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October 25, 2022 11 min read

High-row machines are gym equipment with high, overhead lever arms. Most high-row machines are loaded with weighted plates – creating the potential for a lot of resistance to benefit strength training.

The weight plates suspend the pulley arms high and away from the ground. The bodybuilder or strength trainer is thereby forced to pull the arms towards the body, activating all 20 pairs of upper back muscles. 

What makes high-row machine exercises great for strength?

However, the high row machine does a whole lot more. They are great for building arm muscles and improving grip strength. The underhand grip typically used on the high row machine is parallel with the body, making the high pull motion on par with a bicep curl. High rows and chin-ups are likely the most underrated bicep exercises in fitness.

Furthermore, cable machines offer a wide variety of attachments that allow T-bar rows, single-arm rows, and other options including V-bars, rope, straight bars, and more. It allows you numerous grip options, each one challenging your forearms and hands in unique muscle and strength-building ways.

Another significant benefit of having access to a high row machine is the development of upper-back muscles that also improve posture while putting limited strain on the lower back. This is particularly applicable when this great exercise is done in a seated position.

A workout on a high row machine is a compound exercise with a full range of motion that activates all the upper-back muscles and more. However, it is not a piece of equipment available in all gyms. Therefore, if your goal includes muscle hypertrophy for an exceptionally thick and wide back, you’ll be exploring alternative exercises that work the same muscles.

What muscles are worked by the high row machine?

The high row machine, whether a Hammer or Smith machine, works multiple muscle groups, which can vary in intensity based upon the grip and handle used, and also the body position that could be seated or standing. Below are the primary muscles activated by a high row machine workout.

Latissimus Dorsi

Latissimus Dorsi - Image from Shutterstock

The latissimus dorsi is the primary muscle targeted with the cable row. This muscle runs at an angle, stretching between the lower back and the upper back, where it ends under the shoulder blade. Any time you pull a weight toward your body, like pulling a bar on a pulley or doing a barbell row or a dumbbell row, you move a bit closer to that sought-after V-shape back with well-defined lats.

Rhomboids

Rhomboids - image from Shutterstock

 The rhomboids are a collective group of muscles formed by the rhomboid major and minor. The rhomboids are important in upper limb movement and stability of both the shoulder girdle and scapula. Every time you squeeze your shoulder blades together, you activate the rhomboids. During a high row machine workout, you work the rhomboids every time you pull the bar toward your stomach.

Trapezius

Trapezius - Image from Shutterstock

The trapezius is another large back muscle comprising upper, middle, and lower fibers. Its origin is at the base of the skull, and it stretches over the collar bones and runs into the mid back. The three fiber types of traps are large and can be independently targeted in workouts. The cable row places the most emphasis on the middle and lower fibers. An exercise such as an upright row or shrug taxes the upper fibers.

Biceps

Biceps - Image from Shutterstock

The biceps muscle has a long and short head, the brachialis and biceps brachii, both clearly visible on the front of the upper arm. The brachialis sits behind the biceps brachii. Both muscles function to flex the elbow and reduce the angle between your humerus and forearm. This biceps motion occurs every time you pull the bar of the high row machine in toward your body.

Erector Spinae

Erector Spinae - Image from Shutterstock

The erector spinae or spinal erectors is a set of muscles that straighten and rotate the back. The erector spine muscle group is a long strip of muscles that spans the length of the vertebral column and ends in the lower back. You activate this muscle group when you bend at the waist and move your torso backward, causing the erector spinae to extend, which is precisely what you do when you work out on a cable row machine. Extension of the erector spinae stabilizes your spine.

High Row Machine Alternative Exercises for Strength

The versatility of what the high-row machine offers will make it tough to find a single alternative that offers the same level of hypertrophy and range of motion. However, if you have no access to a high row machine, you can combine any of the following alternatives to give you optimal results, especially if you consume high-quality protein like VEG-PRO  to help you recover.

1. Kneeling High Cable Row

One of the closest alternatives to the high row machine is the kneeling cable row. This row variation engages your lower back less than many of the other options similar to the high row machine.

Starting position:

Set up a cable machine with the appropriate weight using an overhead pulley, and attach a double rope to the cable. Facing the cable machine, kneel a couple of feet away holding a rope in each hand with both arms extended.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Initiate the movement by flexing your elbows and fully retracting your shoulders.

  2. Slowly pull the ropes toward your upper chest by bending your arms and moving your elbows out at 45-degree angles to your sides.

