If you want a big, thick back, then there is no getting around it: you have to row! No, I’m not talking about getting in a canoe and paddling your little ass off. Learn the 11 best rowing exercises for mass right here!
The back is easily one of the tougher body parts to grow. It doesn’t help that you can’t even see these muscles working when you are working out!
It doesn’t have to be this way though.
If you ditch the wimpy back exercises that don’t even work and start training with the most bang-for-your-buck rowing exercises then I guarantee you transform your back faster than you can say “Dorian Yates!”
So what are the best rowing exercises? I’m glad you asked!
In my experience coaching literally hundreds of trainees, the following rowing exercises are best for thickening up your backside:
- Number 15: Pendlay Row
- Number 14: Chest-Supported Row
- Number 13: Strict DB Row
- Number 12: Smith Machine Row
- Number 11: 1-arm Hammer Strength Row
- Number 10: Seated Cable Row
- Number 9: Seal Row
- Number 8: 1-Arm Barbell Row
- Number 7: Barbell Row
- Number 6: Smith Machine Deadstop Row
- Number 5: Meadows Row
- Number 4: Face Pulls With External Rotation
- Number 3: Kroc Row
- Number 2: T-bar Row
And finally, my favourite rowing variation of all time:
- Number 1: Barbell Deadstop Row
Each of these rowing variations has their advantages and disadvantages.
For example, some of these rowing variations tax the lower back and spinal erectors quite hard, while others completely eliminate stress to the lower back.
This can be a good or bad thing depending on your goals and the rest of your training program.
So what are you waiting for? Only a pencil-neck über-dweeb would pass up on this information!
Now let’s get down to business…
Number 15: Pendlay Row
The idea behind Pendlay rows is to keep your torso perfectly still and use nothing but your upper back musculature to move the weight.
In theory Pendlay rows are a great choice for isolating the lats and scapular retractors. However, I’m not convinced that Pendlay rows are very good at all for isolating the back.
Pendlay rows are last on my list for a reason: I don’t think they are very effective!
Actually that is probably an understatement.
I think Pendlay rows are a complete waste of time!
I say this knowing that many lifters absolutely swear by this movement.
However, every time I convince a client of mine to ditch the Pendlay rows in favor of some of the other rows on this list their progress shoots through the roof!
There is a specific reason I don’t like this exercise: it is a lot like a strict chest-supported row, except you are wasting a massive amount of energy trying to stabilize your torso.
In my experience the limiting factor in this exercise is the strength of your lower back, not your upper back!
There is nothing wrong with picking exercises that let you really “isolate” the upper back. I just don’t think the Pendlay row gets the job done!
Number 14: Chest-Supported Row
This is the classic machine chest-supported row.
Another way of performing this exercise involves an adjustable incline bench and a pair of dumbbells.
I quite like chest-supported rows, which is more than I can say for the near-useless Pendlay rows!
This exercise can be very good for recruiting the scapular retractors (middle trap, lower trap, and rhomboids), especially if you point your elbows directly out to your sides while you perform the movement.
There is however one serious drawback to the chest-supported row: it is really hard to breathe while doing this exercise!
Sometimes it feels like your lungs are working harder than your upper back on chest-supported rows!
While I like this exercise, it only secures the #14 spot on my list because of the obvious drawback of making it difficult to breathe.
Number 13: Strict DB Row
This variation is know as “arc DB rows.”
Another great variation is to drive your elbow out to the side like you are elbowing someone next to you in the face.
Charles Poliquin was a HUGE proponent of these 2 rowing variations, and I can certainly see why!
These exercises are excellent for improving the structural balance of your upper body and improving your overall shoulder health.
They are also excellent for correcting imbalances between the left and right sides of the body.
Through experience I have found these “strict” dumbbell rowing variations to work well for strength gains.
However, they are probably not the best option when all-out muscular size is the goal.
This is an article on the best rowing exercises for size, after all, so I can’t rate this exercise any higher on my list.
Number 12: Smith Machine Row
I am normally not a huge fan of the smith machine. This machine seems to be a lot harder on the shoulders than most other upper-body machines such as the Hammer Strength models.
However, I have to make an exception for the smith machine row.
I absolutely LOVE this exercise!
For some reason the contraction that you can get on this exercise is absolutely out-of-this-world!
I really like the form that Paul Carter uses in this video. The start of the movement is almost like a deadlift or rack pull: there is a little bit of leg drive and he drives his torso up.
However, this leg drive and torso drive only lasts for a split second before he continues to drive through the movement with his upper back.
What Paul is doing is using his lower body to get a little bit of momentum going before finishing the movement with his lats. In other words, he is “cheating” a little bit so that he can use a heavier than normal weight.
