Build Back Muscles
Along with pull ups, rowing is one of the best exercises to train the back. The king of rowing exercises is the standing barbell row, but the problem is that too few people perform them properly.
You might see the following common technique flaws in people executing barbell rows:
- standing upright – you gotta bend over just short of 90 degrees
- rounded back – lower back weakness or hip tightness can cause this
- momentum – using the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings for momentum
You can fix all of these issues by changing your barbell row into an inverted row. The inverted row is not a perfect replacement for the barbell row – it removes posterior chain stabilization from the movement and limits the load you can use – but it is a suitable replacement if you need one, and believe it or not it gives us yet another reason to accept the existence of the Smith Machine… OK, maybe not.
Let’s find out why and how to use inverted rows in our training routines.
Benefits of Inverted Rows
- Substitute for barbell rows. If you have a lower body injury or some other limitation like the technique flaws listed above, then you can use inverted rows temporarily until you rehab, improve your hip mobility, and/or strengthen your posterior chain.
- Direct back training. Inverted rows hit your whole back pretty hard, including the lats, traps, all the small muscles behind your shoulder blades, and even your rear delts.
- Fix muscle imbalances. Realigning your shoulder blades and pulling your shoulders back will help fix any muscle imbalance caused by neglecting your back training while prioritizing your chest training.
- A bodyweight exercise. If you don’t have a gym or your gym sucks, you can train your back at home just by hanging off anything that allows you to elevate your feet and not smoosh your nose at the top of the movement.
How to do Inverted Rows
Find a bar, tree branch, table ledge, or anything else low to the floor or ground that you can hang under. Make sure you can extend your arms to full length. Place your feet straight out in front of you – your body should be a straight line. Now pull yourself up so that your chest touches the bar. It’s as simple as that.
Here are some technique tips:
- Body position – Your body should maintain a straight line from head to heel. Glutes and abs tight, back straight, chest out, shoulder blades back, chin up.
- Grip - Normally you want to use a pronated grip, similar to pull-ups. To change things up you can use a supinated grip, similar to chin-ups. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
- Elbows - Keep your elbows at about a 45 degree angle to your torso. Your upper arms should not be parallel to your body, nor should they be perpendicular.
- Chest - Your chest up and out. You don’t want to lead with your chin or your abdomen. Always lead with the chest.
- Shoulder blades – Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
- Touch the bar – At the top of the movement, the bar should touch your mid to lower chest, the same as a bench press.
Technique Variations for the Inverted Row
Bent knees – Beginner inverted rowers might find that they have to bend their knees and place their feet flat on the floor. This variation decreases resistance. You should try to move away from this technique to straight knees as soon as possible.
Elevated feet – Advanced inverted rowers should consider elevating their feet to any level up to the height of the bar. This will increase resistance.
Adding resistance – There are also several ways you can add weight to this exercise, but you’ve got to be creative. Weight added closer to your head will provide more resistance, while the same weight closer to your feet will provide less resistance.
Consider using the following equipment to add resistance:
- a weighted vest, like an XVest
- a backpack attached to the front of your body
- a resistance band wrapped around your chest anchored to the floor
- chains wrapped around your torso
Change the bar – As I mentioned before, you can use a smith machine for this exercise, but you can also use a number of other bars and contraptions to make the exercise harder.
Consider the following bar variations:
- Fat bar – Works the grip more than a standard Olympic bar
- Tree branch – For exercising in the woods
- Rings – Allows you to vary your grip within a rep and pull yourself higher than if a bar limited the top of your Range of Motion (ROM)
- Hang a towel off a bar – Works the grip more than traditional rows, uses a neutral grip
- Hang a towel off rings – All the benefits of rings and a towel
- Blast Straps – Similar to rings
Here is a video example using blast straps.
Also consider using inverted rows for HIIT, HIRT, or NAT workouts. The movement can be performed explosively for NAT by maximizing the speed of the reversal. Using rings would actually be ideal for NAT because you could essentially pull yourself ‘through’ the bar. For HIIT, every rep would require maximal speed. For HIRT you’d be executing each rep quickly, but remembering to pace yourself depending on the requirements of the HIRT circuit.
Common Mistakes When Performing Inverted Rows
As with all exercises, you can injure yourself by performing inverted rows improperly. You are moving your body through space, so it is important to control all aspects of your posture at all times.
Here are some common inverted rowing mistakes:
- Arm extension – Fully extend your arms at the bottom of each rep.
- Elbow position – Flaring your elbows out puts unnecessary strain your your shoulders.
- Leading with your face – Pulling your chin or nose to the bar puts unnecessary strain on your neck.
- Relaxing your torso – When you don’t keep your body tight, flat, and straight you put unnecessary strain on your lower back, and you remove the tension from your core, lessening the effectiveness of the exercise for building core stability.
- Relaxing your shoulders – Allowing your shoulder blades to slouch, or come forward, puts unnecessary strain on your neck, shoulders, and specifically your rotator cuff muscles. Keep your shoulders back and shoulder blades retracted at all times.
- Restricted ROM – If you can’t touch the bar to your chest, you need to decrease resistance until you can use a full ROM.