Horizontal Row Exercise: Alternatives And How-Tos

Horizontal Row Exercise: Alternatives And How-Tos

The back is a beautifully complex body part. Just as it’s made up of multiple muscles, there are multiple exercises that go into sculpting a note-worthy back. This is where the horizontal row comes in. Though not completely unheard of, it’s definitely overlooked compared to it’s popular cousin the pull up. If you’re unfamiliar with the horizontal row, don’t worry, you’ll get very well acquainted in the coming paragraphs. It’s important to know about this stellar exercise, what muscles it works, and other great rowing alternatives so you can build the backside of your dreams. So without any further delay- let’s jump into it!

What Is A Horizontal Row?

Let’s face it- there are a lot of rowing exercises out there. Heck, half of all back exercises are some type of row. This may be an exaggeration, but you can understand how it’s easy to get confused between them. 

If you’re wondering what this exercise is, you’ve likely seen it before, but it goes by different names. The horizontal row is also known as the inverted row or the fat man’s row and has a few features that separate it from the rest. 

For starters the horizontal row is a bodyweight exercise performed by positioning the body horizontally under a barbell. When the body is hanging from this position it requires a pulling motion to fight the force of gravity, creating the resistance necessary to stress the muscles of the back. it’s also important to mention one of the perks of this exercise is that the back isn’t the only muscle group it works. This body position along with the hanging-row motion compels the body to work directly and indirectly which a wide range of muscles. 

This is definitely one feature it has over your standard row- as the chest is used to row the body up towards the bar. 

What Muscles Does The Horizontal Row Work?

As mentioned before the horizontal or inverted row works numerous muscles in the back and various other regions. Based on an ACE study measuring muscle activation during back exercises, horizontal rows excel at working the medial muscles of the back like the middle trapezius and infraspinatus.  That being said it is also effective for working the larger muscles like the lats as well. Here is a deeper look at some of the muscles involved in this exercise.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus Dorsi is as it’s translated in Latin “the broadest muscle of the back” and is responsible for extension, horizontal abduction, and internal rotation of the shoulder joint. Because of its size and complexity it works synergistically with muscles of the lumbar spine, rear delts, and triceps. As you’ll learn the lats can be activated in multiple plains of exercise for power, strength, and size. Some include:

  • vertical pulling exercises like chin ups, pull ups,  lat pulldowns, etc.
  • horizontal pulling exercises such as T bar rows, cable rows, dumbbell rows, etc.
  • compound full-body exercises like deadlifts


The traps are one of several midline muscles that make up the back and is broken down into 3 sections; the upper, mid, and lower lats. It’s role deals mainly with the movement of the shoulder blades; retraction, rotation, and depression. Depending on the angle and line of pull, the trapezius is often recruited alongside the lats during horizontal pull exercises. As it turns out, the inverted or horizontal row creates some of the most muscle recruitment in the mid traps compared to other back exercises. 

Erector Spinae

This is a network of muscle that travel the length of the spine. Though one of the lesser known muscles of the back it shares in the monumental task of stabilizing the spine, moving through extension and lateral flexion. Strengthening the erector spinae protects the back from pain, discomfort, or even injury that comes with everyday life and lifting weights. 

As mentioned before, there are also other secondary muscles that are recruited that deserve mention. The forearms and biceps are major players in most rowing movements, as well as the rear delts and rhomboids. 

While many horizontal rows and many other back exercises work the same muscles, they don’t all recruit them equally. You could even say that certain horizontal exercise activate certain muscles of the back more than vertical ones (and vice versa). Knowing the strengths of each category can help you build a well rounded physique down the road. Take this for example:

high row muscles worked

Inverted Row vs Pull Ups

While both the inverted (horizontal)  row and the pull up are great exercises, the nature of their lines of pull (horizontal vs vertical) stimulate muscles differently. For example:

Horizontal rowing exercises like inverted rows, bent-over rows and seated rows are more suited for stimulating the midline muscles: trapezius, infraspinatus, erector spinae. In contrast vertical pulling exercises like pull ups are more effective at stimulating the muscles of the lats compared to inverted rows and others like it. 

How To perform the horizontal row

How To Perform The Horizontal Row

  1. Find a smith machine or power rack and adjust the barbell to the height of your hips. If you’re a beginner or want to perform the row with less difficulty, raise the barbell higher. Lower it if you want more of a challenge. 
  2. Take ahold of the barbell with a probated (overhand) grip and adjust your hand width a little past shoulder width apart.
  3. Walk your feet out past the barbell until your body is straight and your arms and chest are directly beneath the bar. 
  4. Breath in deeply, tighten your core, brace your chest, and begin rowing your body up towards the bar. Make sure your arms are parallel with the floor and you keep constant tension on your back muscle.
  5. Pause either just before or when your chest makes contact with the barbell, really feeling the contraction in your back and arms.
  6. Exhale and begin lowering your body down slowly. Keep your body controlled and don’t release tension until your arms are straight and you’ve returned to the starting position. 