And on the way down he is controlling that extra weight with just his upper back.
In other words, Paul is doing a form of eccentric training!
You may know from my earlier articles that eccentric training is one of the most under-rated training methods in the world.
I can promise you that if you start doing smith machine rows exactly like Paul Carter does in this video then you will be well on your way to a drastically thicker back!
Number 11: 1-arm Hammer Strength Row
Leave it to Dorian Yates to show us the way!
You definitely don’t have to do forced reps like Dorian in this video. However, the video serves as a fantastic demonstration of what we are trying to achieve here.
One of the biggest reasons that 1-arm rowing variations work so well (in many cases better than 2-arm rowing variations) is that you get a MASSIVE stretch in your lats in the stretched position of the exercise!
Watch the video of Dorian again.
At the bottom of each rep he is really letting his shoulder drift forward so that he can get the largest stretch possible on his lats!
Was this Dorian’s secret to his incredible lat width? At the very least I’m certain it didn’t hurt!
Number 10: Seated Cable Row
It is very rare to see this exercise performed with proper form. Most people make one of two mistakes when using this exercise for maximum hypertrophy.
The first group of people will perform these with ultra-strict form where the torso does not move a millimeter during the entire set.
The problem with this strategy is that it turns this exercise into something like a Pendlay row!
You waste a lot of energy stabilizing the lower back but without getting any extra upper back stimulation in return. Not good!
The second group of people will use so much cheating, so much “body-English,” that they are barely stimulating the upper back at all!
They are just flinging the weight around with no regard for getting a good, strong contraction in the lats and scapular retractors.
So what is optimal seated row form?
The ideal seated cable row form is somewhere in between these two extremes.
Take a look at the video again. You want to use *some* hip extension via your lower back to get the weight moving, but not so much that you lose emphasis on your upper back.
When you get this exercise down right you will know it. The contraction you can get in your upper back is fantastic!
Number 9: Seal Rows
James is personally coached by Josh Bryant, one of the best bench press coaches in the entire world, so of course I’m going to follow James’ training and steal what I can.
Essentially this is an improved version of the chest-supported row discussed earlier in this article.
The big benefit of this exercise variation is that you don’t have anywhere near as much trouble breathing on this exercise as you do with chest-supported rows!
And unlike Pendlay rows, you don’t waste any energy trying to stabilize your lower back.
If you love Pendlay rows but are looking for a replacement, then I highly recommend you give seal rows a shot.
Number 8: 1-Arm Barbell Row
I love using this exercise to really stretch out the lats.
The key with this exercise is actually how you position your hips!
If you are rowing with your right arm, you want to be on the left side of the barbell with your legs and you want your right / back hip to be HIGHER than the left!
Make sure you keep that back hip up high throughout the entire set! This will increase the stretch you get on your lats.
Number 7: Barbell Row
Dorian Yates gives another textbook demonstration of perhaps the most popular rowing exercise in the world: the standing barbell row.
There are many different ways to tweak your form on this exercise so you will have to find what works for you.
The big thing you can play around with is how “strict” you are throughout the movement.
Some people like to use lots of body English and really use their hip extensors to get the weight moving, while others try to keep their torso as still as possible to isolate the upper back.
I think Dorian strikes the perfect balance here.
You can tell he is using his lower back and hip extensors to get a little bit of momentum on each rep but its just enough to get the bar moving and after that his upper back totally takes over.
This exercise is a classic for a reason. It definitely deserves its place as one of the best rowing exercises for mass!
Number 6: Smith Machine Deadstop Row
Now we’re talking! This is my absolute favourite way of doing smith machine rows.
The difference with this variation of smith machine rows vs the one shown earlier is that Jordan Peters brings the bar to a complete stop on the machine in between each rep.
This means he has to dial in his form on each rep and really focus on being explosive out of the bottom position. The contraction you get in your upper back is sooo much better this way!
Not only that, but I find dead stop smith machine rows to be a much safer movement compared to regular smith machine rows.
The odds of injuring your lower back are dramatically reduced with this variation.
Number 5: Meadows Row
I have to admit: I had no idea this exercise existed until the early 2010s when John Meadows introduced it to the world!
The feel of this exercise is completely different from 1-arm barbell rows. It is something you just have to try to believe!
The key on this exercise is to keep your back hip as high as possible throughout the movement to maximize the stretch on the working lat muscle.
Again, this exercise is fantastic for overloading the stretched position of the exercise.
You can really feel your scapula “loosening” if you do this exercise enough which will give you the appearance of enhanced back width.
