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October 16, 2022 8 min read

The seal row is a variation of the barbell row that might not receive the respect and attention it deserves. The seal row is an excellent exercise to isolate the rowing muscles in the back and the arms.

By lying on a bench, you take the load off your core and legs and remove the ability to use momentum to row the weight.

The traditional barbell row involves multiple moving parts, which is not the case with the seal row, whichallows you to focus on the targeted posterior chain.

Loading barbell – image from Shutterstock

The seal row exercise is similar to the chest-supported row and the inverted row. However, in terms of muscle activation, the seal row is arguably better between the two.

Most importantly, seal rows remove the lower back almost entirely from the equation.

Lower back stress is a common complaint among weightlifters when weights used for bent-over rows get heavy. On the other hand, the chest support offered by seal rows eliminates this problem.

By doing so, you can focus entirely on the activation of the mid-back muscles like the lats, traps, and rear delts. Furthermore, this exercise reduces lower-back fatigue and even “burnout” if you’re a frequent performer of big compound lifts such as deadlifts and squats.

This exercise is often overlooked in weightlifting circles.

However, some powerlifters love seal rows because it significantlyreduces the strain caused by overly stressed lower backs. With less stress and strain on their lower backs, they can push harder on workouts that include deadlifts and squats.

The range of motion of the seal row helps create balance in the high pressing volumes most powerlifters do.

For shoulder health, appropriate muscle strength and muscle mass ratio between rowing and pressing muscles are crucial — a benefit offered by the seal row.

How to Do Seal Rows Properly

The actual seal row is not a complicated routine. However, many gyms don’t have dedicated seal row benches, and setting one up could be a bit of a challenge.

Before performing the seal row,it is vital to set it up correctly and securely to avoid potential injuries or other mishaps.  Use any flat bench or a decline bench, even if the height is not perfect.

Bench – Image from Shutterstock

The goal is to get the bench parallel to the floor, high enough off the ground to allow you to extend your arms with the weights below you. The height of the bench should allow you to easily grab the barbell.

If you don’t have a bench manufactured as a seal row bench, here are some suggestions.

If your bench is too low, stack 45-pound weight plates underneath each bench leg. You could also elevate both ends of a bench by placing it on a secure and suitable object like a box or chest. A decline bench with the bottom end elevated could even serve the purpose.

Once your seal row bench is set up securely, follow the steps below.

  • Starting position: Lie face-down on a seal row bench over a barbell placed on the floor below you.
  • Grip the bar with an overhand grip rather than an underhand grip, placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Inhale and lift the bar, pulling it toward you as far as you can. Aim to lift it until it touches the bench.
  • Lower the bar in a controlled movement, back to the starting position.

Full range of motion more important than weight

In the seal row, the range of motion is primary. It is not an exercise to show off strength by the weight lifted, in fact, it could be a humbling experience.

The seal row may look easy, and you might go overboard on weight for that reason. However, you might soon find that the weights you selected are too heavy. This is particularly valid if you are a beginner or if this is a new lift for you.

Start out modestly and really focus on the full range of motion instead of the weight.

Squeezing and contracting your back muscles as effectively as possible is the way to go. Then, as soon as you have the proper form down to a T, gradually increase the weight as you progress.

When you perform the seal row, make the best of the targeted muscles.

Ensure your arms are fully stretched when lifting and replacing the barbell. When you lift the weight up, make sure your upper back muscles are fully squeezed.

Instead of just yanking the weight up with your hands, use your elbows to drive it up, and retract your shoulder blades doing the row. Imagine throwing your elbows up toward the ceiling.

If you do the seal row properly, the support provided by the flat bench will ensure your lower back and your spine are not unduly strained.

Instead, retract your shoulder blades, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can, and brace your abs. This will ensure the targeted muscles do the work, and your body is stable. When you get the weight to the top, pause for a second before lowering the barbell.

What muscles do seal rows work?

The primary muscles activated when you perform seal rows are the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rear deltoids.

The secondary muscles worked include the biceps, forearms flexors, and rotator cuff muscles.

Upper-back muscles – Image from Shutterstock

However, the seal row offers flexibility in the muscles it targets.

By changing the width of your grip, you can target specific muscles.  For example, a wider overhand grip, and pulling the barbell up toward your chest allows you to target the rear deltoids and upper back.

Alternatively, you can focus the seal row workout on your lats. To do that, use a narrower grip and aim the weight at your midsection or waist.

How many reps of the seal row should you do?

Seal rows are isolation exercises aimed at building back thickness and muscle hypertrophy. When choosing the weight, put your ego aside and focus on proper form and tempo to suit your body, rather than to impress others. Your back and V-taper will certainly thank you. Base the reps you do on your goal.

  • For Endurance: Perform 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
  • For Strength: Perform 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps, using extra weight.
  • For Muscle Mass: Perform 3 to 5 sets of 8-15 reps.

What are the benefits of seal rows?

Strength builders who experience discomfort or lower-back pain while performing free-weight bent-over rows without chest support could greatly benefit from seal rows.