  3. Pause briefly before returning to the starting position by allowing the cable to pull your arms back in a controlled motion.

  4. Continue the row for the predetermined number of reps.

Since you are pulling the cables from an overhead position, which is a similar movement to the high row machine, the kneeling high cable row will work most of the same muscles. However, with your body in the kneeling position, your lower back and erector spinae muscles will likely work harder than in the high row machine workout,

2. Face pulls

Face pulls are a great exercise for building upper-back muscles, but only if performed correctly. Most people will perform face pulls standing, but until they master the stance, a much better idea is to sit or kneel.

They’ll have a much greater base of support and that stability will help control the scapulohumeral rhythm. That is the coordinated motion of the scapula and humerus experienced during shoulder movement.

Starting position: Set the cable machine with a two-ended cable at about the height of the bottom of your face, and select your desired weight. Facing the anchor, grab the handles in your hands, knuckles facing up. Take a step or two backward with your arms stretched forward. Stand with your feet at about shoulder-width apart, or if you’re new to the face pull exercise, kneel down.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Squeeze the glutes to ensure your spine is neutral, and you’re not leaning back too far. 

  2. Let your shoulders roll forward to increase the space between your shoulder blades when you grab the two cable handles.

  3. For the next part of the movement roll your shoulders back, retracting the gap between the shoulder blades as you pull the two cable ends apart, aiming for your eye-line.

  4.  Move your arms in a smooth motion towards a position where your upper arms are at a 90-degree angle with your body and your lower arms are pointing up and are at a 45-degree angle with your upper arms.

  5. Ensure your knuckles face the ceiling, and your palms are on the rope the whole time, to avoid wrist flexion instead of shoulder flexion.

  6. Squeeze the ropes as you pull them apart at the top of the movement, making sure you feel your upper-back muscles working.

  7. Slowly move your arms back into the starting position.

  8. Keep your feet in the same position and your back straight during the exercise.

Your upper arms are raised higher in face pulls than high row machine workouts, shifting the focus from the lats to the rear delts and the mid-traps.

If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can also use other fitness equipment like a good resistance band for TRX type face pulls.

3. Chest-supported rows

A chest-supported row alternative is a machine where you can sit down and rest your chest against a support pad to brace against the resistance you will row.

Some machines allow you to load each arm differently. This can help you avoid muscle imbalances by making sure each arm rows the same weight. Others require you to row a single weight with both of your hands. 

Ideally, what you want is a cable with split ends with D-handles, which allows you to have a much bigger range of motion so when you're moving the weight back into position simply pull on the cable.

Starting position: 

While some strength builders choose to sit and lean forward into the chest support, others prefer to stand, leaning forward onto the support pad and digging in with their toes. The chest should be just over the top of the bench. Regardless of your choice of stance, grab the pull handle at a slight angle that allows you to keep your shoulders down and not pulled up to your shoulders. Keep your sternum glued to the support pad to get the full range of motion.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Pull the cable toward your chest, keeping a neutral back and pulling your shoulder blades together, ending with the two handles on either side of the support pad, against your chest. You should feel the pull in your upper back.

  2. Control the slow release to lower the weights as the cable pulls back, and relax your shoulder blades to open the gap between them, laying your shoulder slightly over the edge of the support pad, and getting ready for the next hard pull.

  3. Perform the next hard pull back to your chest in the same motions as before, before letting the cable back to the start position.

  4. Do as many reps of the chest-supported cable row as planned in your workout routine.

Unlike the high row machine, your upper arms remain close to your body in the chest-supported row. Thus, there is more focus on your latissimus dorsi and less on the rear deltoids. Additionally, you still work your biceps and upper back muscles like your trapezius.

Chest-supported rows with free weights with an incline bench, but with a potential downside of having to use kettlebells or dumbbells with significantly lower weight capacity than the cable machine.

4. Reverse pec deck

The pec deck gym machine is designed to work your chest muscles. However, if you turn around and sit with your upper body against the backrest of the seat, you can use this machine to work your upper-back muscles, with a particular focus on the rear deltoids.

Starting position:

Adjust the PEC deck machine so that the handles will be in line with your shoulders and so that your arms will be parallel to the floor if you sit in the reverse position on the seat. Your chest must be firmly against the back pad. Grab the handles with your palms facing down, and your elbow slightly bent and pointing to the sides. Keep your back straight and your shoulder blades pinned back.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Exhale as you use your rear delts to pull your arms to your sides, tightly contracting your rear delts at the end of the movement.

