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June 22, 2020 10 min read

You’re stuck at home for whatever reason, no gym in sight. You’ve been trying to keep up with some kind of bodyweight exercises in order to keep your physique in shape (at least somewhat)—but they’re just not cutting it. What you might be missing, are pulling exercises.

The first exercise that comes to mind when you say “pulling exercise” is the classic pull-up, a great way for full-body conditioning and functional strength building. There are, however, a number of things that might be preventing you from doing pull-ups.

For one, they’re a difficult exercise to do. They require a significant range of motion and also a body weight that you can pull up on your own. Furthermore, they require a pull-up bar or an equivalent which is sometimes difficult to come by.

If you find yourself thinking any of the above, or even just wanting to add another pulling exercise into your training regime, the bodyweight row is the exercise for you.

Introducing the Bodyweight Row

Also known as the inverted row, the movement takes after its name. It has you lying below a bar (or another object) and pulling yourself up with your arms. It’s primarily an upper-back, lat, and bicep workout, along with the core and various stabilizers.

While it’s a fairly simple exercise to do and can be used as a gateway into the world of pull-ups, its many variations can make the movement just as trying for advanced gym-goers. Furthermore, while the exercise does necessitate something to grab on to, it can be almost anything—making it an excellent movement to do if you don’t have any equipment laying around. 

Benefits of the Bodyweight Row 

One of the primary benefits of the bodyweight row is that it massively improves your posture. This is especially true if you’ve just begun doing things like the bench press, since chest exercises tend to emphasize the front of your body and your front delts, giving your shoulders a rounded look. With the bodyweight row being a back exercise as well, your back is targeted and this “rounded-ness” is canceled out, or at least improved upon.

We’ve talked about the importance of grip strength before, and the inverted row is an excellent example of how to train this often-overlooked aspect. Not only does grip strength often correlate to overall strength, but a higher level of strength in this area will also help in improving your other lifts as well. For example, with pull-ups and deadlifts, the grip is often the failure point for a lot of people. Improve the grip, improve the lift (and increase the load).

When it comes to working out, there are a number of ways to differentiate movements based on their different characteristics. Not only is the inverted row a compound exercise (working a number of joints and muscle groups), but it’s also characterized as a pulling motion. While this (obviously) helps in other pulling exercises in the gym, such as the pull-up, it’ll also help in terms of functional strength. When it comes to picking things up, lifting your body weight, swimming, or climbing, pulling strength is paramount.

The bodyweight row will also do a great deal for your shoulder stability and strength. When it comes to working out, a lot of people don’t properly put enough emphasis on a wide range of motion—this leads to limited movements that can be more prone to injury in some circumstances. 

Especially if you play any sports, the torn rotator cuff is one of the most common injuries that can be avoided if you do your due diligence and properly condition your shoulders. But it won’t only help on the field or in the rink, it’ll also help you better perform general daily physical activities that take even a little bit of functional strength.

And much like the pull-up, the inverted row is a surprisingly great way to engage your core and develop it further. In this slightly awkward position, your abs and other stabilizers will be under significant tension and stress when keeping your body’s posture throughout the movement. If you want to increase the activation of your core, it’s easy to adjust the exercise in order to place a greater emphasis on this area. For example, you can use a TRX grip, other unstable tools, or stability balls, in order to increase the difficulty and place a greater demand on your stabilizers. Which brings us to the next point.

Bodyweight rows are a fantastic exercise because they’re so adjustable. And not only are they adjustable when it comes to emphasizing different muscle groups but also when it comes to the comfort level of the trainee. The easiest way is to adjust the height of the bar or adjust the height your feet are at. The higher your feet are, the more difficult the movement will be. If you want something easier, feel free to bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the ground—while not as demanding, it’ll hit many of the same muscle groups to a great degree. 

A man working out.

What Muscles Does the Bodyweight Row Develop?

Bodyweight rows are a terrific way to get a full-body workout that hits a number of your muscle groups, mainly your upper body and back muscles. While the list is longer than the one below, these are the main muscles you’ll be engaging by adding bodyweight rows into your exercise routine:

Biceps: One of the more obvious muscles, the biceps are responsible for the flexion of your elbow. It’d be difficult to do the movement without your biceps doing at least some of the work in lifting you up from the ground. 

Posterior delts: These muscles are responsible for the horizontal extension of your arm. While small, they play an important role in improving your posture—especially if you’ve been mainly focusing on the chest and arm areas. Not to mention that well-developed delts look good.

Middle traps and Rhomboids: Working together, these muscles pull your shoulder blades together when you move them down and back. They’re located around your shoulder blades and in between them and are essential in preventing common shoulder injuries.

Posterior chain: This is the name for all of the muscle groups on your back—from the erector spinae to the glutes and hamstrings. Along with your core muscles, these are the muscles that keep you stable throughout the movement and prevent you from falling from one side to the other.

Lats: The lats, otherwise known as your wings, are located on the sides of your back, just under your arms. They allow you to extend and adduct your upper arm, and they’re an important aesthetic dimension when looking for that tapered physique.

Along with the above, there’s a number of muscles that come into play in various instances of the movement—but these are the main ones. Being accustomed to what muscles are being worked and where they are on your body will allow you to develop a better mind-muscle connection. Developing this can help with your movements, form, and being able to exert more force—and therefore, develop more muscle and strength. 

