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February 15, 2022 8 min read

Whether you’re progressing toward calisthenic moves like the front lever row or just need a great back exercise, the supine row is a solid choice. That's because supine rows are the bodyweight alternative to barbell rows that can accommodate each persons strength and ability simply by adjusting the height of the bar.

In this guide you'll find out what makes them different from barbell rows, learn how to execute a flawless supine row with or without a barbell, and get some suggestions for programming them into your workout routine. 

How To Do A Perfect Supine Row

The supine row is also called an inverted row, inverted bodyweight row, or, more rarely, an  Australian pull-up.

Follow these steps to knock out a perfect rep:

  1. Find a horizontal bar: Some people use a smith machine for this while others use a squat rack. Just make sure there’s enough room for you to slide underneath. The higher the bar, the easier the row will be. As you get stronger you can lower the bar each week as your progression, eventually aiming for it to be at least waist height, and even lower if you want it to be more challenging. 
  2. Lie underneath the bar: Sit with the bar over your lap, grab onto it with a shoulder-width overhand grip, and then scoot your feet forward until the bar is over your shoulders.
  3. Lift into a dead hang: You want your arms to be straight and your torso to be off the ground. Only your heels should be touching the ground. This is your starting position. Maintain a straight line from your heels to your shoulders by engaging your core muscles.
  4. Pull Your Chest to the Bar: Pull your elbows down so that your chest rises to the bar, exhaling on the way up. Engage your glutes to drive your hips up without dipping. The goal is to go at a controlled pace, not erratically. It’s ok if you can’t touch the bar to your chest, you just need to get it as close as possible.
  5. Return to the Starting Position: Inhale as you slowly let your torso back down. Once your arms are straight, you’ve completed one repetition. 

Muscles Worked In Supine Rows

Although mostly used to target  back muscles, supine rows also build muscle in the arms and feature a little core activation as well. 

Supine rows work the following muscles:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Low & middle trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Posterior deltoid
  • Infraspinatus
  • Biceps brachii
  • Forearms

The lats, traps, and rhomboids are back muscles that power most pulling exercises. 

Meanwhile, the deltoid helps pull your arm backward, the forearm muscles grip the bar, and the infraspinatus exerts pressure to keep the upper arm bone snug in the shoulder joint. The biceps come into play as the distance between the forearm and upper arm closes, which is called elbow flexion.

Biceps work harder during inverted rows than they do in similar exercises like pull-ups.

Your low and middle traps and rhomboids get the most focus in supine rows. The lats are hard at work as well but they work harder in overhead pulling exercises like chin-ups than they do in horizontal pulls like this one. All of these muscles get some attention during inverted rows, which is a bit surprising given the simplicity of the exercise.

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Common Form Mistakes In Supine Rows

This is a pretty straightforward exercise but that doesn’t mean mistakes aren’t possible. As with almost every other exercise, form errors are largely going to be the result of insufficient strength or your body trying to cheat its way through your reps. 

Here are some of the mistakes we see most often with supine rows:

  • Sticking your neck out.  As lifters try to narrow the gap between themselves and the bar in the first half of this move, they (unconsciously) stick their necks out to get their chin over the bar so they can count off a rep. Your neck needs to stay in a comfortable, neutral position all the way through this exercise. Otherwise, you’re going to either sell yourself short on your reps, pull a neck muscle straining, or potentially both.
  • Sagging at the hip is also really common. Since this is an upper body exercise, it’s understandable that people forget to engage their glutes before pulling themselves up to the bar. It’s vital to remember your glutes so your hips don’t drop, which can cause curving in the lower back and pain over time. 
  • Keeping the knees too straight could also cause some discomfort. Again, the supine row being an upper back exercise, people tend not to pay much attention to their knees. Your legs should be straight but your knees can be relaxed, not locked out totally. 
  • A close grip supine row will work your biceps more while a wide grip will put more stress on the rear delts. Similarly, people use an underhand rather than overhand grip to target their forearm flexors. All of these supine row variations principally target the same muscles but you can switch between them for gains in more specific places.
  • Make sure you pull your shoulder blades back and together the same way you would if you were doing a bench press. This encourages a better arm position and protects the shoulder joint a little better. Also, tuck your elbows in and keep them tucked in at your sides so you can move through the full range of motion in your supine rows.

Benefits of Supine Rows

Besides the killer upper back workout they provide, why should every lifter include inverted rows in their routine? 

For one thing, they’re great for better posture.

Any exercise that requires a straight torso and recruits the glutes and core to maintain a position will help strengthen the muscles that give us good posture, which  may reduce back pain levels and promote better breathing.

