The Row: building upper body and back strength

  • June

    I WAS A PERSONAL TRAINER BEFORE I BECAME A NATUROPATHIC DOCTOR. I can confidently say that specific exercise protocols are an area that most NDs lack knowledge and training.

    The benefits of exercise are endless. Everything from regulating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, hormonal imbalances, confidence and stress management.

    This article will focus on upper body strength and one of the major muscles groups– THE BACK.

    The chest and back have secondary muscle groups (triceps and biceps, respectively) that help to assist the primary movers. For the general exerciser, it is safer to exercise the primary movers before secondary to avoid injury and poor form. For example:

    1. Chest (ie. push-up) –> Triceps (ie. skull crushers)
    2. Back (ie. standing row) –> Biceps (ie. bicep curls)

    The Muscles of the Back

    The back is made up of many layers of muscle, which allows the spine to flex, extend, rotate and laterally bend. Our back muscles also allow us to stand erect and facilitates coordinated movements at the hips, shoulders and neck, such as running. Our spines are critical to our nervous system and physical abilities. So is our posture. The muscles of the back (especially the upper back) are frequently forgotten, yet one of the most important upper body groups to train.

    The 3 muscle layers of the back and their actions are:

    1. SUPERFICIAL: Moves the upper body extremities
      1. Latissimus dorsi – the wings of the back spanning from behind your arm pitts down your spine to the hips
      2. Trapezius – upper, mid and lower traps form a diamond shape from your skull to mid-back (T12)
      3. Levator scapula – raises your shoulders up
      4. Rhomboid major and minor – joins your scapula to the midline of your spine to allow retraction of the shoulder blades
      5. Teres major – small muscle situated below the Latissimus dorsi insertion and helps to rotate the upper arm down and back
    2. INTERMEDIATE: Respiratory muscles
      1. Levators costarum – raise the rib cage up in inspiration
      2. Serratus posterior superior and inferior – controls up and down movement of ribs while breathing
    3. DEEP: Stabilizes and moves trunk and spine
      1. Splenius – deep muscles in the neck to allow extension and rotation of the head
      2. Erector spinae – 3 sets of muscles that span the length of your spine to allow extension of the trunk
      3. Transversospinalis – 3 sets of muscles that connects to each vertebra and stabilizes the spine
    The 3 muscle layers of the back (

    The 3 muscle layers of the back (

    Weak back muscles can cause an array of issues from poor posture to tension headaches and can lead to muscular compensations. The row is one of the best back and biceps exercise for beginners.

    Rows are versatile and can be easily modified for any level of exercise experience with very little equipment needed. Let’s walk through the row exercise to see why I’m such a fan:

    • Benefits
    • Proper technique
    • Myths
    • Common mistakes
    • Variations to the exercise
    • Alternate exercises for the chest
    • How to build them into your exercise



    The row targets more than just the muscles of the back. Depending on your grip, angle of the band/cable, and body position you will target different parts of the standing row. It requires leg and core stability and are assisted by the shoulders and biceps as secondary muscles:

    • Back: Latissiumus dorsi, mid and lower Trapezius, Rhomboids, Teres major,
    • Shoulders: posterior Deltoid, Teres minor, Infraspinatus
    • Arms: Brachialis and Brachioradialis
    • Core: Rectus abdominus, Transverse process, Obliques, Lower back stabilizers, Glutes

    Some of the easiest ways to hurt your low back is by picking up a heavy box or twisting while pulling open a filing cabinet with poor form. In an anterior dominant society (ie. the typical slouching posture) I see a lot of tight chests and weak backs prone to low back problems. This is also called “Upper Crossed Syndrome“.

    Training your chest without stretching and forgetting about your back can further exacerbate this poor posture. Read more about proper posture here.

