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6 Row Variations for a Stronger, Thicker Back

Build a stronger, thicker back with these tried-and-true variations of a classic pulling movement.

Build a stronger, thicker back with these tried-and-true variations of a classic pulling movement.


By Joe Wuebben, Muscle & Fitness

What's the best big lift you can do for the upper body? If your gut reaction says either bench press or military press, perhaps you need to start focusing a bit more on pulling than pushing.

Truth is, the classic barbell row will give any upper-body exercise a run for its money in terms of developing pure strength and piles of muscle. In fact, most reputable trainers would probably tell you upper-body pulling movements should be prioritized over presses in your program. Why? Because, chances are, your shoulders are hunched at least slightly forward due to guys’ press-happy nature in the gym, plus all the posture-destroying texting, typing, and driving people do, which set the shoulders even farther forward.

If rows aren’t a focal point of your training, it’s time they become one. Use any of these six variations for a bigger, broader, stronger back.



1

Prone Incline Dumbbell Bench Row

Defining Difference:

Lying facedown on an incline bench while rowing maximizes isolation, because you don’t have to worry about how your legs are positioned, if your knees are bent, etc. A high flat bench would work well in this capacity, too, but most gyms don’t have such specialty equipment. (Lying facedown on a standard flat bench wouldn’t provide nearly enough clearance to the floor to allow for full extension of the arms.)

How to Do It:

Lie facedown on an incline bench with your feet on the floor, holding a pair of dumbbells. Begin with your arms hanging straight toward the floor, palms facing each other and elbows fully extended. Contract your back muscles and lead with your elbows to pull the dumbbells straight up. When they reach your midsection, squeeze your shoulder blades together for a one count, then slowly lower the weights to the start position.

When to Do It:

As your last multi-joint back exercise in the workout. If doing a single-joint move like straight-arm pulldowns, this would fall second to last. If you’re not doing any single-joint back work, finish with prone incline rows.



2

Head-Supported Barbell Bentover Row

Defining Difference:

For many people, heavy bentover rows put undue strain on the lower back. That’s where this “head-supported” version comes into play; instead of your lower back taking the full burden of stabilizing your torso, an adjustable bench takes much of the tension off.

How to Do It:

Stand holding a barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip in front of an adjustable incline bench facing away from you. Bend over at your waist until your torso is about 45 degrees to the floor, and place your forehead firmly on the top of the seat back. Contract your back muscles to pull the bar up to your stomach, keeping your torso in the same position and your forehead on the bench throughout. Feel the contraction at the top, then slowly lower the bar back to the arms-extended position.

When to Do It:

As the first exercise in your back workout or as your first rowing move after doing heavy lat pulldowns or pullups.



3

Inverted Row

Defining Difference:

It’s a challenging body-weight move that enhances pulling strength while helping build thickness in the middle back. And they’re easy to scale—make them easier by bending your knees with your feet flat on the floor, or you can make the move harder by elevating your feet on a bench or box.

How to Do It:

Set the bar of a Smith machine (or TRX straps, whichever you prefer or have available) to about hip height. Lie faceup underneath the bar and grasp it with a shoulder-width overhand grip. Place the backs of your heels on the floor and start with your arms fully extended and your body in a stiff plank. Contract your back muscles to pull yourself up to the bar until your chest touches it, staying rigid throughout, then lower yourself down under control back to full extension.

When to Do It:

If inverted rows are a difficult move for you, do them early in your back workout. If you’re strong on the exercise and can bang out 15 or more reps, use it as a finisher at the end of your training session.



4

Pendlay Row

Defining Difference:

Named after renowned Olympic-lifting coach Glenn Pendlay, this move— which has you row the weight from a dead stop off the ground—is great for adding thickness to the back and boosting deadlift performance, as it increases your power production. Also, because the bar starts on the floor for each rep, most people consider Pendlay rows easier on the lower back than traditional bentover rows.

How to Do It:

Stand in front of a barbell sitting on the floor, and bend over and grasp it just outside shoulder width. In the start position, the knees are bent and the back is flat and parallel with the floor. From here, pull the bar off the floor and up to your midsection without lifting your torso or extending your knees. When the bar touches your midsection, slowly lower it back to the floor, letting it rest momentarily before the next rep.

When to Do It:

In place of standard bentover barbell rows as the first or second exercise (first rowing move) in your back workout.



5

Renegade Row

Defining Difference:

You won’t be able to go as heavy on renegade rows as you would with other rowing variations, but the added benefits are worth it—namely, increased core strength (due
to the challenge of maintaining a plank throughout the set) and shoulder stability (from your down arm holding your body steady while the other pulls weight).

How to Do It:

Start in a pushup position with your hands holding a pair of dumbbells resting shoulder-width apart on the floor, palms facing each other. (Use hexagon-shaped dumbbells for safety. They will minimize the chance of rolling and possibly injuring yourself.) Row one dumbbell to your side without letting your torso rotate as you do so—keep your chest facing downward. Lower the dumbbell back to the floor, then repeat with the other arm. Alternate arms until you complete all the reps.

When to Do It:

Because you’ll be going lighter, renegade rows are typically best performed at the end of a workout.



6

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Defining Difference:

The key here is isolation. Not only will the dumbbell provide maximum range of motion, but pulling with one arm at a time better allows you to focus on and bring up the weaker side if you have an imbalance issue. Plus, because you’re using the bench for support (by having a knee on it), you don’t have to be as mindful of torso position as with standing rows; you can just focus on pulling heavy weight with minimal lower-back injury risk.

How to Do It:

Place one bent knee and same-side hand on a flat bench with the opposite foot on the floor and that hand holding a dumbbell. Keeping your chest pointed to the floor and with your head straight, pull the dumbbell up to your waist by contracting your back muscles and bending your elbow. When it reaches the top, squeeze your shoulder blades together, then slowly lower the dumbbell to the start position. Complete all reps with one arm, then switch arms.

When to Do It:

One-arm rows can fall anywhere in your back workout—as the first exercise going heavy or as a finisher with lighter weight and high reps.
Muscle & Fitness

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Men's Magazine: 6 Row Variations for a Stronger, Thicker Back
6 Row Variations for a Stronger, Thicker Back
Build a stronger, thicker back with these tried-and-true variations of a classic pulling movement.
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