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June 13, 2022 7 min read

If you're trying to get a massive back, then some version of the back row exercise is absolutely essential. Just like bench presses for the chest and upper body, and squats for the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower body. Having a ripped back not only looks great but also has a lot of health benefits. 

Exercising the back muscles helps reduce stiffness by keeping the connective fibers of ligaments and tendons flexible.

Improved mobility through back exercise helps to prevent the connective fibers from tearing under stress, which in turn prevents injury and back pain. This is seriously important for many people since back pain affects four out of five Americans at some point in their life. 

There are countless types of back rows and row alternatives, such as the barbell row, bench row, dumbbell row, elevated row, cable row, and single-arm cable row. One you may tend to forget about is the machine high row, but its ability to create some serious strength and muscle gains should have you including this in your back day. 

What are Machine High Rows?

The machine high row is a piece of gym equipment with high lever arms that reach overhead. Most high row machines are plate-loaded weighted plates- creating the potential for a lot of resistance. This weight suspends the pulley arms away from the ground, forcing the user to pull the arms towards the body.  

The machine high row is a fantastic pulling exercise to train your back muscles and biceps.

As the movement occurs at the shoulder and elbow, it is a compound movement and can train a lot of muscle mass and allow for heavy loads. 

When looking at the biomechanics, we see that, in the same way the incline bench press fits between the bench press and shoulder press, the machine high row lays somewhere in the middle of a seated back row and a pull-up.

You’re not pulling directly in front of you (horizontal pull) or nor directly above (vertical pull). Instead, you pull down at an angle with an overhand, rather than an underhand, grip. This difference in the movement pattern provides a different kind of activation to your muscle groups and can be very beneficial to muscle growth. 

The machine high row machine is isolateral, meaning each arm has an independent lever and must therefore manage its own weight.

The benefits of isolateral exercises are that you can use a different weight on each side to fix muscle strength imbalances, you can train one side at a time (unilateral training) or both sides at the same time (bilateral training), and you can perform alternating repetitions. Most importantly, isolateral exercises don’t allow your strong side to make up for your weak side.

How to Do Machine High Rows with Proper Form


How to Do the Machine High Row: 
  1. Adjust the high row machine’s seat and chest pad for optimal comfort and range of motion. The seat should be at a level so that your feet are flat on the ground and your thighs are out straight, parallel to the ground. The knee pad should come down firmly on the top of your thigh. Be sure that you can push into the pad so you can generate force. The chest pad should be at a distance where you can firmly set your chest. 
  2. Sit in the machine, with your legs secured under the leg pads and your chest braced against the chest pad.
  3. Grasp the handles using a pronated (overhand) grip. Your arms should be fully extended and your shoulders should be stretched forward. 
  4. Exhale as you pull the handles backward until your elbows are behind you and your shoulders are pulled backward.
  5. Hold for a count of two and squeeze your back muscles.
  6. Inhale as you allow the handles to return to the starting position, with your shoulders stretched forward.
  7. Repeat.

Note: You also have the option of holding the bars with an underhand grip. The difference is that the overhand grip will work more muscles in your upper back and the underhand grip will work more muscles in your lower back. 

Primary Muscles Targeted by Machine High Rows

The machine high row is going to train the same set of muscles that other back rows train. The main difference is in the movement pattern, which can affect the percent of muscle activation in the muscles. The machine high row is a compound exercise, so there are a huge amount of muscles and muscle groups worked during this exercise.

The following are the primary muscles worked by machine high rows: 

  1. Latissimus Dorsi 

The latissimus dorsi, or the “lats,” are the big muscles that run down the entire side of your body. During the machine high pull, the lats primary function is shoulder extension (pulling down) and horizontal shoulder adduction (pulling back).

  1. Trapezius Muscle

The trapezius muscle or “traps” consists of upper, middle, and lower traps. Their primary function during the machine high pull is to retract the scapula and maintain scapula positioning.

As you pull the weight towards you, the force will want to pull your shoulders forward. You don’t want this, so it’s the job of the traps to prevent this from happening. They pull the scapula back and hold it in place, which gives you a solid foundation to pull from.