  2. Hold the contraction for a moment before you breathe in as you slowly extend your arms back to the starting position.

  3. Repeat these movements until you have finished all of your reps.

  4. Take care not to rush because you will soon use only momentum instead of muscle power to pull the machine’s handles.

Like the high row machine, your position on the pec deck machine’s seat keeps your lower back and erector spinae muscles reasonably unaffected, allowing you to target your upper back, shoulder, and bicep muscles. If you pull the handles far enough back to cause your shoulder blades to move toward each other, you will activate the rhomboids as well.

5. Bent-over rows

Bent-over rows can be done on a cable machine, but people without access to such machines can use other equipment to help them build a strong back. Bent-over rows can be done with dumbbells, resistance bands, or kettlebells.

However, here we will explain how to do bent-over rows using a cable machine with a long bar. 

Starting position: 

Fit your preferred bar on the cable. It can be straight, or curved. The curved bar puts your shoulders in a better position for optimal benefits. 

Load the desired weight load on the machine and stand in front of it with your feet shoulder-width apart. Deadlift the bar in a wide grip with your thumbs on the side, either an underhand or overhand grip is good, depending on which grip lets you feel the most pull in your lats. Push your shoulders back and down, and lock and slightly squeeze your chest to set your shoulders in a safe position.

Take one or two steps back and ensure you have some tension on the cable. Bend your knees and inhale as you lower your bottom, and push your butt out so that your back is straight and your chest and shoulders are directly above your toes. That will ensure you are not too far forward or backward in your stance.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Pull the curved bar straight to your belly button. Don’t pull it to your chest because your glutes and hamstrings are a bit vulnerable in this position.
  2. Keep it at belly button level, keep your elbows tucked to your body, and your shoulders stacked.
  3. Return the cable slowly before pulling it toward your belly button again.
  4. Maintain this stance while you finish your reps.

Unlike the high row machine workouts, the bent-over rows will focus more on your latissimus dorsi, lower back, and erector spinae and less on your rear deltoids. 

6. Cable High Row

This exercise is likely the most natural and most effective substitute for the machine high row. Positive aspects of the cable high row exercise include that cables offer a much greater range of motion. It allows you to select the angles that offer the best contractions for your back.

The versatility of the cable machine enables you to sculpt and fine-tune all the smaller, aesthetic muscles of the back–the rhomboids, rear delts, and the teres major. There is also a variety of handles you can switch as it suits you, allowing you to change your hand placement to what is most comfortable. 

Starting position:

For this seated cable row, you should take a seat on the floor directly in front of the cable machine with your knees slightly bent. Put your feet on the stabilizing foot supports, and lean forward with your head between your arms. 

Here's how to do it:

  1. Reach for the cable bar or handles, which should be at about a 45-degree angle with your body.

  2. With slightly bent arms, pull the handle towards your torso, lifting your head and pushing your chest out.

  3. Hold your elbows close to your body and squeeze your shoulder blades together as the bar reaches the sides of your chest.

  4. Hold and squeeze in this position for a few seconds.

  5. Slowly scoop your hands down and then up as you return the weight back to the starting position, but don’t straighten your arms. Keep your arms bent and immediately repeat the movement to keep constant tension on the lats.

The versatility of the cable machine enables you to sculpt and fine-tune all the smaller, aesthetic muscles of the back–the rhomboids, rear delts, and the teres major. There is also a variety of handles you can switch as it suits you, allowing you to change your hand placement to what is most comfortable. 

Standing High Cable Row

Starting position:

Stand a step or two back from a cable machine fitted with a high pulley and a V-split handle. Your arms must be stretched and your feet slightly narrower than shoulder-width. Lean back slightly – just enough to maintain your balance. If you stand upright, you risk being pulled forward.

Here's how to do it

  1. Keep your elbows high and pull the cable toward your face.

  2. If you want to target your rear delts, only pull the bar until both your elbows and your shoulders form a straight line.

  3. However, if you intend to focus on other upper-back muscles, you should pull the bar further and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the pull.

  4. Pause for a moment before letting the cable return to the starting position in a controlled way.

The standing cable row is a back exercise that targets your rear deltoids, traps, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, core, and, depending on your stance and grip, even activation of leg muscles to some extent is possible.

In conclusion

When people think of compound exercises, they usually think of squats, deadlifts, and  bench presses, but the machine high row is a compound exercise that absolutely should not be overlooked for your strength training routine. However, if there is no high row machine at your local gym, cable machines offer multiple alternatives to work the same muscles as those the high row machine offers.