Benefits Of Horizontal Rows

Good Movement For Developing Confidence (Bodyweight Back Exercises)

If your new to working out or haven’t developed substantial upper body strength, back exercises can be difficult. Few things more discouraging than only being able to do a handful ( or even less)of bodyweight pull ups. Fortunately horizontal rows are a great place to start getting your body accustomed to bodyweight back exercises. It works many of the same exercises as your typical vertical pulling exercises, but provides just the right balance of reps and intensity to grow stronger. 

Easily Adjustable

Depending on steep the angle, you can vary the levels of intensity. The further from the floor the barbell is, the lighter the exercise- the closer it is, the more of your total bodyweight you have to pull. For added difficulty you can also prop your feet on a bench, which alters the center of gravity further up the torso. This provides so much range for exhausting and ultimately growing the muscles. If you want to build strength, you can lower the bar, kick your feet up, and do fewer, more challenging reps. I you want to improve muscle endurance and hypertrophy, raise the bar and crank out numerous grueling reps. Play with time under tension- honestly the choices are endless. All of this to say that you have a lot of variety when it comes to the horizontal row. 

Peripheral Muscles

In addition to the major muscles of the back horizontal rows also strengthen the muscles of the shoulders. This in turn bolsters many of its functions such as internal rotation and enables fortifies other upper body movements that require the arms. 

Horizontal Row Alternatives

Sometimes whether it be lack of equipment or a crowded gym, this exercise won’t be a viable option. Fortunately the beauty of resistance training is the wide variety of exercises that work similar muscle groups. Here are a few great options that are just as effective as the horizontal row for building an impressive back.

Bent-Over Row

The bent-over row is a popular back exercise that’s been used from the start by the best bodybuilders and athletes alike. This row specifically is one of the few that fires both the midline and lateral muscles of the back at a high level. Because this exercise is done standing, very few if any muscles of the back are passive but all fighting to keep the body upright while rowing tremendous amounts of weight. 

Bent-over rows are also great because you can experiment with unilateral (one handed) rows. On top of working the back, researchers found that unilateral rowing generated greater muscle activity in several muscles of the core compared to bilateral rows. This means that dumbbells, kettlebells, and even cables can provide not just greater range of motion but more muscle recruitment during bent over rows. 

Keep in mind that form is everything with this exercise. Form can make the difference between strengthening your back or seriously injuring it. The first thing that can be done to avoid this is picking the right weight. Slow, intentional movements with reasonable weight is much more beneficial that sloppy reps with heavy weight. 

When you’re in the starting position, here’s a few pointers.

As you bend forward focus on driving your elbows up towards your torso, not the bar. This will keep you aware of what you feel in your body- squeezing your lats and rear delts together. Don’t be afraid to play around with different grips and hand positions. You may find that you feel the contraction in a different way than the standard pronated bent-over row grip.

Bench Pull

The bench pull is likely one of the most effective alternatives for quite a few reasons. On one end of the rowing family there are bent over rows. Bent-over rows (whether dumbbell or barbell) give you complete freedom of movement. However without a bench they don’t offer support and can lead to cheat reps and lower back pain. On the other hand there are chest-supported row machines which promote strict form but lack range of motion. 

The bench pull is the ideal middle round: it has the chest support along with the freedom of movement. During this exercise the mid and lower traps are targeted through scapular retraction (bringing the shoulder blades together) and the lats and rhomboids through horizontal shoulder abduction. 

Bench pulls are great if your gym already has the station for it, however without it the set up can take a while. Regardless of the set up, you’ll want to keep your arms at about 1 ½ shoulder width apart, your arms bent at a 45 degree angle, and the barbell directly underneath your chest. Focus on pulling the bar up towards your chest while bringing your shoulder blades together. Squeeze at the top of the movement and slowly lower the bar to the floor. Allow the lowering phase to take a few seconds until the shoulders are hunched forward. Be sure the shoulder blades are completely spread apart.

Set-Up Without Bench Pull Station

If you you don’t have a bench pull station in your gym, take a standard bench and stack bumper plates underneath both legs. You’ll want to stack enough of them so that your arms can fully extend during the exercise. You could also use 25 lb plates on the barbell so that the bar isn’t raised to high off the floor. This will mean less set up work for you and more variety in weight load for techniques like drop-sets.

Horizontal Cable Row

The horizontal cable row is another excellent option for targeting the lats. The beauty of the cable row is the various attachments at your disposal. Depending on which you choose and the angle from which you pull the weight, you’ll most definitely find a variation that works with your body to develop  full, wide lats. 

With the horizontal cable row there are a few things to consider:

  • make sure you lean forward slightly to feel the full stretch of your lats while your arms are extended.
  • allow your elbow flexors and biceps to pull the weight towards your torso. The lats are definitely the prime movers of this exercise. However the elbow flexors and biceps serve as a bridge of support to assist in pulling the weight horizontally towards your body. Let your biceps fire up and do some work, but don’t rely on them for all of it.
  • drive your elbows and your arms down and back as they move closer to your torso. This will enable the full squeeze/ contraction of the lats as the arms reach the end of the motion. Raising the elbows too high will recruit more of the upper back such as the rear delts and rhomboids. 

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