The Right Way To Do Rows

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

Many of us may remember watching Arnold training his back with seated cable rows  during that scene in Pumping Iron and thinking “Oh my God! He’s gonna break his spine with form like that!” Actually, half of us probably had that reaction.

Those that watched in horror as Arnold rounded his spine were the “smart and educated” lifters. I know this because I was one. We were taught by several gurus about how dangerous this type of thing was so we just laughed as the greatest bodybuilder of all time ignorantly did his rows. “Imagine if Arnold really knew how to train,” we all thought.

Boy was the joke on us.

Believe it or not, Arnold actually knew what he was doing and was doing rows properly. To get a muscle to grow it’s often desirable to first stretch it under tension and then forcefully contract it immediately following. The stretching is critically important. So let me ask you this…

Where does the stretching come in when you do rows the way most people teach them, with the scapula pulled safely back throughout the set?

It doesn’t.

You have to let your scapula spread as far as possible. This can only be done by letting your upper back round. If you want to make seated rows a good lat exercise instead of a shitty biceps exercise you actually need to lean forward and allow your arms to stretch upwards toward your head like Arnold did in Pumping Iron.

Of course there is some inherent danger in rounding your back with heavy weights and you need to be aware of this. While you do want to round your upper back and get a full stretch, you also want to be sure that you keep your lower back in a neutral position. You never want to round or flex your lower back; just your upper back.

Because the seated cable row allows you to lean all the way forward and spread the scapula and stretch the lats fully, while then finishing with a strong contraction, it is actually one of the best rowing exercises there is. Most people just do this exercise all wrong and that’s why they don’t get much out of it.

Typical form on a seated cable row begins with the lifter sitting straight up, or worse yet- leaning back. They let their arms straighten and then row the weight back in. It’s basically a bicep exercise that may or may not also strengthen the scap retractors but essentially it sucks for lat development. To really get your back to grow, you must do like Arnold did.

Doing this on a bent over barbell row is much harder and more dangerous to do. You can round your upper back but you can’t stretch forward on a barbell row. If you are advanced and have mastered this form then by all means have at it. In most instances T-Bar bent over rows will be safer and more effective than barbell bent over rows.

Another option that’s usually a bit better than the straight bar is to use dumbbells for bent over rows.

Chest supported dumbbell rows on an incline bench are a great option as well and allow you safely spread the scapula at the bottom of each rep.

1 arm dumbbell rows are even better and allow for maximum stretch on each rep.

The Hammer Strength Iso Lateral Row Machine is actually pretty good as far as machines go because it allows you to really stretch forward and spread the scapula under tension, especially since the chest pad is so narrow.

No matter which form of row you choose the key point to remember are these:

  • Stretch your scapula and let it spread apart as far as possible
  • Don’t let your lower back round. Maintain a neutral position in your lumbar spine.
  • Don’t fully extend your biceps as this transfers too much stress to them and away from the back muscles you are trying to train
  • Tightly squeeze your shoulder blades together as far back as you can on each rep and try to hold them there for a second.

Start stretching and start growing.

Yet again, we see another example of what has always been the case over the last 20 years; we knew everything we needed to know back in the 70’s… then just got “smart” and unlearned it all.

Keep it old school.

Keep it simple.