Know Your Row: The Pros and Cons of 8 Different Back Exercises

Every time you step into the gym, you have a virtually endless array of exercises at your disposal. Knowing the benefits of each exercise and the effect it can have on your performance is an incredibly valuable piece of knowledge. One type of movement with an especially huge number of variations? The Row.

The basic movement of a Row is like a reverse Bench Press. You use your upper body to pull a load rather than push it. But within that basic description, there is lots of room for variation. Over the years, a number of Rows have increased in popularity and found their way into workout routines. With that in mind, STACK took a look at eight popular Row exercises to inventory the pros and cons of each. Which row is right for you?

1. Bent-Over Barbell Rows

The Bent-Over Barbell Row is an old-school exercise that is super effective for building back mass and strength. It's a favorite of legendary bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and top teams like Maryland Lacrosse integrate it into their routines.

"In terms of overall strength and hypertrophy for the posterior chain, it's tough to beat the Bent-Over Barbell Row," says Kasey Esser, C.S.C.S. and certified personal trainer.

The Bent-Over Barbell Row is an anti-flexion exercise, which means your lower back must keep your torso from folding over. This is excellent for building lower-back strength and stability. The position for this Row closely mimics the position for the Deadlift, and Esser sees a positive relationship between the two exercises. "I've found them to have a big time carryover," he says.

Bent-Over Barbell Rows are great if performed correctly, but that's not often the case. Typical form issues include poor hip hinge, incorrect weight distribution, improper tempo and lifting with a flexed spine. "I wouldn't say it's a beginner's movement," says Esser. If you're new to Row exercises, Bent-Over Barbell Rows might not be the best place to start. If you're a Row pro and are already performing Bent-Over Barbell Rows, check out this video to make sure your form is on point.

2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows differ significantly from both the Bent-Over Barbell Row and the Seated Cable Row. They are performed single-arm-style using a dumbbell. They can be done either free-standing or with the support of a bench. Athletes like Antonio Gates use them in their routines.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows do a great job of targeting both the back and the core.

"Every time the dumbbell is lowered, the torso has to stay stable. So you're training the core to resist rotation," Esser says. Since you Row with one arm at a time, Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows allow you to focus on your form and build both sides of your back equally, decreasing the likelihood of developing muscle imbalances.

However, Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows have a couple of drawbacks. Since they heavily challenge your core and force you to lift with one arm at a time, you probably have use lighter weight than you do for other types of Rows. There's also a common form problem: athletes twist their torso at the top of the movement to help them generate momentum; but that can be corrected by focusing on maintaining a flat back and using lighter weight.

3. Inverted Rows 

The Inverted Row is a bodyweight exercise that requires you to fight gravity to pull yourself up to a fixed bar. It is one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do to build a stronger and broader back.

Inverted Rows are a full-body exercise. Keeping your body in perfect posture as you progress through the movement requires not only back strength, but also glute and core strength. Inverted Rows encourage you to control your own body weight in motion—which is what sports performance is all about. One concern with Inverted Rows is that pulling yourself all the way up to the bar can put extra pressure on your shoulders, elbows and wrists. To avoid this, add a small pad around the bar or pull yourself within 3-4 inches of the bar at the top of the movement.

4. Seated Cable Rows

Seated Cable Rows ditch the barbell in favor of a cable machine. Unlike other Row variations, they are performed in a seated position. Programs like UNC Baseball and athletes like Terrell Owens include Seated Cable Rows in their routines (though Owens typically uses a resistance band).

Seated Cable Rows might be better than Bent-Over Barbell Rows for athletes who have trouble with their hip hinge and lower-back strength, because Seated Cable Rows place you in a stable upright position, where you can focus more on strengthening your scapulae than your lower back.

Esser says, "The athlete tends to be in a very stable position with their torso upright, so Cable Rows are great for learning how to use the scapulae to pull a weight."

If you'd rather get on your feet than be in a seated position, you can perform Cable Rows in a variety of different ways. Steve Nash likes to do them single-leg, single-arm-style, while Ryan Matthews likes to add a Squat to the movement.

The simple form and potential creativity are big pluses for Cable Rows, but they do not build lower-back strength like Bent-Over Barbell Rows.

5. TRX Rows

TRX Rows are like Inverted Rows, except they're performed using TRX straps rather than a stationary bar. Since the TRX isn't a fixed implement, it requires an extra effort for stability. Your core and glutes have to work harder to maintain proper posture throughout the movement.

TRX Rows are great for anyone who has back issues, because they allow you to control the weight, difficulty and movement of the exercise better than other Rows. "From my experience, TRX Rows work very well at working the back, the core and the glutes simultaneously, even for someone with a history of back injury," Esser says.

Another benefit of TRX Rows: they allow you to increase and decrease the difficulty of the movement by simply moving forward or backward. The further you move your feet forward, the more difficult the exercise becomes. The further you move your feet backward, the easier the exercise becomes. You can add a med ball to increase the difficulty, like Kevin Durant does.

The only downside of TRX Rows is that they limit the amount of weight you can use to your body weight. That will work to get you bigger and stronger for a long period of time, but eventually you'll have to hit the iron to keep seeing significant gains.

6. Chest-Supported Rows

Chest-Supported Rows put you in a belly-down position on an incline bench. From there, you use two dumbbells to perform a Row. This position is easier on the back than a standing position, and its a good way for beginners to learn the Row movement. If you want to focus on your upper back—and just your upper back—Chest-Supported Rows get the job done.

However, due to their supported nature Chest-Supported Rows don't offer much bang for your buck. Other Row exercises hit your upper back, lower back, core and glutes, whereas Chest-Supported Rows target just your upper back. If you've got the time and energy to perform other variations, you'll get more results for your effort. But if you've got lower back problems and want to target your upper back, Chest-Supported Rows are a smart choice.

7. Meadows Row 

You might not have heard of Meadows Rows, but they definitely deserve to be on your radar. Invented by professional bodybuilder and C.S.C.S. John Meadows, they use a barbell landmine to provide a uniquely challenging single-arm Row.

Since they allow you to use a heavier load, Meadows Rows are a great alternative to traditional Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows. You can quickly load weight on and off, and since the end of a barbell is significantly thicker than a dumbbell handle, they also train your grip. Meadows Rows can give you a great pump, but anyone with a history of lower-back injuries might want to stay away from them. Since they require heavy Rows with one arm, they place a good amount of torque on your lower back. But if you've got a strong, healthy lower back and a stable core, give Meadows Rows a try and enjoy a premium back pump.

8. Upright Rows

As advertised, Upright Rows put you in a standing, upright position. You pull a barbell or dumbbell from below your waist to the top of your chest using a close grip. Upright Rows target your traps and lats. You've probably seen someone at your gym perform them—or maybe you've performed them yourself—but you should not include them in your routine.

According to Esser, they put your shoulder in a dangerous position that can lead to injury. He says, "The risk outweighs the reward. It puts your shoulder in an impinged position. The movement of Upright Rows actually closely resembles the Hawkins Test, a test doctors use to put the shoulder in impingement and check for pain. There are other things you can do to build your traps."

A frequent cause of shoulder pain, shoulder impingement occurs when a bony part of your shoulder known as the acromion rubs against the shoulder tendon and bursa sac, creating inflammation and causing pain.

Upright Rows might build trap and lat strength, but safer options, such as Deadlifts, are a better choice.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: BACK | CHEST | EXERCISE | BARBELL | LOWER BACK | UPPER BACK