From Dork to Diva: Row

The row is a great compound back and biceps exercise. Use it as one of the foundational moves of your back workout. In this type of movement, the role of the back muscles is to retract, or pull back, the shoulder blades. The biceps help out by bending the elbow. If you want to focus on the back, really pay attention to that shoulder blade movement and don’t worry too much about the arms.


Here we have the classic dumbbell row screwup.

People try to haul the weight up by throwing their obliques (side abdominals) into the movement, and twisting as they come up.

Note also the rounded back. Sure, you can pull a lot of weight this way, but as in most cases where the weight is yanked too quickly, it’s incorrect and you don’t correctly target what you want.

Many folks also focus on trying to bring the hand up to the armpit or ribcage. They clutch the dumbbell with a death grip.


The pic on the left shows the starting position for a dumbbell row. The lower back is slightly arched, the head is up and looking forward (you needn’t strain your neck here; you can look down in front of you, if you like), and the shoulders are not allowed to hunch forward. If you don’t feel like the entire gym is staring at your ass, you’re probably doing this one wrong. You can also straddle the bench and put one hand on it, instead of a hand and a knee. As the dumbbell comes up, think about pulling your elbow towards the hip, rather than pulling your hand towards the ribcage.

Don’t pull with your arm (I know that sounds like an odd instruction); rather, think of your arm as dead weight that must be pulled up by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Relax the hand and forearm, and retain only enough tension in them to hold the weight. Think about pulling your shoulder blade back and your elbow up. Elbows stay close to the body through the movement. Above all, don’t allow yourself to twist to force the weight up. For back exercises in particular, it’s better to go with a lower weight that can be moved with precise control.

In the pic on the right, I am looking over my shoulder as I complete the rep. This isn’t necessary to do, but apocryphal knowledge has it that looking over your shoulder helps prevent you from twisting the torso. Frankly, I think strict attention to not twisting and a slow controlled rep makes more of a difference, since I can still twist plenty in that position. At any rate, I illustrate it in case any of you would like to try it. If you choose not to do so, make sure your head is up and you are looking forward, as in the pic on the left. Notice that in the right-hand pic, my lower back is still naturally arched, and not rounded.

variation #1: yates row

This is known as a Yates row, but I like to call it the Robo row, since the good Sgt. Robo was the one who most eloquently described it. The upper body is held somewhat more upright than in a bent-over barbell row. The range of motion is fairly small. This is handy if you need isometric spinal extension for something, such as postural endurance.

To begin the rep, stand with knees bent, lower back naturally arched, and take a deep breath, pushing chest up and out. Your upper body is about 20-30 degrees from upright. Head is up and looking forward. Grip is underhand, shoulder width.

Pull the bar towards you, keeping elbows close to body. Do not hunch your shoulders up as you do this; rather, push them down. The downward feel is very important to this exercise. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades, and pulling the bar to a point below your waist; the lower the better. Don’t pull up towards your ribcage, but rather down towards your groin (you won’t actually be able to pull down, obviously, but trying to do so makes a difference). At the top of the rep, as shown in the pic on the right, hold the bar there for a second or two, and really squeeze those shoulder blades together and down. Once again, I’ve got a nice fake grimace going like I’m lifting a small car instead of the bar. It’s just another way in which I go the distance for you readers, and try to convey the realism of actually exerting effort, heh heh.

Like the dumbbell row, this one should be executed with strict form and a slow, controlled tempo. Err on the side of lighter weight and better form for this exercise, since the secret of its success is in slow execution. If you find the bar is dragging across your thighs, unbend your knees a little bit (but always keep them at least slightly bent), lean forward, and shift the weight on to the balls of your feet slightly more.

variation #2: horizontal pullup

This is actually a combination of a row and a pullup, but who’s splitting hairs? This is probably one of the few good uses of a Smith machine and Reebok step. This exercise is better for an intermediate lifter, but what the hey, beginners are welcome to try it. I know I would have when I was a beginner! I think it looks cool, kind of like some weird SWAT team training exercise.

Anyway, to get set up for this exercise, set the bar of the Smith machine about 2 feet from the ground. It should be high enough so that when you hang from it with arms straight, your upper back doesn’t touch the ground. Now, for me, Ms. Stump Arms, that’s not very high at all. You will need to experiment to find the right height for you. I suggest you begin with your feet on the floor, not elevated as in the picture. That’s because the higher the feet, the more of your bodyweight you are lifting, and the harder the exercise. The simplicity of this exercise is deceiving, because it’s quite a challenge to do it right. Now, lie under the bar with feet at desired height, so that the bar is approximately across your chest, rather like where it would be if you were to bench press it. Reach up and grab the bar with a wide overhand grip. Stiffen your body out so that it is rigid and straight, as in the pictures. Then, keeping your elbows up and upper back slightly arched, pull yourself up towards the bar. Again, think of pulling your shoulder blades together and pushing your chest forward.
At the top of the rep, as shown in the pic on the right, squeeze shoulder blades together and hold yourself there for a second or two. Chest should be pushed forward and upper back slightly arched. Elbows are out. Squeeze your glutes a little to keep your body rigid, and keep abs tight. Lower yourself under control; do not allow yourself to drop.

To add resistance, increase the height of your feet with a step, weight plate or bench. Once you get really good at it, put a plate on your tummy or across your hips.