Curated By Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
If you have time for exactly one upper-body exercise, make it a row. Yes, really. Because as much as you may want to crush bench presses and biceps curls and shoulder presses, a few well-executed row reps can do far more for your body, improving your posture, bulletproofing your shoulders against injury, and dramatically improving your overall physique.
The row blasts your back muscles, and with a few different rowing variations, you can attack your lats (the large V-shaped muscles on the outside of your back that connect your arms to a vertebrae), your rhomboids (the muscles between your shoulder blades), and your traps (the muscles that run from neck down to shoulders). These muscle groups play a key role in helping you stand up straight, and they also pull your shoulders backward. That allows your chest to appear broader and prouder in all situations, and it prevents you from hunching forward.
Rows serve another purpose too: Because your back muscles are large, you’ll eventually be able to row considerably heavy. That can help you blast calories, and it’ll challenge your core muscles more than you may think. And with every row rep, you build biceps and forearm strength, too.
It’s all a key reason to integrate the below exercises into your training. You can do them as a full back workout twice a week, or you can mix them into your total-body workouts. Either way, your physique and your posture will thank you.
1. SINGLE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
Perhaps the most well-known row variation, the single-arm dumbbell row hammers your lats and builds major biceps strength too. It’s also the row variation you’ll eventually move the heaviest weight on (get ready to max out your Nuobells!).
To do it, stand holding an adjustable dumbbell in one arm, the other arm on a bench, chair, or other item for support. Then tighten your abs, push your butt back, and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel with the ground (stop short of parallel, though, to protect your lower back). Keeping your core tight and your hips and shoulders square to the ground, pull your elbow upwards, squeezing your shoulder blades as you do. Lower with control.
Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps per side.
2. WIDE-ANGLE SINGLE-ARM DUMBBELL ROW
A simple tweak to the single-arm row can shift the focus away from your lats and into your midback muscles and rhomboids. The change: Instead of keeping your arms close to your body, flare your upper arm so it’s at a 45-degree angle relative to your torso.
Again, keep your hips and shoulder square. Now row while maintaining this angle; you’ll now feel the muscles between your shoulder blades working overtime. Building thickness here is key to a good physique, and key to protecting your shoulders over time.
Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps. Use a lighter weight on this row; it’s challenging a smaller muscle group than the classic single-arm row.
3. INCLINE MIXED-STYLE ROW
The classic incline bench row changes your angle of pull slightly, and because you’ll lie on a bench to do this, it completely eliminates any lower-back challenge. That means you’ll be able to go heavy on this move, and you’ll also be able to emphasize the squeeze at the top of each rep. To reap the benefits of that squeeze (and push your core muscles to the limit, too), you’ll use an alternating style on this row.
Start by setting an incline bench to a 30-degree angle. Lie with your chest on the bench, abs and glutes squeezed, and hold dumbbells in both hands, arms hanging naturally. Squeeze your shoulder blades. Now row both bells upwards toward your ribcage. Pause when your elbows are slightly behind your shoulders, then lower only the right dumbbell. Do a single-arm row rep with the right arm, then lower both dumbbells. Do another double-arm row rep, then do a single-arm row rep on the left arm.
Alternate this pattern until you’ve done 10-12 total reps. Do 3 sets.
4. ELEVATED PLANK ROW HOLD
This underrated row variation is a great way to finish any workout, whether it’s a total-body session or a back-focused session. It not only builds lats and forearms, but it will hone shoulder stability and take your abs to the limit, since you’re essentially holding a single-arm plank.
To do it, place one elbow on a chair, box, or bench, and get in plank position. Tighten your abs and glutes so your hips and shoulders can stay square to the ground. Maintain this tightness as you row the dumbbell up toward your ribcage. Pause when your elbow is slightly above your torso, and hold. Aim for 15 to 30 seconds of hold.
Do 3-5 reps per side. Want to push your abs to the limit? Alternate reps on each side without resting.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. He’s logged training time with NFL athletes and track athletes.
His current training regimen includes weight training, HIIT conditioning, and yoga.
Ebenezer has had multiple prestigious positions including serving as a sports and tech columnist for the New York Daily News.