    Proper Technique

    The basic standing row (see image below)

    1. Loop your band around a stable post or pole
    2. Hold the band shoulder width apart
    3. With your arms extended, step backwards until enough tension is on the band (you can alter the resistance as you go)
    4. Feet and eyes should be facing forward with square shoulders and hips.
    5. Stand in a stable posture with your knees slightly bent, your back upright and core engaged.
    6. Pull your shoulder blades down and back together BEFORE you start to bend your elbows (This is your starting position for beginners)
    7. Keep your back and core engaged as you bring your hands to the sides of your ribcage
    8. Exhale and hold for a moment before slowly extending your arms back to the starting position in step 5 and repeat
    9. Continue for 8-15 repetitions and 3-6 sets, or work it into your circuit. Your last 2 repetitions should be very difficult. If they are too easy, take an additional step backwards to create more tension.

    Standing band rows at the cottage

    NOTE: some bands are made of cheaper material, which means they can break easily. Your back is a strong group of muscles and will require a good quality band to avoid hurting yourself.

    The first few time you may feel like you're falling backwards or being pulled forward. It will take a few attempts to find the correct resistance with your band and to balance. I love this exercise because of the control that you must have to keep your core, legs and back engaged at all times.


    These myths have been proven false for the average healthy person. Even your doctor, personal trainer or physical therapist may not be up-to-date with these facts, so make sure you speak with an expert if you have questions.

    Upper back work makes a woman’s upper body look bulky

    • if your definition of “bulky” is having muscles then yes, any strength training will make your muscles stronger and more visible. But they again, it will also allow you to be active in life, live a healthier life and lose more fat (if that’s your goal).
    • you are not a female body builder. And if you were, you’d have to dedicate your entire day to working out, eating and taking the proper supplements. “Bulking up” is not easy and you won’t accidentally do it exercising 1 hour a day.
    • your ability to put on more muscle than another person comes down to hormones and genetics. If you are the type that easily puts on muscle, you need to embrace your body. Being fit, active and strong is more beneficial than trying to change your body to be socially accepted. Surround yourself with positive people who accept you as you are and try the Love Your Body Challenge.
    • you may think you look more “man-ish” when you start working out because you aren’t used to it. I remember my family making comments about how “built” I was, and it made me feel self-conscious, but inevitably I didn’t only gain more muscle and strength, but also confidence. I liked how I felt and looked, and that’s what counts. Read my story here at Girls Gone Strong.

    You have to use the cables machine for rows

    • Seated or standing rows can be effectively done with good quality bands
    • The more tension the bands are under (ie. increased length), the more resistance there is on your muscles.
    • Bands are also great because they will reveal any imbalances from your left to right sides. Since cable rows usually use a single handle to pull from you can be over compensating with one side without knowing it (unless your trainer points it out to you)

    Common Mistakes

    These are the ones that happen the most. Having a personal trainer evaluate your form is always a good idea.

    1. Falling forward – if the band is pulling you forward, you are either not engaging your legs and core adequately or your tension is too high. Take a small step forward and lessen the band slack.
    2. Leaning back – if you are falling backwards be careful. Don’t let your body weight pull the band, rather use your strength. You might want to start with a staggered stance to keep yourself stable at the beginning.
    3. Arched backkeep your core engaged and scapula in place while pulling the band to your body. If this is too difficult, take a small step forward to release some of the tension.
    4. Hunched back – this is the common cross-syndrome position we spoke of earlier. You may need to do a few repetitions of just pulling your shoulder blades back and down to get your Rhomboids and mid Trapezius working.
    5. Short and quick movements – this often happens when too much tension is used. Don’t go for broke! Take your time doing full movements under control so that you actually work all your muscles properly.
    6. Hands too high or too low – depending on where you place your band, you may feel the need to pull too high or low. Your hands should always start in line with your band angle and end just underneath your chest (ribcage area).
    7. Favoring one side – everyone has a more dominant side that will kick in when fatigued. If one arm is unable to complete the full movement adjust to the weaker side and try doing some single arm rows at the end of your workout to strengthen that side.
    8. Burying the chin in or lifting the head – keeping your head neutral is always important, especially when you are working your back. Flexion or extension will engage neck muscles that can lead to strains and tension headaches.
    9. Going for quantity and not quality – take your time and do less proper rows rather than many poor quality ones. You’ll get stronger and avoid injuries this way.

