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Strength Training Technique: The Row

There is one exercise, that when done correctly can have a profound impact on the health and performance of your shoulders. 

Not only that, but this exercise is great for building strength and muscle, improving posture and burning fat. 

Enter the row. 

Your shoulder is a very delicate joint as it is designed for mobility or range-of-motion. 

Picture a golf ball on a tee.

The tee is your shoulder socket and the ball is the head of your humerus. This is why it your shoulder is commonly referred to as a ball-and-socket joint. 

As you can see in the image above the size of the socket and the ball are a little off. 

This means we have a lot of natural range-of-motion in our shoulder but not a lot of stability. 

Because of this, it is crucial for the health of our shoulders to maintain range-of-motion by working through full ranges of motion but also making it a point to get stronger with exercises like rows to improve the ability of the ball to stay centered in the socket. 

Rows target and strengthen specific muscles that both help to move (protract and retract) and stabilize your shoulders like your lats, rhomboids, traps and rotator cuff. 

Now that we know why you should be rowing, let's cover how to properly row and how to avoid common mistakes and injury. 

1st | Reach

Start your row by reaching long. In this position your arm is straight and your shoulder blade is in a relaxed, protracted position. Think of your shoulder blade starting rolled out towards your hand. 

2nd | Retract

Start your row by pulling your shoulder blade toward your spine without bending your elbow.  This is also known as retracting your shoulder blade. Your shoulder blade should not go up or down but wrap, in a straight line around your rib cage toward your spine. You should feel the muscles around your shoulder blade working.

3rd | Row

Once your shoulder blade is retracted in the right position, begin your row by pulling the dumbbell or cable in. Finish your row with your arm in-line with your body. 

Common Mistakes

1) Elbow finished too far behind body

Finishing your arm too far behind your body can cause stress to the front of your shoulder and cause laxity in the shoulder joint leading to pain and injury. Stop your row with your arm in line with body and shoulder blade retracted. 

2) Shoulder shrug

Instead of driving your shoulder blade up and shrugging, think about your shoulder blade wrapping straight back across your rib cage toward your spine. This will take stress off your upper traps and neck. 

Here are 4 of our favorite rowing exercises:

#1 Inverted Row

The inverted row is one of our favorite upper-back exercises. It is a great way to properly teach beginners how to row and retract their shoulder blades which is crucial for building a strong and healthy upper-back. This exercise also works your entire body, including your core. Finally, the inverted row is a great lead into more advanced upper-back exercises like plank rows and chin-ups. 

Key Points:

  • Start with straight line from head to heals, arms straight
  • Initiate movement by pulling shoulder blades towards each other
  • Pull yourself up, finishing arms in line with body
  • Finish by lowering yourself to starting position
  • Start with 3 sets of 8-10 reps

#2  1-Arm Dumbbell Row 

The dumbbell row is a fantastic postural and core exercise. The weight challenges the strength of your upper-back as well as your abs as you have to fight to not twist during the rowing motion. You will feel these the next day!

Key Points:

  • Start shoulder width with one hand on bench 
  • Keep knees soft throughout
  • Without twisting, pull shoulder blade toward spine and row dumbbell toward rib cage
  • Stop arm in line with body
  • Start with 3 sets of 10 reps/side

#3  Isometric Alternating 1-Arm Cable Row 

The isometric alternating 1-arm row is flat out tough. By holding one arm back in the row position and rowing on the opposite side, your back gets zero rest. Bring on the burn! 

Key Points: 

  • Start on right knee with cables in both hands, left foot out front
  • Keep 90 degree angles through your lower-body
  • Keep a straight line from down knee to head
  • Start by pulling both shoulder blades towards your spine as you row both arm towards side
  • Hold the left arm in as you row 10 reps on the right arm
  • Next, hold right arm in and row 10 reps on the left arm
  • Finish with 10 rows together with both arms
  • Start with 3 sets 

#4 Plank Row

This might be the most challenging row variation of all as you have to control your body against gravity while performing the row. Not only are these great for your upper-back but they are awesome for hip and core stability. 

Key Points:

  • Start with dumbbells under shoulders
  • Feet should be wider than shoulder width
  • Keep glutes squeezed and hips tucked under
  • Without moving hips, row one dumbbell towards rib cage
  • Return to starting position and row on the other side
  • Increase challenge by adding a push-up 
  • Start with 3 sets of 5-8 reps/side

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