Try These 5 Row Variations to Strengthen the Shoulders and Core

Anyone interested in strengthening the core and shoulder musculature should be performing some type of row variation as part of their workouts.  The row is a pulling movement which involves flexing the elbow, extending the shoulder, and pulling the shoulder blade back, also known as retraction.  The row challenges the muscles of the upper back (trapezius, rhomboids, and erector spinae) as well as muscles of the core and low back.  Also, when performed in various standing positions, this exercise can train the entire kinetic chain from the lower body, through the trunk, to the upper body.

It is common for the row to be performed seated with the use of exercise machines.  This is fine for those first learning the movement pattern.  However, seated machine rows do little to challenge the core or lower body musculature.  There are much better options for athletes, those with a history of injury, and those looking to take their workouts to the next level.

If absolute strength is the goal, heavy barbell or dumbbell bent over rows are the best options.  However, these row variations require coaching and practice to perfect proper technique.  Performing heavy rows with improper technique makes one susceptible to low back or shoulder injury.  Again, there are better options, especially for those with a history of injury and looks to train in a more specific fashion.  Try the following five row variations and see which ones work best for you.

Standing 1-Arm High Cable Row

Set up a cable system with the cable positioned slightly above the level of the head.  Stand in a lunge position with the left foot in front of the right.  The majority of body weight should be on the front leg with the knee bent approximately 45 degrees.  Start with a palm down grip with the right arm extended out in front.  To begin the movement, pull the cable, bending at the elbow, straight back towards the trunk while maintaining a neutral spine.  Be sure to emphasize scapular retraction which refers to pulling the shoulder blade back and slightly down.  Also, avoid shrugging the shoulders or arching the low back.

This exercise challenges the core by activating the trunk musculature to resist rotation as the arm and scapula produce the row movement.  This makes the 1-arm high cable row a good option for those who are looking to train anti-rotational trunk muscle endurance.  This high-cable position and lunge stance set-up have also been shown to result in favorable muscle activation patterns of the lower and upper trapezius.  This is important for overhead athletes or those with a history of shoulder problems.

Cable Lawnmower Pull

This exercise begins with the trunk flexed and rotated to the opposite side of the exercising arm.  The hand of the exercising arm starts at the level of the opposite knee. To begin the movement, the trunk is rotated toward the exercising arm while extending the hip and trunk to a vertical position.  The exercise ends with the arm at waist level with the shoulder blade retracted as if placing the elbow in the back pocket.  Pause for 1 or 2 seconds then slowly reverse the movement returning to the starting position.

The lawnmower pull is a multi-joint functional exercise performed in a diagonal pattern replicating many movements in sport.  The exercise incorporates the transfer of force from the lower body through the trunk to the upper body.  It has been shown to activate the trapezius and serratus anterior muscles at low to moderate levels.  These muscles are important for maintaining shoulder health in overhead athletes (i.e., baseball players) and those with a history of shoulder pain.  The exercise can be performed with a cable system, resistance band, or dumbbell.

1-Arm Band Rotational Row

Set up a resistance band anchored at approximately waist to belly button level.  Position the front leg with the foot facing towards the anchored band.  The rear leg will begin facing the same direction but must be free to pivot once the exercise commences.  The right arm begins extended and the majority of body weight begins on the left leg.  The movement occurs with the simultaneous coordination of an upper-body row, trunk rotation, and weight shift to the rear leg.  Pause in the end position for  1 to 2 seconds before reversing the movement in a slow and controlled fashion.

This row variation is ideal for rotational athletes such as baseball players.  It incorporates the coordinated activity of the lower body, trunk, and upper body.  Controlling the eccentric, or negative, part of the exercise is important.  This exercise also teaches weight transfer and weight acceptable from the rear to lead leg and vice versa.  Be sure to perform the exercise from both sides to avoid reinforcing any side to side asymmetries which are common in athletes.

Suspension Trainer Row

Anchor a suspension trainer, such as a TRX, in an overhead position.  Grasp both handles with the arms extended.  Position the feet in front of the body spread slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.  Your body should be maintained in a neutral position with your head, trunk,  and legs forming a straight line.  Perform the row movement and pause at the top position for 1 to 2 seconds before returning to the start position in a slow and controlled fashion.  Maintain the trunk in a rigid position throughout the exercise. To increase the challenge of this exercise position your feet further away from your upper body to assume a more inverted position.

The inverted position assumed in the suspension trainer row elicits high activation of the abdominals,  latissimus dorsi, upper back muscles, and hip extensor muscles (glutes and hamstrings). This exercise produces lower levels of lumbar spine muscle activity due to lower spine loads incurred from the suspended position.  These factors make the suspension trainer or inverted row a good option for patients with a history of low back pain.

Dumbbell Renegade Row

Hold two dumbbells and assume a push-up position with the feet spread slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.  Align the head, trunk, and lower body in a straight line and maintain this position throughout the exercise.  Initiate a row with one arm while maintaining stability through the trunk and lower body.   Control the descent of the load back to the floor.  Be sure to alternate sides with each repetition.  Light loads are recommended when first learning this exercise.

The push-up position utilized in the renegade row increases challenges to the abdominal musculature.   Furthermore, 1-arm row variations have been shown to elicit great oblique abdominal muscle activity compared to rows performed with both arms simultaneously.   This is a more advanced row variation so it may be best to start with cable or suspension rows before embarking on the renegade row.

Closing Thoughts

There are many variations to the row exercise and I have described only five.  For beginners, it is best to start with cable row variations and suspension trainer rows.  The lawnmower pull and rotational row are more complex movements which require total body coordination.  Thus, these exercises are more challenging to master.  To really challenge the core and shoulder stability, the renegade row is a higher level option.  The most important points are that you choose the most appropriate variation for your level of training and that your technique is as close to perfect as possible.

References

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