How to Do a Bodyweight Row

  • Even though inverted rows require minimal equipment, you’ll still need something to pull yourself up with. This can be anything like a dipping bar, barbell (in a rack), bike rack, a nice tree branch, a table, or any random ledge or bar that you can grab on to (and isn’t too high up).
  • Set the bar (or whatever you’re using as a way to pull yourself up) to about waist height, but feel free to experiment with this. The lower the bar is, the more difficult the movement becomes since your biceps will be less engaged.
  • Lay down on the floor underneath the bar, face up. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and you should maintain a straight line through the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles throughout the movement. Ideally, the height of the bar should be set just above where you can reach up from the ground (at least at the beginning). Your lower-chest area should be directly beneath the bar. 
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. This means palms facing away from you.
  • At this point, make sure to engage your abs and glutes to keep that straight line between your shoulders and your ankles—as if you’re doing a plank.
  • Begin the movement by driving your shoulder blades back, pretending to try to pull them in your back pockets.
  • Continue the movement by pulling yourself up to the bar until your chest touches it, then slowly lower back down in a controlled fashion. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

And that’s it! There you have your first bodyweight row, and a great way to earn future gains. If you’re finding the above too difficult, you can set the bar much higher. If you set it, for example, just below chest level, you wouldn’t begin the movement by lying on the floor.

Rather, hold on to it and get in position with your feet slightly forward, in front of the bar. This way, less of your body weight is used in the pulling up motion, since a lot of it is braced against the floor with your feet. The more weight on your feet, the easier the movement is. But before we get into some variations, let’s look into the things we have to keep in mind when we do inverted rows. 

What to Keep in Mind

Like any exercise, proper form will make, or break, the movement and the benefits that come along with it. If you want to make sure that your time training is well-spent, then remember these things next time you’re hanging off the dining room table.

We’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth saying again: keep your core and your glutes engaged. Don’t let your butt sag—your body should be rigid from head to toe. This will activate more muscles and prevent any potential injuries from the movement.

Also, don’t flail around your elbows. The bar should be grabbed a little closer than you would with a bench press and keep your elbows at a consistent angle from your body. This might be more difficult if using a TRX grip or rings, but that just means you need to engage more of your stabilizers.

When going through the pulling movement, the bar should be coming towards the middle of your chest—not up to your head, and not down your belly. Right in the middle of your chest will activate all the muscles you want to be engaging. Which leads into….

Avoid any excessive arching, since it’s usually a sign of compensation for not being able to do the movement correctly or fully. This will, once again, reap the most benefits from the exercise. You want to follow with the middle back and avoid excessively leading with the hips. This last point, excessively leading with the hips, is another way some people compensate for not being able to do the movement fully. If you find yourself in this position, it’s a good idea to adjust either the height of the bar or how close you’re standing to it, in order to make it easier.

Properly activating the glutes and the core will also prevent any excessive arching and compensation. When it comes to focusing on the middle back, it’s a good idea to put your mind in your shoulder blades, focusing on bringing them back fully. This is opposed to just bending the arms. While the arms do play an important role in carrying out this exercise in its full range of motion, the emphasis should be placed on the back, and you should be making a conscious effort to not use too much of your chest or arm muscles. 

A man doing bodyweight excercises.

Spicing Up the Inverted Row

So, you’ve gotten the hang of the inverted row, but it’s still not scratching that itch. Or maybe it’s already scratched that itch, but now you want something bigger, tougher. As we’ve mentioned, the bodyweight row is an easy exercise to add some variations to. 

The most obvious one is using different tools to pull yourself up with. A simple bar will be the easiest, while something along the lines of a pair of towels will place a greater emphasis on grip strength. Furthermore, the use of rings or other unstable objects will necessitate a greater activation of stabilizers and core muscles.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s always the possibility of continuing to reduce the angle that you’re pulling up from. As you slowly get better, you can decrease the angle until you’re lying flat on a surface and trying to pull yourself up. This is much more difficult since you’re essentially pulling most of your weight up by yourself, with your feet just slightly supporting you.

What’s that? You want a bigger challenge? Then elevate your feet on an object, so now you’re working against even more of your body weight, and having to pull yourself up higher. This way, you can increase the elevation of your feet to a level that you’re most comfortable with. Throw in a stability ball in there as your object-of-elevation, and you’ve got a recipe for getting an absolutely shredded physique.

And finally, you can do the 1-armed bodyweight row, which, just like it sounds, requires you to use just one arm when pulling yourself up. This can have the added benefit of training both of your sides equally and having your weaker side catch up with the stronger. Even if we think we’re training both sides equally, any movement that takes both sides of our body will have the stronger side compensating for the weaker.

And if that’s not enough for you warriors out there, there’s always the option of weighted inverted rows. 

Programming the Bodyweight Row into Your Routine

Since it’s a pulling exercise, the push-up (a pushing exercise) would be a great complimentary movement to do with your inverted rows. Put these together and you have a great basis for a superset that will leave your muscles burning and you gasping for breath. Try for 8 to 12 reps in 4 sets, and your body will thank you later.

It’s also a great way to work up to pull-ups and dips, but if you can already do these, then the row can be used at the end of your workout as a finisher. Already tired after a heavy workout, the inverted row can be a way to push your endurance to the limit and really build up your fatigue—especially if you do them to failure.

The bodyweight row has many benefits to your physique and fitness level, no matter how you program it. Just remember to keep your form up to par and don’t push yourself without having properly fueled up your body with whole nutrients and a good amount of rest. Follow the above, and you’ll be row-ing to fitness heights you’d never imagined before.