  1. Rhomboids

The rhomboids consist of two muscles; the rhomboid major and the rhomboid minor. Both are smaller rhomboid-shaped muscles that sit on the upper back and are attached to the upper spring and scapula. Both work in unison with the traps to help stabilize the scapula.

  1. Teres Major and Teres Minor

The teres major and minor are two small muscles that connect the humerus to the scapula. Their primary function is to pull the humerus down.

  1. Biceps

The biceps are the primary flexor of the elbow. During the machine high row, their main function is to help flex the elbow to pull the bar down.

Secondary muscles worked 

The machine high row is a compound exercise, so in addition to the primary muscles worked, there are a number of secondary muscles that also get activated.

The secondary muscles are enumerated below:

  1. Triceps brachii, long head
  2. Posterior deltoid
  3. Brachialis
  4. Brachioradialis 
  5. Erector spinae 
  6. Posterior deltoid 

Benefits of Machine High Rows 

  1. Improves Posture 

Machine high rows help to improve posture by developing the muscle of the upper back- all the while being very easy on the lower back.

Especially when in a seated position, machine high rows virtually avoid lower back discomfort altogether. 

  1. Improve Grip and Arm Strength

Machine high rows are great for improving grip strength and building the arm muscles, especially if you also take high-quality protein supplements like  VEG-PRO.

When performing the underhand variation of this exercise and the arms are parallel with the body, the pulling motion the row uses is on-par with a bicep curl. It along with the chin-up are the most underrated bicep exercises in fitness. 

  1. Improves Back Health

Exercising the back can have incredible benefits for your overall back health. When you work out the muscles in your back, you are safeguarding against future back injuries and back pain.

Since back pain is one of the most common ailments for adults, you really cannot underestimate the benefits that a compound exercise like machine high rows can have for your overall back health. Moreover, working out your back not only protects against potential back injuries but can actually aid in the healing process for an already injured back, especially if you focus on low weights and high reps instead of high weights and low reps. 

  1. Machine High Rows Cannot be Replicated with Free Weights

The machine high row is unique as pulling at an angle can’t be duplicated with free weights.

Sure, you can set something up with a pulley system, but it wouldn’t be the same nor will it allow you to use such heavy loads.  This means that the only way to train your back muscles in this manner is by using the high machine row. Variety is essential for optimizing your strength and hypertrophy training, so including this unique movement is a must.

  1. Machine High Rows Involve a Bilateral and Unilateral Movement

The vast majority of machines use arms that are independent of each other. This means that you can pull them together (bilateral) or one arm at a time (unilateral). This is a huge advantage as all programs should have a mixture of both types of movements for maximal results.

  1. Machine High Rows are Easy to Set Up

One downside about barbells is setting them up. Not only does this take time gathering the equipment, but it also seems you always get stuck with a plate that won’t slide down the barbell. Plus, you need to use clamps to secure the weight unless you want them sliding up and down the collar.

With machine high rows, all of these problems disappear as you either need to change the pin if it uses a weight stack or throws on some plates if it’s plate loaded.

This is especially nice if you’re doing your rows after some heavy deadlifts and you’re exhausted.

  1. Machine High Rows are Great for Beginners

If you are new to weightlifting, then it's quite possible that you may have some trouble performing free weight exercises, such as the barbell row, with the proper form.

The machine high row allows you to work all of the same muscles with the additional benefit of being incredibly easy to do. This makes machine high rows an excellent option for those just beginning to strengthen their back. 

Get Ready to Get a Ripped Back With the Machine High Row

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, and if you were to work in squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and back rows all into your exercise routine, you would truly be able to work out your whole body. 

While some might opt for the barbell back row, which is totally fine, others might want to take advantage of the ease of setting up the machine high row, as well as the diagonal movement that the machine high row enables.

Moreover, if you are someone who struggles with getting the right form down for free-weight exercises, you will likely find machine high rows to be a breath of fresh air since the machine makes the exercise very easy to do with the right form. Overall, machine high rows undoubtedly rank as an exercise that you should consider adding to your bodybuilding routine.