip? “Try to do most of the work by pulling your shoulder blades together,” she says.
- Stand or sit in front of a cable machine.
- Choose your resistance with the stack weights or plates.
- Maintain a neutral spine.
- Position your hands evenly on both sides of the grip.
- Pull it into your chest by contracting your back muscles.
- Slowly release and repeat.
- Do one set of 12 to 15 reps.
4 Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
Higgins recommends this row to work your traps, rhomboids, lats, and biceps, noting that it pays a bit more attention to your delts,
erector spinae, pectorals, and triceps. “Due to the free weights, you also create more endurance in some of the smaller stabilizer muscles,” she says.
- Grab one dumbbell.
- Place one hand on a flat bench just below your shoulder to support your torso.
- Hold your dumbbell in the other hand and let it hang freely below your shoulder.
- Contract your back muscles to lift the weight up to the bench level.
- Slowly lower it back down to repeat.
- Do 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side.
5 Renegade Row
renegade row is a complex move that requires both strength and coordination since you have to hold yourself up — but that’s what makes it an excellent exercise. According to Joseph, you’ll work your shoulders, lats, traps, abs, glutes, and other small secondary muscles with each row.
- Set yourself in a
high plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet slightly wider than hip-width.
- Grip a light to moderate dumbbell with one hand.
- Maintain your plank as you pull the dumbbell up towards the side of your core, making a 90-degree shape with your arm.
- Contract and squeeze your lats as you pull the weight upward.
- Bring the dumbbell back to the ground.
- Do 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side.
6 Standing Resistance Band Row
Grab a band for this one. “This is a good option for beginners or those with limited equipment,” Higgins says. It primarily works your upper and mid traps and deltoids.
- Place the center of your
resistance band under your shoes. Put more of the band under your shoes for added resistance.
- Hold the ends/handles with palms facing down.
- Stand upright with a neutral spine.
- Raise your arms by drawing your elbows outward until they are lateral with your ears.
- The handles of the resistance band will be just below your chin.
- Lower slowly and repeat.
- Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.
7 Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
This version engages your erector spinae, Higgins says, as well as your lumbar spine.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Keep your knees slightly bent and feet hip-width apart so you are in a squat position.
- Hinge at your hips so you have a 45-degree angle between your quads and your abdomen.
- Maintain a flat back.
- Flex your elbows by driving your triceps back behind you until the dumbbells are next to your torso.
- Lower slowly and repeat.
- Do 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps.
8 Upright Row
To give your muscles a challenge, try an upright row using a kettlebell to work your back, core, and shoulders. You can also use two dumbbells to focus more on joint stability, Higgins says, or a barbell for a controlled movement.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Start with your arms fully extended.
- Hold the weight just in front of your upper thighs.
- Brace your core.
- Drive elbows out and shoulders up to lift weight.
- Stop when your elbows are level with your shoulders.
- Lower and repeat.
- Do 10 to 12 reps.
9 Inverted Row With TRX Bands
For a challenge, try this inverted row using
TRX bands. According to Higgins, it’s an advanced option that uses your own body weight to work your biceps and stability.
- Lie face-up under the TRX bands.
- Hold the handles with your palms facing inward above your chest.
- Keep your legs bent to make it a bit easier or straighten them and become more parallel with the floor for a progression.
- Bend your elbows and pull your chest up toward the handles until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle beneath them.
- Slowly lower with control.
- Do 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps.
Studies referenced: Kim, D. (2015). Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27(6), 1791-1794. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.27.1791 Sherman, A. (2022). Muscle Strength Grading. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan Sources: Alexander Joseph, NASM-PES, trainer, client experience specialist with OnPoint Nutrition Lalitha McSorley, BSc.PT, MCPA, CAFCI, GTT, physical therapist with Brentwood Physio Emily Higgins, CTP, CNC, trainer owner of Girl Let’s Glow
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