    Variations of the Basic Row

    — It’s always a good idea to try different variations to your row and continue to challenge yourself with progressions.

    1. Fitness Equipment

    • Resistance bands – as seen above; various angles and tensions
    • Barbell – bent over and landmine rows
    • Dumbbell – kneeling bent over rows
    • Cable machine – standing, seated and bent over rows
    • Exercise machine – single and double arm seated row
    • Landmine – bent over and kneeling bent over row
    • TRX/ rings/ smith machine – inverted row

    2. Grip Variations

    • Overhand grip – as seen above
    • Parallel grip – palms facing one another
    • Under grip – palms facing upwards
    • Rotating grip – starting in overhand and pulling into parallel

    3. Hand Positions

    • Wide grip – hands wider than your shoulder width
    • Narrow grip – hands closer than your shoulder width
    • Single arm – isolating one side at a time
    • Single arm row with isometrics – while isolating a one-sided row, try holding the end position with the other arm
    • Add some fat gripz – to increase grip strength and nerve recruitment, hold a set of fat gripz on your handles or band

    2. Body Position

    • Standing – feet and hips forward with a slight knee bend
    • Squatting – 90 bend in knees to activate quads, glutes and hamstrings
    • Kneeling upright – isolation of lower body allows for more weight to be pulled and a high angled row, which targets more latissimus and lower traps
    • Lunging – alternating stance with front heal planted and back knee off the ground to increase lower body activation
    • Single leg – this is better for older or rehab individuals working on balance, posture and requiring lighter weights
    • Seated – commonly used with cable rows to maximize weight that can be pulled

    • Bent over – hips hindged at a 45˚ angle with knees bent and static. Pulling barbell in a vertical direction towards the belly button. You can also set up handles on a low cable setting or do a landmine row to replicate this movement pattern
    Bent over row with barbell

    Bent over row with barbell

    • Kneeling bent over – single knee and hand on bench with working side carrying a dumbbell, band or landmine. Pulling in a vertical direction towards the side of your ribcage

    • Push-up to row – push-up position on dumbbells with row at the top of the push-up
    Jon Goodman doing a push-up to row

    Jon Goodman doing a push-up to row

    Alternate Exercises for the Back

    With all the muscles of the back, you want to make sure you are hitting all layers to progress your routines. Rows are a great exercise, especially if you have limited time and equipment available, but they have their limitations. Here are alternate back exercises to rotate into your workouts.

    Lat Pull Down – there are many variations to do a lat pull down, the most common is using a seated machine with an over grip. Pulling the bar behind your head puts extra strain on your neck and should be avoided

    Chin-ups vs Pull-ups – there are many variations to both and the hand position is key.

    They can be assisted with bands or a machine, body weight or weighted, and using many grip variations (parallel, under, over, mixed, wide, narrow, neutral, single arm).

    Reverse flies – these can be done standing with resistance bands, on a seated machine, or seated/ bent over with dumbbells.

    Farmer’s Walks – these are sensational for core and back stability while working on your grip strength. Do a one-sided farmer’s walk to put added work to your transverospinalis muscles (deep layer back muscles)

    Numbers Game

    Building your row variations into your exercise routine depends on which type you do. Generally you are either doing:

    1. High rep and Low weight
      — These are either body weight or resistance push-ups that can be worked into a routine as ‘active rest’ for 10-20 repetitions or a time duration (ie. push-up rows)
      — High repetition as a metabolic activator of fast twitch muscle fiber
      — Form is not as critical to safety, but still important due to the high repetitions
      — Goal is to get your heart rate up
    2. Low rep and High weight
      — High weight in repetitions of 3-10 and sets of 3-6 (ie. bent over weighted rows) with an adequate amount of rest
      — Strengthens slow twitch muscle fibers to build and tone the back
      — Form is absolutely critical due to the heavy weights that could cause serious injury
      — Goal is for building strength, muscle mass and fat loss


This website is NOT to be used as a diagnostic or treatment tool. Always consult with your Conventional Medical Doctor or Naturopathic Doctor for specific concerns. In cases of medical emergencies visit your nearest hospital or call 9-1-1.