Back Row Exercises

Side view of young man in sportswear doing rowing in front of window at gym

Target all the muscles in your back with rows, a versatile exercise with plenty of variations. Some types allow you to use more weight and target a lot of muscles at the same time, while others require you to drop the weight down and focus on a few muscles.

1. Cable Row

This row variation is effective as long as you minimize the amount of momentum you gain by leaning back.

HOW TO DO IT: Sit down at the cable machine and brace your feet on the floor or platform that some machines feature. Grab the handle with both hands. Lean back slightly. Hold your upper body in this position.

Pull the handle back toward your chest. Touch the sides of your chest with your hands, pinching your shoulder blades together and sticking out your chest to maximize the amount of back muscle used. Slowly lower the weight until your arms are straight.

2. Dumbbell Row

In this row variation, you'll be performing the exercise with one arm at a time which maximizes the amount of abdominal activation you get in the exercise, according to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine that compared cable and free-weight rowing exercises.

HOW TO DO IT: Facing the side of a workout bench, stand with a dumbbell at your feet. Lean over by sticking your butt back and bending your knees. Plant on hand on the bench and grab the dumbbell with the other hand. Pull the dumbbell up until it touches your chest. Lower the dumbbell back down to the floor.

3. Bench Row

This row exercise prevents you from using momentum with your upper body to help get the weight up. According the American Council on Exercise about the top shoulder exercises, the bench row is also a great exercise for the rear deltoid, which is the muscle in the back of your shoulder.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your stomach on a bench, which should be set at a 45 degree angle to the ground. Keep your head above the top of the bench and feet on the ground.

Holding one dumbbell in each hand, pull the weights up to chest-height, pinching your shoulder blades back at the top of the movement. Lower the weights back down until your arms are straight, relaxing your back and letting it stretch.

4. Lawnmower Row

This is a version of the dumbbell row that doesn't require a bench and allows you to use more weight.

HOW TO DO IT: Place a dumbbell on the floor. Stand on the right side of the dumbbell and get into a lunge position with your right leg forwards. Lean your right arm on your right leg and grab the dumbbell with your left hand.

Pull the dumbbell up until it hits the left side of your chest, turning your torso to the left to gain momentum. Lower the weight down to the floor. Repeat on both the left and right sides.

5. Barbell Row

This is the best row exercise overall for maximum muscle recruitment, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2009, which compared three different row exercises. It also puts the highest amount of pressure on your lower spine, so it's not recommended for people with lower back problems.

HOW TO DO IT: Grab a barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart. Stick your butt back and lean forwards with your upper body until the barbell is touching your knees.

Pull the barbell up towards the bottom of your sternum, pulling your shoulder blades back and sticking your chest out as you pull up. Try to keep your upper body still except for your arms and shoulders. Lower the weight back down to knee-height.

Explore In Depth

The Effect of Performing Bi- and Unilateral Row Exercises on Core Muscle Activation. July 02, 2015
  • A. Saeterbakken
  • V. Andersen
  • A. Brudeseth
  • H. Lund
  • M. S. Fimland
Core muscle activation during dynamic upper limb exercises in women. December 01, 2012
  • Sami P. Tarnanen
  • Kirsti M. Siekkinen
  • Arja H. Häkkinen
  • Esko A. Mälkiä
  • Hannu J. Kautiainen
Pelvic stabilization and semisitting position increase the specificity of back exercises. February 01, 2009
  • Rubens A. Da Silva
  • Christian Larivière
  • A. Bertrand Arsenault
  • Sylvie Nadeau
  • André Plamondon