When doing bent-over rows, your body could easily take advantage of any motion that could make it easier.

That is why you should maintain focus while rowing, and do what’s necessary to prevent momentum and cheating from taking over, making your rowing a total waste of time.

Fortunately, since the seal row bench supports your entire body weight, and the barbell’s weight holds your face down and your body pinned, there’s no chance of cheating by building up excessive momentum.

Since your entire body weight will be supported and pinned against the bench, you won’t be able to “heave” the weight up like you can on other free-weight rowing movements.

The position you hold for the row also reduces injury risks and increases the intensity with which you work the targeted muscles without shifting it to the legs and lower back.

All rowing exercises should ideally be performed in this way to take pressure off the spine.

However, in the regular bent-over barbell or dumbbell rows, maintaining the proper form could easily be forgotten.

The strict full range of motion of the seal row can result in optimal muscle fiber activity.

Doing horizontal pulling of the weight while lying face down on a horizontal bench while performing the seal row keeps movements smooth and prevents excessive jerking. 

Keeping a neutral back is not a problem when performing the seal row if you maintain the proper form and keep your chin pressed into the bench. That ensures maintaining the proper neck position and neutral spine throughout the reps.

Common Seal Row Mistakes

For optimal benefits from the seal row, the following common mistakes should be avoided.

Setup and Safety 

The seal row bench must be parallel to the floor and high enough to allow extended elbows. If you must use weight plates or other supports to raise the bench, make sure it is stable and secure. It is crucial to ensure there is no wobbling side-to-side. Falling off the bench might seem funny, but injuries don’t.

Correct Elbow Position 

A 45-degree angle between your torso and elbow is advisable for seal rows, as it is for other rows. However, the seal rows could be more effective if you hold your elbows parallel to your shoulders, and flared out, which would target the upper back.

Neutral neck and spine alignment and position

Neutral spine – Image from Shutterstock

Your neck and spine should always be aligned when you do back exercises if you want to avoid injuries. With your seal row station properly set up, the entire range of motion will be safe for the neck and spine since the chin placed in the proper position will keep the neck and spine neutral.

Prevent flipping legs

The seal row is focused on removing leg, hip, and torso movement. Therefore, the targeted muscles will not benefit if your lower body flops around. Some say the seal row got its name from the way lifters flip their feet as they lift the barbell (much like seals do).

However, that indicates they are trying to use their lower back and leg muscles to do the work instead of keeping their glutes and core contracted and tight. If you don’t keep your body static and still while performing seal rows, you’ll put your lower back at risk of injuries.

Momentum and cheating

Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body's ability to sense movement, action, and location. It's present in every muscle movement you make. Without proprioception, you wouldn't be able to move without thinking about your next step.

Unless you have very low levels of body proprioception, it is virtually impossible to cheat, swing, or get the form messed up in the seal row exercise. Because your body is almost glued to the bench, and being pulled towards the bench by the weight you’re holding below, you cannot heave or jerk the weight up using your hip momentum like you would on other moves like the barbell rows.

Are there variations of seal rows?

The closest variation of the barbell seal row is the dumbbell seal row, which has its own unique benefits.

Dumbbell Seal Row

Although the technique of the dumbbell seal row is mostly similar to the barbell seal row, it offers additional benefits. Lifting dumbbells instead of a barbell allows you more arm movement and freedom.

Dumbbells provide increased isolation and a longer range of motion, whereas barbells ensure a balanced position and allow heavier weights to be lifted.

This variety is therefore ideal for lifters with shoulder, wrist, or elbow issues.

Furthermore, the dumbbell seal row is a great back exercise to address muscle imbalances. Not only will using the dumbbells expose imbalances, but they can also play a significant role in addressing those imbalances. This variety allows you to exercise one side more than the other to resolve muscle imbalances.

Other rowing options

The  Meadows row exercise was popularized by the late bodybuilder John Meadows. It is a unilateral landmine exercise that trains your upper back and traps.

Another row option is the Pendlay Row developed by the American Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. It is a great exercise that targets more muscle groups than only the upper body. The exercise activates your lats, rear delts, rhomboids, biceps, as well as lower body muscles like glutes, and hamstrings.

Conclusion

Strong Back Muscles - Image from Shutterstock

When it comes to back isolation exercises aimed to build muscle, training programs are usually limited to barbell rows, seated cable rows, and lat pull-downs. 

In the realm of HIIT workouts and compound exercises, your options include pull-ups, deadlifts, and even boxing jabs. These exercises are all highly effective.

Nevertheless, by incorporating seal rows into your back muscle workouts, you can take building your upper back muscles to the next level.

For example, if you have a strong back that lacks the sexiness brought by the deep muscle separation, the hammering isolation provided by seal rows could give you precisely that.

If you're looking get bigger and stronger, seal rows deserve a place in your back training routine.

And while on the subject of workout routines, it might be the time to ensure you take care of the rest of your body—especially nutrition and health.

Make sure to eat well, rest well, and if you’re looking for that extra edge to not only turn heads when you approach but also when you depart and only your back is visible, consider taking supplements to really  turbocharge your gains.