Row, Row, Row to Optimal Form

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

The Exercise

Rowing (weight lifting) is considered a “pulling” movement just as a push-up is considered a “pushing” movement. Proper programming to involve equal parts pulling and pushing is important to prevent strength and posture asymmetries. There are several variations of the row, similar to that of the push-up. They also share a number of muscles when stabilizing or producing movement. The only difference is in the load (weight), fulcrum (joint), and lever (muscle).

Synergistic Muscle Involvement

The following muscles work together to produce concentric and eccentric movement during the row. Additional muscles may play a minor role in producing movement but they will not be covered here. However, consideration should be given to isometric core muscles for stability throughout the range of motion.

Rhomboids – Running across the back from the medial portion of the scapula and into the thoracic spinous processes, the major and minor work to pull, or retract, the scapula towards the spine. The muscle also assists in elevating and rotating the scapula.

Trapezius – A broad muscle that originates from the back of the skull and down the spine inserting across a broad area of the scapula, specifically the lateral 1/3 of the clavicle, acromion process, and spine of the scapula. In turn this muscle produces rotation, retraction, elevation, and depression of the scapula. This wide array of movement is why the trapezius needs to sometimes to targeted in segments.

Biceps & Triceps – Listed together because they work strongly together. Too bicep dominant and the anterior deltoids and cervical spine muscles can compensate. Too tricep dominant and excess strain can be placed on the upper traps and low back. There needs to be an equal and natural balance between these muscle groups to properly target the scapular muscles during a row.

Joint Mobility vs Stability


Movement should occur through the scapula, shoulder joint, and elbow joint. Maintaining a strict row is a difficult exercise if movement is restricted to only these joints. Advanced biomechanics won’t be covered here but an optimal angle exists between the elbow joint and the scapula throughout a row.

Here is an exercise to find the optimal position.

1.) Assume a bent over row position with the arms hanging towards the ground.

2.) Pull both elbows to the side of the ribcage and retract both shoulder blades.

3.) Keep the shoulder blades squeezed and let the arms go limp at the elbow.

4.) The hands sway slightly back and forth but will settle in a particular spot.

5.) Try to achieve that position with each repetition of a row.


Particular focus should be on stabilizing the thoracic spine from flexing, or caving in. Keep the chest and ribcage up but not at the expense of straining the low back (lumbar spine). Maintain a posterior pelvic tuck by squeezing the glute muscles and drawing in the abdominals. This will stabilize the lower body and take unwanted pressure off the lumbar spine.

Another important joint to stabilize is located right on the front lines. The wrists are responsible for stabilizing the weight in hand. Excessive wrist movement will force muscles up the chain to work harder stabilizing the load. At high weight levels a small amount of wrist movement can extrapolate to a large force on the elbow and shoulder joints. Keep the fingers curled and squeezed over the weight with the wrists slightly flexed. Maintain this engagement throughout the range of motion. A common compensation often occurs here that can lead to an increased risk of cervical muscle and spine injury.

Common Compensations & Correcting with Verbal Cueing

Wrist Extension & Elbow Flare

Maintaining wrist control during a row can make the difference between targeting the proper muscles and straining unwanted ones. During the concentric phase of the row the elbows flare out as the wrists come together and extend out. This shifts the force of the movement out of the synergistic pattern and into a compensatory one involving the cervical spine, upper traps, and additional muscles that should be working as stabilizers. Maintain elbow and wrist alignment by bringing the elbows in and pushing the wrists out.

Verbal Cues: Curl Knuckles Together | Pull Weight With Pinky | Rotate Elbows Together

Curling Over Pulling

The “optimal” angle is lost when excessive curling, or elbow flexion, occurs. The body often takes the path of least resistance and pulling the hands towards the shoulders is an easier path. It takes a stronger mental connection to maintain the joint angle discussed above.

Verbal Cues: Push Weight Towards Hips | Holster Weight When Pulling Up | Keep Shoulder Blades Squeezed

Exercise Progression


1.) Body Row Scap Pulls

2.) Body Row Bridging

3.) Forward Bend Bench Rows


1.) Half Body Row

2.) Bent Over Row Scap Pulls

3.) Full Body Row

4.) Suspension Scap Pulls


1.) Suspension Half Body Row

2.) Bent Over Dumbbell Row

3.) Bent Over Barbell Row


1.) Unilateral Bent Over Rotation Row

2.) Strict Bent Over Row

Please refer to the video below for an in-depth explanation on each exercise and how to progress to achieve perfect push-up form.

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