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September 06, 2020 10 min read

Tired of carrying your teammates on your back? Don’t want to stop and risk catching an L? Then you might want to consider beefing up your back muscles—and do we have the exercise for you.

The seated cable row is one of the best movements you can do if you're aiming towards developing a stronger back. It’s a functional movement that’ll help you out in everyday life while also helping to prevent back strains and injuries. And if you’re looking to improve your other, heavier lifts, then the seated cable row is a terrific supplementary movement to the deadlift and squat.

While it’s a relatively simple movement, having perfect form will turbocharge your gains and help you avoid injuries as well—which is why we’ve put together a complete cable row guide.

The (Aesthetic) Benefits

Let’s start with the sexiest of the benefits: aesthetics.

The importance of a strong back isn’t a secret to anyone, but that doesn’t mean everyone focuses on it as much as their more superficial muscles, such as the biceps or pecs. But if you want a powerful and confident looking upper body, know that the back is absolutely essential in pulling that off. 

The primary muscles worked by the seated cable row are your wings—otherwise known as your lats. This fan-shaped muscle sits on your mid-back and if developed enough, gives you the V-taper that every dude wants. With a beefy back, your V-taper will be more prominent, and that will in turn make your waist look smaller and your chest bigger.

Strengthening not just the lats but the back in general will also improve your posture, giving you a taller and more confident look. If the vibe checks you're looking to pass require “strong” and “powerful”, you’re going to want a complementary back.

And it’s especially important if you spend too much time on your chest (guilty as charged). Sure, big pecs won’t ever go out of vogue, but focusing too much on the front upper body muscles will give your shoulders a rounded look—something that’s definitely not a good look.

You want to be balancing out strong upper body chest workouts with strong back workouts to strike that perfect upper body aesthetic balance. And that’s nothing to say about the injuries you’ll avoid if you keep your physique well-rounded when it comes to development.

But why not just do heavier free weights to train the back then? What’s so special about a seated cable row when the whole gym’s your oyster?

Cables & Time Under Tension

Your muscles grow and your strength develops when your body is challenged, right? So, it stands that the more tension you put your body under, the fewer gains you’ll be leaving on the table.

And while we’d never advocate for putting weight training on the back burner, the cable machine does give us something the dumbbells and barbells cannot. That thing is constant tension. 

When doing regular weightlifting, there are always the hard parts and the easier parts during the movement itself. The easiest is by far the lockout, for example, in a bench press. Your joints literally lockout and the muscles that are meant to be challenged are taking it easy. Free weights and explosive movements have their place, but the cable machine offers something else.

With a cable, your muscles are constantly under some sort of tension. The constant resistance that the machine provides means that you’re working under a load both on the way forward and on the way back as well. Having the necessary control to maintain form and muscle activation throughout a lift with constant tension is a great way to give that extra little bit of oomph to your workouts.

Including a cable row in your workout routine will be the surest way to achieve well-rounded and solid results with your back development.

The Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked by the seated cable row are the latissimus dorsi, but as it’s a compound exercise, there're several other muscle groups that come into play. These include the: 

  • Rhomboids
  • Middle trapezius
  • Posterior deltoids
  • Biceps
  • Forearms and grip
  • Teres minor
  • Erector spinae 

The seated cable row is a full-body movement, also relying on glute and core activation in order to maintain stability and an upright posture. Of course, when it comes to these secondarily engaged muscle groups, you’re going to have to make an effort to activate them to their fullest potential. You can absolutely coast through this exercise without activating your glutes, but your form (and gains) will suffer over the long run.

Another key thing to remember is the fact that you’ll be doing these seated. While somewhat less popular, the standing cable row is possible as well. The difference lies in how many stabilizing muscles are going to have to be engaged.

By standing, your body has to balance itself against the tension of the cable while also standing—which means more muscle activation in the legs and abdominals. That’s not as much of an issue when you’re sitting down.

While it’s up to you how you incorporate this exercise into your routine, the cable row is primarily a back movement, so it’d be more helpful to do it seated and allow the back to generate more of the force. Standing won’t allow you to use as heavy of a weight since your body will be being challenged in other ways as well.

How to Do the Seated Cable Row

You will need a cable row machine in order to perform this exercise. But when it comes to the type of cable attachment, it’s up to you.

The most commonly used one for the seated cable row is the V-grip attachment. With the V-grip, you place most of the focus on the mid-traps and the rhomboids (the middle back). However, if you’re trying to target the out lats and rear delts more, then you’re better off going with a curved bar and a wider grip. Want to engage the biceps? Use the EZ-bar with an underhand grip.

To prepare, set the cable to one of the lowest rungs on the machine and place your feet and legs in the appropriate spaces in order to maintain stability. Your knees should be slightly bent and you should be able to grab the handle with outstretched arms. Make sure not to curl the lower back, however.

1. Sitting up tall with a straight spine, brace your abdominals and glutes; holding the bar in your hands. Retract your shoulders backward and keep them like this throughout the duration of the exercise. Have your chest pushed up.

2. Initiate the movement by pulling the bar towards your abdomen, making sure that the elbows are driving back towards your hips. Try to keep your elbows close to your body.

3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and engage your lats as you reach the top of the movement, touching the bar to your abdomen. Your back should be straight throughout and your torso shouldn’t be moving back at all.

4. Pause for a count of one or two seconds, and then slowly reverse the movement back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired amount of reps. Remember to keep your spine straight throughout.

Form Tips and Programming 

When it comes to programming, this is a great exercise to include on either a back day or a pull day if you’re doing a push/pull/leg split. 