Number 4: Face Pulls With External Rotation
This may seem like a strange exercise to include here, but face pulls are indeed a rowing variation, and in my experience they are worth their weight in gold.
This is my absolute favourite way to really isolate the scapular retractors such as the traps and rhomboids.
Not only that, but the external rotators of the rotator cuff also get a great workout.
Make sure you are really pinching your shoulder blades together on each rep and maximally externally rotating your shoulders at the end of each rep.
If you make this exercise a priority then you will be rewarded with a much healthier upper body.
Number 3: Kroc Row
Matt has talked a lot in the past about why he did this exercise so much.
Basically he discovered that whenever he dropped this exercise from his routine his upper back would immediately become smaller and weaker and his deadlifting strength would decrease.
As soon as he added these back in everything returned to normal very quickly.
This exercise is so effective for two reasons: it gives you a better upper back stretch than any other rowing exercise and it is a brilliant form of supra-maximal eccentric training.
This exercise does have a few drawbacks that you need to be aware of.
First of all, you should not do this exercise unless you have at least a couple years of serious training under your belt. You just don’t have the connective tissue strength to benefit from this exercise prior to that.
This exercise tends to work best when you do 1 all-out set per arm. If you are doing a lower-volume, higher intensity bodybuilding program then this will work great.
If you are more of a high volume guy and like doing 20+ sets for back (I have a bodybuilding client doing exactly this right now) then Kroc rows are not for you.
Finally, if you get really strong on these then you may find that you out-grow your gym’s dumbbells.
My record on this is #215 x 20 with relatively strict form. I had to drop the exercise because what gym has heavier dumbbells than that?
If you are going to do Kroc rows in your routine I highly recommend you keep the reps in the 20-30 rep range for 1 all-out set.
Matt Kroc eventually started going much lower in reps (as low as 10 per set) but I think this is counterproductive.
Out of all of Matt’s videos I think the above one is the best demonstration out there of what a Kroc row should really look like.
Number 2: T-bar Row
The t-bar row is a double-edged sword.
One one hand, it is really hard to beat the t-bar row in terms of thickening up your back in record time.
This exercise really let’s you throw around a lot of weight if you are a more advanced trainee and it is very easy to make progress from 1 workout to the next.
The dark-side of the t-bar row is that it is very easy to injure yourself if you are not careful.
This is largely because the center of gravity of the exercise is way out in front of you when you have a lot of 45 pound plates piled on the bar.
Still, I regularly program this exercise into my own training and many of my clients swear by this exercise.
I highly recommend you do your best to closely model Dusty Hanshaw’s form in this video.
You can try to copy Ronnie Coleman’s looser form if you want, but remember, he’s Ronnie Coleman for a reason!
Number 1: Barbell Deadstop Row
Talk about a great exercise for training harder!
The barbell deadstop row is easily my number 1 favourite rowing exercise to add mass to the upper back in record time.
I really, really like the form of 4x World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw in the above video.
The first part of this exercise is just like a regular deadlift, except you grip the barbell a little wider than normal and your stance might be a little different.
You want to really accelerate the bar up to your knees using your legs and back.
Once the bar reaches just below your knees you want to “turn off” your lower body and start to drive the bar in towards your stomach or lower chest using your back.
The contraction you can get in your upper back is insane!
On the way down you want to do your best to control the weight with your back instead of letting it just drop down.
Remember, deadstop rows are really a form of supramaximal eccentric training, so don’t ignore the negative!
This exercise will thrash literally every muscle in your backside, including your traps, rhomboids, lats, rear delts, and spinal erectors. Expect some serious soreness after this one!
So What’s The Overall Verdict?
If you are looking to really stretch out the lats and teres major, then 1-arm rowing variations tend to work best. I really like meadows rows and 1-arm barbell rows (as demonstrated by John Meadows) for higher-volume workouts.
Finally, 2-arm rowing variations do a better job of overloading the contracted position and hit the scapular retractors much better.
And overloading the scapular retractors is key to avoid rounded shoulders and maintain optimal upper body structural balance.
If you find your lower back overtrains easily then you may want to avoid a lot of the heavy free weight rows.
Things like chest-supported rows, seal rows, and seated rope face pulls (a favourite of mine!) will work excellent for you.
On the other hand, if your lower back recovers relatively quickly then I HIGHLY recommend the big free weight rowing movements.
Dead stop rows and t-bar rows are my top 2 picks here, although I personally know many bodybuilders who absolutely swear by dead stop smith machine rows.
There you have it – 15 of the best rowing exercises for mass!
I recommend you experiment with at least a few of these variations to find what works best for you.
Of course working with an experienced coach can save you a lot of time in getting the results that you want.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training endeavors!
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