Many lifters also find it much easier to stay in the proper form during a supine row compared to its nearest relative, the barbell row. Barbell rows feature a hip hinge in a standing position, which leaves almost the entire body unsecured. Good news for your stabilizing muscles, and the barbell row will work out more of your body than supine rows, but since they’re more difficult to do properly, many people see less development from barbell rows compared to supine rows. 

Another reason to love supine rows is that they fit into a routine so well with overhead pulls like chin-ups and pull-ups.

Beginners and lifters trying to work their way up to that evasive first pull-up will run through tons of supine rows to build up the necessary strength. Seasoned lifters program supine rows on the same day as pull-ups to hit muscles on both sides of their upper bodies. Superset them, use them in a bodyweight routine, use them to cool down - there are tons of ways you can get this exercise into your routine.

Your grip strength will improve with enough supine rows, especially if you use the underhand grip.

Target your  forearm muscles to build grip strength with a much lower risk of failure than you find in bigger grip-strength exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts. The shoulder blades will get better at squaring back since they get some practice at it in the supine row. They might not be the main focus or even a secondary one, but you still get some scapular retraction practice during this exercise. 

Barbell Rows Vs. Supine Rows

A big question people have, especially beginners and those who don’t have experience with these two exercises, is what the difference is between supine and barbell rows. 

They both work the same muscles, involve the same movement, and share the same name.

Many lifters prefer to use inverted rows to the barbell variation because it’s easier to maintain proper form as long as you keep your heels on the floor, shoulder blades pulled back, and glutes and core engaged. 

The inverted row is a great choice because it will concentrate the stress on your upper back and take the legs and hamstrings out of it and it doesn't require weights and a barbell. The barbell row will cause activation in more muscles, especially in the lower body, but grip strength can limit the amount of weight you can handle in a bent-over barbell row.

If you’re interested in putting the supine row into your workout routine, what’s the best way to do it? Let’s talk about how you can program this exercise.

Programming Supine Rows 

Throwing supine rows into the mix with your other exercises is easy because it’s a great back exercise and also a great transition exercise. So whether you have a dedicated back day in your  5-day split or prefer to work with a mixed arm/back/shoulder day, the supine row will fit in fine. 

Let’s say you’re working with a 3-day split divided like this:

  • Day 1: Arms, Shoulders, & Chest
  • Day 2: Core & Back
  • Day 3: Legs

The supine row surely has to go on day two, you might be thinking. That’s certainly correct, but it can be programmed on day 1 with your push-ups, presses, curls, and flyes as well. Mixing the two will keep your muscles guessing and allow you to have an active  rest period

Or, if you prefer the 5-day split, you might have the following plan:

  • Day 1: Arms & Shoulders
  • Day 2: Legs
  • Day 3: Chest
  • Day 4: Core
  • Day 5: Back 

It’s a winning design. And once again, you can use the supine row in multiple places. In this case, you can bookend your weekly routine with supine rows on days one and five since it works the biceps a little and the back a lot. 

Best Supine Row Variations

Most people consider the inverted row a variation in and of itself, but that hasn’t stopped people from finding ways to switch it up. 

Variation #1: Elevated Inverted Row

Once you’ve mastered the inverted row the way we laid it out at the start of this guide, grab a bench or chair to put your feet on and make things even more challenging. First, place the elevated surface near the horizontal bar you’ll use for your rows. The elevated surface you’re using needs to be low enough for you to get your feet on from the ground. 

Next, sit under the bar, grab it with an overhand grip, and put your feet on your elevated surface of choice. Power into the starting position with your glutes and abs and then proceed through your reps the same way we described in our supine row step-by-step earlier.

Variation #2: Single-Leg Inverted Row

All you have to do for this variation is lift one heel off the ground and hold it there. Although this isn’t a lower body exercise, creating instability by doing the single-leg variation will put your stabilizing muscles to work more. 

Variation #3: Inverted Row Hold

As the name implies, this isometric variation requires you to hold the top position of the inverted row rather than descending right back into the starting position. If you want to build muscle endurance, try this one out. 

Variation #4: Eccentric Inverted Row

Rather than holding in that top-most position, you can also take time lowering yourself to drag out the eccentric phase of the exercise. Since that’s one of the hardest parts of the exercises for your muscles, they’ll get a greater workout, particularly the biceps.

Variation #5: Towel Row

In this variation, you can use a door like you see in the video above or you can throw a towel around the bar you were using to do regular inverted rows. Holding onto a towel rather than a bar during the exercise will help you build grip strength as well as back and arm strength. 

Inverted Rows Are A Killer Back Exercise

It’s pretty incredible how much you can get out of this flipped-over push-up. Use the form tips, variations, and  programming suggestions in this exercise guide to make the inverted row as effective as possible. Once it’s in your routine, you’ll be surprised you ever got along without it.