In terms of volume, stick to 8 to 12 reps of 2 to 3 sets at the beginning. If you’ve got specific goals in mind such as strength or hypertrophy, program the movement with respect to your goal; either fewer reps with heavier weights, or more reps with lighter weights.

However, always begin with a lighter weight as you get used to the movement, or else you risk injury. 

Other ways to avoid injury are to keep your knees slightly bent throughout while keeping your back neutrally aligned. Your elbows should also remain tucked in. Doing the exercise slowly and with intent will garner much more gains in the long run than chasing rep counts and weight numbers.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

And speaking of chasing numbers, there are several other common mistakes to avoid when trying to perform the seated cable row correctly.

One of the signs of a weight that’s too heavy is leaning back excessively at the top of the movement. While chances are that your back will move a bit throughout the exercise, you want to minimize that as much as possible—otherwise, you risk straining your lower back. 

Not keeping your shoulders back is another common mistake. If they’re moving freely around during the movement, the chances of straining your shoulder sharply increase. You’re looking for shoulder stability—and the most stable place for them is pushed back.

In order to properly engage the correct muscles, you’ll also want to avoid shrugging, especially at the top of the movement. Keeping your shoulders back and down will effectively engage your upper back. If you shrug, however, more of your traps will be engaged (and they’re already over-focused in many people).

When it comes to keeping proper form, it will help a lot if you keep your core engaged. The “straight back with core engaged” is a common position with which to perform several popular lifts (such as deadlifts, for example), and for good reason. It prevents your torso from swinging, your back from being rounded, and helps you have more control over the weight.

And having more control over the weight will allow you to go slower and more steadily. You want to be getting the most out of the cables and maximizing time under tension so avoiding fast and jerky movements is important. If you’re leaning on momentum to get you through each rep, then chances are your form is suffering in other areas as well, and the weight you’ve chosen is most likely too heavy. 

Another sign of too-heavy weights is not going through the full range of motion. Your arms should be extending all the way out, and then your elbows and shoulder blades should be coming all the way back. Not going through the full range isn’t just cheating the rep count, it’s also cheating your body and your gains.

Variations of the Seated Cable Row

One of the simplest ways to spice up the seated cable row is to do them one-handed. The biggest benefit of doing unilateral exercises is that they work both sides of your body equally. 

Whether obvious or not, there are always discrepancies between the strengths of each side of your body, and what usually ends up happening in a “two-handed” lift is that the stronger side will make up for the weaker. If you force each side of your body to be engaged alone, they’ll have to pull their fair share each time. 

This movement can be done the same way as the regular seated cable row, but this time your non-moving hand should be by your side. It will also help to use a one-handed grip. 

The single-handed motion will also have the added challenge of your torso having to exert anti-rotational power, since half of your body will be pulled to one side. This can be a good way to engage your core and develop it further, especially the side abdominals.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

If you’re looking to one-up the single-arm seated cable row, the single-arm dumbbell row can be a great way to do so.

These do a great job of targeting both the core and the back—especially the lower back (something that the seated cable row misses for the most part). While benefiting from being a unilateral exercise, you can also use heavier weights to challenge your core more. 

You’ll need a sturdy, raised platform (such as a bench) and a dumbbell to perform this exercise. Put one of your legs on the bench and grab the side with the hand on the same side. Continue by bending over so your upper body is parallel to the floor. 

Initiate the movement by reaching down to pick up the dumbbell off the floor with the opposite hand while keeping your back straight and aligned. Engage your back and shoulders, lifting the dumbbell up to your chest. Once you reach the top of the exercise, squeeze your shoulder back and make sure you feel the engagement in your back muscles. Reverse the movement slowly to the starting position.

Face Pulls

The face pull targets many of the same muscles as the cable row, but with a special focus on the upper back and the shoulders.

Once again, you’ll be using the cable machine—but this time standing and with the double-rope attachment connected to the machine. You’ll want to grab the ropes with an overhand grip, making sure that your arms are extended all the way out in front.

Initiate the movement by engaging your back, but keep your upper arms parallel to the floor throughout the motion. The handles of the grip should go around your face at the peak of the exercise. Hold it there for a count, and slowly reverse back to the starting position. 

Keep in mind that your body needs to be braced; this will help to prevent your head from coming forward to meet the ropes. Furthermore, a weight that’s too heavy will move the focus away from your upper back and shift it towards the lower.

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is one of the most popular back exercises done in the gym—and rightfully so. As the name would suggest, it primarily targets the lats. It has the added benefit of not hitting the biceps or triceps too hard, so you don’t have to worry about them gassing out before you really hit your lats.

You’ll want to adjust the pads on the seat so as to minimize the movement of your body, and the bar should be just within your reach above you.

Hold the bar with a wide grip and look forward while engaging your core. Your back should remain straight throughout. Initiate the exercise by pulling your shoulder blades back, and then pull down the bar to your upper chest. Once you’ve gotten all the way down, give your lats a squeeze while maintaining an upright posture.

It’s easy to do this movement incorrectly, so make sure you’re not utilizing momentum or leaning back at the bottom of the exercise.

Rowing Your Way to Gains

The seated cable row, along with its several variations, provides a fantastic way to get a ridiculously jacked back. 

Pairing perfect form with enough rest and the right foods is the only real way to both reach your goals, and surpass them. Knowing how to do exercises correctly is just a small part of the battle—it’s up to you to get to know your body well enough to sculpt the body you’ve always wanted.